I first met John Gibson when I was teaching at Northern Kentucky University. He was fresh of earning his M.A. in Mass Communications from Murray State, a small university nestled into the hills of Kentucky, and had just began work as a lecturer in the Electronic Media and Broadcasting track.
It didn’t take long to realize he was one of those geeky media tinkers, always writing scripts, shooting short films, and producing quirky projects just for fun. What I didn’t realize was just how far he was willing to take his geeky filmmaking.
In 2006, he sent me an early version of the script. He had an idea for a zombie Western, and he wanted to know what I thought. It was good, I told him, unsure of what, if anything, would happen next.
What happened next was nothing short of amazing. Gibson and his partners set about producing their film, Revelation Trail. The film would cost $34,000, which Gibson and his crew raised in two ways. They first created a series of proof-of-concept shorts that helped them raise money from friends, family, and interested backers. Then they raised $13,000 through a Kickstarter campaign. Ultimately, Gibson and his crew at Living End Productions shot the film in 20 non-consecutive days at locations throughout Kentucky, Illinois, and Ohio. They hired professional actors, and tapped volunteers to build a period-accurate military fort where part of the movie was filmed.
Six years later, he’d nailed just about everything he set out to accomplish with Revelation Trail. The film premiered on April 12, 2014 at Maiden Alley Cinema, where it sold out five consecutive screenings, before moving across the country from Ohio to California. In August 2014, the film will have North American distribution through eOne Films. You can pre-order the film from a host of retailers, including Amazon, Best Buy, Walmart, and Barnes & Noble.
What they produced was everything you’d expect from a feature film, including a web series entitled “Lilith’s Story” and a short video game.
1. You sent me a very, very early version of the script 7 years ago. Two things you said: You wanted feedback on the story, and you wanted to talk about the transmedia elements that were possible. Let’s begin with the film.
Take me to the moment when you realized the screenplay you’d written was…something. What were the steps that you said: well, let’s see if we can get this done.
I think the realization happened very early on in the origins of the main protagonist. We knew we wanted this guy to be a preacher, but we didn’t want a gun toting, badass character. We wanted someone who was real. Flawed. Conflicted. Moral in a growingly immoral world.
He would be our Man with No Name, to use the western trope, but he would not be born that way. He would become this archetype as the story progressed.
We knew this guy wouldn’t just go around shooting the undead because, as a real character, that would be highly uncharacteristic. He’d have a purpose and a reason to shoot (and bury) each and every one on his journey.
This characteristic — something you and I might find absurd in a zombie apocalypse scenario and a quality that we poke fun of in the story through the use of other characters — is really what set this character apart.
From there, it snowballed. When the Preacher was born, we knew we had something. It was just figuring out what his journey was going to be, and who he was going to meet along the way.
Moving beyond that, the second time I felt like we had something was when I wasn’t afraid to let someone else read it. Someone beyond my co-writer and myself. The first person I chose to let read it was a colleague that I knew would be my harshest critic (in a good way). I knew that if I am letting someone ready my shit, I had better be on top of my game. I even remember our exchange:
(Me):”This is a western zombie film, but it’s not a B-movie.”
(Him): “You’re not the one who gets to decide that.”1
When it met to his approval, I knew we had a good story. From there, additional feedback led us to beef up the third act, flesh out our antagonist a bit more, and trim dialogue. But the first hurdles had been cleared.
We’d let a few other potential crew members read it, and all the feedback was the same: “When are we shooting? This is a damn good story. I couldn’t put it down. Please put me through hell to work on this production for the next six years.”
Well, maybe that last one was a fever dream I had on set. I don’t know.
Anyway, from there, the main script was estimated to cost about $100,000,2 but we knew we weren’t going to get that kinda cash, so we treated the script as a “movie” and decided to make a trailer based on the script. Again, more on that process in a moment.
2. So you decide this is a thing. So now let’s talk about why you chose to go at this independently. As a writer, I have more flexibility (I think) than filmmakers do. But you’re a professor so this isn’t necessarily how you make your living. Talk me through the process that go through.
