Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Interview with THE BATTERY director Jeremy Gardner!!

Every so often, horror fans encounter an independent venture that make us want to collectively stand up and cheer. Writer/star Jeremy Gardner’s directorial debut, The Battery (debuting Sept 16, 2014 on Blu-ray from Shout! Factory) is one of those films.

Forget the zombie trappings. Forget that it was made for $6K. Forget that it contains no major stars or studio backing or that you probably never heard of it before it started showing up on everyone’s “Best of 2013” lists. Just watch and revel in the breathtaking creativity, intelligence, resilience and filmmaking savvy on display. The Battery is the kind of microbudget horror effort that provides as much offscreen inspiration as it does onscreen entertainment.

Ben (Gardner) and Mickey (Adam Cronheim) are two former professional baseball players surviving the eponymous zombie outbreak by existing on the outskirts of New England. They stay off the main roads and never sleep indoors. They fish and hunt and gather for food. But in spite of their common cause, these two weary travelers couldn’t be less alike. Ben is a slovenly, bearded, earthy and practical sort whereas Mickey is sensitive and lonely, taking sonic refuge in his ever-present CD player and headphones to retain a sense of normalcy. Though teammates, the two were never “friends” before the world fell apart; they stick together now more out of habit and because companion choices are, well, limited.  This odd couple drifts across the countryside, occasionally dealing with the undead but more often simply passing the time with conversation about what was, what is, and where their next destination will be (which, since Ben never believes in staying anywhere more than a day, is a constant). But then one day the duo finds an abandoned walkie-talkie with disembodied voices emanating from “The Orchard,” a discovery that will have unexpected consequences.

The practice of independent horror filmmakers taking to the woods is nothing new – fewer permits required and production values automatically boosted – but thanks to Gardner’s insightful observations about human interaction, what goes spoken and unspoken between our two main characters provides much more food for thought than the average undead fare.  From a removed critical viewpoint, all we’re looking at is two guys wandering through various isolated locales. But within the context of the story, this isolation speaks to the chasm between individuals and society as a whole.  

Brainless thrills are few and far between, with the zombies kept to the margins, more atmosphere than antagonists.  Ryan Winford’s original score provides a terrific moody bed within to couch the haunting or benign visuals, punctuated by a blend of evocative songs piped through Mickey’s headphones. In the same manner, DP Christian Stella utilizes an instinctive sense for sustaining an image or shot, with co-editors Alicia Stella and Michael Katzman embracing the non-ADD aesthetic.  The approach, as it turns out, yields a more effective breed of tension than a dozen Hollywood flutter-cut action sequences.

On the eve of the film’s October screening at the prestigious Sitges Film Festival, I spoke with Gardner to discuss inspiration, collaboration, and the mother of invention.  (*portions of this interview originally appeared in HorrorHound #44)

Aaron Christensen:  I know you’ve told this story on the Battery website (, but tell us about the means by which you developed the idea and then set about raising funds for the film.  It’s a rather inspiring tale.

Jeremy Gardner:  Well, the idea began as an audition video I made for a website that was casting a horror feature. I didn’t want to do a straight monologue to camera, so I ended up making a little three-minute short about two friends documenting their day-to-day life in a post-apocalyptic, zombie-infested world. I actually thought it was quite the clever little short, and I am still in the process of trying to track down the original file. Needless to say, I was not cast in what ultimately became Perkins’ 14, but I couldn’t get the idea of two buddies just sort of living their lives after such a catastrophe. There was something interesting about approaching the subject in a more laid-back manner. I didn’t think the genre had to be so kinetic and constantly moving, I imagined there would be a hell of a lot more down time than is usually depicted in zombie movies and I was interested in exploring that kind of clock-less monotony.

Once I started developing the script, I knew I wanted to make it for an insanely small amount of money, so the budget actually helped inform the writing. I knew it would be cheap to film in the woods, with very few actors, and so that made story sense as well. If the world is infested with zombies, there are going to be more of them where the majority of the population lived, so any smart survivor is going to stay as rural as possible. That revelation also helped inform the look of the movie, because then you are surrounding yourself with all this beautiful greenery, and immediately you have a very lush zombie movie instead of your classic, burned-out, gray urban wasteland. 

As far as actually raising the money, I just asked ten friends for $600 apiece in exchange for a small stake in the film. I didn’t want any one person to lose too much if the movie failed. Luckily, I have generous friends. 

AC: Did you write the parts with yourself and Adam in mind?

