The Gallows is the latest found footage horror film from producer Jason Blum, the Judd Apatow of horror movies who shepherds franchises like the Paranormal Activity and Insidious films, along with a countless number of others. It is directed by the writing/directing duo of Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing, who made this project themselves on a tiny budget a few years ago before Blum picked up the movie, and eventually got it a wide release distribution from Warner Bros. and New Line. Their film focuses on a quartet of teenagers who are trapped and haunted by a mysterious spirit the night before their school play of the movie’s namesake.
We had the chance to chat with Cluff and Lofing during its Chicago premiere. We discussed how their small film got into the hands of a horror giant, their construction of the movie’s scares, the material that’s specifically not in the movie, the inspiration it received from The Terminator, and more. Check out the full conversation below.
The Film Stage: First off, did I see in the credits that one, or some of your relatives did the catering for this?
Travis Cluff: My wife. And your mom [to Lofing] did send some stuff. My wife did a lot of the catering. We had one company help out, but they didn’t do as good a job as she did.
How big was this crew?
Cluff: The first cut was us two and three other people.
From the beginning, why gallows?
Cluff: In the beginning, we said that we couldn’t do a knife, or an axe. At one point we started thinking of an executioner, who had this scythe or a hook. But we wanted it to be PG-13, so we decided to go with a rope – it’s less bloody, and it hasn’t been done. And if we can stretch out the intensity, that will make up for the people who are really into gore.
Chris Lofing: Travis has a great Terminator example.
Cluff: In the first Terminator film, he throws a biker through the kitchen window onto the stove top. And it’s all [stove burning noises]. and the guy falls down. He had just been stabbed or shot, but we didn’t go “Ah!” when that happened. But when the guy got burned we all went, “Oh!” You know why? Because we’ve all been burned.
Lofing: We’ve all experienced a choking sensation, or an “I can’t breathe” sensation at some point, asphyxiation.
Cluff: And a rope is a far more common item. Not everybody carries a hatchet or a machete, or an ice pick.
When it comes to writing reality, was there any limit so as not to overwrite it?
Cluff: It’s easy for someone to overact in something, and we really wanted to find genuine characters that could slip into who we wrote about. That was a big part of the casting process, finding characters who could fit right in, and then we did make it a collaborative-type thing. We had plot points, and a story written out with things that we needed them to hit, and then we would say let’s go do it wrong a few times, and figure out what works best, and feels the most real.
Chris Lofing: We had an outline that was probably about 60 pages long, and most of the scenes didn’t have dialogue in them. We’d send them in, give them the gist of it, and we’d fail horribly. But there’d be this kind of magic to the first take, because people are figuring it out as they go. And then we’d do it a few more times. And we’d say, either the first take was just gold, and it would dip down in the last few takes. It was this rhythm we would get into. Most of the dialogue was the actors filling in the blanks.
What thoughts were behind your choice of having the characters named after the actors playing them?
Cluff: There’s that split-second hesitation of hearing someone else’s name, and remembering you’re playing them. We didn’t want even a fraction of hesitation from our actors.
Was Ryan always meant to hold the character? He’s an interesting choice.
Lofing: I think we had at one time, this goes way back, we had a fifth character. And I think Ryan was more just like a nicer friend to Reese. He was still holding the camera, but this fifth character fulfilled more of the jock role, I’m trying to remember. We had five characters, maybe even six, but after a while we decided to scale it down and really focus on these main four, so we had enough time to devote on those main four so that we had time to make the audience care about them.
Cluff: As a character, I think that Ryan is the kind of guy who made the role for himself. You have a mandatory elective, they’re taking drama thinking it will be an easy A, but he doesn’t want to be in the play, he doesn’t want to do painting the sets, or the costume, he just offers to document the thing, and that’s the way for him to get out of the assignment.
Lofing: “I could just document it!”
Cluff: He’s an interesting character because half of the people hate him, and half of the people love him. We figure that’s right where he needs to be. It was a fine line. We wanted to have moments where it seemed like he was genuinely apologetic, or after he nails the kid with the football, he looks off and to find his friends but he feels bad that he did it. But he’s around his buddies and he had to do it. And then later he apologizes to him.
There’s that element of peer pressure in the movie.