As a teacher, the biggest challenge to my filmmaking is time. I am usually pressed for time due to grading and lesson planning. Now add one child to the mix and an extra one on the way.
We started writing the script in ’07, and I moved with my wife to teach at Northern Kentucky University. The script kinda fell to the side as we were adjusting to life up here, and my co-writer and I just kinda plugged away on it off and on for the next year or so due to our other life commitments.
Time also came into play with the actual shooting of the film.
I really only have two times during the year that I can film a feature: Christmas Break and Summer Break. The production windows really had to be structured around these two times. And, let’s face it: You’re stuck with either freezing cold temps that would make even a tauntaun ice over, or blistering summer heat that would find the devil himself asking for a water break.
In the summer of 2011 when we shot the first part of the film, we then had to wait an entire semester until Christmas to shoot the remaining third of the film, which created a whole shit ton of uncertainty: What about weather? What if something happens to the cast or crew? What if this happens? What if that happens? What if we don’t get any additional funding?
In the end, this limitation on time actually proved to be a great benefit. It gave us more time to create an original fort location,3 and more time to make the film look like it was taking place over multiple months.
Characters aged. Facial hair grew longer. Wardrobe became more haggard. And we as a crew became more seasoned with learning experiences from the summer shoot. It was almost like shooting two films.
So one of the biggest challenges actually became one of the film’s greatest assets. It just kinda sucks, because I really, really want to shoot the next one in the fall, but that’s not feasible.
3. Once you decided to make the film, money was next on the table. One of the ideas I’ve discussed here at The Geeky Press is professionalized amateurism, which is the notion of paying people to do independent projects
What’s intriguing to me is the various ways you pulled together financing. Individual investors, Kickstarter, and others. Tell me how you went about creating budgets, approaching people,and raising money when you didn’t really have any idea what was going to happen with the film?
Step 1: The Sizzle Real: Once we had our “trailer script,” we decided to shoot a “sizzle reel” that showcased the film. In the end, this ended up becoming three sizzle reels that we rolled out over the course of three months. Those sizzle reels were funded by a small investment by my oldest brother, David, who later went on to become the feature’s senior executive producer and negotiator in deals with distributors and sales agents. He’s much, much smarter about business-y things than I am, thankfully.
Anyway, we shoot these sizzle reels in Winter 2009, create a small Facebook page that has about 66 likes starting out (I still have the screenshot), and release them to the world a few months later.4
From there, things took off. The reels are shared all over, receiving great praise and people wanting to know “when is this thing coming out?!”
So, those reels served two purposes: they started to build our social media presence not only on Facebook but also on blogs.5 They were also going to be used to sell the movie to investors for funding.
Remember that $100K number I told you about earlier, the one that seems to be the go-to number for so many first time features?6 This number was reached by breaking down our script, properly compensating everyone who worked on it, and even shooting with many people pulling multiple duties. This also included a bit of cash for marketing expenses, as we figured we’d be doing most of the distribution ourselves.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with this dollar amount; it’s actually insanely low if you think about how much some indie films cost. We just weren’t going to get it.
We had some great sizzle reels, but we were nobodies. We had a few shorts that showed our talent, but there’s a huge difference between shorts and features.7 We had to scale things back and see what money we could actually raise, and then work in reverse with our budget.
In the end, we raised about $25,000 through family and friends of family. That money could have gone even further had we been shooting a contemporary romantic comedy or drama. Instead, the bulk of this went to three areas:
- props and wardrobe,
- travel, and
- lodging and food.8
These last two parts are going to be very important here in just a second with regards to the “professional amateurism” topic.
Step 2: Friends and Family: We raised that money because my Dad took a copy of our hometown newspaper, The Gleaner, that had run a story on the trailers, and said: “Here’s my son’s work. Would you be willing to support it?”
