Charleston movie makers roll with it 

Eight Graves and one little headache

Making a feature film on a shoestring budget is a lot like trying to fire up a flux capacitor using nothing but 1950's technology. With skill and creativity, you can knock out the big stuff, get all the critical bits in the right places. But as you zero in on complete success, there's still that one elusive thing: generating 1.21 gigawatts of power.

In moviemaking, there's always some juicy, elusive thing like that. To push all the way to the edge of your personal envelope and leap at the chance to achieve the improbable: that's a gigawatt thrill of success well worth going after. So, with this in mind, you hang in there. You stay with your vision of the film you're making. You try to puzzle out the very best way to decapitate your leading lady.

On paper, it seems like that would be a piece of cake.

It took no effort at all for the writer of the horror film Eight Graves to type into his script:

We see Angelique sucked up into the ceiling fan.


Angelique's lifeless head — eyes wide with terror — thudding, rolling on the floor.

But when it comes right down to it, making those few sentences happen on screen can become, frankly, a real headache.

Still, there's no hint anyone's reaching for aspirin when the two Charleston-based producers of the feature Eight Graves touch on this challenging sequence in their movie.

Sitting in the living room of his West Ashley home, regular City Paper contributor Nick Smith, the writer, cinematographer, and producer of the horror film, ventures to say that getting the shot might be a little tricky.

Gus Smythe, the film's director and executive producer, allows that there are a few complications.

"We've only got a nine-foot high ceiling to work with," he says.

What he means is that in order to bring this gruesome fatality to life on screen, to have it "work for the camera" convincingly, they'll need to make a short vertical distance appear to be much greater. To achieve that, they must conjure up just the right lighting, shot composition, and camera angle in very tight quarters. But all the camera magic and technique in the world may not be enough. Physics and geometry can only be cheated so far. They may end up having to scout out a taller room. Or they might be forced to come up with an entirely different approach.

"It's just technical stuff," says Smythe, and a big, wide smile materializes on his face. His eyes twinkle.

Across the room, cinematographer Smith nods. He smiles, too.

In the face of whatever difficulties may lie ahead, both men give off the same vibe: confident, unruffled, professional. If anything, there's almost a glimmer of glee here at the prospect of some good, old-fashioned ceiling fan mayhem.

You'd expect nothing less from a film about a sorority reunion torn apart by the vengeful ghosts who haunt the isolated old house that was supposed to be party central for the weekend. And the filmmakers will have a field day showing just how badly the party comes unglued.

Of course, at this point, filming is well under way and the producers have already killed off most of their cast. Multiple times. From multiple angles. With quick breaks in between for the actors to grab a sip of water, readjust a costume, and summon up a renewed head of steam on their terrified shrieks.

All the same, the production is 16 days into the 19 days budgeted for principal photography. Some pick up shots, a few cast interviews for the film's website, and a handful of odds and ends remain to be done. Nothing murderously demanding. Except this one shot.

The pressures every filmmaker contends with center on these kinds of challenges. If you sketched out on a cocktail napkin the Venn diagram of must-haves for any film project, you'd find enough blank space left over to start writing the script on that same scrap of paper.

There are only three big issues: time, money, and talent.

With enough money, you can buy great gobs of everyone's time, snatch up the film gear that will precisely address every technical eventuality, and secure the talent you need in front of and behind the camera.

With enough time, you can innovate around problems you can't afford to solve any other way.

With enough talent, you can still make your film despite being hampered by make-do equipment and a maxed-out credit card.

Entertaining, significant, unforgettable films have been made and continue to be made despite the brutal reality of this time/money/talent dynamic.

It took only 10 weeks to film Casablanca in 1942. It cost slightly more than a million dollars (a bit above average for films of that era), but the wartime classic endures — a boundless return on investment for its studio.

Upstart indie triumph The Blair Witch Project — the movie that ignited more indie filmmaker dreams of world domination than just about anything since — set its producers back less than $30,000 and wrapped up shooting in fewer days than a typical spring break holiday.

More recently, Lynn Shelton's Sundance film festival hit, Humpday was shot in just 10 days. That movie, about two guys who decide to make a straight gay-porn flick and enter it in Seattle's wildly popular "Hump!" festival of amateur porn films, could not have been made at all if it hadn't wedged itself into a squeaky-tight calendar. Humpday's two leading actors and the filmmakers themselves had other scheduled commitments. For indie films, that's par for the course.

In fact, when Humpday director Shelton told IndieWIRE, "I'm a firm believer in writing for the resources you have at your disposal," she may have heard an echoey "Amen" from the entire indie film community.

