Fresno filmmakers Chris Lofing and Travis Cluff call their production company Tremendum Pictures — meaning “a feeling of awe associated with an overwhelming experience.” It’s an apt way to describe what has happened with their extremely low-budget feature film, “The Gallows.”
“That’s what this entire process has been for us,” Cluff says. “And that’s what we hope our movies will be for people.”
Because their movie is being distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures for release on July 10, the pair are getting attention from around the globe. Two weeks before the movie’s release, they joined the four stars of the film — Pfeifer Brown, Cassidy Gifford, Reese Mishler and Ryan Shoos for a film junket with domestic and international press at Hollywood High School.
Before the interviews started, Cluff joked that the publicity event cost more than their entire filming budget. They shot “The Gallows” for approximately $100,000.
After spending days talking to the press in Los Angeles, the pair were back in Fresno — with the film’s four stars — for a red-carpet premiere where Mayor Ashley Swearengin declared June 30 to be “The Gallows Day.” The movie was screened for family and friends, who packed two theaters at the Maya Cinemas Fresno 16.
Life’s made a 180-degree turn for the filmmakers. A few years ago, Cluff, who has lived in Fresno for the past 20 years, was left in such financial strain by a Ponzi scheme that he went on the ABC competition show “Wipeout” to win enough money to stay afloat. The $50,000 he won helped, but he was still in a financial hole.
Lofing was a struggling film student at the New York Film Academy in Los Angeles who came to Fresno to shoot his film school thesis because it was cheaper here than in Southern California. Cluff wanted to be part of Lofing’s project and that’s how the pair met.
“My first question to him was, ‘How old are you?’ He was 19 at the time. It wasn’t so much that he looked young, but he was the guy telling everyone where to go, what to do,” Cluff says. “I was so impressed with his drive and focus.”
Lofing says that Cluff didn’t have a lot of technical knowledge of filmmaking, having never attended film school.
“What he did have was such a creative mind. He’s always thinking of new ideas,” Lofing says. “That’s awesome because it gives us so many choices when we are thinking about what we are going to film next.”
After Lofing filmed his thesis, Cluff managed to talk him into moving to Fresno to share the condominium where he lives with his wife and two children. They did odd jobs to pay the bills while getting their movie made and sold.
Four years ago, the pair managed to persuade enough local investors to put up the money to shoot a trailer for a horror film they had written. The movie would be based on stories Lofing heard while growing up in the small town of Beatrice, Nebraska, about a student who died during a high school play production.
They used the next batch of money they raised to shoot “The Gallows” at the Fresno Veterans Memorial Auditorium. The film looks at a Nebraska high school planning to put on the same play in which a high school student died 20 years ago. Efforts to sabotage the production leave four students locked in a darkened school. They are not alone.
The entire movie was shot in and around Fresno. Along with the Veterans building that served as the primary location, scenes were shot at Warnors Theatre, Madera high schools and in Selma.
“We decided to put the trailer from the film online just to see what would happen,” Lofing says.
The film caught the attention of Dean Schnider with Los Angeles-based Management 360.
“I was looking on YouTube and a couple of different blogs and I ended up seeing about a minute of footage these guys shot and I just thought it was incredible. It was scary. It was bold. it was strange,” Schnider says. “I ended up just calling them up.”
The filmmakers showed Schnider more footage and he was so impressed, Schnider brought the film to the attention of Blumhouse Productions, a production company behind such scary films as “Paranormal Activity,” “Insidious: Chapter 3,” “Ouija” and “The Lazarus Effect.” After the company did a test market screening with 100 high-school-age moviegoers, they agreed to invest in the project.
Jason Blum, CEO of Blumhouse Productions, told the filmmakers that their movie was good enough to make money through Video on Demand, Netflix or other digital releases. He gave them the option to re-shoot some scenes to take the movie to a higher level.
“We knew it would be a lot of hard work, but only thought about that for a second. We had told our investors that we wanted to go worldwide with the movie. We told our actors we wanted the movie to be big so they could be successful,” Cluff says. “We also wanted that for ourselves and our families and for the community.”
Putting together the cast
The filmmakers were happy to use locals as extras in the movie, but they wanted to find four unknown actors for the lead roles. With the assistance of Fresno casting agent Carollyn DeVore, they held auditions in Los Angeles where they auditioned 200 actors in one day.
“The Gallows” is shot in the style of “The Blair Witch Project” so that it looks like footage discovered after an incident. The filmmakers liked the idea of unknown actors as a way of making the movie seem more realistic.
It was during the marathon casting session that they found Brown, Mishler, Shoos and an actress they would not identify. The actors made several trips to Fresno for the original shoot and the additional filming.
“We all loved coming back to Fresno,” Mishler says. “As soon as we would get the call about more filming, we would jump in the car and head back. The people of Fresno were just so kind and friendly.”
The actors got another call to come back to Fresno after the filmmakers were given more money. There was one big problem.
“One of the actresses had lost 40 pounds since we shot the first movie,” Lofing says. “We couldn’t ask her to put back on the 40 pounds. So we went from re-shooting about 40%-50% of the movie to about 80%.”
When the pair went back to shoot, they knew they had to find a replacement because there was no way to match the previous footage with new material filmed with the thinner actress. They initially balked when Cassidy Gifford was suggested because of her famous parents, Frank and Kathie Lee Gifford.
But, after meeting with Gifford, they knew she was right for the film
Location, location, location
The right cast would have meant nothing as filming of “The Gallows” almost ended before it started.
Originally, the movie was to be shot at Royce Hall on the campus of Fresno High School. They got the OK five months before the filming was to start to shoot during Christmas break. All of the preliminary work was done to make sure the facility met safety standards and the requirements of the insurance company.
“Two weeks prior to filming we got a call from someone we had never heard of before, telling us, ‘We regret to inform you that you are unable to use the facility.’ They really didn’t give us a reason,” Cluff says. “I went nuts. I went down and showed them the trailer. We told them we were trying to make a serious movie.”
Efforts to stay at Fresno High — including offering the school a $10,000 scholarship for the drama or film departments — failed and they immediately started looking for a new location. The Veterans Memorial Auditorium had been scouted but the filmmakers weren’t certain it looked enough like a high school to suit their needs.
Those concerns were set aside out of necessity.
“The first film we shot didn’t have a single scene shot in a high school,” Lofing says.
Once they got the additional money, scenes — including one on a high school football field — were shot in Madera and Selma. Both filmmakers praise all of the local help they got to find locations.
The plan by the filmmakers was to make the killer in their movie the next iconic horror film character. It was a promise they made to investors. But they won’t know until the movie opens and it makes enough money to warrant a sequel.
The 1999 release “The Blair Witch Project” was shot on a smaller budget (about $25,000) and it went on to make almost $250 million at the box office around the world.
They know they will lose some moviegoers since “The Gallows” was given an R rating by the Motion Picture Association of America. Officials with Warner Bros. Pictures were surprised by the rating because the movie has no blood or gore. There is one use of the F-word.
“I tripped going up the stairs and it slipped out. They left it in the film,” a slightly embarrassed Gifford says.
Traditionally, the ratings board will allow one F-word and still get a PG-13 rating. That may mean the R comes from the intensity of the terror.
Sequel or not, Cluff and Lofing are going to keep making movies. And, as long as a scene doesn’t call for an ocean, they will keep shooting in Fresno.