Independent Filmmaker's Guide
December 1, 2020
How To Move From Commercials to Features: The Ghost Who Walks
It’s easy to think new filmmakers arrive on the scene out of nowhere, creating their first feature success overnight. The truth is- filmmaking is born out of experience.
In this interview, we speak with the producer and director duo, who took the years of lessons learned from commercial work and relayed them into their first feature film, The Ghost Who Walks.
Steven Pierce: Ghost is a full-fledged, location driven, big cast, it feels a lot bigger than I’m sure it could have been.
Cody Stokes: As you know, in a lot of ways, it’s a lot smaller than it could have been too. I think hindsight is always 2020. There’s a lot of lessons learned on that at the time. Why I was so adamant on making that as my first feature is I had done a lot of work with a lot of other filmmakers in the Indie film space and that ranged from really small micro budget features to things with a modest budget. When I say modest, I’m talking in the low hundreds or whatever, hundreds of thousands, which I was working mostly as a DP and as an editor on those projects and definitely had scratched that itch in terms of just getting lean and mean work done. There’s a lot to be said about that especially for your first film and especially for the sake of making films in general. But for me doing all that and then subsequently during that time doing all the commercial work that Dan and I do together, it was really clear that the films that I’m interested in making from a creative standpoint as a storyteller, they’re not going to fit in that world. So then it became about, “Whatever we’re going to do first is not going to be easy no matter what.” But this movie, despite all of the locations and all of the people involved, it was the most grounded in a world that was achievable, I think, from the sense of at the very least… The worst case scenario, the two of us were prepared to just hit the streets with a camera and make it if it was just the two of us. We knew because it was a movie in actual space. We weren’t trying to create a world that didn’t exist around us. We could pull it off that way. Of all the ideas I was cooking up, that was the most grounded and I think that was how we got into it whether that was truly well-advised or not is debatable, but that was how we got to where we got.
Steven Pierce: What is Ghost Who Walks about?
Cody Stokes: The Ghost Who Walks was about fatherhood thematically. Simply, it’s a story we’ve seen a lot. Guy gets out of prison trying to refind his family, connect with them, and get them out of dodge. I really intentionally wanted to take a story that was so familiar and so obvious because I wanted to take these elements of the genre and I wanted to take something that did feel familiar to an audience and then I wanted to work within that to make it different and to change things. I grew up really loving pretty obscure cinema, a lot of European stuff and I still do level that. But as I age and as I got older and as I worked on a lot of pretty obscure things too, it reminded me as a filmmaker of why I got into this, and I got into this through pretty big budget movies. I didn’t have necessarily the access some people have to certain types of film and I remember first and foremost, the art form we work in started as a commerce based thing. It’s entertainment. For me, I think there’s a lot of stuff I love that’s outside of that exact purview, but also, that’s a point of privilege for a lot of people. I knew I wanted to make a film that was accessible, that could speak to people that maybe won’t consider themselves art house film people but are totally capable of the depth that comes with those types of projects. I set it in that crime thriller world and then within that use that as a way to examine themes that I wanted to examine. And then also, I don’t want to say we subverted the genre but we definitely took a lot of liberties within the genre itself in terms of how we got down the road.
Steven Pierce: You guys work together quite a bit, like before, even Ghost. Was it just a given that you were going to do this film together? Dan, how’d you get involved?
Dan Gartner: I was producing commercials with Cody in New York. I think that’s when he had the genesis for the script. I had produced short films for him, some music video stuff as well. When it became a fully-fledged idea, I think, in his head, I happened to probably be standing next to him. “Let’s make this thing.” From there, we started the process. Had a couple of rough starts in that and then figured out a way to do it the way that we wanted to, I think, or at least the way we knew we could get it done the way that we’d be happy with.
Steven Pierce: Whenever you decided, “Here, we’re doing it,” like press and go, “We’re making the movie,” what steps? Were you going to raise the funding, the capital traditionally? Were there equity? Where do you… Are you going to try and get grants? What was your plan?
Dan Gartner: From the beginning, I think, we knew that it’s a first time director. We had worked with an executive producer in New York who was set up originally to help us along the way and be a part of it. Just at some point we couldn’t get things moving in the right way. We had hit several… It’s a Christmas movie. Building into our design of how to shoot it and get the most that we could out of what existed, we were going to shoot it during Christmas time, get advantage of the decorations, the weather, all of that. We have kept hitting that season and not being able to go with it. It got to a certain point where we looked at each other and said, “This isn’t really moving this way. What’s a better way that we can just make sure that we can get this done? It’s coming up. Let’s maybe part ways and then figure out a way to do it on our own.” From that point, took it out in New York, moved it back to St. Louis, and then started doing a raise locally, all private equity, worked with an executive producer here, David Johnson, who had done some development work previously and was in the world and knew the right people to start talking to. And then from there, it started happening pretty quickly. Obviously, we went into production with about a third of the money raised that we’d hoped for, for the budget, but like Cody was talking about, there was a version of this that was him and I and the cast and a camera. Just knowing that along the way, we were able to tear in how we were going to start and what we were going to be able to do. Luckily, throughout the production as things got going and people saw what we were doing, it got easier to start raising that additional money. By our last week of shooting, which we’d scheduled all of our big stunt pieces and those big set pieces towards the end, we were in a better financial position by the time we got to those to be able to actually scale them up a bit.
