Relationships can be complicated. And in Jeremy Gardner and Christian Stella’s latest collaboration, AFTER MIDNIGHT, we see arguably one of the most realistic portrayals of a relationship in crisis in the horror genre. While the relationship between characters Hank (also portrayed by Gardner) and Brea Grant’s Abby are the central focus of the film’s plot, there is a monster that is plaguing Hank as he copes with the disappearance of Abby from his daily life and the aftermath of their separation as a result of the stagnation in their relationship. These elements all come together to form a gut-punch of a film that will, in my opinion, make a lot of people shed a tear this Valentine’s Day.
Ahead of the theatrical and On-Demand release of AFTER MIDNIGHT, I got a chance to chat with co-director, writer, and star Jeremy Gardner and co-director Christian Stella where we discussed everything about how Gardner’s personal experiences came to influence the creation of the story to the logistical challenges of shooting in the home that they found on location, and how the creation of the creature featured in the film came about.
Man, having just watched AFTER MIDNIGHT, there is just so much to process and take in because it is just so relatable. To start things off, what was the process like in writing and bringing the story and the character Hank to life, Jeremy?
Jeremy Gardner: Well, much as I love writing, it is, consistently the most frustrating and difficult part of the process. Because it is a solo pursuit, I probably spend far too much time tweaking and making each page perfect than I even worry about on set. Once we start filming, I am much more open to the obvious influence of collaboration and am far more liable to change things or purge whole ideas. But the writing process on this film, in particular, was the most personal I’d ever undergone.
At the time, I was in a long-term relationship that was, through no fault of either party, beginning to feel stifling; particularly in regard to my feeling that I was sacrificing my own creative pursuits in order to keep the status quo in my domestic life. I was inspired to write something that spoke to the idea that one half of an otherwise loving relationship felt they were ignoring the pursuits that fulfilled them for the sake of the relationship. At the same time, because I am terrible with plot, the image of a couch in front of a door had become stuck in my craw and I began to entwine the relationship story I needed to tell with the visual of this domestic barricade. Why was there a couch in front of a door? And it very slowly evolved from those two disparate threads.
You guys have collaborated on a couple of films now, with Tex Montana Will Survive and The Battery coming to mind. With a pre-established dynamic already in play, how did you go about tackling the project together? Were there challenges on this project that hadn’t been present in your previous films?
Jeremy Gardner: Christian and I—as collaborators and friends for 20 years—have always had a certain unspoken understanding in our working relationship. On top of that, he is and has always been an indispensable foil to some of my more cliched impulses, which I rely on in that he can take what I give him and immediately recognize what about the writing has drifted too far from the importance of the character relationships. I will let him speak to that more specifically, but as far as working together on set, we balance each other perfectly in that we both settle on a style and tone and agree on shot selection and then I trust him to make sure the shots and technical aspects are to our standards and for the most part he lets me communicate with the actors on the more vulnerable, emotional aspect of the shoot.
Christian Stella: The biggest change in how we worked on AFTER MIDNIGHT was that we suddenly had more crew and (at times) more actors to be in communication with. I don’t think either of us could do our respective jobs of acting or cinematography and direct both sides of the camera alone. We also had to talk things out a lot earlier in the process and early each day to anticipate any issue, as we had a bad habit on those earlier movies of moving entire locations or changing entire scenes on a dime. This time around, every room we weren’t filming in at each moment would be stacked with equipment. We weren’t as nimble but we were a lot more prepared.
The house featured in the film is a character all in itself. And, given some of the destruction that happens in the house, it definitely takes a beating. How difficult was it to locate and secure that house as a setting? And, since a good chunk of the action takes place in the house, what difficulties did the location present – if any – in the shooting process?
Jeremy Gardner: The house was an absolute coup. We were scouting for a few days before a good friend of ours suggested a house he had worked security on years before when it was featured very briefly at the end of the film Away We Go. It was absolutely perfect, and because it was in such disrepair the owners had no intention of ever fixing it up so they basically gave us carte blanche. The downside was that because it had no electricity or running water we had to power every light from a giant box truck generator, and had to fumigate the house of swarms of bugs at least four times before we could intensely start set designing in a way that it would believably seem as though it were a modern, lived-in home.
Christian Stella: I’m not sure any other producers other than Dave Lawson would let us go forward with a location like that. It was like starting our production with a full renovation project. We don’t show most of the upstairs in the movie as it was too far gone to fix. Also, that’s where the snakes lived.