I will always tell anyone that the only reason we have a movie is because of two people: David, for giving us the initial money for the trailers, and Dad, for actually talking to people about investing. All of us added to that story, but it really comes down to those two people.
No one chipping in initially were rich folk. It was a group effort to give a few first time filmmakers a chance. I went back to everyone who I had initially approached about working on the project and told them how much I’d raised, and asked they’d be willing to work for less. Everyone jumped at the chance. The family had been formed, and we were ready to go.
We decided that July 2011 would be our starting time, and our casting call went out on May 3.
On the morning of April 30, I got a hysterical, barely audible voicemail from my best friend. My dad had died.
On the afternoon after Dad had died, my mom is coming home prematurely from a Florida vacation,9 she calls me and we talk about what’s happened, about Dad, about what’s going to happen now.
The furthest thing from my mind is the film. I bring it up, only to say, “Well, we’re going to wait on it.” Mom quickly says that I’m not going to put it aside, because Dad was proudly talking to friends about it even to the day he passed, and that we were going to shoot it.
We rolled out those casting calls, we fired up the pre-production engines, and threw everything we had at it for the next two months leading up to July 12.10
As the project grew, I realized I was going to need more people than the skeleton crew. I began to reach out to more individuals, and I told them all the same thing: “Look, I don’t have enough money to pay everyone. But I can promise you this: I will feed you well, I will put gas in your tank, I will make sure you have a place to sleep, and I will make sure you have your name in those credits.”
People still flocked to the project, even if it was for a day, two days or two weeks.11
With $25,000 in our pockets and almost all of which is being thrown into the “look” of the film and fueling the army, we were two weeks out from production when we received an email from an extra stating that one of our crucial locations, a historic fort, had a wall that had collapsed due to soil erosion. The state of Illinois had shut it down, and wasn’t allowing anyone to enter.
We’re pretty much fucked at this point, scrambling to find another location that is close to our supply lines.12
My historical advisor, James Burnett, an Afghanistan and Iraq war veteran and historical re-enactor, said that if I gave him a month, he could build a historical fort. ((James contacted me while he was still serving, having heard about the project. He mentioned that he was a re-enactor, and wanted to “kill some zombies,” and even would be willing to loan us a weapon or two for the shoot. I showed him some links to blank and replica weapons I was going to use, and he basically informed me of how horribly wrong I was going–not everyone should have a colt 45, since those would be the Cadillacs of the old west. So James returned home, graduated from hopeful extra, to historical advisor/armorer, then to art department, then to making a fort. All along the way, he became one of our biggest cheerleaders and a good friend.))
We laughed nervously because we were in a great period of uncertainty.
We used the initial budget to shoot the first two thirds of the film, and then turned to Kickstarter for the finishing funds for principal production. Eventually we’d raise about $10,000 once fees and no-shows turned up on the platform. I credit the success to a growing social media presence, passionate followers, a good project, and actually having shot part of the movie already. We were able to show what we had already done.13
In winter 2011, we finished out the film. Our wrap day was January 1, 2012. A new year for the project, and all of us.
And James really became the embodiment of so many people who were gracious with land, time, food, weapons, etc. People who gave out of wanting to support a project in their own backyard.14 I hope, in the end of all things, I was able to show my appreciation enough for them.
4. On that note, professional amateurism also means paying the talent. Too many times people are asked to donate their talents. I think your process was a little more complicated that that.
It very much was a little more complicated, and probably not the best way to go at times.15 It was one of those many “lesson learned” instances, for myself, when it comes to future projects.
I tell my students three things (well, many, but these may be the most relevant to this discussion):
- learn from your mistakes in production,
- make sure your crew has good food, and
- know where you’re going to shit.
Hopefully, 2 and 3 aren’t located in the same general vicinity. I learned much from mistakes made on this film, as well as the good things that happened. Thanks to that, I’d like to think I am a better person and director now.
But 2 and 3 were incredibly important, too, for the notion of professional amateurism.