Steven Pierce: I think you guys are in a unique situation too, different from some of the other films that I talk to is because you guys are both DP directors. You’re both very good at that. Was that giving you the comfort that you’re like, “You know what? The hell with it.” If Dan’s going to put a camera on his shoulder, I’ll look at the monitor on top of the camera and we still make something great.
Cody Stokes: Yeah. We don’t mean to be flippant by saying, “Oh, we’re just going to make it ourselves.” We had a long track record of making things with either just the two of us or limited crew to where we knew we weren’t… It wouldn’t have been the same film it is now, but we knew we were going to be able to make something that represented the story we were trying to tell. I think that goes to… Dan was being slightly modest. In my opinion, it was de facto, Dan was going to make the film. I don’t do things without Dan and that goes for commercials and films at this point. I really work hard to work together as a team. Of course, there are times where he’s worked with other people and so have I, but my most comfortable position as a director is when I have people around me who understand what I’m going for and are champions of those ideas and who can add to those ideas. Dan and I first met a long time ago now. We were pretty young. At the time, Dan, like you said, he was doing a lot of other things. He wasn’t producing when we first met. He was a gaffer and a DP and did a lot of those things. That brings a lot of way and a lot of skill to our relationship. Like I said, I was editing and shooting as well. We were pretty confident that if push came to shove, we would be able to pull it off how we want it to.
Steven Pierce: While you’re developing your shot lists and trying to execute all of that, was that changing as the scope was shifting? Or did you always have the same visual consistency? It was just going to be the amount of production design, wardrobe, casts, other little bells and whistles to make it bigger.
Cody Stokes: The visual style, I think, is set in a world where it really could have been made with just us and the camera on our shoulder. We always knew we weren’t going to have the budget to light up a lot of exterior, things like that. A lot of that was location dependent, was choices of when and how we shot those things, and what really did scale to your point is the production design is the lighting package and all those things. But the way where we chose to focus our efforts, like from a technical standpoint, that was in the camera and in the lensing knowing we weren’t going to have control of some of the other things so that we weren’t getting this consistent look and style and feel while we were still adapting to the ever changing world, whether that was a location having to change or compromise or just not having the money to do certain things, production design wise as we might’ve wanted to.
Steven Pierce: St. Louis definitely was a help, right? Because you guys, both, you’re based from St. Louis. You probably had a lot of resources and things you could pull on for a first time film that normally you’d have to pay for or really pull some extra money on hand.
Dan Gartner: Yeah. It was just coming from a place where I’d been in the scene for a long time both in the independent world and then also being a part of the crews that had done some of the bigger pictures that came through, just having that network there to be able to… Even if it’s just calling someone for, “Do you know someone who has this thing or this thing?” or whatever. That said, both our investors which were all local and none of which had invested in a film before were just so supportive both with investing in the first place, but also being like, “I might know someone who has this thing.” “I can help you guys get into this spot.” “I’ve got some pull over here.” And then the city in general was really excited about it. Opened their doors pretty much to it. And that makes it so much easier. Then also just being able to go home at night is a nice bit of filmmaking that I think sometimes we don’t get.
Steven Pierce: Not staying in a hotel after a 16-hour day and then trying to work out your next day in the lobby or in somebody else’s bed. You went into production with a third of the funding you wanted. Did you end up having to take on finishing funds? Or how did you end up wrapping everything up from a financial standpoint?
Dan Gartner: By the time we hit our final week of shooting, we knew that we could complete and deliver a master for what we had in hand. From that point, when you’re talking about the business model, we still hadn’t raised our total amounts. We were just able to keep going without changing the deal or anything like that. And then, that took us through post, got us there, and then just lining up some of the final licensing, music, things like that to do the actual delivery to our distributor. It was a little bit extra and people happily hopped in and said, “Cool.” We still landed below that total target number. It’s nice to be able to go into the marketplace not being maxed out already.
Steven Pierce: Where was the post finishing done? Did you have a house particularly that you knew do the color?
