When it comes to creating his signature hybrid sci-fi-horror-drama, Jeremy Gardner has a simple approach to storytelling. "I always want to care about the characters first, and then drop them into a world that is slightly off-kilter."
That's the basis of After Midnight, his newest film with longtime collaborator Christian Stella, which receives its Texas premiere this weekend at Fantastic Fest. Gardner (who also wrote the script and co-directed) plays Hank, a Florida native whose longtime girlfriend, Abby (Brea Grant), has left him. She's tired of life in the small, boring town that Hank loves so much, and now he's left alone in their home, thinking back to 10 years ago when they were young and happy. Oh, and there's a monster that comes around every night that no one else believes exists, and it keeps scratching at the door, trying to get in.
This being a relationship story at heart, that raises the question: how do Gardner and Stella operate and cooperate? This is their third film together (after The Battery and Tex Montana Will Survive!) and their second as co-directors, so who takes responsibility for what tasks? "It's really easy when you're us," said Gardner, "because I don't know how to do anything that Christian knows how to do."
"And Jeremy's acting," said Stella, "so he's leading the movie as we're directing it. So he's got a totally different viewpoint on it. I'm behind the camera, and he's in front of it and in it."
"I'm a ham," said Gardner. "And even though Christian's a very talented writer, when I finish a script and we're getting ready to write it, he has to do so much technical work that he never has time to write, and then by the time he's finished I've written something else, and he can't ever write again! So it really works for me."
Less facetiously, Gardner added, "Once we get to set and we know what we're going to do, Christian can take care of making everything look right and being technically proficient, and I can just work with the actors. I don't have to worry about checking the camera all the time, because I've got my buddy back there."
Austin Chronicle: This is really a 10-year relationship drama; what was the basis for that story?
Jeremy Gardner: The basis was a 12-year relationship drama that I was in. The problem is, I take forever to write anything. I'm not a very plot-driven writer. I more get stuck with an idea of something I wanted to explore, and in this case it's what it means to be in a long-term relationship when you realize that one person has sacrificed more than the other person, or has given up a part of themselves to be a part of the other person's life.
I was living in this world, and then I had a vision of a couch in front of a door. I was like, "Why is that couch in front of that door?" and I started weaving this idea of something attacking that door every night with this relationship drama. And with Christian, his sensibilities always lean more romantic and normal than mine, and once he comes on board he starts to pare some of the more eccentric horror elements down a little bit, just because we're naturally more interested in the people.
Christian Stella: Jeremy's drafts are always way more genre movies, and then it gets pared down and pared down and pared down. All of the relationship drama was always there –
JG: Yeah, and part of that is that we always know we're going to end up whittling it down to make it feel more believable, and part of it is that we go, "Oh, shit, we can't have the monster jumping on a truck and smashing through a windshield," because it's budgetarily unfeasible.
AC: But it works because it feels like a small-town drama, and their relationship is so well fleshed out – this idea that she hit this breaking point.
JG: It's something that was a big issue in a relationship I had before, and it's something I'm trying to be very cognizant of now. If you're from the town where your significant other comes to, it's very easy to be like, "OK, we're good," because it's your place. But I've got the love of my life, and she's stuck in Florida, and anybody who's stuck in Florida should leave you. Christian knows that – I can't believe he's been married as long as he has.
CS: Luckily, I met my wife in Florida.
JG: That's the difference. I had to bring someone down to this place.
AC: And this isn't the Florida you always see onscreen. This is the Florida that's really part of the rural South.
JG: That's what we were trying to do. I'm from the dead center of Florida - north-southwise, and east to west. People expect to see the coast when they see Florida, or they expect to see Disney or touristland. But Florida's enormous, and most of it is swamp and forest, and you get a lot of backwards thinking, a lot of Southern hospitality. I grew up eating grits, and saying, "Yes, ma'am," and "No, ma'am," and catfishing. People don't associate Florida with the South if they haven't lived there.
A lot of it had to do with the house that we found, which is just incredible. There are very few houses still left in Florida like that.
CS: Most places that are that old in Florida are historic, registered sites, and you would never be allowed to mess with the door.
JG: It was built in 1890-something, and it sits up against a lake and an old railroad track, and the train would literally pull up and they'd take all the oranges. There was just a citrus train that would collect oranges from all of these properties. They gave us that house for free, and they let us beat it up, because it's so dilapidated that we had to go in there and fumigate it five times, paint the walls and dress it to look like it had been lived in. But no one has lived there for 50 years, and there's no way to save it structurally, so they're eventually going to have to tear it down, which is a shame.
AC: One of the fun parts of the story is the time period jump, because you have to play the same character 10 years apart.
JG: We backloaded the schedule with all of the flashbacks, and once we did the present I shaved and we did all the lovey-dovey stuff. The problem with that is that I feel very naked and unconfident when I don't have a beard, and then I had to shave – and I hadn't seen myself clean-shaven in five, six years, and then I had to pretend that I was confident and sexy and in love, and it was uncomfortable. I walked on set and told everybody, "OK, you have 60 seconds to get all the jokes out." I looked like a walking thumb, and I have to pretend a beautiful, intelligent woman would remotely be interested in me.
CS: On the upside for him, we had make the decision before we started shooting that the camera kind of ignores Jeremy in the flashbacks. He's there, but if he leaves the frame we don't cut to him. We don't care if his head gets chopped off some times, because it's supposed to be his memories and so we want to make sure that it's always focused on Brea.
JG: Yeah, when you're looking back at your love, when you're thinking about a pivotal moment in a relationship, you're not looking at yourself.
AC: And speaking of being very exposed in public, there is a pivotal karaoke scene. Are you a natural karaoke singer, or is it just for the screen?
JG: I dabble in it when I've had a bit of whiskey. I sing and dance in The Battery, too, our very first film. I think you can endear yourself by being that vulnerable, because I do karaoke but I'm always racked with fear and anxiety before I go up there. "Oh, go up there and have fun." No. I don't want to go up there and have fun. I want to do really well.
Fri., Sept 20, 8pm: Directors Jeremy Gardner & Christian Stella in attendance
Wed., Sept. 25, 11:30pm
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