An Interview with John Gibson – By Cary Conley

I’ve recently discovered one of the most unique projects I’ve seen in a long while. Called Revelation Trail, this western zombie project is going to be much more than just a film. John Gibson, film professor and director of Revelation Trail, explains the grand plan for this project, which could include multiple films, web series, graphic novels, and video games, all determined by the audience.

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Cary: John, tell us a little about your background.  Just how does a small-town western Kentucky kid get into the movie business?  What got you interested in film?

John: I never had any intention of being a filmmaker; from as far back as I can remember, I wanted to be a paleontologist. Then, right before high school, I realized that road would require more math and science than I could stomach, and that paleontology had nothing to do with Dino-Riders.  How misled I was…. But it was during those high school years that I started finding creative ways to turn legitimate academic projects into short films. A book report on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein became a stop motion bloodbath with Gi Joes and a clay Frankenstein Monster. A report about "On the Beach" became a horribly irreverent short called “On the Beotch” starring Charles Manson and including explosive diarrhea. And so on, and so on. All of these were … uh … not the highest of quality, but they at least made for good stepping stones and experiences, and always entertained my classmates. That class reaction was probably one of the most important factors in me even considering shooting videos on the side of whatever I might do in life. Hearing an audience laugh at the right moments, applaud, and even “tune out” of boring moments of videos all hit me at a new level. I was no longer making movies for myself and two or three friends; we had the power to entertain.

Add into all of this the movie "Pulp Fiction," which came out at the same time as my rising interest in film. Were there awesome movies before "Pulp Fiction?" Yes. Are there better movies out there? Sure. But at that point in my life, at just the right hour of the right day, I guess, I watched that film and was blown away by the non-linear storytelling and direction of the movie. Something just kind of clicked.  And because of how that story was constructed, the dialogue, the characters, the music, the shots…they all just complimented each other in a very cool way to create a bigger picture. Is it a filmmaker cliché to say that Pulp Fiction" is “the film” that got them hooked on moviemaking? I don’t know, but it did it for me. Ironically, I don’t even own "Pulp Fiction," or any Tarantino movie for that matter. I should probably rectify that at some point. Oh well….

So, in college, I decided to take my growing love of the craft and nurture it wisely: I decided to major in History and minor in Political Science.  My friend Josh Kitchens, a pre-med/Chemistry major, and I continued to make shorts (mostly stop motion), as part of a film club we were members of at Murray State University.  (The mention of majors is important, cause I’ll come back to that here in a second.) As the years went by, I continued to make shorts on the side, and even completed a quasi-feature known as “Everyman: A Romantic Comedy” in my graduate studies. By that point, I knew I wanted to be John Gibson, Filmmaker.  Fast forward a few years, and I got a gig as a professor at Northern Kentucky University teaching, broadly speaking, Digital Cinema.  A perfect gig that allows me to not only be surrounded by some of the coolest students each semester, but also nurture that passion that started so long ago with a S-VHS camera at my parents’ house in Robards, Kentucky.  It was actually some of these very students, in addition to people I had worked with for the past few years, that allowed “Revelation Trail” to be born.

On the note about the majors, I’ve heard some people say they want to go into film, but they believe the only path to do that is to get a film degree. I think that’s fine and dandy, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with film school: some talented folks come out of programs in Florida, California, and New York. However, I believe the biggest path to get into film is by picking up the pencil, paper, and the camera, and start shooting. Screw up a lot. Learn. Screw up even more. Learn why you screwed up. Adapt. Learn. Keep shooting. And LISTEN TO YOUR  (unbiased) AUDIENCE. If they don’t like your film, there’s probably a reason why. If they react at all in the right spots, there’s probably a reason why. The big thing to remember: just because you major in one thing (in my case, History) or choose one path, doesn’t mean you have to give up all other passions or interests. Keep them alive. So, uh, that’s how I got involved in film.

Cary: You directed a very funny film short called "You Owe Me" for the 2009 Paducah 48-Hour Film Festival, which won the Audience Award.  Why jump from comedy to a horror western?