Dan Gartner: Man. It was all pieced together. There was no one shop. We did sound in Dallas with Johnny Marshall. Cody did the initial edit in his basement. We took the fine cut out to L.A. to Nick Gardner who did polish and pass on it. Color came out of L.A. as well through a guy that we’ve worked with in the commercials whose name escapes me all of a sudden. Cody, would you happen to know that? There’re 46 visual effects shots in the movie, none of which are major things, but little cleanup here and there, some bullet hits, things like that, both through Mike Kearns and Patrick and some people that we work with regularly commercially and then also a team that we put together of people who jumped in and said, “Yeah, I want to help out and do what I can. Here’s what I know how to do.” A team of four or five people that were really able to just knock out a shot here and there. It was pretty much scraped together, much like some of the production as well.
Steven Pierce: There’s a lot of chases, there’re guns, there’re cars, there’s a lot of stunts and practical effects that could be pretty dangerous, how did you approach doing that on an independent setting like this?
Cody Stokes: First and foremost, safety was always the conversation we were having. I had a lot of big ideas and some of them came through and some of them, we had very practical conversations of how can you do this. I think it started in casting. Really making sure that the people were not only great actors, but physically up for the challenge. This was a really, really grueling film to shoot especially for Garland, our lead, who played Nolan and then several other people too, but he’s in every scene and if he’s not running, he’s fighting and if he’s not fighting, he’s doing something else. Then from an actor’s standpoint, that’s really hard. That was the first consideration. And then Dan was able to bring out a really great stunt coordinator named Brian Peters who was really enthusiastic and really excited about pushing what we could get to happen on camera with the budget and the time we’d had and the stunt team we had, but always still being safe. Then the third consideration is once you had that conversation is if something had to amend or change, how are we lensing this? How are we going to shoot this? For me, the movie is about someone running out of time. So time was a really big factor in considering how to shoot. One of the main rules on set was even though I received storyboarded and there’s a plan for how to cover it and edit it if you want it to, if a shot could continue the rule was we want to continue that. The longer anything could play in a single take, the better it is for the scene. And some scenes obviously still didn’t end up that way. We cut for a lot of reasons, but there is a number of very, very specific scenes that were always going to be single take scene until we would spend the time, choreographed them and really make sure they worked. But again, it really came on the back of can Garland pull it off physically over and over again? And then also our crew, everywhere he’s moving, the camera’s moving and the AC is pulling and everything else after them. It was really trying on everyone else. But I think because of the planning that went into that and because we were able to compromise who we were in tight spaces, everyone saw that collaborative effort of how this was coming together. Everybody involved really gave it their all to pull that off.
Steven Pierce: Let’s talk just technical for a second, just to get it out of the way, how many cameras did you use? One camera? What kind of lenses? And was there a reason for picking this?
Cody Stokes: We use an ALEXA mini for our camera. Thankfully, we’re able to get two bodies. Having a background as a DP and an editor, I know what I need very, very specifically and also shooting as many commercials, I know how to just run a set and try to keep on time. We had a really ambitious workload for the crew with the time we had. Whenever we could, I would utilize dual cameras. We had two camera bodies, but we were sharing one set of lenses and they were Kowa anamorphic lenses. It’s really, really nice vintage lenses that have a lot of character and not necessarily something you’d shoot with lightly. It’s a commitment for sure and it’s very technically challenging. There’re parts of those lenses that will just never be in focus and you just have to be okay with that. But it was really intentional to choose those because that brought a look to the world that we could control all the time, no matter what was on the other side of the lens. We shot the whole movie and we had a set of four lenses and we ended up shooting on three of them for the whole thing. That was interesting shooting two cameras and sharing such a small lens package for that. But it was very deliberate. Dan worked out a great deal so we could pull it off. We had some other considerations with different companies that were looking to lend us cameras as a sponsorship and stuff like that and while there was a lot of good potential to those things, ultimately they didn’t have the look or they didn’t have the support we knew he would need throughout the project. We were able to get this package and stick with it.
Steven Pierce: Talking about the look because it does have a very distinct look and that’s what honestly I remember the most about it. You know what I mean is the aesthetic. I find it’s very cool. It looks really neat. The colors really pop. It’s really gritty, but in a good way. How did you develop that look? How did you get the DP involved?
