With World War Z ranking as one of highest grossing movies of 2013 and The Walking Dead pulling in over 12 million viewers in its Series 3 finale (which aired earlier this year), the zombie genre shows no signs of disappearing anytime soon. It’s no secret to regular visitors to DN that we’re big fans of the zombie genre, but like most fans of anything we’re also wary that the popularity of one of our favourite genres may well mean an increase in quantity with a coupled decrease in quality. Always on the search for a fresh take on all things zombified, we were hugely excited when we had the chance to view new independent feature The Battery and even more excited to talk to director Jeremy Gardner about his production methods and inspirations.
Gardner’s low budget feature shares very little with the aforementioned film or TV show, except that they all revolve around a world seemingly overrun by the living dead. Approaching the end of the world from a different angle, this 100-minute feature focuses more on the struggling relationship of apocalyptic buddies Ben and Mickey, as they search for a way to not only escape the flesh eating corpses constantly at their backs, but also survive the strains this sinister situation puts on their relationship. Feeling like a cross between The Road and the films of George Romero, The Battery is free from the usual huge action scenes; instead its director employs subtlety and measured pacing throughout to build the film’s ominous atmosphere and rumbling tension.
Two former baseball players, Ben (Jeremy Gardner) and Mickey (Adam Cronheim), cut an aimless path across a desolate New England. They stick to the back roads and forests to steer clear of the shambling corpses that patrol the once bustling cities and towns. In order to survive, they must overcome the stark differences in each other’s personalities—Ben embraces an increasingly feral, lawless, and nomadic lifestyle—while Mickey is unable to accept the harsh realities of the new world. Mickey refuses to engage in Ben’s violent games and longs for the creature comforts he once took for granted. A bed, a girl, and a safe place to live.
When the men intercept a radio transmission from a seemingly thriving, protected community, Mickey will stop at nothing to find it, even though it is made perfectly clear that he is not welcome.
Eager to find out what he feels his film adds to the already congested genre, the first question I asked Gardner is why audiences should sit through yet another zombie flick?
“I think ‘The Battery’ adds a real quirk of character to the genre that I haven’t seen much of. As a fan myself I kept wondering why no one had made a zombie movie that really explored an intimate character dynamic and the effect that a zombie apocalypse would have on the human psyche. So I hope we achieved that at least to a point. But the movie is very derivative in a lot of ways, and that’s because there are certain rules and cliches you want to follow in a zombie movie. I think what really sets it apart, or at least what I am most proud of, is that the film comes from a very particular perspective. Even when it is playing with tried and true rules of the genre, there are very weird and personal quirks that make it quite odd. From long shots of mundane acts, to dancing while playing catch or describing a bizarre mural on a wall; there are strange pacing decisions and comic beats that are specifically me. That’s not to say that all of that is necessarily a good thing, but I would love to see more genre movies with personal stamps on them.
I think it was just an organic extension of the kind of films I respond to, and the way that I write. For this film especially, I knew because of the budget we were going to work with, that it wasn’t going to be effects-driven or propelled by a lot of action, so that really informed the writing and forced me to focus more on character. But I think all of the truly great genre movies, or at least most of them, have great characters first and foremost. I would be content to make genre movies the rest of my life, because I know there isn’t anything I would like to explore about the human condition that can’t be draped in the trappings of genre. If I have my way, I will always be able to say “This is a horror movie” to horror fans, and also, “But it’s not just a horror movie” to people who are reticent to watch horror movies.”
When talking genre feature film budgets, figures in the multi-millions are the norm (or at the very least hundreds of thousands), but how many independent filmmakers actually have that kind of finance behind their films? Jeremy certainly didn’t! Made for only $6000, you could add a few zeros to the end of The Battery’s production budget and it still wouldn’t come close to the kind of money spent on most Hollywood features – that’s the kind of money they probably spend on catering. Yet that’s what Jeremy spent…so where did he get the money from and how did he go about ensuring he got the most from his money?
“I asked for $600 from ten friends in exchange for a small stake in the film. I wanted to ask for a little from a lot of people so that no one person stood to lose more than they were comfortable with in the event that the movie was a pile of shit. I was willing to fail at making the movie, but I didn’t want to lose any friends in the process. I’ve seen most of them lose more at a casino over a weekend than I was asking for, so they weren’t allowed to be mad if we failed.
