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Exclusive Interview: Jeremy Gardner and Christian Stella explore relationship terrors “AFTER MIDNIGHT”

Wednesday, February 19, 2020 | Review

By MICHAEL GINGOLD

A unique and powerful merging of genre and dramatic themes, AFTER MIDNIGHT is filmmaker/actor Jeremy Gardner’s follow-up to his equally idiosyncratic, much-acclaimed zombie film THE BATTERY. He co-directed this time with cinematographer Christian Stella, and RUE MORGUE chatted with the duo about their collaboration.

Currently in select theatrical bookings and on VOD from Cranked Up, AFTER MIDNIGHT (previously known as SOMETHING ELSE) stars Gardner as Hank, a Floridian who hasn’t gotten over his girlfriend’s (Brea Grant) sudden departure from his life. While flashing back to their better times together, he also has a present problem to deal with: a monster that keeps trying to break into his house at night. His friends think the creature may just be in his mind, but is it just a projection of his anxious mind or a true threat? Henry Zabrowski and Justin Benson (the latter of whom produced AFTER MIDNIGHT with his SPRING/THE ENDLESS partner Aaron Moorhead and David Lawson) co-star in the film, which we reviewed here. (Note: This interview contains SPOILERS about general story turns in the film, which are necessary to address questions of its creation.)

Where did this idea come from, and how autobiographical is it?

JEREMY GARDNER: It’s very autobiographical, actually. I was in a long-term relationship for years, and I started thinking about the sacrifices that a person gives up in order to stay in a relationship, and how many people have put their own stuff aside in order to do that. I’d also had this vision of a couch in front of a door; I couldn’t get rid of that image, and then I started weaving those two things together, and it turned into a monster movie about relationships!

At what point did you know exactly what the monster was, and what its part in the story was?

JG: I don’t know, I write weird. Christian and I actually started writing this together; we tried an experiment. I was having a bit of writer’s block, so I wrote three pages and randomly sent them to Christian, and said, “Write three pages and send them back.” He gave up after about nine pages…

CHRISTIAN STELLA: Yeah, when he sent back pages and the characters suddenly had Southern speech patterns, I said, “I can’t write like that.” I didn’t grow up in as small a town in Florida as Jeremy did.

JG: I write very organically, and that’s why I write so slowly, unfortunately. I started finding my way through it, but I always knew there was going to be a monster. I was never going to cop out and not show it. Even though I always knew I was going to reveal the creature, though, I definitely wanted the audience to think it was all in his head for a while. So there are moments where he’s inside and it’s outside trying to get in, and I had a couple of scenes we had to scale back that revealed a little more about whether this thing was real or in his head. But there was always going to be one time when he came home and the door was open and it was in the house, and we were going to see it, finally, in a shotgun blast of light for a split second. And originally there were two monsters, but I cut one out!

How did you come up with the creature’s very specific look?

JG: Originally, I started putting together pictures of animals. Like, baboons have always terrified me; they have big canines and they’re very muscular. Originally I wanted the creature to be much smaller, where it could kind of scamper up my back. But we realized we were going to need a man in a suit, and we got Todd Masters and MastersFX to come on board. He was so generous, those guys are so amazing, and they listened to our ideas and started incorporating elements of Florida fauna and flora into the design. The fronds and the frill on the back of its head are things that could blend into the scrub palms there.

CS: Some of the coolest stuff on the monster, like the fronds and stuff on its back, we didn’t even see until the day before we filmed with it, because those were the last things we did.

Dare I suggest that your original conception was a metaphor for the monkey on Hank’s back?

JG: [Laughs] You know, that wasn’t lost on me, a couple of times when I was thinking about a baboon scrambling around on top of me. The monkey on my back, yeah. You nailed it!

How did the two of you divide directing duties during the shoot?

CS: We did a lot of talking weeks before we shot, and mapped out many of the shots. The morning of each day, we would talk things through, and then I would be behind the camera with the technical crew, and Jeremy was obviously in front of the camera acting, so he would direct the actors, and I would guide the crew and make sure I was doing what we had spoken about at the beginning of the day. It’s a lot easier when you have two people, for him to be able to just act.

JG: At the end of each take, if I was happy with the performances and he was happy that we got the shot, we knew it was safe to move on.

I was especially impressed with the very long single take with you and Brea Grant hashing out Hank and Abby’s relationship. Was that scene always conceived to be shot that way?

JG: Yeah, I wanted to have this sequence where Abby gets to come back, say her piece and get everything off her chest, and explain where she went and why, and for it to be very much a stage play. Even the opening and closing of the doors was intended to be like the opening and closing of a curtain. Of course, I thought all actors have done theater—and I think Brea was terrified, because she didn’t actually have a stage background. But she absolutely destroys everybody in that scene.