Cluff: You see that it doesn’t have to be that way, but it kind of does. It’s like, poor Ryan, he has to be that way and he’s trapped that way. But in reality, he and Stage Boy could probably get along just fine.
What was the inspiration for these characters? How do you know teenagers?
Cluff: Us, and who we know.
Lofing: We were both in drama.
Cluff: And I had friends from all different cliques, friends who played football or were the total drama nerds.
Lofing: Pfeiffer’s character especially I based off of a few people that I knew in drama. That was their lives, they were super control freaks, and they had to be perfect.
Do the scares work as these plot points? Do they stay the same when on set?
Cluff: For the most part. Once we had our locations and things.
Lofing: And blocking was important with what was doable in a certain location. If the platform in the attic wouldn’t go in a certain direction, we had to tweak things a bit.
Cluff: But we did plan for the settings, and pay-offs. There’s a lot of scenarios where it’s like we have to get this setup right. But we think it played out real well.
When you’re looking at the footage, how are you testing what works, especially the scare footage?
Cluff: We actually filmed a lot of the scares ourselves to see if they worked, just by ourselves as part of the very first trailer, which we used to get money from investors.
Lofing: We would go out and find locations that seemed spooky to us, and do test shots. High schools, parts of high schools, unseen parts of theaters.
Cluff: The “red scene.” That’s a hallway in a concert hall where I worked. And when the lights were out, I would peek in, but the red glow of the exit sign was bleeding down wall was all that was there. I said, “Man, that is a creepy hallway. Let’s do something.” And we tested it out, and he did this great acting job. I had a key to the place. And when Chris cut it together, we were like, “Dang, that thing is solid.” That really has been a staple scene in securing money from investors, in the trailers, and in the teaser.
Lofing: It sums up the film in one image.
With other scares, do they work the same way? Do these scares work differently when it comes to editing?
Lofing: The camera is definitely a character in this movie. And there’s a flow to it. And we also really are fans of a slow, suspenseful build to that climactic scare, drawing out the tension and suspense. I think we try to do that with every scare. And yeah, there’s a definitive flow to it, so you really have to walk through it and find out how long it was going to take, and we did several versions. Just trial and error, and having that suspense in mind.
Were there scares that might have worked on set, but didn’t look as good when filmed?
Lofing: Yeah, kind of. There were scenes that we shot and then we would do reshoots and made them even better. There was a different version of the scare in the attic that we shot in 2013, and it was good but we improved it. We went back and reshot it. We learned as we went.
Was this story always imagined to be found footage?
Cluff: In my early interpretations of it, it was not. It was regular, traditional style. And then Chris quickly reminded me and brought to my attention that we didn’t have money or the crew or the camera. So I said sell me on it, and it was something that I acme around to. It didn’t take me long to get on board.
Lofing: It was really out of necessity more than anything that we ended up doing found footage. But in the end, we loved how it worked with the characters.
Cluff: And with the audience, it brings them in. They’re not just watching a movie, they’re experiencing it. It’s an immersive experience.
How much do you guys have written of what’s not in the movie? Do you guys already decide all of that?
Lofing: We didn’t write too much of it out, but we did have the story of it in our heads, and the important pieces of it, which is mainly the love story of a noble peasant falling in love with this noble woman, and him pretending to be someone that he’s not to win her affection. That was important to us, and the ending of it, how it reflects how the film ends. Trying to create those similarities. We did write out some extra stuff for the playbill.
Cluff: And there’s this sort of mythology that we know. All the unanswered questions that people will speculate on, we have answers to those things. And anything that’s open-ended are areas that we can go out and discover, or create as we go along. And hey, if the movie does well, we can go back and explore those other things.
When making a horror movie, which usually get sequels in some form, how often were you thinking about that very aspect?
Cluff: It’s always in the back of your mind. But we would always say, “We would have it there, just in case,” but we knew we had to have a great first movie to even get there. But there were times when we were like, “Oh, that could be really cool, let’s save that.”
Lofing: I don’t think there were a lot of things.
Cluff: I think were several.
Lofing: There was one thing in particular, that New Line, we were gonna do a scene that hinted at one thing, and some of the guys at New Line were like, “Let’s leave that open.”
Cluff: We should be so stinking lucky. Right now, we’re talking with people like you, and our movie is being shown, and we’re on our first tour.