Our budget completely and constantly informed the making of the film. It hung over our heads like the sword of Damacles. But we grew up making fun little shorts and a couple of features with literally no money, so we were used to working under those kind of constraints. In fact, the bulk of the budget went to lodging and food, so there is very little of that $6000 “up on the screen”, as they say. We were definitely forced to come up with some creative workarounds to get things done. For instance, we only had permission to shoot on the road the final act takes place on for two days, and we only had the extras for one of those days, but almost a third of the entire script takes place in that location, with zombies surrounding the car. So, we came up with the idea that Mickey would get tired of looking at the zombies and cover all the windows with blankets. Then we could move the car to a controlled environment and send the extras home. I was worried about it at first, but ultimately it reinforced the idea that the film was supposed to be about the two main characters and not about zombies. If we had shot the entire third act in the car with the zombies visible, we would have been inviting the audience’s eye to wander to the extras and start picking apart the makeup, or seeing which of the zombies was looking at the camera. So it was a decision we were forced to make, but it helped refocus the audience’s attention on the characters. Almost every scene in the movie could have used more money, but what we really could have done to maximize the budget and our time, was plan better. That was my fault. It was a very seat-of-our-pants production. Everything came together last minute, and barely came together at that. The only two things I wish we had more money or time for was the extras. From very early on I wanted the audience to be stuck in that car for a half an hour, and then suddenly cut to a wide shot from outside of the car absolutely engulfed with zombies. We shot it, but because we only had about forty extras it was very underwhelming to me, so I cut it. I also wish I had had more time with Niels Bolle and Alana O’Brien, the actors who played Jerry and Annie. We only had them for one day and it was raining and freezing cold and we lost the light. They were incredibly professional, I wish we could have done their talents more justice with a little more time.”
With such a small budget at his disposal, it’s a real testament to Gardner’s character and work ethic the he not only managed to make a feature length film, but that he made such an engaging and enjoyable one. With a crew consisting of only 6 people: Jeremy Gardner (director/writer/actor), Adam Cronheim (actor/producer), Christian Stella (director of photography), Nick Bohun (sound recordist), Elise Stella (production manager), and Kelly McQuade (makeup/art director), the shoot took just two weeks. Below is a list of all the equipment Gardner and his crew used during the production of The Battery:
Canon 5D mk2 (mk3 is shown)
Zeiss ZE 21mm f2.8 (rented)
Canon 50mm f1.4
Variable ND Filter
2 $40 generic battery-powered led lights
$70 Opteka shoulder rig with an ankle weight tied to the back because it was so off balance.
$60(?) Plastic SunPak tripod without a fluid video head.
Post was done in rented Adobe Premiere on a Windows PC.
Audio was mixed in Reaper, a $40 DAW (digital audio workstation).
Although Gardner’s film is consistent throughout, there are two scenes which are likely to stick in your memory long after watching: the final epic scene with Ben and Mickey stuck in their car and a scene which can only be described as ‘the zombie wank’. Since MarBelle quizzed Jeremy about the car scene in their podcast interview, I would have been very disappointed with myself if I hadn’t asked the filmmaker to shed some light on the film’s other memorable scene:
“The masturbation sequence actually came about quite organically. It seemed a logical extension of Mickey’s loneliness and the depths to which he had sunk. However, originally the scene was much darker. It turned into a more physical sexual assault. I started relating it to the ear-cutting scene in Reservoir Dogs, not that I expected it to be as iconic, but I hoped it would be uncomfortable, funny and disturbing in a similar way. There were originally a lot more scenes that played Mickey as a little more sex-obsessed, but it became apparent that they were making an unlikeable character more unlikeable; so as I started to pare those things away, the scene as it stood just went too far. I’m so glad it ended up the way it did because it is a far more believable and even relatable reaction as it stands now.
As far as audience reaction; it has been incredible. The audience in Scotland was on their feet cheering; even in foreign languages it seems universally hilarious and uncomfortable. And of course it wouldn’t have worked if Elise Stella (listed in the credits as ‘Fresh Slut Zombie’) and Adam hadn’t delivered incredible performances in an awkward situation.”
