Picking Brains with Wednesday Lee Friday: Jeremy Gardner
J Gardner’s debut picture, The Battery looks to be one of those amazing zombie films that does a whole lot with a few dollars and some really dedicated performers. After the interview, you’ll find a short clip that I predict will make you as stoked as I am to see this flick. Mr Gardner has a lot of erudite things to say about filmmaking, Romero, and day-jobs.
WLF/ZZN: Hey Jeremy! I so appreciate you taking the time to answer Q’s for Zombie Zone News. Your movie The Battery was made for around $6,000. With such a small budget to work with, why choose something as makeup and FX oriented as a zombie movie?
Hey, not at all, thanks for having me. And to answer your question: Because I’m an idiot. Honestly. It just never came up. The story sort of evolved, first out of an audition tape I made for another horror movie, and then out of the concept of doing a post-apocalyptic movie, but staying in the woods. Zombies tend to hang around where people are, and there aren’t as many people in a dense forest on a mountain as there are in the town at the bottom. So that idea made sense from both a story, and a micro-budget filmmaking perspective. It was going to be expensive, and difficult to shut down roads and businesses, and it would be dangerous for our characters to go there anyway. So… stay in the woods. It’s kind of the opposite of the old horror trope “Don’t Go Into The Woods.” It seemed like an incredibly inexpensive idea for a movie. No one ever really brought up zombie effects until late in the process, and by then we were just going to do it anyway.
WLF/ZZN: Having watched the trailer for The Battery it a few times, I can say without hyperbole that it kicks ass. Did you edit it?
Thank you so much. I did not edit it, as a matter of fact, my brilliant d.p./renaissance man Christian Stella, cut the trailer. And really only cut it together to give our friends and family a little taste of what we’d been doing out in the woods for those two weeks. We never intended for it to get the kind of response it has–which has been really amazing—but is also why it has been slagged a little for being too long. Because it was supposed to be more of a showcase, than a traditional trailer.
WLF/ZZN: The intense, dancing around with a gun, bearded guy—is that you?
That is me.
WLF/ZZN: The song in the trailer is amazing; the lyrics are evocative and creepy. I want to download it immediately. How do I go about that?
That song is called Fire at the Pageant by the Felice Brothers, an absolutely incredible band from upstate New York. Run, run I say, as fast as you can across the interwebs to www.felicebrothers.com and blow all your milk money on all of their music. That track is on their latest album Celebration, Florida. But all of their albums are fantastic. I’m sure you can get them on iTunes as well.
WLF/ZZN: You’ve spoken about the zombies in this movie being almost incidental to the real plot. What do you mean by that?
What that means is, the zombies are a stand-in, for any disaster that might have put our characters in the position they are in. Romero has spoken about this numerous times, so I can’t take credit–nor all of the blame–for it. But the idea is to f*ck up the order of things and then watch how the people react to it. There are some mighty big themes tackled in some of the classic zombie flicks, but I was really interested in watching it on a very personal, intimate level. Seeing how two conflicting personalities deal with the situation when they are forced to rely on one another. One of the characters has taken a real liking to the nomadic, hunter/gatherer, skull-crushing lifestyle that they have been thrust into; while the other, clings to any shred of society and order and comfort he can find. So in that way, in just really concentrating on how those two people butt heads, it kind of makes the reason they are where they are beside the point.
WLF/ZZN: I understand that it rained during the very tight shooting schedule. How much impact did all that rain have on the final film?
It only rained two days, but they were consecutive, and it was a f*cking deluge. And all throughout the shoot, I kept saying, “If it rains, we shoot. It’s production value.” But it happened to hit, and hit hard, on the one day we had actors in from out of town. And it was a real drag. We were on a mountain, it was freezing cold, and these incredibly professional actors stuck it out. I mean, to the bone soaked. I’m a burly guy, I look like a thing born of woods and rain and winter, but after about six hours of it, my teeth were chattering and my hands were shaking. It was rough. We had a couple days built in to the schedule in case of rain, but unfortunately, there was no rescheduling those two actors, so we just had to get the scene as best we could under pretty terrible conditions.