How did you get this movie to New Line?
Cluff: The best answer is that we don’t know. I will say that Chris and I just never wavered, we never settled or got lazy. If something wasn’t right, we fixed it. Whether it was shooting it, or in post, if things went wrong, we spent hours upon hours and hours of fixing it.
Lofing: Never refusing to do the work. When Blum came on board in 2012 and said this was gonna be a bunch of work and that we’d re-shoot a bunch, we just did it. We had already spent a year of our lives making this movie work, and we went back in. And when New Line came on board, they said there were a few scenes that we could approve more, so we went back and did that. It’s just that constant willingness to make it better and put the work into the details.
Cluff: And we never knew how it happened, but we had that spirit that we were meant for something big, and that we just had to really buckle down. And as we were doing it, stars aligned, things fell into place, and it was like, “Oh, that’s how that works.” and it just works for us because we were focused and willing to go with the universe on it. Or, we could attribute it to the desire and the work effort. As a result of this, this is what came into place for us. I am sure this was different from the Paranormal Activity guys or the Blair Witch Project guys, but it happened for us.
You guys were learning about the business, as it was happening.
Cluff: Yes. This has been our first press and junket. It’s insane. But it’s great.
What’s the timeline of this project? When did Jason Blum get involved?
Lofing: We started with the idea in 2011, and we made that trailer.
Cluff: An experimental trailer.
Lofing: We use the trailer to get the investment.
Cluff: Someone called us, actually, and said, “I heard you’re working on this. I don’t have much money, but it sounds interesting.”
Lofing: And that kicked it off!
Cluff: And we showed it to him, and he said, “I can double what I originally said, and can I tell my friends?” And once we got a little bit of money, we said we had to get the camera, and we started getting stuff. By the first day of shooting, we got our final check for the amount we were looking for, but we were moving. And that trailer really sold it. And in December 2011 we started filming, and in January of 2012 we finished production, maybe like a pickup day or two, and by summer there was a completed movie. And then we put a new trailer online, from an actual movie this time, and we put out “Coming Soon,” “Demand It in Your City,” and it worked. Several blogs picked it up, and it was going around, and we got a call from Dean Schneider from Management 360, we gave him a cut to look at, they loved it and wanted to be part of it and eventually manage us, and they took it to Jason Blum. Blum did a screening to see if it was really as good as he thought, it ended up testing better than he thought.
Lofing: And that’s when Blum said, “Let’s do this.” And then we re-shot more, and version 2.0 of The Gallows was out by 2014, and then we had a distributor screening.
Cluff: There was a bidding war that went on, and New Line won. And now we’re here. That’s really how it went.
How did you guys meet?
Lofing: I went to film school at New York Film Academy, which is actually in Los Angeles. It’s confusing. But I went there fora year in 2009-2010. For my thesis film, I went to Fresno, CA to shoot it because I didn’t have the money to make it in LA, and that’s how I met Travis.
Cluff: He needed stunt guys for his thesis, and I just wanted to get involved. I had recently been on the show “Wipeout” on ABC, and I won my episode. “Super Shorts, Travis Cluff.”
Lofing: Season two!
Cluff: And I was pretty sure that I was a professional stunt man, and I told him that I would help him do stunts, or whatever, and that I’d gleam whatever information I could from him. And i was so impressed by his drive and determination at such a young age that I just had to know more about him, and we became friends.
And [to Cluff] you had your own stuff?
Cluff: Yeah, I had my own little bits and pieces and things, but I needed to learn a lot. And he taught me a lot of stuff, which was very helpful in me getting better at the technical side of things. We have a lot of creative ideas between us, but he was really strong in the technical, and the how-to of filmmaking, but I was really strong in the marketing, and what society, the social sides of it to how people will respond in certain ways to certain things. And that really worked out.
Lofing: He’s an idea guy, he’s always got ideas.
Cluff: And in 2011, we formed out company, Tremendum Pictures. “Tremendum” means a feeling of awe, associated with an overwhelming experience.
Lofing: How fitting!
When did you guys decide that you would be writing/directing The Gallows together?
Cluff: I think from the beginning we just discussed the concept and just went all the way through with it.
The Gallows is now in wide release.