Not content with taking on roles of writer, director and producer, Gardner also donned his acting cap to play Ben, one half of the film’s bickering couple. Despite stealing every scene with that hugely impressive beard, Gardner explains how trust in his crew played a huge part in being able to split himself across multiple roles in his production:
“Acting and directing wasn’t as difficult as it probably should have been because I trust my DP, Christian Stella implicitly. He’s one of my best friends and a technical whiz kid; so he understood what I was trying to achieve with each shot and had the talent to pull it off. That freed me up to focus on being in the moment on camera. If he told me we needed another take I didn’t question it, if he said we had it–unless there was a quirk of performance I didn’t like or wanted to explore a little further–we would move on.”
Running through the core of his film, like blood through its veins, the soundtrack assembled by Gardner is one of the best you’re likely to hear in a feature film all year. Blending a mixture of tracks from bands Rock Plaza Central, The Parlor, El Cantador, Sun Hotel and Wise Blood, the raw, fuzzy sounds consistently rippling through The Battery’s surface not only perfectly compliment the gritty narrative, but also the independent filmmaking ethos that seems to be present throughout every element of production. Eager to find out how the soundtrack came together and what he thinks it adds to his film, I asked the Gardner about his music choices:
“The movie is very personal to me, not story-wise necessarily, but my personality is smeared all over it, from the strange asides to the quirky humor, so the music was always going to reflect the kind of playlist you’d find on my iPod. Luckily, and fortuitously, Chris Eaton, the lead singer of Rock Plaza Central had seen a locations video we cut together to one of his songs on twitter and asked if we intended to use the music in the film as well. I had been a huge fan of the band for years and never even entertained the idea that there might be an option to use their music. So he came on and made it possible, put us in contact with his record label and introduced us to another incredible band, The Parlor, who were very generous with their whole catalogue as well. Eaton actually ended up recording the cover of ‘Aint No Grave’ that plays over the opening credits as well. The other bands, El Cantador and Sun Hotel were acquaintances of Christian, my DP, in Florida and basically said, “Do with our music what you will,” which is an incredibly generous gesture. So those bands really reflect a lot of my own tastes, as well the mood and aesthetic of the movie. Then at some point we hit upon the idea that some of the music in Mickey’s headphones should be in direct contrast to what you are seeing, helping separate his character from the world a little bit more than the script allowed. Adam Cronheim, who plays Mickey, had a friend from college who makes this incredible electro-hip-hop-pop under the name Wise Blood, and again, he was gracious enough to let us use it. His music was the real nail that tied it all together because it is so jarring against the pastoral green of a lot of the movie.”
Again, unlike its Hollywood counterparts The Battery has embraced new distribution methods with Gardner making his film available through a whole host of digital outlets including Amazon instant video, iTunes, Xbox and more. With so many avenues to take his film down though, I was interested to find out how the director decided on his chosen distribution methods and how he found the experience of making his film available to the public:
“The process has been at times gruelling and exciting and demoralising and gratifying. I don’t know that we have quite figured it out yet. There have been a lot of people overseas who have seen the film at festivals or heard of it because everything is so connected, who can’t get the film through legitimate means yet. And that has been a real bummer for us. In the future I imagine a day where we might click a button and make a film available to everyone the world over at the same time. Unfortunately we aren’t there just yet and it is hard to explain to people why they should wait for it when they can just torrent it. There are so many options for distribution now that the only real advice I have for low-budget filmmakers starting out is, however they decide to release, they have to engage with the audience as much as possible. Make yourself open to questions and criticisms and join the conversation, because these are the people who will follow you to your next film, who will tell their friends about it and who might ultimately help MAKE your next film possible. I feel incredibly humbled and honoured that so many people have seen and enjoyed the movie, that I can’t imagine not wanting to say thank you to every little tweet that comes my way. I think cultivating a loyal audience is not only a necessary part of the process, but a truly rewarding part as well.
We are now working tirelessly to get the movie out to the rest of the world. We are playing about twenty or so more international festivals in the next three months, including Sitges in Spain which is an amazing honour. As far as projects, I am working on a character-driven monster screenplay right now and we as a collective have a few smaller projects percolating as well. Hopefully, once the festival run winds down and we square away some international distribution deals this Fall, we will be able to focus completely on the next movie.”