Cody Stokes: Michael Lockridge is the DP and I actually met Michael through Dan years ago on some commercial shoots. Dan had produced a feature when he was in L.A. that Michael shot, again, a really small, a micro budget feature. One of the things we care a lot about with the people we work with is the tone of their personality on set. What could make a difference in a really good project versus something that falls apart when the going gets tough is the people you have around you. I think especially keys, it’s their job to keep the right demeanor. We apply that to both filmmaking and commercial. We were doing this shoot years ago now out in L.A. and that’s when Dan brought Michael on and I first met him and we had… The three of us are good friends and we’d worked together a lot on these commercials. Much like I knew however this went, Dan and I would be right next to each other over the years, the more we talked to Michael, the more he heard about the project, was interested, he became that third person who is like, “No matter what I’ll be there.” Even by the time we got down to, “Oh, it’s going to be me and Dan and an iPhone or whatever.” Michael was still like, “I’ll come hold the iPhone.” I was really, really lucky to get someone of his caliber who was willing to come and put that amount of his life into the project. That history also gave us time. Over the years, I’m a really, really, really big researcher and preparer for things. Even though this is not based in any sort of factual world or anything that’s a certain era, it’s visually very composed and put together. Michael and I were talking about references for… It took a lot of years to get to where we were. We had years of prep for that. From my point of view, a lot of the look was inspired much more by tons of photographers, more than other films I had seen, even though there’s clearly an influence by a lot of stuff from the late sixties and early seventies just because of the genre. But we were able to take a lot of these references from photographers we loved and things like that and then bring them into the world. I think the other thing about it is the kind of ethos of this film was like what’s the most creative choice you can make within the limitations you have. Part of that was budgetary or just logistical. But then part of that is as creators, as artists, what are the limitations we had imposed upon ourselves and so when talking about lensing, like I said, if a shot can continue, how and why, and let’s do that. And then also we set rules about certain lighting, certain color that will always be in the scene. Knowing that we can’t control certain elements, we can control these few things that are our must haves. And then even that applied down to camera movement. This is a quest of this one man trying to get somewhere. The closer he is to getting to that goal, the more the camera settles and the more subdued it becomes. And then, the further away from that is, the more chaotic and the more alive, the camera work becomes. It was really about setting that simple playbook and just following through relentlessly. There were times where we were in scenes that we’re like, “No, we want to do this a different way.” And then we’d say, “Yeah, but what’s the rules?” I think ultimately the film in the end it pays off because we had set those ground rules and even though you can get caught up in a moment of fancy on set. Our job as the top level people, directors and writers and cinematographers and producers is to have the eye on the full story, on the full scope of something. That’s what really separates you because there’s a lot of people on any given set who are wonderfully creative all the time, but our vision has to be a thousand miles ahead. Setting those rules kind of helped how you get to the end result of something. That was a big part of what we did.
Steven Pierce: Not getting seduced by the momentary, “Oh, this would be really beautiful if we did this,” or, “If we did this, that’d be very cool and interesting or technical,” but rather how does that flow in the scene? How does that flow in the story? And more importantly, how does that serve the character in a mission?
Cody Stokes: Correct. If you can’t answer those questions, you just don’t do it. I think the hardest part but the most essential part, and I’m speaking as a director of my job is to know when to not do something. It may seem like a poor decision at the time, but it’s like no, I know that this needs to stay simple here. Yes. Maybe there’s this great moment, there’s this great look. Of course, maybe if there’s time, maybe you do make some adjustments and try it all or something like that. Rarely is the case in independent film where there’s that kind of time. But it’s really about having a vision that everyone has worked to bring together and then keeping the train on the tracks and knowing like, “I know this seems really enticing right now, but we cannot do that because it doesn’t suit all of these things.” Or to your point, this doesn’t suit this character moment. This doesn’t suit this thing emotionally. It’s also about knowing what comes next and I think my background as an editor really helped a lot with that of knowing how am I getting in and out of these scenes very specifically, why and how is it going to feel, or even how long does this shot need to sit after you’ve supposedly cut. What else is there to be seen? That’s something that I would be lying if I said I was always good at. It’s something I think that will forever be a challenge and that’s what makes good directors, good directors is you’re always working towards that. But I know commercial directing has gotten me a lot sharper about that too, because when you have to learn how to tell a story in 30 seconds, you learn about the economy and you also learn when you’re directing commercials, it’s very different from filmmaking. On a film, the director says, “Cut, let’s move on.” Everyone goes off. Thank God. Now I’ll move on. But in a commercial, the director says, “Cut. I would like to move on.” And then there’s a whole room of people who all get to tell you what they think. A lot of your job as a director in commercials is about guiding those people and they’re intelligent people. They have ideas. A lot of these people have been on projects a lot longer than the production team has, but they’re not the reason we’re making it and they’re not embedded in that world. Those fancy things or those fleeting ideas sometimes get really, really enticing. I had to learn over the years how to direct that and how to course correct to honor the project and the idea.
Steven Pierce: I remember one commercial thing I directed that reminds me of that is because we were doing two cameras for the whole thing and it was in a room, all white and glass. It was a nightmare to light in and we were spending an hour blocking reflections and everything. The whole thing was for this one transition moment in a medium shot, but they wanted the second camera set up because they paid for the second camera. What if we use it? We get there, we get ready to roll, and there’s one tiny cable in the background on the floor of the wide shot that we’re not planning on using and we ended up having to burn another hour because somebody came in from the agency and was like, “Why we can’t have that there?” It was a real learning curve for me that I should have just said from the beginning, “Here’s what we’re doing. Here’s the plan. Don’t set the second camera.” Because we ended up having to plan for stuff that we couldn’t use. All that story, it just reminded me whenever you said that. I was like, “Oh, I’ve so feel that experience. So true.”