JG:  I was always going to play Ben. I was an actor before I ever had aspirations as a filmmaker. Adam, however, came into the process very late. A month before we were to shoot, I still hadn’t cast Mickey.  Christian, my best friend and DP, threatened to pull out if I didn’t cast someone immediately. Coincidentally, one of the friends who invested told me he knew a guy who played baseball in college, blown out his arm, and turned to acting. It was ridiculous that he hadn’t mentioned him before! I met with Adam and basically just gave him the role. There was no audition process; I actually just went to a park with him and we brought our mitts, and he very clearly knew his way around a baseball. That was actually very important to me. I didn’t want to get saddled with an Anthony Perkins in Fear Strikes Out, where the guy looks like he doesn’t know whether to throw the baseball or bite it like an apple. So, we played catch, talked about my vision for the movie and his role, and that was it. 

AC: Why baseball players?

JG: I love baseball so much.  It is strange because my love for the game is at odds with a lot of my geek sensibilities; I find myself having to defend or explain that element of the movie a lot to horror writers and fans. But it is such a romantic game, so perfectly designed. Part of it was my desire to play a baseball player. Another was it seemed an obvious way to make them two different people who have to rely on one another. A pitcher and a catcher, a finesse position and a brute position. The battery is an old-timers baseball term for the tandem of those two players. The pitcher and the catcher are the battery of a baseball team.  

AC: Your approach to the overcrowded zombie genre was to keep the undead in the periphery - were you ever concerned that viewers would be put off by this approach?
JG:  Of course. Taking the one thing that makes a zombie movie a zombie movie—the zombies—and purposely putting them on the fringes is risky. But I was very committed to making a genre movie about the characters. I repeatedly told everyone to trust me, that the gatekeepers and taste-makers of the horror world would understand what we were trying to do. I felt very confident that genre fans would appreciate a movie where they actually cared about the people more than the monsters.  We had to keep reminding ourselves that that was our goal, especially during the edit, where we actually cut about four or five more featured zombies from the movie for one reason or another.

AC: The eclectic songs become almost chapter headings, or even characters unto themselves.  Can you talk about the process of choosing the tunes and where they were placed throughout the film?  (

JG: Well, I have been a fan of the Canadian folk-rock outfit Rock Plaza Central for years, so when we cut together a pre-production locations video, we put a couple of their songs in just to spice it up. The lead singer, Chris Eaton saw the video on Twitter and thought it was cool and actually tweeted at me asking whether we planned to use the music in the film as well. It really wasn’t something that occurred to me as possible. I always thought getting music clearance for such a low budget movie would be next to impossible. But he was all about it and put us in touch with his label in the U.S. and they were so generous. We told them how small we were and they gave us the rights to the songs for next to nothing

That really opened up a motif that I hadn’t actually thought to explore, which was to use Mickey’s headphones to score the film. It made so much sense, to help put the audience in his head. There was initially some resistance to using songs because it was thought that the sound of human voices singing would make the film less lonely, but I honestly can’t imagine the movie without the music. It really is a third character. Chris Eaton put us in touch with Jen and Eric of The Parlor, and they just gave us their songs. As did El Cantador and Sun Hotel, who Christian knew from Florida. Wise Blood was a friend of Adam’s from college.  Once we hit on the idea of using his music, it really pulled it all together, his electro-hip-hop-pop style is at such odds with the visuals that it creates this beautiful, jarring, juxtaposition. I can’t speak highly enough of the bands and artists and their generosity. It is truly amazing to be able to collaborate across different disciplines and help each other out. Their art made ours so much better. I hope everyone who loves the music goes and buys it all. We only scratched the surface of the incredible songs in their catalogs.

There's one specific anecdote about the Rock Plaza song my character dances and sings to, "Anthem For the Already Defeated." I had written it into the script after we started talking with Chris Eaton. But our relationship was very nascent, so I didn’t tell him for months that I actually sing the song on screen. I was afraid it would be something that could be leveraged against us for more money (which we didn’t have). We originally intended to film a version of the scene where I just dance and don’t sing so that we could replace the song. But we were in the middle of the woods in the middle of the night, and it was so very dark. Finally we just said forget it and took the chance that we would get the rights squared away. I was also very nervous for Chris Eaton to see the scene—remember, I have been a huge fan of this band for years, I’ve seen them half a dozen times in concert, and here one of my favorite artists is going to watch me butcher his song on screen.  But his only comment on the scene was, “I think you need to turn Jeremy’s vocals up!” It was a great relief.

AC:  I’m assuming you were shooting fairly locally, but there’s also the idea that maybe you took the whole show on the road, just like the characters.