So, I have to say thank you guys for the creation of another creature I can add to my ‘I Wanna Hug It’ vault. It’s better not to ask. While the creature makes a limited appearance in AFTER MIDNIGHT, its presence on Hank and his sanity is strong. What was the process like in conceptualizing the creature? And, out of curiosity in the screenwriting process, were there any drafts that didn’t include the reveal of the creature?
Jeremy Gardner: The creature was always revealed in the script, and in fact, earlier drafts featured TWO monsters. As far as conceptualizing it, I had originally put together a photo board of animals I was inspired by, particularly baboons. With their giant, terrifying canines and small muscular bodies.
Then we had the brilliant Todd Masters come on board and take our ideas and start incorporating elements of the swampy Florida environment that spawned the monster and turned it into something we couldn’t have imagined.
It was ultimately a much larger monster than I had originally envisioned, but it made it so much more formidable and, hopefully, iconic.
While there are horror elements in AFTER MIDNIGHT with the creature, the true heart and soul of the film feels like it centers around the complexities of relationships and, more importantly, the importance of communication. Which, in itself, is arguably probably more petrifying to some than others. While in the process of making this film, was there anything you learned from Hank and Abby’s relationship that you felt you could take away and apply to your own relationships? Platonic or romantic? Because I definitely made some notes.
Jeremy Gardner: I think the writing of the script itself was my wrestling with ideas and lessons to learn from and take into a relationship.
Particularly communication and the importance of compromise. Very few people, even in the best relationships, can survive one or both parties’ ignorance or negligence of what makes each partner feel unique and fulfilled. Those things can’t be allowed to be set aside or ignored. It’s a recipe for resentment and alienation in what could otherwise be a strong, loving relationship.
The complex relationship dynamic between Hank and Abby radiates so well onscreen. And a large part of that has to do with just how nuanced the performances were. Jeremy, you and Brea knocked it out of the park. How did Brea become involved with the project and, in developing the character Abby, was that more of a collaborative effort?
Jeremy Gardner: Brea was always at the top of our list for this role, and when it became clear that the investors wanted to see audition tapes she was originally hesitant to make a tape after our correspondence made it seem as though she were being offered the role outright. To her unending credit, and the benefit of the film, she went into her audition with [a] chip on her shoulder and went above and beyond the small scenes we asked [to] be put on tape. She shocked and floored us all when she sent back an audition tape wherein she has memorized and performed the entire 14-minute monologue that is unquestionably the centerpiece of the entire movie. There was no question when we all saw that she was our Abby. After that, I was just so nervous about having written from such a female perspective as a stupid man, and I made sure that she knew that Abby was her character through and through and if anything rang false she should feel the ownership to change whatever she wanted. As proud as I am of this movie I am most proud of Abby and of Brea’s complete, relatable, vulnerable commitment to her. It is the absolute heart of the movie. It doesn’t work without the humanity she brought to the role.
This thought of mine is more out of curiosity because I’m not 100% familiar with name-changes when it comes to films and such. When the film showed at Tribeca, it was initially called Something Else. However, it’s now AFTER MIDNIGHT. To put it simply, why the name change?
Jeremy Gardner: The name was always a bit of a gag. I always assumed it would change before the festival tour. In the end, it changed because of the reality of the streaming landscape of movies this size. More people are liable to discover a movie at the top of an alphabetical list than way down near the bottom. It was just business.
Christian Stella: It wasn’t just that, it was because it is absolutely impossible to talk about. “Something Else comes out February 14th” makes no sense when said out loud.
I could probably discuss AFTER MIDNIGHT a lot more with you guys, but I also don’t want to talk your ear off. To wrap up the interview, have you guys started plotting out any future projects? Or just going to wait for the theatrical release of AFTER MIDNIGHT with a glass of Peanut Noir?
Jeremy Gardner: I have been having a bit of a crisis of creativity wondering whether I should purposely begin to tailor and tweak my more basic storytelling instincts and try to write something a little more “mainstream”. That said I have been working on an alien abduction film about absent fathers and a vampire road-movie script. We’ll see if I ever finish either.
Christian Stella: I’m writing a small sci-fi romance about two people that hear a constant hum that only goes away when they touch. Sadly, my wife and I already drank our prop bottle of Peanut Noir one night when we drunk and out of options.
AFTER MIDNIGHT is now available in theaters and On Demand today! Want to learn more? Check out our review of the film HERE.