John Gibson has to be a pretty confident guy. That the only way I can figure out how this Kentucky native has been able to keep a couple of careers going at the same time while keeping life in perspective. John currently teaches at Northern Kentucky University where he is an instructor in electronic media and Broadcasting. But more importantly to Rogue Cinema readers, John has recently completed his first feature film, “Revelation Trail” (for my review, please go to: http://www.roguecinema.com/revelation-trail-2013-by-philip-smolen.html
The film is about a zombie apocalypse that takes place in the American West and how it affects two men, a preacher (Daniel Van Thomas) and a Marshall (Daniel Britt), both of whom are trying to escape. The film is a grand smash-up of the horror and western genres and is one of my favorite indie cinema experiences of 2014.
I had the chance to ask John a few questions about his first full length feature and his answers were amazing. For that reason, I’m breaking the interview into two parts. The first part starts right here and the conclusion will run in the December issue.
RC: I ask everyone this John – What was ‘the moment’ for you. When did you know that you had to make movies (I know that I was born to watch them!
JG: For me, I don’t know if there was a specific moment—that eureka moment—that sometimes happens. I’ve been a storyteller for as long as I can remember, although not always a very good one (ha). I started making short videos with my friends in middle school for fun, and these eventually continued into high school, and college. While I learned something with each one, I have to admit that they were all pretty bad. My passion during HS and college was high school history teaching, which is what I thought I was going to be when I graduated.
As I continued to make movies on the side, though, and paired up with like-minded folks in college, something gradually changed. I think it was when I first heard the laughter of an audience watching my work (which was intentional on that production!), and I realized that there could be more to this. So, while I continued to pursue my history degree, I also honed my filmmaking talents.
Jump ahead a few years to now, and with my first feature under my belt and a few shorts, I’ve found that while teaching is my calling, being a director, and filmmaking, is embedded in my DNA.
RC: Do you have a philosophy when it comes to genre movies?
JG: Great question Phil. I always tell my students who work on short films, to “know thy genre.” By that, I mean, generally be familiar with the tropes, qualities and structures that define them. And then, be prepared to either use those to your advantage in hybrid scenarios, or bend those rules and expectations to create something that the audience has not seen before, even if some other conventions of the genre remain the same. This will also help eventually with marketing: your distributor will want to be able to easily market your film, and having a clear genre can definitely help with that.
I do think, though, that while genres are important, the biggest thing is to just make a good movie. We set out to make a Western that happened to have zombies in it. But, even as we were writing, we didn’t always say, “Is this a western element? Is this a western archetype? Is this something that happens with zombies?” We just wrote. We set out to tell a story, and were fortunate that story gravitated towards the two genres that actually blend together nicely in storytelling.
RC: When did the idea for “Revelation Trail” crystallize for you? Is there any link between the film and “Revelation Trail: Lillith’s Story” that you made back in 2010?
JG: Here’s the short of it: about 7 or 8 years ago, my friend Blake (who did the BAD ASS digital artwork you will see online for the VOD versions of the film) called me up and asked if I wanted to make a zombie film set in the west. I was a little hesitant, as I’d made a really shitty zombie film in college (I mean it was great fun, just total shit.) However, the western element called to me, and we decided to make a western with zombies in it. I hope that distinction makes sense; in my eyes, and that of many viewers, Revelation Trail is a western first and foremost, with this horror element that works its way in.
So, it took us about that length of time (the 7 or 8 years) to get the movie off the ground. Find financing. Shoot marketing trailers. Crew up, etc.
The web series was our attempt to world build, so to speak, while also building interest in the project. A group of students and I set out one semester to create a companion web series for this film that was still in development. The animated short series tells briefly the story of Lillith Reynolds, up to the events that open the film. So, when you see the cold open of the film, you are seeing the ending to the web series.
You can still enjoy either without ever seeing the other, but by viewing both, you get a bigger picture of what is happening. We hope to continue this with future add-ons to the world.
RC: How long did the screenplay take and what kind of problems did blending the two genres cause?
JG: The screenplay took several years, mostly due to life, honestly. I had a major move and career change that happened halfway through the process and that put things on hold. It was a script that we (Daniel Van Thomas [co-writer, co-producer and lead actor[) kept coming back to, tinkering and tweaking. We also didn’t have a treatment in advance, so we really had no road map. We just kinda made things up as they fit into our minds, knowing what we wanted to have happen at the end.
I actually believe that this latter approach is why so many of the conversations in the film feel so organic and natural…many times I felt like, since I didn’t have a treatment in place, that I was a scribe who was watching this world—and dialogue—unfold around me before my eyes.
We’re currently working on a sequel and there is a treatment this go around, because we don’t have years to waste. And damn, it’s shaping up nicely. Hopefully that script’s ready by December or January of this year.
As for the challenges posed with writing and the genres, I think the western proved more difficult at times than the zombie side. With the western, we had to pour over maps of territories during that time, think about how easily communication traveled, and realize that just because you have a gun, doesn’t mean you have ammo, which definitely influenced many of the decisions by the characters.