JG:  Originally I wanted to shoot as close to my home base in Norwalk, CT, as possible. It was in keeping with the minuscule budget if we could sleep in our own beds at night.  But one of our producers, Doug Plomitallo, kept suggesting the town of Kent, CT, and this old abandoned Girl Scout camp he knew of.  It was about two hours away and we would have had to find lodging up there, so I nixed the idea. Then he and I went in these wider and wider concentric circles around Norwalk, scouting for anything close, until finally I agreed to go check out Kent. Needless to say, within five minutes of setting foot in Camp Francis, there was no question: We were going to shoot up there. There were so many overgrown buildings and the pace of the town and the locals was much friendlier and slower than the cluster of commuters on I-95 where I live. It was just a huge get. He was absolutely right about the place and it is a very big reason the movie has the look I was after.

AC: How did Larry Fessenden get involved?  I'm a huge fan, and it was fun to see his name pop up in the credits.
JG: I kind of feel bad about how I was able to get Larry. When I was originally still trying to decide how to get the money for the film, I read a lot of interviews with him. He was very inspiring about not making excuses and just deciding to make your film. I also read an anecdote that Ti West had bugged his film school teacher until she gave him Larry’s number. I didn’t have his number, but I did find his email address, and to his credit, he kept responding to my little queries over about a year or two years. At one point, I asked him to play a role in the film; amazingly, he agreed, but by the time he was available we would have already been finished, so we ended up casting someone else. He was completely gracious and told me the scene was great and wished me good luck. The only other capacity I could think to keep him involved was to be the voice of the mysterious Frank on the radio. He recorded it all in his house and sent me the files. That guy is such a badass. What is truly amazing is that he is absolutely the champion of  indie film that everyone thinks he is. I have no track record as a filmmaker. For all he knew, we could have been making the worst, most clichéd, friends-goofing-off zombie movie, but he still recorded the voiceover and signed a release. He was willing to let his name pop up in the credits of whatever the hell it was we were making. That’s awesome.

AC:  There’s a real sense of disconnectedness – one that few survival films accomplish – by keeping your and Adam’s characters isolated from any other human characters.  Even more frustrating (for Mickey, at least) is the fact that when they do have communication, the other survivors don’t want to connect with them.

JG:  Again, I don’t know that my intention to shoot on a specific budget and my intention for tone and story will ever inform each other as much as they did here. It just takes too long and costs too much to have more than two lead actors.  Because of that, I knew I was going to make a movie injected with real loneliness and a sense of detachment. The one thing I hadn’t seen done very well in zombie movies was a real psychological study. That was the impetus: to watch the way two very different personalities deal with such a massive upheaval of everything they’ve come to know. It was fun to be able to go in both directions with the script. To explore the mind of a man whose playing days were probably done and who was on the verge of having to get a real job be freed from those responsibilities, and watch him go feral and revert to a very primal way of dealing with life. At the same time, explore someone who absolutely cannot let go of the creature comforts he has grown accustomed to, someone who refuses to accept that the world is irrevocably changed. There wasn’t really a need for there to be more than those two people.  The budget informed the story, the story reinforced the budget. 

AC:  Continuing with the theme of isolation, talk about the inspiration for Mickey’s headphones.

JG:  The headphones just seemed like a very obvious way for someone to escape a reality they weren’t comfortable with. These days, we all check out and remove ourselves with technology. I loved the idea that it would have to be a CD Walkman instead of an iPod because it would be easier to find new batteries for it than to charge an ipod. Of course the second we put a trailer up for the movie, people were leaving comments about how hipster and stupid we were for having a character wear headphones in a zombie movie, what an asinine and dangerous thing that is. As if we weren’t going to explore that notion in the film.

AC: How much improvisation took place and/or how close did you stick to the script?

JG:  I had lived with the script for the better part of two years, so I knew it front to back. And, although I’ve done a fair amount of theater, I have always felt more alive in a role when the script is just a guideline for finding something interesting in the moment. Adam only had the script for a month, so every night after the day’s shoot, while we were back at the cottages having a beer and watching rushes, he was pacing in his room, poring over the next day’s scenes. I would say the majority of what is there is scripted, but I was always trying to poke Adam out of his comfort zone and force him to follow me off-book. To his credit, he always went with it whenever I took it in a different direction, but because he had so little time to prepare, most of what is there was on the page.

Most of the ad-libbing that made the cut are the tags on the ends of scenes that I can’t help but throw in. “Fuck you, sir. Fuck you to death.” and “Let’s go steal some of your dead girlfriend’s blankets.”  Those are products of me letting the scene keep going after the page. The biggest one is probably the scene where we are playing catch and I do a funky dance.  That scene was originally a long dialogue scene where I tell Mickey to cheer up and we can start our own Orchard and only let pretty girls in and blah blah blah.  It didn’t feel natural in the moment, so I just did a weird dance instead.

AC:  What was the biggest challenge for you directing and performing on camera at the same time?  Did you do a lot of retakes after looking at playback or are these mostly first takes?