John: First, thanks so much for the compliments on the film. So much of that credit has to go to the cast, who came up with some great improvisation. That’s both good and bad in film, since no two takes were always the same. Have fun with that, Mr. Film Editor!  Anyway, comedy has always been my favorite genre to work with. Again, it all goes back to that audience reaction. Comedy is the quickest way to get to the audience. It’s also damn near the hardest, since so many times you set out to be funny, and you fail miserably.  But when you hear the gut-busting laughter, you know you’ve done something right.  You get your immediate feedback, whereas watching a drama with an audience isn’t always the same.  The feedback may not come for several days, after all the emotions have been processed. But horror? And especially western horror? It was something I’d never done before. We just thought it would be a fun new challenge.  But I think a lot of it can also go back to that principle of immediate reaction, that immediate strike at the audience’s comfort.  I think  back to films like "The Shining" and "Alien," and how the worst parts of those movies weren’t the bloody/gruesome moments, but that uneasiness that something was right around the corner…waiting.  And how uncomfortable I felt immediately as a viewer.  So horror for me represents some of the same challenges as comedy (as in, it can be incredibly hard to do, but the payoff is worth it).  Different side of the emotional coin, I guess.

Cary: "Revelation Trail" is planned as a horror/western film with plenty of zombies and blood, but it isn’t just a "blood and guts" movie.  The film will also explore the motivations of the two main characters, a minister and a sheriff, as they adapt to an entirely new and different world.  How was this concept developed?

John: The story was originally developed early on as a “searcher” movie, if I remember correctly. As in, a trapper was going to be searching for the murderers of a family, and it turns out those murderers were ghouls and the story would snowball from there. Thankfully that idea was scrapped very early on, because not too long after we started heavy on the script (and with a new idea) "The Burrowers" came out.  So, the idea of this minister/preacher traveling and whipping undead ass was born, but that really wasn’t going anywhere either. For one thing, there’s no internal dilemma there. There was no conflict of character with how we were presenting it, and that didn’t sit right. A holy man of God isn’t going to just dispense with a beating on these creatures, because for all he knows they’re still human in some way, shape or form. It’s quite uncharacteristic. As we started to explore this character, we realized he had a bigger story that had to be told on the screen. And that story really was about a man who finds a new purpose in this (increasingly) undead world. It just so happens this man has his faith to reconcile with what’s going on, and the sometimes less than desirable decisions he has to make. His character evolves over the story, and what was required for that evolution was more important than the undead: a good sparring partner. So, that’s where this marshal comes into the event. He’s the secular realist to the preacher’s (generally) optimistic faith. And in the course of the story, both men’s points of view begin to overlap and affect each other. That’s a little rambly, but all that’s to say that the concept really evolved from a zombie western, to a character-driven western horror. And that’s an important distinction to make. Not to knock the former genre by any means; it’s just to say that what drives "Revelation Trail" isn’t the blood and guts (although there are definitely some of those moments), but the characters themselves. I’d close those thoughts on this one statement: a good zombie film (and the same could be said about a lot of genres) will have character at the forefront, and zombies in the background. Look at both versions of "Dawn of the Dead"; look at "The Walking Dead" (which I finally started reading about two months ago, and am loving every minute of the show).  Bloody and gruesome at times? Most definitely. But it’s the character moments that I think hit you the hardest, because you really have to wonder how your own character would hold up in these situations. Would you pass the test? 

Cary: "Revelation Trail" is being planned as much more than just a movie.  Can you explain to our readers the overall concept for the world of "Revelation Trail?"

John: The overall concept for the world is just that: a world. Think alternative history. What if in the 1890s, the undead had appeared. Why did it happen? I don’t care, and probably will never know. Scientists aren’t going to be trying to find a cure or do tests…they’re just going to cope with what is happening.  But what I do care about, and I think a lot of folks want to know, is how does it affect everything from that point forward? How far does it reach? How do Native American tribes and Chinese immigrants deal with it? Does the eastern seaboard know about it? Do people blame it on "God’s wrath?" The film is one man’s story. One man in a whole world gone to hell. So what are those other stories? What are those other characters?  Already, we’re exploring this with "Lillith’s Story," but there’s so much more room to grow. Ideally, I see this film–or films–being just one part in a cross-platform mode of storytelling, with web tie-ins, graphic novels, and even game content (Note: we’re not game developers, but if anyone out there is interested, let’s talk!). And this film is just the flagship for that world that is fleshed out by not only Living End Productions (our company), but also fans of the story.

