Fantasia ’13: Q&A With “THE BATTERY” Writer/Director/Star Jeremy Gardner
One of the great things about Montreal’s Fantasia film festival, which began its 2013 edition last night, is the showcase it gives to small but worthy new movies and up-and-coming filmmakers. Case in point: the terrific new undead drama THE BATTERY, which screens at the fest this weekend, and whose creator and star Jeremy Gardner spoke to us about its production.
Though made on a microbudget, THE BATTERY is far from your typical backyard zombie flick. Gardner and Adam Cronheim star as Ben and Mickey, baseball players and best pals traversing the Connecticut countryside after the world has been overrun by the walking dead. The movie is as much about their prickly, funny friendship as it is about the ghouls that threaten them, while even the zombie action has an offbeat edge, and that combination makes THE BATTERY a winner on the independent horror screen scene. See our previous review here, go here for info on the Fantasia screening and read on for Gardner’s words…
FANGORIA: What’s your filmmaking background, and how did that lead to your making THE BATTERY?
JEREMY GARDNER: My background was simply making movies with my buddies in high school. We used to shoot these cheesy little killer-toy shorts every Christmas that were parodies of classic films. We made one about killer beanie babies one year; the next year we made FURBIES, a parody of PSYCHO; and the following year we made PIKACHU, an epic mashup of JAWS and JURASSIC PARK. That one happened to coincide with a small festival that launched in my hometown of Kissimmee, Florida, and on a lark we submitted and got in.
That gave us the confidence to try and make a feature; by this point, we were only 18 years old. We shot a full-length movie in the vein of THE BIRDS and ATTACK OF THE KILLER TOMATOES called THE BAGS, about, obviously, evil killer plastic bags. We filmed it on a friend’s farm over an entire summer, and somehow it got into the Sarasota Film Festival. That allowed us to make another one called THE ROBERT CAKE, a horror/comedy about a man who bakes his dead friend’s ashes into a cake and eats it, and slowly becomes possessed by him.
After that, all of my moviemaking friends sort of moved on, and I moved to the northeast to pursue acting. For about 10 years, I waited tables, did local theater and listened to every audio commentary on every DVD I had until I decided to “get the band back together” and try to make a real movie that might have a chance at getting out into the world.
FANG: With so many indie zombie films out there, how did you tackle the challenge of creating something different?
GARDNER: I have always loved zombie movies, but the majority of them always disappointed me. I can count the ones I really love on one hand, maybe a hand and a half. I just hadn’t seen one that explored how a zombie apocalypse would affect characters on an intimate level. I wanted to kind of chronicle the withering of a psyche, rather than watch the world burn. Plus, I was trying to figure out how to make a feature-length film with as few actors as possible on as small a budget as I could manage. The practicality of making a no-budget movie and the idea of an intimate character study seemed to line up. As far as it being different, all of the genre trappings and even some of the clichés are still there, but it’s very personal, and reflects my sensibilities—long takes, silence. So simply being the kind of zombie movie I would make led it to feel a little different from a lot of other entries.
FANG: Did you always intend to play the character of Ben while you were writing THE BATTERY?
GARDNER: Yes; as an actor first, I was trying to buck the idea that I had to pound the pavement and go on a lot of demoralizing auditions. The idea was that I would write myself a fun, garrulous, meaty role and use that to try and get noticed. If it didn’t—or doesn’t—work, I’ll just make another one.
FANG: How was Adam Cronheim cast, and how did you develop your great onscreen chemistry?
GARDNER: Adam actually came onto the project pretty late in the process. About a month out from filming, I still hadn’t cast the other lead role, and my director of photography and good friend Christian Stella put his foot down. He said, “If you don’t have a f**king Mickey, I’m not flying up there to shoot this thing.” Randomly, one of my friends, who contributed money to the budget, said he had a friend who used to be a baseball player, and after he hurt his arm he became an actor. It was a ridiculous coincidence, especially considering I wanted someone who could naturally throw a baseball. I met Adam for a drink and gave him the role. As far as the chemistry goes, it was forced along by the sheer lunacy of trying to make this thing in two weeks with no money and a crew of five. Everyone became friends very fast.
FANG: How was the film financed?
GARDNER: I did a rough outline of what I thought the movie might cost, came up with the relatively arbitrary figure of $6,000, and then asked 10 friends for $600 each in exchange for a stake in the film. I wanted the investments to be small enough that if the movie was a disaster, I wouldn’t lose any friends because of it.
FANG: Was it a straight shoot, or done piecemeal?
GARDNER: It was 16 straight days, and we did some pickup shots and B-roll about a month afterward.
FANG: How did you approach the movie’s balance of horror and humor?
GARDNER: I think most of the horror comes from moments that are weird or awkward or morally compromising; it isn’t a particularly scary film. The humor comes mostly from me being a goofball, and deciding in the middle of a scene to throw out the dialogue and do a stupid dance or something. But that was one of the things I was most proud of after we put it all together: those weird moments of comedy that come from just being human. Life is weird and funny, so even when you’re making a horror movie, or a drama, if you are loose enough with the scenes, something funny is bound to happen. All we did was make sure to use as many of those moments as we could.
FANG: The way you stage the movie’s final act was a risky gambit that really pays off. How did you come to that decision?
GARDNER: That was one of the first revelations I had when I was writing the script. I wanted the first half to be wide and green and lush, to revel in nature taking the world back—and then, at some point, to take that away from the characters and the audience. I wanted the world to squeeze down and become suffocating.
FANG: How did you cast your zombies, and who did your FX?
GARDNER: Zombies were another last-minute issue; it was literally making phone calls to friends and seeing who was available. One of the first criticisms we got from the initial trailer we released was that all of the undead were 20somethings, and clearly just friends of the filmmakers. That stung, because it was dead-on. There were too many zombies our age. But we ended up cutting most of them out anyway. The last big horde was the result of a cattle call to the townspeople of Kent, CT, where we were shooting.
The effects were done mostly by a lovely trio of women: Hillary Hunt, who did a bit of work on Lucky McKee’s THE WOMAN, Krystal Phillips and my girlfriend, Kelly McQuade. Kelly watched Krystal make one zombie in an office for literally about 20 minutes before the shoot, and bought a bunch of supplies to help out. One day we didn’t have anyone else on set to do makeup and it was a critical, featured zombie scene, and she jumped in and did an incredible job. She ended up doing the bulk of the makeup on the horde of extras later in the shoot.
FANG: Are you pleased with THE BATTERY’s reception so far?
GARDNER: I couldn’t be happier or more humbled. Winning the audience award at a lot of the festivals we’ve been to has been incredible. To sit in a theater and listen to an audience laugh at the right moments and gasp and squirm uncomfortably has been incredible—especially considering that when I saw the first two-hour-and-nine-minute cut without music or color grading, I thought I had made a bag of shit.
FANG: Where do you want to go from here?
GARDNER: I just want to keep making personal, interesting, quirky horror movies. I’d love to infiltrate the circle of incredible indie horror filmmakers who are out there making personal gems every year, maybe act in a few, haul light stands on set, anything. One of the most amazing things about THE BATTERY and its festival run has been meeting other genre moviemakers. It is such an inclusive and helpful and inspiring community; I want to weasel into it, dig my heels in and set up shop there. The dream is to make a living making movies.
THE BATTERY can also be seen on assorted digital platforms; for those links and more info, go to the movie’s official website. The trailer can be viewed below.