I was honest with people: “I may not be able to pay you what you are really worth to work on something. It’s not because I am some greedy asshole, or I’m carving out a large chunk of the pie for my own personal clone army. And because of that, I will 100% not fault you for saying you can’t do it for no pay.”
I had a few people who either couldn’t help or backed out for that reason, and I don’t blame them one bit.
What I could promise everyone was that they’d be treated like people who were giving their time and talents: I’d feed them well, keep gas in their tanks, and give them places to sleep when traveling. And at the end of the day, we’d have a movie, which was the first feature film for almost all of us working on the production.
If they’d be willing to donate their time and talents, I’d deliver them a finished movie with their names on it, and their blood and sweat into the picture. And a movie we did, as we did the bleeding and sweating.16
An interesting thing began to happen with all of these folks who were donating their efforts to the film. It went from being “my baby” to “everyone’s baby.”
My gaffer (the person in charge of lighting on set) Mike Mastin flat out told me this one night on set, adding that he hoped I wasn’t going to be offended when people started saying it was theirs. Far from it. That actually further energized me, and pushed me in some of the darkest hours of the project in both production and post.
“I can’t fuck this up,” I kept thinking with each major decision and work being thrown into it. “Too many people have done so much for this, that I can’t let it fall apart.”
It was an insane amount of pressure, especially when you are already stretched so thin. People have invested so much time, money, and emotion. Add to that your first child climbing around on the floor, and you want nothing more than to shut off your laptop, stop working on effects, and play with him. But that pressure also resulted in a project that was better than what it could have ever been.
Here’s how I treated these folks who helped out, too: you help me on the trailer, I’m bringing you back for the feature. You help me on the feature, I’m bringing you back for the sequel. You’re now part of the family.
5. The DIY part of the film actually opened up some avenues for you in terms of distribution and recognition. Tell me about the moment you realized that making the film was just the first part of the journey. In particular, I want to hear about the distribution aspect, which I think was a bit unexpected for you.
Very much unexpected.
When we started production, I think we had the faintest of ideas that maybe someone would buy it, but that distributor might as well have been a phantom in our imagination. It was a faceless entity that might see this film at a festival and say, “These guys are good. We’ll take it.” Or maybe we were going to rely on a connection we had.
Realistically, though, we were bracing for the fact that we’d be selling this film at conventions and out of our car trunks, via our website, and maybe some other service. I had even been researching a lot of self-distribution methods, like IndieFlix and Distribber.
It really wasn’t until I got home after our winter shoot and began sifting through the footage of our fort finale that I began to think that we might have something bigger on our hands. These raw elements were starting to come together into something better than I had hoped for, if only we could put the proper finishing touches on it.
We jumped into post-production — sound mixing, color grading, effects and gearing up for our eventual premier — and went into full-blown marketing mode, designing artwork, theatrical posters, and pricing out replication services to make DVDs.
I think that’s maybe when I fully realized calling “that’s a wrap” on your last shot is really only winning one battle in the war. There’s so much more ground to cover.
After six sold out screenings, we decided to start reaching out to distributors while I’m constantly checking our bank account after each premiere, wondering if we are going to have enough to go through a self-distribution outlet.
My co-producer, Daniel Van Thomas, served as our distribution agent. He began scouring massive lists of distributors in North America, compiling all sorts of contact info for these companies. He fired off query email after query email to these distributors while I begin prepping the film for self-distribution17
It’s a race, really, and in the end, he wins when eOne films contacts us the same day we had sent the screener.
From there, we went through an 8-month process with negotiations, deliverables, contracts, quality control checks, pulling my own hair as I tried to deal with insurance and MPAA ratings, and many, many other things that I hadn’t had to deal with with self-distribution.
That’s one of the biggest things that I discovered along the way: just how much power I gave up by choosing NOT to go with self-distribution.
When you sign a contract, you are at the mercy of that company. They pick your art. They can change the title. They can do any number of things to your “baby” that you and your crew have developed over the years.
