Interview: Jeremy Gardner and Christian Stella on Dancing with Darkness in “After Midnight”

In 2012, Jeremy Gardner and Christian Stella had embarked on the festival circuit with “The Battery,” a scrappy and inventive thriller that gave new meaning to the undead as a former pitcher and catcher had to relearn to trust one another in a completely new context when faced with an onslaught of zombies. It was one of the great discoveries of the past decade as audiences at genre havens such as Imagine in the Netherlands and Toronto After Dark would come to find out, and as it happened, the film would cross paths often with “Resolution,” Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson’s similarly innovative existential horror film. It made sense that the two pairs of filmmakers would become friends, to the point where they exchanged scripts for what they both intended to be their next projects.

“It was this weird thing where they were writing the same thing at the exact same time and [when] they literally just traded scripts, [we both] were like, ‘Why did we both write a romantic monster movie?’” recalls Stella, with Gardner handing over his script for “After Midnight” while Moorhead and Benson gave him a copy of “Spring.” “And that’s something that’s really cool about Justin, Aaron and Dave [Lawson, their producing partner] is that even years after ‘Spring’ got made, they had this opportunity to produce a movie and when they said, ‘What movie do we want to produce?’ they went back and decided this was it, even though it touches on themes that they touched on in the past.”

Now, it seems as if these filmmakers who look to cracks in the universe were bound to be caught up in some great cosmic joke themselves, but even if they had coincidentally stumbled upon a similar premise, you could be sure that the wildly original auteurs surely would cover different territory. And as it would turn out, while Moorhead and Benson’s unconventional love story “Spring” would be released in great acclaim in 2014, telling of the lingering presence of an ill-fated romance manifesting itself into something physical and sinister, there’s poetry in how the two could reverse-engineer that behind the scenes to turn Gardner’s dream of making a film about being haunted by the end of a long-term relationship into a reality.

“After Midnight” was well worth the wait, a bewitching drama that may have a looming threat knocking at the door of Hank (Gardner), who has barricaded himself inside his house and loaded up his shotgun for protection, but fears most what he’s already let inside as he has all the time in the world now to contemplate the end of things with his longtime love Abby (Brea Grant). Like “The Battery,” Gardner finds both the sadness and humor in his protagonist’s isolation, some of which is self-created and only amplified by the anxieties of having a supernatural foe around, and concocts with Stella, the film’s cinematographer as well as co-director, an unusual rhythm where the desperation of the situation and the odd behavior it elicits are really allowed to sink in, becoming utterly unpredictable as a result.

Following a festival run that began last year at Tribeca and carried onto Fantastic Fest and Sitges, Gardner and Stella were kind enough to jump on the phone to talk about “After Midnight,” fulfilling the promise of a film that had been in mind for the better part of a decade and how they maintain the rough edges that give their work such personality while growing into stronger filmmakers.

How did this come about?

Christian Stella: Since we released “The Battery” eight years ago, we’ve been trying to get this movie off the ground. Jeremy wrote the script shortly after we made “The Battery” and it was always threatening to get made. In fact, we were trying to get this made for about two years and because when you have a great script like the one Jeremy wrote, it’s hard to move on and write more scripts, when we got tired, we just said, “Let’s go back into the woods where we shot ‘The Battery’ and make another movie for no money,” and we made ”Tex Montana Will Survive” that cost $1500 and we did it in five days. We came up with the idea a week before we shot it and it was really just out of frustration with trying to get this thing off the ground.

There’s a lot of filmmakers around us that can [put their energy into more than one project at a time] and we’re always envious of them because it’s like how do you put your baby aside and move on to something entirely different just because it’s stuck in a kind of purgatory, but it did help that along the way, there were a lot of producers and filmmakers [that thought] this script is really good. Everybody wanted to make it, but it finally took Dave Lawson and Rustic Films and Justin and Aaron to actually get it made after eight years.

In the great making-of doc that’s on “The Battery” Blu-ray, Christian says he was no fan of zombies, or particularly of genre elements in general – do you balance each other out when working on the script?