It's no secret that traditional Hollywood moviemaking sucks up money faster than a black hole in space pulls in light. Film stock and film processing alone can account for as much as a third of a film budget. And that's only one line item on the spreadsheet. On Casablanca, nearly a third of its budget went into building the interior set of Rick's Cafe Americain.

Such extravagant production expenses no longer derail the indie movie maker.

From their perspective, the '90s ushered in the best of times as the cost barrier crashed and burned. The advent of cheap digital video cameras and video-editing software suddenly provided aspiring auteurs with a range of small, high-quality sound- and image-recording devices and the tools to piece their movies together. A long train of innovations effectively set a movie studio on the desktop, all for about the price of a good used car. And as the quality of all this gear went up (high-definition, widescreen capability, and more!) the cost to play in the cinematic sandbox continued drifting downward.

The liberating effect of all this is especially evident on one of the Eight Graves sets: the interior of a house on Tradd Street.

Cheaper, better, and, particularly, smaller — the trends that define the most recent wave of video technology — have opened up very small spaces to professional moviemaking. Spaces like this kitchen the cast and crew are gathered in.

Tucked up against the far wall, Nick Smith stands behind his tripod-mounted HD video camera — a sleek, midnight-hued, serious looking object that, if set on end, measures barely a hand's breadth taller than a Starbucks Venti mocha (with whipped cream).

In his viewfinder, Smith sets his camera angle: skirting the edge of a square, diner-sized kitchen table in the foreground and reaching into the narrow hallway beyond where the actors will begin today's pick up scene.

To Smith's right, near the kitchen stove, lighting director Steve Zimmerman arranges diffusing scrim in front of a pair of lights as the actors, John Brennan and Jessica Slaughter, run through their lines for Gus Smythe. Jason A. Zwiker, another City Paper contributor, is in charge of the shotgun microphone.

Today's shooting schedule gives everybody one hour to complete the day's work.

Availability is always an issue on budget-conscious indie films. Often, everyone involved has a pressing commitment elsewhere: a day job, another production, the overwhelming urge to get some sleep now and then. Which means that taking all those variables into account this week left the production call slotted into this early Saturday evening.

There are roughly two pages of dialogue to film. It's a short scene, but one that establishes some important plot points. Sorority sisters, hoping to reconnect after the demands of post-grad life scatter their tight-knit circle, arrange a sisters-only weekend out of town, isolated from other obligations. But these plans create stresses of their own.

In this scene, the characters Brennan and Slaughter play are having an argument. She's getting ready to head out and join her old friends. He's bristling over being stuck with their baby in her absence. They snipe at each other with gusto.

Through several takes, the actors hit their marks, vary the delivery of their lines following the director's comments, and reposition themselves slightly on each take according to what the cinematographer needs in the video frame. It goes well. And quickly. There's time to sneak in on-camera interviews with the actors.

While the camera and lighting are moved and re-set in the living room, Smythe mentions to Slaughter that she's just about wrapped — which is to say, nearly all her scenes have been filmed. There's just one scene left for her to do — that tricky scene — but there's no time to discuss it right now.

With the lights and camera ready to roll, Smythe breaks away to start interviewing Brennan about his background, his role in the film, and experiences on the set. In addition to his acting, Brennan is a stand-up comic. It shows. He comes off as a natural, unrepentant smart-ass, and Smythe is clearly delighted with the off-the-cuff remarks the camera is capturing. Perhaps, for the producers, this is no less than they expected.

All other variables being equal, talent and experience can steer a production around a lot of bumps. In this regard, Charleston — and Eight Graves — have it good.

Nick Smith came by his camera chops through training at the BBC. He's written four books, several screenplays, and developed a number of films.

Before his relocation to Charleston, Gus Smythe earned directorial credits in New York and Los Angeles. Locally, he directed Cabaret Kiki and the play American Buffalo for PURE Theatre.

And when it came to casting their film, both men are quick to praise the Lowcountry's talent pool.

"These actors came to us with well-rounded experience," says Smythe. "We were really lucky."

The actors on the film feel the same way about their on-set experience.

Brennan's interview comments, wiseacre delivery notwithstanding, echo his fellow cast members on this much: making a horror film is a blast.

A particular camaraderie seems to develop naturally on film sets. The long hours, the dull but necessary periods of "hurry up and wait" while a new scene is being prepared, the sense of common purpose and focus, all conspire to make each production a tightly knit system orbiting around a single goal.

And while some scenes might only require a few actors, the entire cast of Eight Graves got to spend a great deal of time together shooting on location on the Georgetown property that served as the sorority sisters' weekend getaway destination.