JG:  Strangely, acting and directing wasn’t nearly as difficult as it should have been, but I credit all that to Christian, my DP. Nothing on this film works without him. I tell him what I want and he makes it happen. I am a pretty good judge of knowing whether the performance was where I wanted it to be; if there is something I could have done better or differently, I’ll call to keep rolling or do another take. If there was something that I wanted to tease out of Adam, I could sometimes tweak what I was doing to get him to follow me in a slightly different way. The harder part of the process was dealing with the piddly shit that a director/actor doesn’t have to deal on a typical set. Because we were only five people on set every day, things like getting coffee and making sure everyone ate something were the biggest distractions.

AC:  How did you and Christian end up collaborating on this project?  I’m assuming your editor Alicia Stella is somehow related?  And who is Elise Stella, your production manager and “fresh slut zombie?

JG:  Christian has been my best friend for years. He is an incredible writer in his own right, but he makes and photographs cookbooks for a living. When I told him I wanted to do this he broke down and decided he would by the Canon 5D so that he could do his food photography and shoot the movie with it. He is one of these guys who decides to learn things and completely dominates them. He knew exactly what I was trying to achieve with wide open green spaces and the unbroken takes. He also color-graded the entire thing, and when we weren’t able to find a sound mixer we could afford, he learned how to do that too. He is a one-man crew, and I love him. 

Alicia Stella is his sister, and an incredible editor. She and her boyfriend Michael put in these marathon editing sessions; they really made it a lot easier to cut things I didn’t think we could afford to lose. They were looking at it with fresh eyes and hadn’t grown attached to scenes because they weren’t on set filming them. Elise is Christian’s wife. She plays Mickey’s zombie fetish in the big masturbation scene, but she was also Christian’s assistant, handing him lenses and equipment when he needed it. She was also on set every day logging shots, supervising the script, etc. 

AC: I’m sure you’ve heard people asking you about a sequel, but I actually prefer the open-endedness that you’ve got right now.  What do you think is beneath the state of fandom today that is so attached to follow-ups?

JG:  I think the desire for sequels, at least from a fan standpoint, is always genuine. The studios see a way to milk money from a built-in base, but the fans just want to live in a world they love a little longer. I see nothing wrong with that, and there are certainly ways sequels can be done that do justice to the first film; unfortunately most of the time they don’t turn out that way. Jurassic Park was the movie that made me want to be involved in movies. It was the first film that awed me in a way I couldn’t understand, and it was at the same time that I was just starting to peek behind the curtain and hear how movies were made. So when The Lost World was announced, I could not wait to be in that world again, with those characters again. Whether it worked entirely is a different conversation, but the idea of getting to go back to a place you loved is the beautiful thing about sequels.

I am completely happy with the open-ended finality of The Battery. But I am not at all opposed to going back to that world. Just because I would like to see Ben again, and find out what The Orchard is, and learn more about Annie and Frank. But I would be very careful, if I were to ever entertain the idea, that same sensibilities were applied to The Orchard. I’m not interested in making a $10 million sequel.  I would want it to be intimate in a similar way. However, that might be something that annoys the fans; it’s never a win-win. 

AC:  What has it been like seeing the film at the various festival screenings?  Seems like the reception has been universally positive and you’ve been accepted into some of the most prestigious festivals in the world.  Not bad for a first feature and a $6,000 one at that!

JG:  The festival run has been unbelievable. Winning the same award at Imagine in Amsterdam as Silence of the Lambs, Donnie Darko, and From Dusk Till Dawn is unimaginable.  Seeing the crowd on their feet in Scotland at Dead by Dawn. Going to Brazil and Mexico City.  I left the country for the first time only five years ago; now my passport is nearly full!  The most amazing thing has been the universal love at all of these festivals from the audience, despite the language barrier and the baseball element and the lack of zombies. Horror fans that attend these festivals don’t just want bashing heads and splattering blood; they have really responded to the characters. It’s been such a rewarding and vindicating experience.

AC: Finally, that dreaded question:  What’s up next?  More horror?  Bigger budget?

JG:  I am writing a monster movie right now. We’re aiming for a slightly bigger budget, but it’s still more about the people than the monster. It’s a monster movie that’s more about marriage. I’ve also got a long-percolating script about a man who falls in love with a ten-foot king cobra.  I love horror, so I want to keep making character-focused genre movies. But I also really want to make some dark, ridiculous, absurdist, Jody Hill-type movie comedy like Foot Fist Way. We’ll see what happens.

The Battery arrives on DVD and BR from Shout! Factory on Sept 16, 2014 and can be pre-ordered HERE.

--Aaron Christensen, HorrorHound Magazine

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