After a chance encounter on the set of a thesis film, Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing built up quite the friendship and it wasn’t long before they devised a plan to write and direct a low budget movie which they were confident could emulate the same sort of success as recent hits such as Paranormal Activity or The Blair Witch Project.
After sweating blood to get the project completed on what little funds they were able to acquire from local investors, one of the trailers they cut was spotted by none other than Management 360’s Dean Schnider who passed it along to the man with the Midas touch, Jason Blum. The rest is history and it wasn‘t long before this debut feature, The Gallows, won over a number of big studios with New Line and Warner Bros. acquiring the rights after quite the bidding battle with Lionsgate and Relativity.
The Gallows is a found footage film which relates the tale of the tragic death of Charlie Grimille during a small town high school play. 20 years after the accident students at the school decide to resurrect the failed show in a misguided attempt to honour the anniversary of the tragedy – but a few of the students break in at night to stop the production and soon discover that some things are better left alone for good.
With The Gallows releasing in the U.S. on Friday, July 10th and a week later in the UK, SCREAM’s Howard Gorman caught up with both Cluff and Lofing to find how just how they went from being absolute beginners to becoming the writers, directors and producers of a film which is all set to release theatrically the world around…
SCREAM: How did you become acquainted with each other? I understand that Travis made a name for himself as “Super Shorts” when he won the Wipeout game show and that urged him to get into the movie business after having done a bit of drama at school and things like that.
Chris: I was in film school at the New York Film Academy, based in Los Angeles, and I was filming my thesis film. To save money a classmate suggested I shoot the film in Fresno. So I went to Fresno and got all these great locations for free and I needed some guys to do some stunts for some action sequences and Travis was one of the guys who came to the boxing gym where we were having auditions and choreography training and that was how I met him.
Travis: Since being on Wipeout I have declared myself a professional stuntman so I auditioned to be a part of Chris’ film just hoping that I could learn from him, and whoever else was there, about the process so that if I had to make a film on my own to get noticed then I could do that or at least have some sense of what to do. Chris taught me a bunch. His motivation and drive, considering he is such a young guy, really had me energised in wanting to get to know him and create a relationship and ultimately that turned into a friendship and a business.
How did this new-found friendship result in The Gallows?
Travis: After we had become friends we discussed a partnership and what we could do for our big idea to break into Hollywood. Chris told me a story his dad used to tell him about a kid who died on stage in a tragic accident when he was back in high school. As soon as he told me that story I said, “That’s it! Let’s do the movie based off of that.” I mean, high schools are scary enough in the day so let’s make them scary at night. So out of necessity we really came up with all the things that we needed for this film. The found footage style was also out of necessity as we didn’t really have very much money to do any of it. Ultimately we had a vision to make something that could be just as big as things like Paranormal Activity or Blair Witch when those first came out.
So how did you go about self-funding your own film and how did you get actors on board given that you hadn’t made anything that people knew you for yet?
Travis: For funding we filmed a trailer back in 2011 and we used this trailer to gain investment to make the movie. The trailer was actually so good that we were able to get several local investors in Fresno. These investors were just regular business owners who had never been involved with anything to do with movies before but they were so impressed with out little teaser trailer – that we made for like 250 bucks – that they were investing in our film. And then by mid-2012 we had shot our film completely guerrilla style in Fresno using this money and the film turned out great, in our eyes. We went on to cut a second trailer for that film and that was when people started seeing it and getting interested in Hollywood like Jason Blum and Management 360.
In answer to your second question about the actors, they were all unknown. We cast them all ourselves. We had one lady from Fresno named Carollyn DeVore who helped us with the casting in L.A. We saw about 200 people in 2 days and we were really just trying to find people whose own personalities kind of matched the ones we had created in the script as there was going to be a lot of improvisation. We found those 4 people, who were all living in L.A., and we brought them up to Fresno to shoot this movie and then everything came together from there.
Then Dean Schnider from Management 360 spoke to Jason Blum about the movie and ultimately it got picked up by New Line and Warner Bros. I think you had a screening in front of all the aforementioned Hollywood heavy-hitters and they gave you a few pointers as to how the material you had could make for a full-blown international theatrical hit.
Travis: We had interest from Jason Blum when Dean Schnider introduced the movie to him and then they wanted to test it out with an audience. The original version of the film actually scored way above what they had anticipated so it was kind of an easy decision for them at that point to partner with us. They said, “Look, it would do great as it is but we could do a little bit more to make it hard for theatres or studios to say no to it.” So we said, “Hey, we didn’t do this to go small. We wanted to go big and try to get it into a studio’s hands for a worldwide theatrical release.” I mean, these are the hopes and dreams of indie filmmakers that are just so difficult to achieve but we never lost hope in that.