This was the principal location of the film: a centuries-old winter house that, in the film, is inhabited by two angry ghosts played by Daniel Jones and Patricia Garvin. The girls' weekend is destined to be shattered by these spectral killers, and this house, everyone agrees, captures the atmosphere of the film just right.

"On the second day of shooting," says actress Katie Holland, who plays a sorority sister, "a bat flew out of the corner of the room. It was perfect!"

She goes on to describe the place as "a taxidermist's dream," with game animal trophy heads stuffed and mounted all around: bucks and bobcats and all manner of glassy-eyed, unblinking creatures staring down from the walls, all evidence that the dwelling has served as a hunting lodge for much of its life.

Smith couldn't have been more pleased when he walked into the house for the first time and took in the ambience he had to work with there.

"It was great," he says. "It really was creepy."

Not just creepy.

Filming in South Carolina's summer heat takes a special dedication to your work. No fans or air conditioners can be rumbling in the background while an interior scene is being shot. Given the demanding schedule, the cast pressed on through shot after shot, sweltering, but laughing, too.

It turns out that being brutally murdered, over and over, brings on something like the surreal daze of sleeplessness: between takes, things get funnier and funnier. The bumps and scratches and lung-bruising screaming smear away into a vivid, painless dream whose after-effects won't kick in until the work is done.

Anxiety is more likely to set in before the cameras roll.

Valarie Kobrovsky, whose scenes had to be shot first so that she could go on to a modeling gig in Barcelona, says she quickly overcame some initial misgivings about her death scene.

"I was dreading filming that scene, but it turned out to be my favorite day on set. Gasping for air and screaming — I had so much fun."

In this, she had plenty of company. The rest of the cast includes Jennifer Bentley, Andrea Studley, Chris Maxey, Judit Fekete, and Braxton Williams — a representative cross-section of Charleston's theater and movie talent.

While an actor's career is often a struggle to stay as busy — and employed — as they'd like, the Lowcountry continues to roll out film projects and theatrical productions at a steady pace. Each production forges alliances that result in referrals, ideas for new collaborations, and an ever-widening circle of experienced cast and crew. The continued vitality of local theater and home-grown moviemaking relies on this kind of synergy.

This same community even provides out-of-state productions shooting on location here with supplemental cast, crew, and services. Feature films like Leatherheads (2008) and Cold Mountain (2003) made good use of regional talent. Lifetime television's Army Wives, shot in and around the Lowcountry, often casts smaller roles and extras from the area. These opportunities not only burnish local resumes, they provide valuable exposure and help foster new avenues for networking.

But indie producers like the Eight Graves team are used to doing most of their movie's heavy-lifting on their own. Like most independents, they have their eyes on making the best film they can and getting it out to as many people as they can. It's just that recent trends are moving the odds of success in their favor.

One such trend runs through that promising area where indies and studios have agreed to share resources.

The increasingly frequent cross-pollination of indie chutzpah and studio muscle has fostered an entertainment hybrid: the indie developed, studio-distributed movie. These are movies a major studio would consider too risky to put into development, too far outside the mainstream to generate mass appeal and box office revenues. But indies continue to conquer these doubts with surprising, innovative films their creators passionately believed in.

Among the best examples of this are also two of the quirkiest: Napoleon Dynamite and Juno. Not only did these pictures make piles of money, they strengthened the case for further indie/studio collaborations.

The connective tissue for these collaborations are film festivals. Robert Redford's Sundance Film Festival led the way in introducing new talent to broad distribution. Many more festivals picked up the thread and provide venues for films like Lars and the Real Girl to reach potential distributors who will get these works into movie theaters.

Even so, theatrical release is only one, long-established means to reach an audience. Eight Graves creators have a more immediate distribution channel in mind.

The same digital technologies that helped fuel the recent wave of independent filmmaking is also a game changer in film distribution. The explosion of broadband internet availability creates a host of exciting, new connections between filmmaker and audience. Films can now be promoted and distributed without middlemen of any kind. They can be streamed and downloaded to desktop computers, laptops, and even handheld devices like iPods. These are technologies the producers of Eight Graves are relying upon to create buzz for their film and make it available, on demand, the moment it's complete.

Eight Graves began as a conversation and emerged as a completed script barely four weeks later.

Indie resourcefulness brought the vision, the plan, and the talent together. Digital technologies enabled its creation.

In the end, however, to get the cameras — and disembodied heads — to roll, you still need that one thing: determination.

Just about 1.21 gigawatts will do.

Behind the scenes on the set of 8 Graves


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