Cary: Another unique aspect of the concept is that you are actually asking for viewers and fans to contribute to the world of "Revelation Trail."  What can we, as fans of independent film, do to push this project along?

John: Become a fan on Facebook. Seriously. It’s that easy and painless. As of this writing, we’re about to start out “Canon Contests” which will be organized via Facebook. Fans will have their own chance to immediately start contributing to the canon of "Revelation Trail." Art work, short films, naming of characters, and other tie-on opportunities will all be detailed there. While you’re at it, share the trailers. Send them to friends. Post them to forums that might appreciate them.  Rate them. Give honest feedback. If you love them, feel free to share. If you hate them, we’ll gladly listen to that too. Also, shoot us an email. We want to hear from you, the audience. Let us know how you’re interested, and what you might want to contribute or do. We’re not asking for fans to give us money…we’re just asking for support right now. There are many ways to throw the support behind the project, and it will never cost a dime.

Cary: In keeping with the concept of "Revelation Trail," your team has also been working on a web series featuring entirely different characters that are separate from the actual film but offer a different perspective–that of a child’s–of the world of the undead.  This series of webisodes are collectively known as "Lillith’s Story."  How did this idea come about?

John: Originally our web presence was going to be limited to a Youtube channel with two trailers, which we’d embed on a free blog. No storytelling. No world concept. Just a shill for the movie itself.  Then, after meeting with Brad King, another professor and all-around awesome guy, we came up with this idea of the web being its own storytelling entity. So revelationtrail.com was created to be the umbrella for the project as it stands now as well as for future tie-ins. A few of our mutual students approached me about wanting to work on some side animated stories, and we went back and forth on how we’d tackle this. At first, we had the idea of the story being told from the point of view of an artist doing “doodles” in a notebook. But this idea morphed into something even more terrifying: a little girl named Lillith (or Lilly, as she goes by most often) who’s experiencing the same events in the film, but from an entirely different perspective.

Lillith’s story begins about three or four weeks prior to the opening of the film’s story, and by the time it is concluded (we’re on a hiatus as of this writing, but about to begin “Season 2”), we will be about a month into the events of the film. Lillith doesn’t appear as a main character at all in the film (in fact, she’s in two shots, and that’s it), and likewise, our preacher and marshal only appear in one or two drawings of Lillith’s. That’s it. These really are separate stories, connected by one common element: the undead.  But both will work in complimentary themes. All of these stories are written by Chas! Pangburn, who’s been super-enthusiastic about the project since my first semester of blathering on about it in class a few years ago. I basically gave him one character that is briefly mentioned in the script (“Marcus Reynolds”, Lilly’s father) and said, “Have fun,” and this is what he came up with. I’m quite proud of him (as well as the other students). JJ Painter is my animator, Nick Fabisiak is my foley/sound guy, and Becky Rasch makes the magic happen on the site as a whole. And they’re all students or alumni.

Cary: I enjoyed the teaser trailers, but I was particularly impressed with the concept of "Lillith’s Story."  It’s difficult to explain to those who haven’t seen the series, but the animation is incredible and the idea of placing the animations within the pages of Lillith’s diary was unique as well.  Talk a little about how the design of these webisodes came about.  Why not just shoot digital film like the trailers?

John: We really went back and forth on this, and looked at a lot of animation examples. We ruled out motion comics pretty quickly, just because it didn’t really fit the style we were going for. We all envisioned “Silent Hill” artwork meets a little girl’s diary. Likewise, we knew our limitations: we couldn’t compete with the big guns of professional full animation. So, we chose this hybrid of sorts. Some still drawings, some animations. All episodes relying heavily on a rich soundtrack to sell the story. This also gives the audience a bigger role in envisioning the story as it plays out, because they have to fill in the gaps of visual information based off what Lilly’s telling us. Digital film would just be too time consuming, unfortunately.  Plus, I think this works out much better in the end. Again, we were all Silent Hill/survival horror fans in terms of games, so these animations are as a much a tribute to those influences as they are a cool way for us to tell a different story in Lillith’s words. Plus, the actress who plays Lilly is PHENOMENAL, so hearing her ghostly words echo on the screen, disembodied save for a few sketches, is so damn eerie.  We’re not ruling out digital film on the web; in fact, Chas! and I are kicking around some ideas for a short (maybe 5 minutes) film to shoot over Christmas vacation that would be set sometime during the film. This would be shot on a Canon 7D, and much like Lilly’s story, would be its own narrative.

