Movie Feature

Tightening the noose: 'The Gallows' cast interviews

By Jocelyn HeaneyMovies - 26 August 2015 12:00 AM | Updated 4:04 PM

Tightening the noose: 'The Gallows' cast interviews

The 13th day of principal photography for ‘The Gallows’ begins on an overcast evening in Fresno, California. This day also happens to be Friday the 13th, a happy coincidence for Travis Cluff, who, along with his fellow writer/director Chris Lofing, conjured the film they’re now shooting out of a fresh idea and sheer determination to get it made.  From start to finish, theirs is a Cinderella story – with a distinctly Hollywood ending.  

It began over 300 kilometres north of Tinsel Town—in Fresno, California.  Lofing, a film student working on location, hired Fresno local Cluff as a stunt man in the short film he was making for his thesis.  The two soon realized they were kindred spirits, and following the short’s premiere in Los Angeles, decided to work together as creative partners, forming their own company, Tremendum Pictures. 

‘The Gallows’was their first project out of the gate—a low-budget horror film that would make innovative use of the found-footage style to bring an intimacy to the tension and scares.  After writing the screenplay, they shot a promotional trailer, explained Lofing, “mainly so we could see if it looked scary to us and worked as a story.” 

When we meet them on set, Lofing and Cluff still seem shocked that the care they put into that first effort would enable them to take their vision to the next level.  “We believed we could do something great, but we had no idea how it was going to happen or how long it would take,” Lofing said. 

'The Gallows' trailer

“If we worked hard enough and put everything we had into it, we just knew it could happen,” Cluff added.  “I think everything fell into place from that.”

Their next move could only be dreamed up by this generation of young filmmakers—they put their trailer online.  “We just kind of put out there with the hope that someone would see it and help us take that next step,” Lofing recalled. “We had no idea what was going to happen, who would see it or what kind of bites we would get.” 

As it turned out, they got a big one.  Dean Schnider of talent powerhouse Management 360 discovered their trailer online, got in touch with the young filmmakers, and brought 360’s production arm, Entertainment 360, and the company's Guymon Casady and Benjamin Forkner on board the project.  The 360 trio then helped lock in the filmmakers’ next critical ally.

Jason Blum is the veteran producer behind Blumhouse Productions, a company that has re-energized the genre with blockbuster franchises like ‘Paranormal Activity’ and 'Insidious'.  Blum and his President of Feature Films Couper Samuelson were likewise impressed with the pair and their vision, and Lofing and Cluff soon found themselves with the opportunity to make ‘The Gallows’ as a full-length feature co-financed by Blumhouse and Entertainment 360.  

With these heavy-hitters in their corner, the writer/directors will go on to find a home for their film at New Line Cinema, the birthplace of such seminal horror classics as ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’and ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’.

But for now, the genuine wonder at the stars that have aligned for them is palpable.  Said Cluff, “It’s just an amazing thing to have a plan and to work your butt off, and then to have people like that put their faith in us and in our film.  We still don’t understand how it happened, but we feel incredibly blessed.”

From Michael Myers and Freddy Krueger to Blair Witch and malevolent spirits of ‘Insidious’, the big screen has ushered a rogue’s gallery of bogeymen into the nightmares of audiences the world over.  With ‘The Gallows’, Lofing and Cluff hope to add one Charlie Grimille to the list. 

In 1993, Charlie—a drama student at Beatrice High School—left this world at the end of a noose in a freak accident that occurred on stage during a play called, naturally, ‘The Gallows’, and his tormented spirit is believed to still linger in the auditorium where he died.  Though, much like Voldemort, many won’t even speak his name, on the 20th anniversary of his death, the school’s drama club sets out to revive the production to honor Charlie’s memory. 

But a few students aren’t having it.  On the eve of the play’s revival, Reese, Cassidy and Ryan sneak into the auditorium to sabotage the all-important Gallows, but things don’t go exactly as planned.  Instead of freeing the school from the dark cloud that’s been hanging over it, they—along with Pfeifer, who spotted them going inside—unwittingly unleash a long-dormant evil that tests each of them over the course of one long, terrifying night trapped inside with it. 