Jeremy Gardner: All of the romance stuff [in “After Midnight”] was already on the page. It’s more than [Christian] will pull back the reins on some of my more genre-element heavy moments, especially on “The Battery,” the zombie movie we did, he’ll peel back a lot of the stuff that was on the nose or cliche heavy and refocus it on the characters. I always know that once Christian gets a hold of it, some of that extra layer of whipped cream and cherries of the genre stuff is going to be peel ed back a little bit so it’s going to be more natural.

Christian Stella: We’d probably be more successful if I didn’t do that. [laughs] There was a scene in “The Battery” where you were nailing nails into a baseball bat to bash into zombies’ heads and it’s like those things where it’s like, “No, I’ve seen that in a movie, let’s not do that.”

Jeremy Gardner: Yeah, you fuck it all up. [laughs]

It’s probably what makes your work so distinctive. Another element is how you’ll film without coverage and include these long, straightforward takes. Was that something that grew out of necessity?

Christian Stella: It was half an accident on “The Battery” because at the time, Jeremy was [into] “Children of Men” with long takes, and I was like, “That’s really cool, but we don’t have steadicams, so we’re going to have to do that with just a locked-down camera.” Then a lot of it was I didn’t know how to film a movie back then. I was just a photographer, so I looked at everything as a photograph. On “After Midnight,” it was actually harder because it was like okay, what made “The Battery” special and how can I tap back into that now that I know more tricks?

Jeremy Gardner: Yeah, I like the idea of having things play out in front of the camera and having the actors move around in one shot – there’s some of that in early Jim Jarmusch – and part of it was just a learning curve. On “After Midnight,” that monologue sequence in the middle was always intended to just be a locked box where you’re just watching two actors act. I’ve always liked that stuff, but I have been telling Christian, we need to get a little more dynamic in the future, maybe use some of these tricks that have become our aesthetic more sparingly because we need to move the damn camera!

Christian Stella: I agree! I agree. [laughs]

Because of the facial hair situation for Jeremy’s character Hank where in the present he’s got an apocalypse beard but is clean-shaven in the past, did you need to structure the shoot a certain way and did it affect the performance?

Jeremy Gardner: That turned out to be really, really tough for me because I have had a beard for years, so I was very self-conscious about shaving it, so we filmed everything [in the present] and then I shaved and then we did all of the flashbacks, and of course [that’s when] I had to be the most romantic with Brea when I was at my least confident, so that was really unfortunate. Luckily, the way we structured it, because it was the last days of the shoot, we had been hanging out together, getting to know each other for the entire shoot up until that point, so it made everything much more comfortable, but I did look like a walking thumb and everybody made fun of me. [laughs]

Something I’ve always lived about your films are the soundtracks. How did this one come together?

Jeremy Gardner: Originally, I had in mind from the beginning that I wanted to bring on The Parlor, who had given us some songs for “The Battery.” We had gone up and stayed at their haunted ghost farm where they live and record all of their albums in and I really wanted them to score it because they’re a married couple and I thought it would be interesting to have a score that was written by a couple. Then The Hummingbirds, the band that played in the movie [ad a bar band], are a local band down here in Florida that played at a brewery I worked at a couple times and they’re married as well, so we have literally two different married couple bands for the backbone of the whole score.

Christian Stella: “The Battery” has a lot more songs in it and they’re onscreen a lot longer, but we wanted to keep some of that indie song feel without feeling like a music video, so hiring a band to do the score was a way to keep that in the movie.

Given how long you’ve carried this with you, what’s it been like bringing this out into the world?

Jeremy Gardner: I’m always so humbled and amazed by the audience reactions to our stuff because it always feels so personal and so strange. In a lot of ways, [“After Midnight”] feels different and smaller than I think a lot of people are expecting, but then it just gets embraced no matter where we are. Fantastic Fest and Switzerland, Mexico…the audience has just been really responsive to it, and hopefully that comes from us staying true to ourselves and having a personal stake in all the weird, quirky stuff we do. Even if it’s strange, if it’s from our gut and our heart, and I think people are responding to that.

“After Midnight” opens on February 14th in Los Angeles at the Arena Cinelounge, Seattle at SIFF Cinema and Orlando, Florida at the Barnstorm Theater. A full list of theaters and dates is here. It will be available on iTunes, Amazon, Fandango Now and Vudu.

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