Six years ago, Chris Lofing graduated from Beatrice High School, an aspiring filmmaker who’d shot small movies and football games and was primed to go immediately to Hollywood to start his movie-making career.
Friday, Lofing will see his debut feature, “The Gallows,” which he co-wrote, co-directed, co-produced and edited, open in thousands of theaters across the country.
So how does a kid from Beatrice get a movie made and distributed by Warner Brothers just six years after he graduated from high school?
Lofing got on a speakerphone with his partner Travis Cluff to tell that story last week as the duo were doing interviews about and attending premieres for their high school horror picture.
“I graduated in 2009,” Lofing said. “I moved right after that to L.A., and I attended the New York Film Academy, the Los Angeles branch of it. I got a grant there -- the Brett Ratner grant -- which covered enough so I could attend there a year. When it came time to make my thesis film, people told me I should go to Fresno to shoot it, that I’d probably get locations and permits for free.”
In Fresno, Lofing met Cluff, who’d won on an episode of the TV show “Wipeout,” taking in $50,000 and rekindling his interest in working in the entertainment industry.
“When I heard this kid was coming up to Fresno where I lived and needed a stunt guy, I said, ‘I’m a professional stunt guy. I’ve won ‘Wipeout,’” Cluff said. “I knew this kid was driven and would go places.”
Cluff attended the premiere of “Cross,” Lofing’s short film, on the Warner Brothers Studios back lot. The pair decided to form a partnership they call Tremendum Pictures, and Lofing moved to Fresno to begin working on their first film.
The duo took an old story told by Lofing’s dad about the accidental hanging of the lead actor during a school play and adapted it into a script, drawing on John Hughes' films like “The Breakfast Club” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” to create high school characters and settings.
The four primary characters are Ryan, an obnoxious jock who is filming the play -- and everything around it; Cassidy, Ryan’s cheerleader girlfriend; Reese, a jock who has quit the football team to take part in the play; and Pfeifer, the school’s drama queen and Reese’s co-star in the play.
“We took those characters and added scares, intensity and suspense on top of a good story,” Lofing said. “I think that’s why it ended up in the hands of Warner Brothers and New Line Cinema.”
Lofing and Cluff shot a 2-minute trailer in 2011 for “The Gallows,” in part to see how the picture might look and in part to raise money to finish the movie. The trailer, which the duo put up online, found its way to veteran producer Jason Blum, whose Blumhouse Productions has turned micro-budgeted pictures like “Paranormal Activity” and “Insidious” into box office gold.
The partnership with Blumhouse sent “The Gallows” on its way to Warner Brothers.
“‘The Gallows' is really the first movie we’ve done since ‘Paranormal Activity’ that has the same DNA -- that homemade ‘I can do that’ look, which to be honest, few people really can do,” Blum says in the film’s press notes. “We must see about a thousand attempts a year, but ‘The Gallows’ was unique in that not only did they do it themselves, but it worked.”
The homemade look comes, in part, because Lofing and Cluff utilized the “found-footage” technique first popularized in “The Blair Witch Project” to shoot their film. With Ryan primarily acting as cameraman, the film looks like it was shot by a small video camera and, in places, cellphones.
“We’d thought about doing found footage really early,” Lofing said. “We had no money. We knew it was something we could do cheaply. The ‘Paranormal Activity’ thing was just reaching its peak when we were starting, the third or fourth one. We thought we could do something to breathe new life into that. We could do something with a new, fresh idea that could reinvigorate the genre.”
Casting L.A. actors and bringing them to Fresno and shooting “night for night” in an old auditorium, Lofing and Cluff shot the picture from mid-December of 2011 to Jan. 13, 2012 -- a Friday the 13th that happened to be the 13th day of filming.
That was the day they shot the movie’s opening scene -- the 1993 original version of the play, during which ‘Charlie,’ the main character, is hanged. They’d gathered an auditorium full of extras to watch the play and be filmed along with the actors on stage.
“We had completely convinced our audience that Charlie was going to get away,” Cluff said. “ The same with the stage actors. Basically, we tricked everybody, and no one knew what was going to happen. We got some really good, honest reactions. “
Lofing edited the picture during the summer of 2013, and a few additional scenes were shot and inserted then. Then came months of additional editing and what Lofing called ‘covering up’ -- using digital tricks to make the film look right. But he was quick to point out there is no major CGI used in the picture, and all the actors did their own stunts.
It appears on screen that the picture was shot in Beatrice. Which is sort of true.
“We actually shot several scenes in Beatrice in 2012 for the first cut of our film,” Lofing said. “When Blumhouse came on board, ultimately, those scenes got cut. The sign you see in the movie was actually shot in Fresno and then CGI was put on it. But it looks really good, and some people think it was shot in Beatrice.”
The Beatrice scenes, however, aren’t gone for good. Lofing said when the DVD and Blu-ray versions of “The Gallows” are released, they’ll include the first cut of the movie along with the final version. The first cut includes scenes shot in Beatrice, including some with Beatrice police.
While the film doesn’t include any real views of Beatrice, it definitely draws on Lofing’s high school experience there.
“I was involved with a lot of plays and musicals in school,” he said. “There were a couple girls I knew that were drama queens, one was a control freak, everything had to be perfect. Don’t move that prop, all of that stuff. I definitely looked to them for inspiration when I was writing Pfeifer. I’m not naming names. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. But some people might not take it the right way.”
Beatrice also figures into the film in a psychological fashion, Cluff said.
“There’s something about the thought of a Beatrice High School,” he said. “You don’t think something that horrifying could happen there and it does. And because it’s in a small town, it has a bigger impact.”
As the interview wound down, I asked Lofing if he’d expected to have a movie in thousands of theaters just six years after he left Beatrice. But Cluff jumped in first.
“I’m going to answer that question,” he said. “Chris’ mom is in the room, and she’s nodding her head yes. He’d said, ‘I want to have a movie in the theaters within five years of graduation.' He basically did it through hard work and determination. You don’t have to know everything. If you work hard, things will unravel your way, and the stars will align. For us, the stars in a different universe aligned. Chris is a tremendous talent. I’m thrilled to be working with him.”