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Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Street Class: Lumley Avenue's Road to 'Revelation Trail'

Every film, no matter how big or small, is a labor of love. Revelation Trail is no exception, and the filmmakers’ labor of love certainly paid off. Zombie-western film Revelation Trail is currently available on DVD, video on-demand, and digital download thanks to a distribution deal with Entertainment One. Revelation Trail's journey from story to screen has been seven years in the making with Fort Thomas resident John Gibson helping lead the production every step of the way.

John Gibson served as Revelation Trail's writer, producer, and director. Gibson and his family call Lumley Avenue home. According to Gibson, Lumley is “such a great street, with some fantastic neighbors who help keep our cats alive when we are out of town, among many other great qualities. We love this area, and the community!” When Gibson isn't at home with his family, he can be found teaching in Electronic Media and Broadcasting at Northern Kentucky University.

Gibson's cinematic ventures date back to his middle school and high school years. “My background in filmmaking goes back to middle school, when my friends and I would make cheesy stop motion videos with our action figures,” said Gibson. “It then progressed to high school…where we continued to make cheesy stop motion movies. However, it was in high school that I began making videos for classes whenever possible; if I could figure out a way to shoot a video about a book instead of writing a book report, I would totally do that instead.” His appreciation for filmmaking continued into college, where he was active in his college's film club while studying to be a high school history teacher.

Revelation Trail’s initial spark came seven years ago when Gibson received a phone call from a friend. “About seven years ago---that’s nuts to think it was that long ago—my friend Blake Armstrong, who at the time was working post production on reality TV in LA, called me to say, 'let’s make a zombie movie,'” said Gibson. Gibson, however, did not immediately jump at the bait. He had just completed production on a zombie-centric short film in college, and although he enjoyed the project, it didn't quite leave him wanting to jump back into creating another zombie film anytime soon. Blake then convinced Gibson that his zombie idea was much more than just another film featuring the brain guzzling undead. “Blake elaborated…it wasn’t just a “zombie” film. He wanted to make a zombie western, a very novel idea at the time (keep in mind, too, that in 2007, zombies were still relatively not in the mainstream of pop culture like they are now). My interest was piqued, but I offered the idea that instead of making a zombie movie set in the west, we should create a western film that happened to have zombies in it as a backdrop,” said Gibson.

Film is a multifaceted and collaborative medium. However, all the various aspects of a film rely on one thing – the script. This is the root of a film. Without a solid story, the entire spectacle collapses. Gibson began the writing process for Revelation Trail back in 2007. He looked to classic western elements to help guide his writing. “As we set out to create a western, we began gravitating towards many of the tropes of the western that worked so well. The hero with no name. The changing frontier (except in this case, it wasn’t mechanization or the telegraph that represented change, but the zombie horde). Zombies served simply as a catalyst for our characters to quickly, and unwillingly, begin their journey in the film,” said Gibson. He also drew inspiration from a collection of films spawning the zombie and western genres. “Influences at this early stage of writing really came in the form of Unforgiven and Dawn of the Dead, with a dash of 28 Days Later. We avoided mimicking these films, but they definitely were older cousins to Revelation Trail with regards to tone,” said Gibson.

By 2009, Gibson had a shooting script finalized, but was missing one major factor in a film production – funding. “We ended up shooting three marketing trailers, based on the script, and floating these around online (and using them to ensure investor funding).  We also used these to build up a pretty hefty fan base on social media, and to get some really good early press from blogs and internet sites in the early days of the project,” said Gibson. The Revelation Trail crew then spent the next two years securing funding for the film. The pre-production process kicked off in May 2011, in which Gibson spent time gathering crew members and working out the logistics of shooting the film. “Most of my crew were former students from Northern Kentucky University, with my makeup supervisor being Bud Stross of Fort Thomas (and co-owner of the Dent Schoolhouse). Many of our talent and additional crew were actually people that I had worked with while at Murray State University. It was a merging of my two worlds,” said Gibson.

Principal photography was split up into two sessions – a summer shoot and a winter shoot. Gibson and crew began shooting for two weeks in July 2011 at Mullins Log Cabin in Berry, KY, the Old West Festival in Batavia, OH, and Copper Canyon Ranch in Hopkinsville, KY. The crew then used funding donated from a Kickstarter campaign to complete their winter shoot. While at the helm of the production, Gibson approached his directing duties without a specific style in mind. “I don’t know if it counts, but does curling up in the fetal position while stuff burns down all around you count as an adequate directing style? No? Crud,” said Gibson. I’ll let you in on a secret – Gibson’s directing style wasn’t too different from many directors, even some the industry’s most successful filmmakers.  

