In November, Rogue Cinema published the first part of my interview with filmmaker John Gibson who is also an instructor at Northern Kentucky University where he teaches electronic media and Broadcasting. John is thrilled about completing his first feature film, the undead western “Revelation Trail” ( for my review, please go to: http://www.roguecinema.com/revelation-trail-2013-by-philip-smolen.html ). The flick 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 it remains one of my favorite indie cinema experiences of 2014. So this month I decided to keep digging and pick John’s brain for more information about his version of the zombie movie.
RC: John, “Revelation Trail” is the first feature film you directed. What challenges did it present to you?
JG: The easier question might be, “What went right?” which could be answered with a simple, “I had good people who had good food to eat.”
The challenges were plentiful, and I think that’s something I had in common with many feature films, especially those of other first timers. There’re the common challenges of finding funding, casting people and then having last minute cancellations due to illness or flakiness and having to improvise the day of a shoot, and shooting on a thin budget.
The unique challenges that were presented with “Revelation Trail”, though, centered on the period aspect of the film. With shooting a western, there are no luxuries like “air conditioning” or “central heating.” (bonus points if you read that with the air quotes of Chris Farley of SNL fame. More bonus points if you even get that reference…) Temps during the day in the summer reached over a hundred degrees, while in the winter the nighttime temps dropped down to the 30s or below. Hours were long; people slept doubled in hotel beds and breaking the capacity of the rooms. And our gypsy caravan of crew and central cast traveled hundreds of miles during that time, across three states to complete the film.
Remote locations and period appropriate buildings lacking modern plumbing or electricity, meant sometimes you’re shitting in a five gallon bucket (with a garbage bag…I mean, c’mon folks…we’re not uncivilized monsters after all) between scenes while fighting off ticks and other critters. Cell phone signals were a luxury in most places we were in, so everybody had better know where they needed to be, and not rely on cell phone GPS. At times, it really did feel like a pretty primitive shoot.
Good people, though—the cast, the crew–kept the ship afloat. There were a lot of things that didn’t quite go as planned, a lot of things that had to be improvised, and a lot of taking chances—having good people along the way definitely helped. And while we sacrificed a lot of creature comforts to make the film, we were deadest on people having gas in their tank, and good food to eat no matter where we were.
RC: So John – what is the revelation? What do you think is revealed to the Preacher and the Sheriff?
JG: I’ve thought long and hard about this one, since we first began this interview process. I feel like maybe there should be some long, overly wordy answer here on my part, but I think it really boils down to a simple answer: Marshall Edwards’ revelation is that he no longer has a place in this world, and his exit must be made in a redemptive manner. And the Preacher’s revelation is that he now has a new place in this world, having carved out a purpose amongst the chaos.
RC: Costuming for an indie zombie western had to be tough. How were you able to get what you needed?
JG: A lot of bargain bin shopping, years of Halloween costume making and a very talented wife named Candace Gibson. We had a handful of hero outfits that we purchased through suppliers: Edwards’ and Preacher’s outfits, and a few other assorted items. And an awesome seamstress based out of Texas supplied us with a few cloaks, vests and dresses. However, I’d say about 75% of the film’s wardrobe came from my wife and I visiting the GAP clearance center and other discount stores and purchasing ungodly amounts of defective items, button up shirts, pants, and coats, and modifying them with metal and wood buttons to make them a little more appropriate.
We’d then add some distressing using Mother Nature (leaving the clothes out to set in the sun and rain for weeks on end), use sandpaper to rough up knees and elbows, and have the actors on set roll around in dirt. I can remember many nights when Daniel Van Thomas, and I would drink Miller High Life (the beer of “Revelation Trail”) in my basement, sand clothes and take a Dremel tool to sleeves to tear them up. Fun times.
RC: I love the idea of the Preacher burying those that he’s killed as if that will assuage his guilt. Do you think that this practice grounds him and keeps him sane while the world goes to hell around him?
JG: Oh, very much so. I actually feel that if the Preacher didn’t have this purpose or this calling, so to speak, that he’d probably be dead within a month. This desire to help the dead pass on is what I think keeps him going. I mean, if not, then the guy really doesn’t have any purpose anymore. (SPOILER ALERT) I mean, his town’s overrun, his family is dead, and the man who’d become his only confidant ends up biting it. Yet at the end of the film, he’s still dead set on keeping the fight—and his calling—going. I think that’s what made his escape from the fort so powerful too…I mean, here he is, needing to flee, zombies all around, and he keeps trying to drop down to pray over them and deliver them.
I also feel, though, that what keeps him sane—the burials and “deliverance” as he calls it—also adds a bit of insanity to the character. Who would do this type of thing during the apocalypse? It is near suicidal, how firm he is in this purpose. It’ll be fun to play around with that in the future.
RC: John, was the financing harder to get than you thought? Was it tough to find backers when they found out that you would be making a zombie western?
JG: Our original goal was to shoot the movie for 100K. That proved to be such an unrealistic pipe dream, and eventually it came down to us raising about 25K through private investors (friends of family), and us saying, “well, that’s what we’ve got…so how do we make this movie now?” The answer was a lot of drive and a lot of goodwill from people donating and loaning us things to make the movie even better.
That initial 25K came from my father going around and visiting people. He’d take two things: a copy of the sizzle reels/marketing trailers that we made in 2009, and a copy of our hometown newspaper that talked about the project. And thanks to him, we cobbled together enough money to get the project off the ground.