CS: We talked early on about doing it in one take, but we wanted to have some movement in the shot. I said there was no way we could do that unless we shot the scene in 8K, and then by complete accident, we got an 8K camera lent to us by a film school. So we shot the movie in 8K anyway, and as that scene plays out, there’s a digital zoom we did in post that takes 10 minutes to zoom in from 8K to 4K. You can’t even detect it with the naked eye; as the scene gets more intimate, you’re getting closer to them, but you can only really see it in fast-forward. That was cool, because we didn’t have to rig anything up. We just put the camera down, and then I made my whole crew go around the side of the house, and we triggered the camera from about 50 feet away and watched on a monitor, so they could just act without anyone around.

Can you talk about casting Grant, and how you worked together to create these characters?

JG: When Brea originally sent in her [audition] tape, she had already read the script, and we were asking actresses to do just a couple of pages of different scenes. And she did that entire monologue; it was like, “Well, if you’re going to make me audition, I’m going to audition the shit out of this.” We were all immediately smitten and taken with that performance. One of the things I was most concerned with was that I was just a white dude trying to write a movie where a woman explains all the problems she’s having in her life and relationship, and I told Brea, “If any of this rings false to you, please change it.” I wanted her to know that Abby was her character. And during that first 14-minute take we did, she had to take a break about halfway through, because I think it was very personal to her. We also backloaded all the flashbacks and romantic scenes to the last few days of the shoot, so by that time, Brea and I had already been hanging out on set for a couple of weeks, and we had gotten much closer.

How about Henry Zabrowski, who’s hilarious in the movie?

JG: Oh my God, he’s the best. I was a big fan of Henry’s for the longest time, but I didn’t know him at all. Then one day I saw Mickey Keating’s show on Shudder, THE CORE, and Henry was a guest on it. I had worked with Mickey on PSYCHOPATHS, so I thought, “Oh my God, that’s my in!” I texted Mickey and asked if he had Henry’s contact information and if he’d be willing to read a script. He said he was, so I sent it to him, and on top of that, Christian and I made a video to try to woo Henry and get him to sign on, and then it turned out that Aaron Moorhead had gone to college with him, so we had all these connections. Henry was the sweetest guy, and he stole every moment he was in, and he brought so much more humanity and subtlety to Wade than I ever thought possible. The outtakes for the disc version are, like, 90 percent Henry.

How did you find that house, and what was it like to shoot there?

CS: The house was actually in the movie AWAY WE GO, with John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph. A friend of mine worked on that movie, and he would call me in the middle of the night; he was just watching it to make sure it wasn’t getting broken into, and he’d tell me, “This place is perfect for a horror movie.” Eight years later, we were looking for a house for AFTER MIDNIGHT, and I was like, “Man, there’s this one where my friend kept saying we’ve got to film a horror movie in it,” and we managed to find it. Thankfully, the owners basically let us do anything we wanted there, because it was so old and dilapidated. We’d ask, “Hey, can we destroy the doors?” and they’d say, “Yeah, sure!”

JG: We had to fumigate it about four or five times, and paint the walls and make it look like it was lived in. There was no electricity or running water, so all the lights and everything were run from a box truck generator outside. It was hot, there were entire rooms that were falling apart and aren’t in the movie because there was no way to salvage them. It was absolutely infested with spiders and wasps, and Dave Lawson, our producer, was in LA, and before he came out, we told him, “Dave, you’ve got to hire a cleaning crew to get this place in shape.” He said, “All right, no problem!” Then we were waiting at the location one day, and one woman with a broom showed up. We were like, “Oh my God, he hired a domestic maid service! No, no, you need the kind of people who go into a hoarder’s house!”

Also, in the rafters of the front porch, there were a number of relatively large, I’d say three, three-and-a-half-foot-long yellow rat snakes that would move in and out of the cracks and crevices. It must it have been mating season because they were kind of twisting up around each other, and at one point one of them just dropped from the rafters onto the porch deck. Another time I had to go capture one, because it was blocking the way back from the rest room, and one of the actresses was stuck there. I love snakes, so I was fine, but Brea hates them. I really want to see her try to get over that fear, and since then, all I do every day is send her news articles about snakes.

Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold (RUE MORGUE's Head Writer) has been covering the world of horror cinema for over three decades, and spent 28 years as a writer and editor for FANGORIA magazine and its website. In addition to RUE MORGUE, he currently writes for BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH, SCREAM, IndieWire.com, TIME OUT, DELIRIUM and others. His book THE FRIGHTFEST GUIDE TO MONSTER MOVIES (FAB Press) is out this fall, and he has contributed liner notes and featurettes to a number of Blu-ray and DVD releases. Among his screenplay credits are SHADOW: DEAD RIOT and LEECHES!, and he is currently working on THE DOLL with director Dante Tomaselli.