Cody Stokes: I think that’s good to point out. So often people who haven’t had the chance to direct something but want to be directors or filmmakers, they just have this… We’re in a business of storytelling. I think too often the people who’ve actually made things, they don’t want to talk about the truth of what it took to make it, they want to talk about what they think they should be presented as. It makes me so angry because we’re doing such a disservice to younger people coming up into the business because they don’t hear those sides of things and don’t think about them. For me, at this point, I don’t know the exact number but I know collectively Dan and I’ve made just over a hundred commercials at this point plus all the short films, plus all the films we worked with a lot of people. It took that many things to make our first low budget movie. To think that people just inherently know how to do things, I think, is one of the greatest lies that we’re told especially in filmmaking. Altruism or just the wunderkind everyone’s looking for like, “Oh, that guy made that movie,” or “That gal made that movie when they were 20,” whatever. That does happen and that’s great. But there’s a lot of other things going into that I think are important to talk about. Those experiences are invaluable in terms of having those hard moments on set and I know that the movie we were able to make together could not have been made have we not gone through many, many lessons, some of them painful in that way.
Steven Pierce: Speaking of lessons learned, what do you think you could have done differently if you could go back and do it again on this film?
Dan Gartner: Both Cody and myself both have a book of lessons learned and things to keep in mind for future projects. I think I was perfect so really no changes there. I think it’s… Obviously, we talked earlier about limitations and working within those and being able to shift quickly. I think the thing we learned is that we were doing that the right way and being able to scale quickly or reduce when you need to, biggest lessons learned.
Cody Stokes: Don’t start by making a movie with 30 something locations and 30 something cast members.
Dan Gartner: Yeah. Cody and I had a lot of conversations going in about, again, those limitations and what we were really able to do. There was a point in time where we wanted there to be snow and a very wintery feel the whole time and then it gets into it and the budget’s moving around and all that and you have to have the hard conversation of like, “Look, I can give you snow in one scene. I need you to pick that scene and I’ll make it happen. But that’s all the money we have for snow in this.”
Dan Gartner: It also happened to be one of the warmest Decembers. Because we shot between Thanksgiving and Christmas. It happened to be one of the warmer December’s that we’ve had, so there wasn’t any natural precipitation anyway-
Steven Pierce: Which ultimately might’ve been a blessing because if you’re running and moving that quickly and you had snow and now you have continuity issues. You have to melt snow, the whole thing.
Dan Gartner: Yeah. Actually, it did snow the night that we wrapped. That was the gods saying like, “Ah, I could have really messed with you. I didn’t. Here’s your snow. Have fun wrapping up.” But yeah, I will have to dig into my book because there are quite a few lessons learned along that I know Cody probably has some off the top of his head.
Cody Stokes: Like Dan said, I think we want to get better with everything we do and so even after commercials, we both sit down together and talk about what are the things we learned in this and how can we apply that to the next thing so that we don’t make the same mistakes or what can we change and how do we adapt to work within that realm. For me, I really did. I sat down and wrote a manual for myself for the next project. Instead of listing all of the lessons, I think that the overall takeaway… The simplest thing is when you’re making a project no matter how big or small your job is to make the best choice with the given circumstances. It’s not about thinking about what could have been, what should have been, what you would like it to be. It’s about going, “This is the reality. This is the ground truth of what we’re dealing with.” What is the very best and most creative way to deal with that? And then not backing down from that. Adapting if you can find a better way to do it, but not spending the time humming and hawing over, “Did you make the right decision?” Because you don’t have time for that and your crew can’t watch you do that. Everyone needs to know the ship is going a certain way and we’re all going to go together. And ultimately, you live and die by that in the end and can make for really painful things. But at the end of the day, the worst thing you could do is not make a decision to not move forward. I think that that is the overall simplest takeaway. That’s scalable. No matter how big your budget or how small your budget is from a directing standpoint or from a producing standpoint or even from a writing standpoint, make decisions. There’s not room for ambiguity. There’s too many people involved in this to let you just sit and get ethereal. You have to choose, you have to move forward, and you have to keep making stuff. I think that, especially since this is an artistic craft, but I think it’s a craft first. Sometimes people forget that. They want to get caught up in the artistry of it and while that’s good and fine, if you can’t just build the wall, you’re never going to have a house. Who cares what color is painted at that point? I think that… I don’t know, a lot of people probably disagree with me about that or maybe don’t like the way I put that, but I think that self-importance and how creative you are is a waste of time if you can’t do the simple things first. I still get moments where I get really caught up or really worried about whatever this thing is, but it’s about being able to step back, have the people around you that can call on you, like Dan does well with me or I do with him. Sometimes we challenge each other in that way to say, “Don’t forget. What are we doing overall here?”