By December 2011, the film's production process was officially completed, and the crew was ready to jump into post-production. “All told, development was about five years, preproduction was two months, production was 21ish days, and postproduction was another year and a half. There were only about four or five of us working on the color, effects, sound, editing and score, and so it was definitely a very time consuming process,” said Gibson. All their hard work paid off when the film was premiered to five sold old screenings in April 2013.

Revelation Trail then landed a distribution deal with one of the best companies in the industry, Entertainment One. “After we had many successful screenings, we began reaching out to distributors. We had a list of about 40 distributors, split into tiers. We’d email them and send screeners if requested. Many times, we’d just hear a “not interested” even without seeing the film. Other times, they’d like it, but it wasn’t their thing. Finally, we were approached by one of our top tier distributors, Entertainment One, who called us the day they saw it and wanted to go into a partnership,” said Gibson. Once they had the attention of Entertainment One, the work didn’t stop. The filmmakers then needed to work with the distributors to create a product ready for mass consumption. “That began an 8 month process of negotiations, tweaking the movie for quality control, getting insurance, an MPAA rating, and many, many other things that I never knew about. And now, we’re sitting here with the release having just happened, and I’m a different filmmaker as a result. I’ve learned so much about the distribution side of things, which is proving helpful as we work on our international distribution,” said Gibson. The film is now available for purchase on DVD, online streaming, and also can be found on-demand with Time Warner, Comcast, Cox, and Brighthouse. The DVD contains many special features, in which viewers can gain behind-the-scenes access to the film’s production process.

Making a film is no easy feat. There are a lot of moving pieces that are constantly in motion, and if one aspect of production goes awry, the entire shoot can be jeopardized. Even for the most experienced filmmakers, it’s easy to see how a production can be overwhelming at times. Gibson and his crew were forced to face challenges head-on to successfully create their film. “Most challenging: taking all the aspects that make a feature tough enough (long hours, massive amounts of resources that have to be managed, fundraising, little sleep) and add in the elements of nature (heat, cold, insects) with a dash of psychological stresses and factors. For good measure, add the unexpected: props breaking on set, actors getting ill, and even losing a crucial shooting location, a historic fort, just a few weeks before production. I half jokingly tell people that I lost ten years of my life working on this project for just 22 days,” said Gibson.

Like any good challenge, the struggles of the production process were balanced out with rewarding experiences. For Gibson, the rewarding aspects of Revelation Trail’s production process have been multifaceted. “The biggest, though, is having gone through this experience with a band of brothers (and sisters), who saw this production through all the above mentioned challenges, formed some tight bonds, and are now joyously celebrating the birth of their dreams with the movie’s release,” said Gibson. Additionally, the film’s challenging aspects have allowed Gibson to personally grow as a filmmaker. “I’m a more confident filmmaker, and better storyteller, because of those folks and their support,” said Gibson. “And, I have a thousand war stories I can now share with my classes (which is also rewarding to me, and hopefully beneficial to them).”

Gibson has some solid advice to pass on to other local filmmakers. His advice is simple:  be cool, be a good person, and observe always. Okay, the advice is actually much more complex than those three statements, but it doesn’t make it any less important. “To elaborate: don’t show up on set, or approach the director or other filmmakers, with an ego and thinking you are the greatest gift to cinematic history. Be cool. Be willing to learn from others, to collaborate, to feel good about your own abilities, but also willing to keep your ego in check and understand that filmmaking is a collaborative effort, not a bragging competition. And by being good to others, you develop a reputation as a respectful and great person to have around on set. And not just set life…people look at you as someone they want to be around in general, and with production crews so often times coming back to the same people for different jobs, you want to be known as a good person. And observe. Get on a set. Start low if you have to, working as a PA or runner or any number of entry level positions. And learn what each person is doing on set. Because some day, when you are a producer or director, these are the same positions you are going to be relying on to make your vision happen, so you need to understand (and fully respect) what their job entails,” said Gibson. What’s great about Gibson’s advice is that it can be applied to any endeavor. “Be cool. Be a good person. Observe always,” is a mantra that can benefit any person in any stage of their personal or professional life.

We haven’t seen the last of Gibson and the Revelation Trail crew. Gibson is currently taking all the knowledge gained from making Revelation Trail, and using it to work on the film’s sequel. “A sequel to Revelation Trail is in the works right now, with photography taking place in Summer 2016 (fingers crossed). We are getting resources in place, so long as funding comes through,” said Gibson. Check out the Revelation Trail website to find out all the latest news of the film’s production as well as how to order or download your own copy of the film.

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