Other than that, the challenges were light; I believe the cruel mistress of filmmaking had those challenges in store for us in production.
RC: What makes the western and zombie genres compatible?
JG: I think someone else, on a review, put it better than I could: 1) communications are bad/unreliable in both scenarios, leading to isolated pockets of civilization; 2) ammo is limited; 3) people may make really morally questionable/tough decisions based on situational ethics sometimes.
Two great examples of the genres are “Deadwood” and “The Walking Dead.” Both of these also give us something that we see sometimes in both genres: the Moral Compass. In “Deadwood”, it might be Ellsworth, and in “The Walking Dead”, we’ve seen it with Herschel and Dale, who serve the role of moral compass. This compass element keeps us grounded in what life was like before the new changes that are arriving, or have already arrived.
Speaking of changes, what I’ve found most compatible between genres is that one of the key ingredients of a western is the changing frontier. To go back to my “Deadwood” reference, we have the changing frontier in the form of incorporation into the States, and the coming telegraph line, all of which seek to bring civilization to our town. All of the characters’ actions are now forced by or set against this action. They are the people who they are, but now their choices will affect the role they play in this new world. Do they conform, or do they cling to the old way? If you think about it, this is what can make for a fantastic zombie story as well, with the zombies ushering in the new world that we must now live in.
So, when we melded the two, we thought that the zombie uprising was the perfect “changing frontier” for our western. Again, tying back into that point of a western with zombies, as opposed to a zombie western.
RC: Part of the appeal of “Revelation Trail” is the dynamic between the preacher (Daniel vanThomas) and the Marshall (Daniel Britt). Why do they both need each other?
JG: The Daniels, as we affectionately called them, were fantastic, and played off each other very well (both on camera and off). They both embraced their characters, characters who, as you point out, needed each other. I feel that Preacher needed Marshal Edwards in order to survive, and Edwards needed Preacher in order to feel that something was still redeemable in himself and humanity. While they’re not exactly the most normal of pairings, they are a perfect fit in my eye, with one sharing a more philosophical view of what is happening in the world (The Preacher), and one grounded more in the reality of day to day survival (Edwards).
RC: “Revelation Trail” is not as extremely graphic as other recent zombie flicks (though there is plenty of violence). Was there a reason that you toned down the gore?
JG: Yes, twofold: one, with the primary focus being a western, gore wasn’t too high on my priority list, as I wanted to keep the film accessible to people that aren’t into higher gore counts. I wanted to keep it in there, but toned down to a more realistic level. We see blood, we see some entrails and some decay, but the film is very grounded in more of the aesthetic of the western.
That said, time was also a huge consideration. We often shot 18 hour days, with back to back scenes and little down time for makeup to do heavier gore. I think had we had more flexibility, the gore would have been a little more prevalent, but not too much. By that I simply mean that we might have seen a bit more flesh being ripped from someone in one or two scenes, but it definitely would not have gone to an extreme.
RC: How difficult was it to scout locations for “Revelation Trail”?
JG: Actually, it was pretty easy. We knew of two locations for certain that we wanted to shoot at even before we started filming, Fort Massac and Copper Canyon Ranch (home of Tim and Carole Emery, two of the nicest saints in the world). We would eventually lose Fort Massac due to natural causes (soil erosion, and the fort being shut down to outsiders for repairs), so we had to build a new location.
Other than those two locations, we mostly did a lot of online scouting (Google searches, and using Google maps for aerials of surrounding areas) to find just the right spots for other locations. Typically, we would search for a primary location (say, Copper Canyon Ranch) and try to find secondary locations (forests, fields, creeks, etc) around it. This kept travel time and costs low, which was crucial to such a condensed, micro-budget shoot.
We had three main areas of production (Southern Ohio/Northern Kentucky, Western Kentucky and Southern Illinois), and since these were the areas where all of our supplies (food, shelter and talent) were coming from, we spent much time scouring the web and traveling to these areas to find spots that fit the script. Sometimes this was as easy as filming in someone’s back yard (mine was used, in fact, for the summer to winter montage in the film), with creative angles, to make it feel like the wide-open range.
Eventually, in addition to Copper Canyon Ranch, we’d add The Old West Festival (Southern Ohio) and Mullins Log Cabin (Northern Kentucky) to our list of key locations for the film.
RC: “Revelation Trail” has gotten a lot of positive reviews and strong word of mouth. Has this translated into more festival bookings for you?
JG: Funny enough, no…we did really, really well with four-walling the film (including numerous sold out shows), and we’ve been really stoked about the reviews and critiques we’re getting. In addition, being picked up by eOne Films was a pretty huge deal for us.
However, the film itself just didn’t get picked up at many festivals. I don’t quite know why that was the case, unless it goes back to that genre question from earlier…we were just too much of a hybrid to really fit into the lineups of festivals, maybe. We’re actually not doing any festivals now, either, since we’ve entered into distribution and have now switched gears to begin work on another project. Maybe, though, having a feature under our belt, with a significant distributor and good buzz, will help with future works in festivals?
Next month: John Gibson continues to spill his guts on his fabulous zombie western “Revelation Trail.”