JOHN: Over the years, I’ve made a number of low-budget and no-budget features, in all sorts of formats. I was one of the first to do a feature-length movie using Super-8 single-system sound back in the mid-1970s. I followed that with a Super-8 feature that was shot on single-system sound but edited as a double-system feature, which was a challenge.
In the 1980s, I did two features on ¾” U-matic video, and then in the early 1990s did two features on 16mm – Resident Alien and Beyond Bob.
Once digital video became viable, I did a digital feature in around 2001 called Grown Men, which can be streamed on Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/53779809
Where did the idea for Ghost Light come from and how did you work with your co-writer, Mary Kaeding?
JOHN: I’d done some directing at a local community theater, Theatre in the Round, and was amazed at all the different locations that were packed into their building. I started thinking about writing a location-specific script, designed to exactly fit what was available in the theater.
I went through a lot of scenarios, but never landed on one that I liked. I was discussing the project with Mary – who has volunteered at the theater for years – and she mentioned a true situation, where a bunch of actors snuck into the building after-hours, in search of ghosts.
That seemed like a rich idea for a feature, so we started to hammer out an outline. We used the cast of The Importance of Being Earnest as a starting point, casting that and then using those actors to do videotaped improvs, based on their ideas of roaming through the building looking for ghosts.
Finally, after lots of prep work, we started to write the script, using the best parts of the improvs as a starting point. There are four small groups that are in the building (three sets of actors and then the Tech Crew that sneaks in to scare them), so we each did drafts on two groups and then swapped pages and re-wrote each other.
Then came the task of interweaving the four story lines, which we did by putting each story beat on its own color-coordinated card, setting up two long tables and moving the cards around until it all made sense.
JOHN: The movie was made for, essentially, no money, so there is no plan (or need) to recoup the costs.
I own all the equipment I need to shoot and edit. The actors worked for free. The location (all 40 rooms that make up the theater) was donated. The only real out-of-pocket costs were lunches (on those days we worked 8 hours) and some money for a couple props.
It’s a really great way to work. There is no pressure to do anything to make the movie more “sale-able.” There are no investors to deal with. No one mortgaged their house. No one ran up thousands of dollars on credit cards. We just showed up, shot, had fun and then went on our way. I highly recommend it!
What kind of camera did you use to shoot the movie -- and what did you love about it and hate about it?
JOHN: We shot it on the Panasonic HVX-200. It’s a little workhorse of a camera. It did okay in low light and recording to cards was a dream – no more running out of tape!
The only real downside was the same one everyone complains about -- you can’t swap out lens. So the final look of the movie is more “video” than I would like. But the trade-off was that the camera was affordable and it allowed me to shoot and shoot and shoot.
You wore a lot of hats on this project -- director, co-writer, editor, producer, DP. What's the upside and the downside of working that way?
JOHN: I had a really good crew while shooting, so there were not a lot of downsides. The crew was small (me, sound, production manager, and a couple PAs) but effective, so I didn’t really feel the strain of directing and shooting. And it was easy to make decisions, because there wasn’t a long list of people who needed to sign off on things. It was mostly me.
JOHN: The smartest thing was working with the cast ahead of time, doing improvs with them and really shaping the script to fit them. This really increased the pace of filming, as it didn’t take much rehearsal to get the up-to-speed.
The dumbest thing was not locking down the schedule from the start. Because of that, actors kept getting cast in plays, making it very hard to schedule them. If I had come up with a more buttoned-down shooting schedule from the beginning, we would have been done shooting two months earlier.
JOHN: A couple key things. If you aren’t paying people, it’s really hard (particularly with actors) to get more than three people in the same room at the same time. So for the new movie project, we’re actually scripting it to make sure that the scenes don’t require more than three actors at one time.
Also – writing a script to fit within one location can save you tons of labor and headaches … as long as you have complete access to that location. The theater could not have been more helpful when it came to scheduling, but we weren’t the only thing happening in that space and that slowed us down.
Finally, small is good. As Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” The same is true – in spades! – in low-budget filmmaking.
Ghost Light - 30-Second Preview from John Gaspard on Vimeo.