In the end, it was a tradeoff that was worth it. eOne’s been very kind to our film, and very good collaborators on the release. I can definitely say at this point that I am so very happy that I am not driving around trying to sell Revelation Trail at festivals and conventions. Some people thrive on that, but that’s not my lot in life.
6. As a writer, I feel a great deal of freedom to pursue my craft on many levels: blogging, professionalized amateurism, and traditional routes. But I feel more empowered knowing how the whole process works.
Now when you take the entire process into account — from a writing project to an independent film to one with some distribution outside of your control — how has that changed the way you think about filmmaking, your career, and your next projects?
I hope this is my briefest answer yet because it is the one thing I can look at most clearly and say: “That’s how I’ve changed, as a person and as a professional, since I started Revelation Trail.”
When I tell people that I am a filmmaker, I now feel like I can say that with confidence. I can point to something I created, that I led, and say, “That’s my work.”
I’ve been a filmmaker for a while, but with Revelation Trail I feel like I’ve had my run through the gauntlet. As a filmmaker, the film helped me focus in on what I’m strongest: directing.
I’ve always been a jack of all trades, and master of none. Now I feel like I am further getting closer to defining “this is what I want to be” when it comes to filmmaking. I realized this for the first time when I started filming a project for work, and I found myself having more fun directing the talent than actually framing the shot.
And as a person, I’ve gotten an enormous confidence boost from the project. When I’m talking to my students, I have more authority. What I say carries a bit more weight, and hopefully my production war stories are good examples of what to do, just as much as they are examples of what not to do at times.
Finally, I feel like I have gotten a really stronger connection with my kids and my father. We’ve created something that I can point to and say, “Kids, this is what your mom, myself and a whole bunch of people did thanks to the good of a lot of folks. This is our legacy.”
Likewise, it’s been my tribute to my father, who always believed in his kids and sacrificed a lot so that we’d be able to pursue our goals and dreams.
- Ed Note: This conversation between John and I has become a reference point in our friendship. [↩]
- This is a generic number that every independent first time director’s feature seems to cost. [↩]
- Ed Note: The fort became its own particular problem. Fort Massac, where Gibson planned to shoot, closed. This meant his production needed to either find or build a fort. When no location was suitable, he went to Kickstarter to raise money to build the fort in the film. [↩]
- These reels and our early artwork would prove to be both a blessing and a curse. To this day, we still find old links, references and uploads of the reels, which have completely different looks, actors, and even sound design, popping up on websites. It’s a night and day difference. Screw that, it’s a a winter and summer difference between those reels and the final film. [↩]
- I cannot thank enough those early sites and blogs for covering us in the early days. I credit them with our success. [↩]
- This observation has no basis in actual fact. It’s anecdotal observation from looking at projects on crowdfunded sites, and talking to other indie filmmakers about their hopeful budgets for first time projects. [↩]
- As I would quickly learn the hard — and sometimes good — way when we rolled into pre-production [↩]
- I think we estimated that we drove around 4000 miles for the film, all across Southern Ohio, Illinois, and KY [↩]
- I gotta hand it to Jack Gibson. He dies in his sleep in a condo on vacation, having spent all day relaxing with friends, picking sea shells, and enjoying beverage [↩]
- our first day of shooting [↩]
- I say, “Cannot thank enough” far too much for my own good, probably, but I am forever indebted to these people — my set family — who decided that they wanted to help out with the project, and treated it as one big long summer camp of Hell. [↩]
- Southern Illinois, Cincinnati and Hopkinsville [↩]
- My one regret in all this is that has taken so damn long to get the movie to backers. But it’s coming. [↩]
- sometimes literally in said yard [↩]
- as many people, including myself, lost money when working on the project. Some folks sacrificed paid gigs, and some people experienced unforeseen car issues, etc. [↩]
- I think the latter were in a line item somewhere in the budget. [↩]
- The first round of DVDs were intended for our crew, investors and Kickstarter backers. [↩]