The event that started it all is on the schedule for today’s Friday the 13th shoot—the hanging of Charlie Grimille.  Lofing and Cluff have spent the better part of a year discussing and preparing for this moment, devising ways to make this core event feel real enough to scare an audience out of its wits.

As extras file in and fill the seats of Memorial Auditorium, Cluff and Lofing have a quick conversation offstage with their cast.  “We’re going to practice it in a fake way with the audience watching,” Cluff told the young actors. “Charlie is going to take the noose off and get away. He’ll evade the noble guardsmen. The audience is going to think that that’s how it’s supposed to go, so when we hang him for real, they’ll think something went very wrong in the play…and in the movie.”

The cast is ready. They know that when Charlie drops, their reaction must be genuine shock.  

To heighten the sense that all of this is happening for real, they’ve enlisted a stunt man to step on stage as the “safety officer” to warn the audience that the stunts they’re about to see are dangerous.  “If something goes wrong, I’m going to come out on stage and take care of it,” he assures them. “But we’ve taken every precaution.” 

The company runs through several takes.  Each time, Charlie slips the noose off his head and runs away. On the fourth time, they roll cameras.  

The scene unfolds as before until midway through the reading of the death sentence, we hear a loud ka-klunk! Boom! 

Charlie Grimille falls into his noose and hangs on the Gallows!

Stunned gasps ripple through the audience. The stunt man runs out on stage, shouting, “Somebody call a doctor!”

The actors too react as if something has gone terribly wrong.  What they don’t know is that Lofing and Cluff have taken their trickery one level deeper.  “We had a stunt man operating the trap door that triggers Charlie’s hanging, and asked him to pull it even earlier than anyone was expecting,” Lofing smiled.  

“No one—not even Charlie himself—knew when the drop was coming,” Cluff added, “and their shock was totally genuine, as if something bad or unplanned had actually gone down.”

Having achieved the desired effect from all involved, Lofing appears at the corner of the stage and confesses to the stunned audience, “Just so you know:  that was planned.” 

Everyone present, short of the filmmakers, releases a collective sigh of relief. 

“Did you see the looks on their faces?” whispered Lofing to his filmmaking partner. “It was awesome.

Charlie—his head still in the noose—gives the directors and the crowd a big thumbs up.

While this is a moment from 1993, the bulk of the film takes place two decades hence—in 2013—and focuses on the next generation of students at Beatrice High School.  To find the film’s four present-day leads, Cluff and Lofing cast a wide net to find performers who would bring a natural, contemporary feel to their roles.  They ultimately assembled a core group of Los Angeles-based actors who had no familiarity with the Fresno locations, other than rumors they’d be shooting in a haunted high school. 

The filmmakers also adopted the actors’ first names for their characters to further personalize their roles:  Reese Mishler plays Reese Houser; Pfeifer Brown plays Pfeifer Ross; Cassidy Gifford plays Cassidy Spilker; and, retaining both his first and last names, Ryan Shoos plays Ryan Shoos. 

To maintain a degree of spontaneity among their young cast, they decided to the feed the actors the script a little at the time, and also share with them photos, newspaper articles and websites that referenced the story of Charlie Grimille and the incidents that followed his death.

Reese, Pfeifer, Cassidy and Ryan are an unlikely foursome to spend a night locked in the high school auditorium—Reese and Ryan are football players, and cheerleader Cassidy is Ryan’s girlfriend.  The fourth to join them, quite unexpectedly, is drama geek Pfeifer.

According to Cassidy Gifford, Ryan comes up with the idea for his prank as a way to “rescue Reese from the clutches of Pfeifer and the drama club” because he fears he’ll be laughed off stage.  “It’s high school,” she said.  “Kids can be cruel.  Reese is a senior and a popular guy, but that just makes him more of a target, and he’s not a good actor.  He’s really, really awful, in fact.” 