Cody Stokes: And then just choosing and continuing to move and trusting your people too, I think. It’s not just choices. “Is that take good or not?” Is this crew person the right person?” Maybe they’re not as experienced as we would have one, but they have the passion we want. Trust them, enable them, allow them to come and do the job you asked them to do, and then celebrate them for that. But also if it’s not working, you’ve just got to tell them. Not in a way that’s about ego or anything else, but people want to do what they… If you let them know what you’re looking for, they want to deliver that. That’s the biggest takeaway. Just don’t back away from that. That’s your job. That’s the end of it.
Steven Pierce: How long was your production schedule? Were there any major sticking points when you started roll on day one that you still didn’t have sorted out for the last day?
Dan Gartner: We had a 20-day schedule, four weeks, five days. Went out and shot, B roll pickups for those three weekends in between. On day one of shooting, we did not have all of our locations locked. There was still a question about the big getaway scene and what would be done. Yeah, it definitely was… The whole thing was a swirling, moving puzzle the entire way. But I think we knew… We had those milestones. We had certain things built in. We were going to do the big fight scene last should anything happen. We’re going to do a day of rehearsals and we’re going to do a day on that scene and it’s going to be the last thing. That way, if something God forbid were to happen, we’ve got the movie in the can and we can work around something. We knew that we had leads on things, that everything was going to fall into place. Cast was pretty much locked. But yeah, you definitely go into day one without everything locked down. I remember finishing our first week being a Friday night and being like, “We did it. We made it through a week,” and then realizing like, “Oh my God, I have to do this three more times.” It took us so long to get there. We just have to keep going and keep doing it.
Dan Gartner: Little victories along the way, but also just constantly setting up the next day’s work. It was 12-hour, 14-hour shooting days, plus four hours prep on the beginning side of it and four hours wrap on the backside of it each day. It was definitely a month without sleep.
Steven Pierce: How many crew members did you have specifically on the camera side? What was your crew like?
Dan Gartner: Camera team of four. It was pretty standard, small crew size DP. Second camera for most of the run. First, second DIT, keys plus two pretty much on the lighting side of things. I think sometimes we scaled down to just two and two and then for some of the scenes also scaled up to have maybe four and four, but it was a pretty tight, small crew, which was obviously supporting a crew like that with myself, my production manager, and coordinator. At some point, it just gets… You need such a bigger staff to even support a bigger crew that it stops making sense at some point. Really finding those people that were quick, nimble, and efficient with what they were doing and knew how to do what we were looking to and be done in the time made sense. I think our credits list ends up looking really sprawling. I think that’s more a testament of the people who would hop in here and there as opposed to the full running lists of people that were there every day.
Steven Pierce: Let’s talk about your lighting package a little bit too. Did you have a base package for the shoot and then you expanded certain days? What did your base package look like?
Dan Gartner: We were running with a three ton truck. Most of this movie was lit with a couple of HMIs and some light mats. Obviously, you scaled up for some of the night’s stuff and then some of the nights stuff is natural, just find the right look, the right space-
Steven Pierce: The right location.
Dan Gartner: Yeah. The biggest light them up would have been the club scene which was bringing in… That was a black box and we walked in, put in all the movers, put in all that stuff and made that… I think that was probably our biggest lighting set up. But yeah, it was a small package. A lot of finding the right space, use what we can use, make it look natural, and make it be natural. At the pace we were moving to, there was not a lot of time for, “We’re turning around in our relight.” It just didn’t exist in that schedule. Luckily, like Cody talked about, the look was to… We knew going in that it could be a little grittier than sometimes we would like and that allowed us to work in that schedule.
Steven Pierce: Let’s talk a little bit about your edit. You finished a rough cut and then you took in a fine cut editor. Why?