In the end we ended up doing some things that we wished we could have done in the original version of the film but we just hadn’t had the access or ability. They said to us, “What do you want to do that you didn’t get to do? Go do that now.” So we got to do add some neat things to the movie and that ultimately worked out. Then when we got to do the distributor screening almost all the studios were represented in the theatre and New Line Cinema just had to have it the most amongst all of them. Then Warner Bros.’ backing came along after they saw what New Line had done so it’s just been heaven from there onwards.
It’s amazing how such important studios have given you such a long leash considering it’s your feature debut.
Travis: Yes! We’ve really been able to maintain creative control and it’s great. We really didn’t expect this because we know the stories that people say and tell us but we feel really grateful that they understood our vision and allowed us the freedom to make it how we wanted to make it.
Chris: And many of the key scenes, and our favourite scenes, from the very original cut of the film remained in the film untouched from the beginning which is awesome.
You mentioned that a big factor in shooting a found footage movie was your budget but I don’t think that was the only reason. You started shooting in 2011 when the sub-genre was pretty prosperous with things like the Paranormal Activity franchise going strong and also I think you just felt that the technique was the perfect fit for the story you wanted to tell.
Travis: Well, it’s kind of all of the above. Number one, we just didn’t have the money for any kind of a real crew. It was Chris and I and our two friends, Richie and Tyler, and the four actors. We didn’t have the ability to cover a lighting crew or a camera unit. The second reason is that we felt like we could do it for super cheap but still cater to an audience that was desirous of this type of a movie. As an example, Paranormal Activity 3 had just come out when we were starting the process of production and that made like 54 million in the opening weekend and we thought, “Man, we want to do something like that!” We felt like people might be getting a little bit tired of found footage and we thought that if we could reinvigorate the genre in a new and fresh way people would say, “Oh, it is still a viable filming option,” and we really wanted to make sure that that was the case. We didn’t want to be old and stale like some of the other films people complained about.
With so many found footage movies crowding the market, and your aspirations to reinvigorate the genre did you find yourself second-guessing your every move?
Chris: We did! And with both of us being writers, directors and producers it grew from us bouncing things off each other where one of us would make a decision and then I would say something and then Travis would jump in and say, “What if we try it like this?” So there was always that constant back and forth and I think that really helped us create some unique scares and some unique moments in the film that we haven’t seen before. That’s especially the case with the iconography of the rope and the hangman.
So with the two of you working on the film pretty much as co-everything, was it always easy to make decisions and reach compromises?
Travis: We always wanted to kill each other! I’m just kidding. I’m teasing. We always knew that if we had an argument or a disagreement it was always to get the best results. We knew our intentions were good and that made it easy to work with each other. Even if we were arguing with each other it was always to make the movie better so it’s been great.
There are rumours flying around that you do actually have ideas for a sequel if the movie is a success.
Travis: Well we always had hopes to make this the best standalone movie as possible and we feel like we’ve accomplished that. We don’t want to count our chickens before they hatch but we do have ideas and if the movie does well and resonates with people Charlie will be back.
Apart from a possible sequel I know you are fans of pretty much every genre in the book so what else would you like to try your hand at?
Chris: Yeah, like you said, we’re interested in a lot of different things. We love action and sci-fi and we’re just movie lovers in general. We do have a couple of different ideas that we’re working on scripts for. One is another that is kind of in the scary genre but a little bit of inspiration as well and then another is in the sci-fi realm aiming for a kind of TV series maybe. That’s kind of like Minority Report.
Travis: And Inception a little bit.
Chris: We’re just excited to do different things and of course more horror. We’re not opposed to that at all either so we’re just going to see what the future holds after The Gallows comes out.
So just to finish off, getting your debut feature film picked up by the likes of New Line and Warner is a big surprise in itself but what would you say shocked or surprised you the most as you made your way to where you are today?
Travis: Let me tell you a funny story. About two months ago, I am in our little condo with my wife and my three kids and Chris is in the next room over. His bedroom is our office and it’s just full of gear and equipment and his bed and our editing bay. So one day Chris turned to me and he says, “Can you believe that Warner Bros. is actually trusting us in this tiny little room to deliver a movie that they are going to put out worldwide?” and I just said, “No, not really!” So it’s just incredible to literally have the tiniest movie and be picked up by the biggest movie company. We couldn’t be more excited. We would wish this kind of success on everyone that we ever cared about and we’re just so glad that it’s us.
Well thank you so much for your time and I wish you the world of success.
Travis and Chris: Awesome. Thank you so much, Howard.
We’d like to thank Travis and Chris for talking to SCREAM. The Gallows is out Friday, July 10th in the U.S. and Friday, July 17th in the UK so there’s not long to have to wait now. In the meantime we’ll leave you with the full trailer for the film:
Words: Howard Gorman (@HowardGorman)