Cary: You teach digital filmmaking at Northern Kentucky University and several of the principal filmmaking roles have been filled with your students or former students.  What is it like to work on a movie side-by-side with your own students?

John: It’s awesome, to say the least; to be clear, this is not a class project. The students chosen to work on the project were hand-picked because of their skills and talents, and, as I will repeat in any interview, I’d put them head to head against many Hollywood folks any day. They also all realize what’s at stake with the success of this project, so that helps with the enthusiasm here. The one thing that was a little odd getting used to at first were the two John Gibson’s. Let’s just say Professor John Gibson likes to use more fist pumps and “YEAH’s!” when he’s excited in class. Filmmaker John Gibson likes to punctuate his excitement with more…uh… colorful language on set, among other things. So that was a little different for me, since I personally had to transition out of the former role into the latter one for the shoot. But we all had a great time and it was a good bonding experience. Those students transitioned from one role (students) to a new one as well: fellow filmmakers. It was great being able to have them side by side with my other filmmaking friends from previous years. A bridging of gaps, so to speak.

Cary: Right now "Revelation Trail" exists only as a full-length screenplay and three short spec trailers that were filmed  in only two or three days late last year.   Did you take home any lessons in filmmaking from the experience of making the trailers?

John: I think the most important lesson we took home was that we can do this, and make it look legit. I had at least one person tell me, “Well, westerns are pretty difficult to do.”  And they’re right: any period piece is going to be more difficult than a contemporary story.  But, when we wrapped on the second day in Kentucky (and when my part was done for a few months), I looked at the footage and got giddy. Here was western Kentucky, and all these friends I’d worked with for years in some cases, looking like they just stepped out of the 1890s. And it worked. That’s the happy "feel good" lesson, I guess. Another thing we learned is that we needed to amp up some action in the script. For example, the barn explosion was completely improvised during the shoot. Never in the script originally, but it looked so good, and fit so well in the grand scheme of the trailers, and got such positive reaction, we decided to go back and look at the script again to see where we could beef up some moments, both with characters and minor action. Now, there is an explosion. But it fits with the story and isn’t thrown in there just for the sake of making things explode, which can sometimes happen in film these days. Finally, we learned that homemade potato soup can go a long way in feeding a crew. And barbequed ham makes for good brains. These are things they should teach in public school… 

Cary: You are trying to market the concept of "Revelation Trail" pretty aggressively.  Right now you have a website, a Youtube channel, and are doing the media rounds to try and develop interest in the project.  How has this been going?  Any budget projections at this early stage?

John: So far, so good. To be honest, we didn’t really get aggressive until about two months ago, maybe?  Up until that point, everything had been fairly organic. We started a Facebook page, methodically went through friend lists and started sending invites, adding the link to the site to our signatures, etc. Early on we noticed that the good folks over at www.horror-movies.ca picked it up and from there it slowly started to make its rounds on blogs. From there, it even went international, with several Spanish language horror blogs picking up the “first look” trailer. From what I can tell using Google translator, the response was good. Now, though, this next round of media involvement is going to put a bit more wind in our sails. But more importantly, this will also be the round when we try to get more fan involvement. That’s our big goal right now with this round: get the word out about the project, but also just start to get more people active in the process. Next round after that is world domination…I mean pitching.  Yeah. Pitching. We’re not discussing budget too much right now unless we’re in pitch meetings, but I can safely say that the budget is comparable to Hollywood micro-budget films. So, we’re not talking about a $17,000 feature, but we’re also not talking about a multi-million dollar investment.

Cary: Finally, do you have any tentative dates for when shooting will begin and when the film might be released?

John: Tentatively, we’re hoping to start shooting in Summer 2011. That’s if pitching goes well for the next few months. The shoot itself will be about three weeks in western Kentucky/southern Illinois, and I’d hope that the film would be done in a reasonable amount of time after that. I’d love an October 2011 release date, but that may or may not happen. We’re being cautiously optimistic. 

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NOTE: If you would like to keep abreast of this project or contact the filmmakers with your input, please check out the official website at www.revelationtrail.com or to view just the trailers, try youtube.com/revelationtrail