Cody Stokes: Two things. One is perspective is always good. Nick Gartner, who’s actually Dan’s brother, is someone who I go way back with as well and he’s a really good editor living out in L.A. and it was one of those things where there’s just certain people you know have strong suits that fill in the gaps where you are. There were some assistant editors in terms of helping us prep up, but there was not a… I wouldn’t call a proper assistant editor who was with the project the whole time. There is a lot of really helpful people who would just help trim down certain scenes, but just going through the film started with me and then getting the rough cut together, it was like, “Here’s the story. We have it. We do have it. Here’s how it feels emotionally. Now, let me get out of the way and let someone else just see what the fat feels like.” Nick, that’s I think one of his greatest strong suits especially in some of the action sequences. He’s able to bring things to life in a way that at the time I just wasn’t. I was worried about character, these other things, and I was just like, “Go, go. Do what you can do and bring it back.” And then we’ll converse about that. It was partially just getting a clear head, but also bringing in that second set of eyes that are really skilled and honed in at specifically those who had no relation to the film otherwise. He hadn’t been there for writing everything else. I’ve been with the film since I first thought about it. Just having a fresh set… Someone to come in and argue with you, never in a combative way, but we argued about a lot of things because he would cut scenes and I’d be like, “What are you doing?” What happened is he did a really good first cut. We knew it was still long and I knew I wanted to bring some elements back in. Then I flew out to L.A. and stayed with him for about two weeks and we sat literally side by side and we’d just switch off trying things out and that was around the clock for two weeks. It was a lot of fun. I think just as friends but also editor to editor. He would have an idea like, “Get out of the chair. You get in there.” And he would do it. And then I would have an idea. We trusted each other enough to have that really comfortable handoff which I think again just goes to a long history together and that really deep level of trust. I think as a director who also writes, who also edits, as much as I like having to handle all those things, I also see great value to having perspective to all those things. Having Nick bring that in and what he brought out of the film that I was not able to bring out of the film and then how we were able to find those middle grounds of certain scenes and things like that, it’s definitely a much better film for that.
Steven Pierce: How much of your original shot lists do you think is the final cut? Like your storyboard. You’re an editor so I’m assuming whenever you were shooting, you’re like, “This is here and then we can cut to this and this is the coverage and this is that.” How much of that were you surprised by? How much of that actually stayed the way you imagined it on set?
Cody Stokes: Most of it. We went into this with about 1400 boards drawn. There was not a lot of accidental things. Now, those boards were drawn before the exact locations were there. There’s definitely modifications on set of course, but often on set, I would know if I have to cut this down or if we run into a timer like I can’t get the single, I would literally be just tearing boards out and redoing the edit on paper right there. I knew that as I was covering things, I was covering them properly for an edit. By the time I got to the edit room, we certainly cut down on things but there was nothing that felt like a discovery in terms of we hadn’t thought about how this would fit into it. I think that just really speaks to how fast we are moving and how essential it was. One of the parts of the film you could redo if you could, there’s this chase scene once he… At the end, he’s trying to get away and this is a big chase sequence and we had had something very specific planned out and boarded and for a number of reasons, mostly logistics and money, we could not do that scene that way and that’s where Dan and I really had scrap and lean… We both have documentary backgrounds as well which came in really handy. I don’t like to rely on that. It’s just a go-to like, “Oh, we’ll figure it out.” But when the going gets tough, knowing like, “I know how to bring things to life on the fly.” That’s one of the scenes that was more of a, I would say, discovery in the edit than a forgone conclusion. But everything else was pretty, relatively true boards other than the small things we had to do to change within the locations.
Steven Pierce: Now, the film’s done. What do you do with it? You have an Indie film sitting on a hard drive somewhere. What was your plan and what did you do?
Dan Gartner: Obviously, while we were in the rough cut phase, we knew from the start that we were going to submit it to US in Progress which is a great festival. There’s two of them, year round. Check it out. It’s really great. We had submitted a rough cut to that, gotten in and then did really well and ended up winning that festival section for that which really helped give us at least a little bit of press and PR moving into then our other festival run. It put us on the map with a couple of people and that really helped us along the way. Then hit up the big five festivals. The worst time is in between that submission and just waiting to hear back. That’s literally four or five months of time of just sitting, waiting, trying to figure out how much to plan. If we make this plan, it’s all going to change anyway. What do we do? During that time, we started talking about, “Here’s really our distribution options. Here’s what we would be looking at. Here’s where we want to target. Here’s where we want to go.” By the time that we realized that we weren’t going to hit any of those big top five, we already had a plan in place to reach out to our producer’s rep, to our distributors and that sort of thing. So that it wasn’t a major loss like, “Oh, we’re not going to open at a big festival,” and then try and line up something there. We’ve already got stuff lined up. We had that in place by the time we did our first major festival anyway. It was all ready to go and they were supportive about like, “Yeah, go do these festivals. Let’s build a little bit of buzz.” From there ended up taking some meetings with distributors and settled on the one that we felt best with. We ended up signing with Gravitas for our North American distribution. They were really supportive of the schedules we’re looking at of trying to release around Christmas to take advantage of the thematic elements. From there, they took a transactional and then put it on Netflix. We released on Netflix right as the pandemic was kicking off and launched really well. It was on the top 10 for a couple of weeks there and it seems to be performing pretty strongly still.
Steven Pierce: That’s great. International sales. Are you selling those with another distributor?