Dad died unexpectedly on April 30th, 2011, just two days before we were about to roll out the first casting calls for the film. It was actually up in the air if we were going to even start filming, but my mom was insistent on us making the film, as Dad had been talking about it even on the day he passed. So, if you see the film, you’ll see a Phillip Gibson credited as executive producer and a dedication to him at the end of the credits—he’s the one who played the largest role in financially getting the film off the ground, in addition to being our biggest supporter.
I mentioned this before, but right before we were set to shoot in the summer, we lost a crucial filming location: a period accurate historic fort in Southern Illinois. This was due to natural causes, as some severe flooding had damaged the structure. We ended up building our own fort, which took about 17 days of hard work on the part of a handful of volunteers. But, it also forced us to have to shoot part of the film in the winter of 2011. As a result, everything had to be “winterized” in terms of wardrobe, and more hotels had to be paid for, and more gas and food had to be bought. So, we turned to Kickstarter to raise additional funds, which—after service fees came out—ended up being about 10K.
So our funding was cobbled together from several sources, and supplemented by a lot of generosity and good will from folks.
RC: Tell me about Daniel van Thomas (the Preacher) and Daniel Britt (the Marshall). Their performances are incredible.
JG: Ah, yes! DVT, as we call Van Thomas, is a good friend of mine from college, where we worked on many short films together, and he even starred in my wedding proposal video. Over the course of this film, though, he’s also grown to be one of my best friends, and it’s not uncommon for my wife to be making fun of our conversations in the kitchen, over the phone, which run the gamut of “Revelation Trail”, his life in LA and my life in Kentucky, films in general, and “The Clone Wars” and all things “Star Wars.” We’re nerds at heart.
Daniel Britt is a Cincinnati based actor that I met through a fellow filmmaking colleague at Northern Kentucky University, and when I met him, I knew he had to play the role of Edwards. He’s a damn fine talented actor, and he was never afraid to disagree with me on something in a scene. He always knew how to express that disagreement, too, in the most professional of ways, which was important for the rest of the crew to see.
More importantly, Britt is one of the kindest hearted and generous men that I’ve ever had the fortune of knowing and working with. I recall a moment in particular when, on our last day of principal photography, after I called our last wrap, and everyone was celebrating and going our separate ways, he came up to me, hugged me and said, “He’d be proud,” in reference to my father. Of all the things that happened on this film, that moment may be one of the most vivid things I will always remember.
Class acts, all around, unlike a certain asshole director. Wait. What?
RC: You also have an amazing music score by Paul Wurth. How did you get him involved with the film?
JG: Paul is another good friend from college that my wife Candace and Daniel, have also known for a very long time. He’s been a collaborator on other projects in the past, but this was his first feature. My musical direction to him was basically, “I want something that sounds like a mix of NIN and Ennio Morricone.” From there, he and a handful of other talented musicians went to town on the original score. It was mostly recorded in his studio apartment in LA, just a bunch of people sitting around an iMac with a microphone and a handful of instruments.
RC: Do you feel that you had to compromise the final film from your original vision?
JG: A little, but I think that’s the nature of filmmaking. A fellow teacher and I always tell our students that a film sees three births: the writing stage, the production stage, and the editing stage. If something hasn’t changed at some point along the way, you’re probably not doing it right. So, there definitely were a few compromises along the way—some based on the budget, some based on other resources, and some were just spur of the moment on set decisions that had to be made because shit would go wrong. (SPOILER ALERT) When Preacher guns down Isaiah in the town, that whole scene was supposed to be shot a little differently, but the gun kept jamming on us (and would jam the rest of the shoot, too—it was such a turd of a weapon). So the entire scene had to be re-blocked differently than what I had originally planned, since the prop itself was malfunctioning. It was a minor compromise, but still one that affected the final film in my eyes, since we had to shoot it in such a way to allow for digital effects later due to a malfunctioning prop gun.
The other big compromise that I mentioned before is that we simply didn’t have enough time, with the shoot schedule, to get as elaborate as we wanted to on some action scenes and gore. While they’re still pretty solid, there are some action moments that we had to fly through on the seat of our pants, getting only one or two takes for key things. Because of that, we might have an out of focus shot that had to be tossed to the floor, which made the edit a bit more challenging in places.
My kingdom for a horse. And an extra half hour in the shooting schedule!
RC: What’s next for John Gibson?
JG: I’m currently preparing for the arrival of our next production: my daughter, Emery, will be born this December. My wife was 5 months pregnant with our son, Silas, during our winter shoot, and we’re pretty committed to filmmaking continuing to be a part of our family for as long as we’re able to make it happen. I look forward to the days of being able to bring my kids out on a set, or better yet, work on projects with them. Oh, the stop motion adventures we will have…
Cinematically, the next thing is probably going to be a random short or music video this summer, just to tinker with some new gear, but our main goal is to go into production on “Revelation Trail II” in the summer of 2016. Beyond that, I think I’d like to move on from the realm of Western Horror and dabble in some dark comedy/drama (comedy has always been my favorite genre to work in).
Sleep is also good, I hear. So maybe that will happen at some point. He laughs nervously as he looks at the crib and the impending arrival of another small human in his household. He laughs even more nervously as he opens the script file for his next film…
RC: Well thanks so much John for telling us all we need to know about “Revelation Trail.” Good luck!
JG: Thank you Phil!