Where Reese is sensitive, his best buddy Ryan is “boisterous and loud and wants to get the attention of everyone all the time,” said Reese Mishler.  “Cassidy puts up with his nonsense, just like I do.”

Shoos laughs it off.  “Ryan has a heart and he has a conscience, but it's kind of overpowered by his status in high school, where he feels like he needs to kind of live up to his role.”

Ryan, a would-be filmmaker who signs up to shoot behind-the-scenes of the production as a goof, has his ever-present camera with him to capture terrifying, first-person footage of the night they’ll spend locked in the auditorium with Charlie.  Gifford said, “He’s filming everything, so you start to see things from his perspective and you see him change from the sarcastic, confident jock to someone dealing with scary and unknown forces.  He’s just as afraid as the rest of us.” 

Pfeifer Brown tells us her character is part of the revival production, but follows the other three into the auditorium suspecting (quite accurately) foul play. She’s not deterred by the rumors about Charlie Grimille haunting the school.  Rather, Brown said, “She finds it to be very ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ very romantic.  She feels it’s just something that needs to be completed, to be put to rest. 

But the situation changes drastically when things start to happen as the night unfolds.  When they attempt to dismantle the Gallows, it mysteriously rebuilds itself.  Doors start locking.  Other doors open by themselves.  They find themselves pushed into underground tunnels and other places that they never knew existed.

And they start to hear things… Creaking floorboards.  A squeaky rope.  A whisper in the dark.

Ryan’s footage—shot in part, of course, with his cell phone—is a stark contrast the rough VHS video footage that appears to have been filmed by an audience member during the 1993 production of ‘The Gallows’.  Within the limits of the found-footage format, Lofing and Cluff have developed strategies to leverage a number of different perspectives and styles.  They’re also utilizing a wide array of cameras at various grades, including a Canon C300, the Panasonic Lumix GH2, RED and Sony.  “I think we’re using just about every camera in the book,” Cluff joked. 

The camera operator likewise varies between the actors themselves, as they venture into dark, creepy rooms as their characters, and the filmmakers shooting from their point of view or from a distance.  The creepy factor is heightened by the fact that the shoot is largely taking place at night, which gives the familiar school setting a very different feel for the actors.  

Something else is unsettling during these long nights.  The filmmakers admit that cast and crew have experienced a lot of unexplained phenomena on the set of 'The Gallows'.  “It seems like the weirdest stuff happens onstage,” Cluff mused.  “We’ll hear these thuds and chains rattling in the rafters and along the catwalk.  But the cast and crew—everyone here—is on stage.”

“We filmed a scene in which Reese is walking through the attic and the footage is pretty remarkable,” Lofing recalled.  “With each take the actors were going deeper and deeper into the attic and each time they were thinking, ‘This isn’t a good idea.’  Each take, I was sending them back again.  They kept saying, ‘Chris, are we done yet? I don’t really want to do this.’  We probably did eight or nine takes and then they just refused to go back.” 

When the filmmakers watched the playback, they understood why.  “They were going deeper and deeper into this attic and they get to a spot where there are these big yellow vents.  They hear the humming of an air conditioner, but once they’ve passed it, you don’t hear anything at all … until you hear this quiet sound, exactly like someone saying ‘Reese.’  They just heard that and ran.  The screams were so good, we ended up using them at a different point in the movie.”  

In another scene, Ryan and Reese are having an argument when, Cluff recalled, “The ropes on the fly rig start to vibrate a little bit.  It gets more and more intense during the take and more ropes start vibrating.  Ryan and Reese didn’t even notice it, but we checked the playback of the take, see the ropes going crazy, and we all just blew a gasket.  We tried to replicate it in every take we did after that because it was such a cool effect.  Ultimately, we should be thanking the ghost of Charlie.  I probably shouldn’t say his—”

Be careful,” Lofing quickly warned.  “Just be careful on that one.”

'The Gallows' opens in cinemas 27 Aug 2015

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  • Rated
    NC16 /
    Horror, Thriller
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