Dan Gartner: It’s ongoing, yeah. We’ve got an international sales rep doing that and that’s ongoing. We’re starting to hear back on some of those things. Obviously, that was kicking off right as everything started locking down. I know they’re a little slower to it, but it sounds like they’re going to be picking up and trying to place it for the Christmas holiday as well.
Steven Pierce: You found a lot of those deals through US in Progress those initial contacts or did they come through somewhere else?
Dan Gartner: They had heard about us from that. It made it easier to get in there and have those conversations. That was just good to… There’s a lot of distributors and reps and people there that will give you a very baseline like, “Where your movie is going to play? Here’s where it’s not going to play.” “Here’s where it’s looking good.” “Here’s something you might want to think about changing and here’s the realities of the market.” That was a really good thing to hear early on and be ready to move with, but yeah.
Steven Pierce: Awesome. Yeah.
Cody Stokes: Circling back, Brandon Chavez is the name of the color artists who we work with on this. He’s someone that I had done a number of commercials with and we really just got along because we always put way more grain on spots that we ended up getting to have in the end. We just hit it off there and I knew he had just started doing some more feature work, but not a ton. He’s now gone on to have done a lot bigger films than ours, but at the time he hadn’t. He was looking for that opportunity. I think a lot of the key crew people we had were in a similar boat where they definitely had the skills but they hadn’t been working pretty steadily in commercials or something else, TV or something, and had been wanting to get on a feature that they were excited about and just through the number of connections we had, we were able to suss them out and make that stuff work. But yeah, he came on and I remember I think our ideas of how fast it was going to go might’ve been a little different. At one point, he was like, “You have a lot of notes for a director,” but he was great. He was working out of his own system at his house actually. We were able to go out there with him and he put up with me on his couch for days on end nitpicking every shot. I thought… The initial looks, he put together, we talked about certain film stocks that we were inspired by and that we’d like to emulate. We talked about certain color palettes. There’s a lot of reference exchange, but then I just went away and let him set a first look and that’s when he dug in. It was a great experience working with him. I thought he brought a lot to the movie and he had a lot of very nuance things that he was able to do, very subtle touches, none of them were overly worked. He knew how to do just enough to make it look the right way without overburdening the image every time. It was a good experience working with him.
Steven Pierce: What’s next for you guys? You’re going to make another movie you think?
Cody Stokes: After The Ghost Who walks, I signed with a management company and so that was at the end of… That was late December last year. We were just getting acquainted, shall I say, when the world shifted a bit, the pandemic started, and the industry changed. But I have a number of scripts that I’m working on that I want to do next but are not necessarily sizable for our next project. It was about finding that proper next step. I’m not someone who’s ever interested in big comic book movies or anything like that, but I do know I want to make movies that are bigger, that requires some budgets. I think that having made this movie there were a lot of things that went really well in that regard that I’m very proud of and there were a lot of things that I’m still very proud of, but from a more corporate or commercial standpoint, from a Hollywood viewpoint they didn’t scratch certain niches. It’s making the right steps, making sure that the next projects we do really still fit in the world that I’m looking to create as a director or making smart choices. I’m looking to do this for the long haul. I don’t want to just make one film and be done or make two films and be done. I want to be a filmmaker and that requires you to continue to do it. I was pretty open that when a script came my way called Hideaway and we’re in early stages of that, working through some rewrites with the writers, but it’s going well and depending on what the world looks like, post pandemic, it’ll be hopefully up sooner than later and something we can move on pretty quickly, but definitely it’s a much more smaller scale in terms of location and crew. What I’m excited about is being able to really focus that energy and that financial effort to a much more precise place and location and expand in terms of focusing on things like actors that are more recognizable, not necessarily better, because I really loved the cast I have, but just the nuts and bolts of stepping and selling films in a different way are things that I’m looking to hone on this next project beyond just 40 and a creative vision as well.
Steven Pierce: If people wanted to find The Ghost Who Walks and you guys to follow you all, where will they find you?
Dan Gartner: www.theghostwhowalksmovie.com. You can find us on Facebook The Ghost Who Walks movie. They can find us on Instagram, The Ghost Who Walks movie. They can find us on Twitter as well, @ GhostWhoWalks. Cody is at codystokes.com. You can check out all his commercial stuff as well, short films, all the other stuff that we’re doing. He and I are kicking off our company this year, Three Letters. That website is not up yet but will be shortly.
Steven Pierce: Great. thanks so much for taking the time. This is a lot of fun. Thanks for being so open and sharing your thoughts.
Cody Stokes: Thanks for having us. It’s a real pleasure.
IFG is created by Framework Productions. This episode was directed by James Allerdyce, produced by Matt Mundy, edited by Audrey Rae McHale, and hosted by Steven Pierce. The music is by Glass Boy. Find his music on freemusicarchive.org.