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Directors talk the real terrors behind “THE GALLOWS”

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Authenticity can be an elusive mistress for genre directors seeking to summon believable terror from their actors. The writing/directing team of Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing happened upon a solution to that age-old conundrum while making THE GALLOWS, however: Shoot the thing night-for-night in the number-one most haunted building in Fresno, California and let the spirits occasionally take the lead in motivating the cast.

While filming THE GALLOWS (opening tomorrow from New Line/Warner Bros.), in which a quartet of young people are trapped and terrorized after dark in their high school, “We experienced a lot of the usual spooky stuff that you could maybe rationalize away as part of an overactive imagination, set off by wandering around a building that has a reputation for ghosts,” Lofing says. “You know, chains rattling in the rafters when no one else is around, big thumps up in the catwalk during takes, weird temperature shifts. But other things were, uh…much harder to explain.”

Indeed, one specific incident during the production has taken on a certain degree of notoriety amongst cast and crew alike. The nature of THE GALLOWS’ teen-helmed found-footage conceit required the cast to do double duty as actors and camera operators roughly 80 percent of the time—in fact, stylistic point-and-shooting was as much a part of the audition process as running lines. Leads Reese Mishler and Pfeifer Brown were shooting a scene in a dark, rickety attic, alone with a camera. “After each take, they would come back more distressed,” Lofing recalls. “ ‘Chris, there’s weird stuff going on back there—can we please stop?’ And because I was the director who didn’t have to do it, I’d say, ‘Let’s do one more. We need to get this right.’

“So, last take, they went all the way in, and amidst the blackness they heard, very clearly, a high-pitched voice hiss, ‘Reeeeeeesssse.’ I didn’t hear anything, of course; all I knew was suddenly those two were hauling butt out of there, covered with scrapes and bruises, and there was no way they were going back.”

Meanwhile, downstairs, Cluff (who discusses the movie’s origins here) was helping lay out food with his wife—a.k.a. THE GALLOWS’ official caterer—when his walkie-talkie began to urgently buzz. “Chris said, ‘We’re coming down—apparently something real weird happened,’ ” Cluff says. “I was skeptical, but the camera was miraculously intact, so…‘Let’s check the tape.’ And you could hear it—you could hear the name spoken. I don’t have an explanation for it. I can say it was pretty wild.”

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Actually, there were times when ghosts may very well have outnumbered the cast and crew. “We didn’t have money for a big crew or lighting or any of those things that traditionally come with even a low-budget feature,” Cluff says. “When we started production, it was literally Chris, myself, two production assistants—who were not from the industry and also held down regular jobs—and the four actors [also including Ryan Shoos and Cassidy Gifford]. That was it. It wasn’t like there were all these people around. Middle of the night, we were a small enough group that we could still feel isolated, not unlike the characters.”

“The building and the atmosphere and all those weird things that happened became another character in the film,” Lofing adds. “It definitely helped amplify scenes and make certain scares much more intense than they otherwise would have been.”

Perhaps such close encounters with the other side were apropos considering the true tale that formed the foundation of THE GALLOWS: Much like the inciting tragedy in the film, a student once died on stage during a high-school play in Lofing’s tiny hometown of Beatrice, Nebraska. “It was this crazy, awful thing my father told me about when I was young, which always stuck with me,” Lofing says. “When Travis and I first started brainstorming ideas for a cool modern horror feature, I brought that story up, and it just clicked and evolved into the more elaborate supernatural story of THE GALLOWS.”

While Lofing and Cluff readily admit that the decision to make a found-footage film had a financial component, both contend it was also an aesthetic choice. “We always wanted to show certain events in the movie from multiple perspectives,” Cluff explains. “You know, to have the audience thinking we’ve left them hanging—no pun intended!—and then go back and surprise them with a bigger reveal than they thought was coming. Found footage just seemed like the best, most efficient path to doing that in a stylish, exciting way.”

At times, Cluff admits, the ongoing backlash against the subgenre could make that approach seem more like risk than reward. “Anyone can make a found-footage movie—we’ve seen that over the last several years, right?” he says. “But making a decent one is obviously a much more difficult endeavor. You can’t hide anything shooting that way. So the danger of THE GALLOWS coming off as a rehash or gimmick was always in the back of our minds. Actually, it motivated us—we knew we had to bring our A-game and really exceed expectations; otherwise, we’d be dismissed as another one of those movies.”

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Shawn Macomber http://www.stopshawnmacomber.com
The ravings of noted South Florida pug wrangler Shawn Macomber have appeared in Decibel, Magnet, Reason, Maxim, Radar, Shroud, and the Wall Street Journal, amongst other fine and middling publications. He also hosts the podcast Into the Depths and pens the metal-lit column Tales From the Metalnomicon for Decibel magazine.
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