WLF/ZZN: You’ve been quoted as saying: I’d rather watch a romantic comedy with fascinating characters and a great story than a horror film that aims only to hit a certain gore quota.—Surely you’re not implying that it’s possible for a romantic comedy to have fascinating characters?
Sure it’s possible. Even probable. Not that I can cite any recent examples unless you consider 500 Days of Summer a romantic comedy. I was simply stating that genre is like an ornate, hand-carved box. And story, is the hundred year old heirloom locket with the only surviving photo of your great grandmother’s secret Confederate soldier lover, that you keep inside the box. Yes, the box is f*cking cool, but it’s only real function is to serve the locket.
WLF/ZZN: Did you find Connecticut to be a zombie-friendly place to shoot?
Connecticut–more specifically North Western Connecticut and the town of Kent–was an incredibly zombie friendly place to shoot. It was very laid-back. Business owners would bend over backward to accommodate us, and literally asked for nothing in return. We worked with the town selectman to shut down a stretch of road, and the residents were very patient with us. A bunch of locals came out to be extras, stood around in zombie makeup for hours on end and never complained. A few of them even went to the local Fireman’s Festival in full makeup and attracted so much attention that a local reporter came out to set and did a little story on the shoot. It was very cool, a full color picture with the slugline: WEEKEND OF THE DEAD. There is a southern sort of hospitality to that area, that the stretch of Connecticut I live in–along the I-95 vein–is moving too fast to entertain.
WLF/ZZN: How did making The Battery impact your personal zombie defense plan?
Perhaps surprisingly, I haven’t thought too much about my own zombie defense plan, but I imagine it would be similar to what I wrote here. Get into the woods. Don’t trap yourself. Live off the land. Do recon missions into towns for specific supplies only when it is completely necessary. Or when you run out of Tennessee Sippin’ Whisky.
WLF/ZZN: What do you do when you aren’t surrounding yourself with zombies?
I work. I’m a waiter. That old cliché. I write. I watch movies. I lose far too much sleep over the Atlanta Braves. I’m a huge baseball fan, as might have been gathered from the characters in the movie, and even the title itself, The Battery, refers to the tandem of a pitcher and a catcher on a baseball team.
WLF/ZZN: You’ve said that you wanted to make a classic zombie movie that would make George Romero proud. What do you think George would like best about The Battery?
I hope Mr. Romero would most appreciate the focus on character over carnage. I just ripped a page out of the book he wrote and tried to make a zombie movie that wasn’t really about zombies. I also think he would appreciate that our zombies are not rage-infected speed monsters. They’re dead, they are in a constant state of rot. They can’t run.
WLF/ZZN: When are fans gonna be able to get their mitts on a copy?
Well, we’re still very early on in the editing process. Hopefully we’ll have a rough cut some time in November. We’re hoping to make a few festival deadlines. And then the final cut should be done around the first of the year. So, fans–or people even remotely interested– should follow our Tumblr page, and our Twitter feed, for updates on screenings and the overall progress of the process.
WLF/ZZN: Thanks so much, Jeremy. Before we close, do you have any advice for aspiring filmmakers who want to make an awesome small budget film?
Sh*t, I’m so new at this, I’m not sure I should be giving advice. But, f*ck it here goes:
Shot list everything. Even though you want to wing it and be spontaneous, you WILL get into the editing room and realize you don’t have enough coverage, or the eye-lines are off and there will be nothing you can do about it. When you’re working with such a low budget, on such a tight schedule, never underestimate the importance of planning. I’m sh*t at planning, I just want to go do it, and it cost us a few times.
Sound. People watch movies on their phones, they make movies with their phones. They will forgive a sh*t image. But if they can’t hear it, they’ll check out. I turned a movie off just last night because the sound was bad. Get a good, hungry, dependable sound guy.
And finally: Just go do it. Don’t sit around telling people you want to make a movie. Tell them you are making a movie. Then, get a good cheap camera and some loyal friends, strap on your sh*t-kickers and go kick the sh*t out of it.