The Civil Dead interview | The supernatural comedy made for $30,000

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Clay Tatum and Whitmer Thomas have tried their hands at music, stand-up and skateboarding videos. We chat to them about their $30,000 debut feature, The Civil Dead.

Picked up by Utopia in the States – the company which handled the US distribution of 2020’s acclaimed indie hit Shiva Baby – Clay Tatum and Whitmer Thomas’ feature debut The Civil Dead earned them an enthusiastic welcome when they won the Slamdance Audience Award at the indie festival in 2022.

Bonded by similarly unpleasant winter temperatures (10 degrees Celsius in LA, 1 in London), we hopped on a call with Tatum (co-writer, director, star) and Thomas (co-writer, star) to chat no-budget filmmaking, stomping around in attics and funding a movie at the roulette table.

The Civil Dead – how would you both describe it?

Clay Tatum: I think the easiest way to describe it is ‘a supernatural film about a friend trying to shake another friend’. How would you describe it, Whit?

Whitmer Thomas: Yeah, I guess that.

CT: We’re really good at making things where it takes about three to four sentences for us to describe just the general idea of the film. I remember explaining the film to people and being like, “Well, I have a friend. He’s dead. And I can see him, but you have to understand – no one else can see him… And they’re always like, “Stop, just show me the movie”.

WT: Cable Guy! But instead of a cable guy, it’s a ghost. That’s it.

So where did the idea come from?

CT: During the pandemic, I was just doing a thing where I was thinking of like, 30 movie ideas a day, and this one kind of stuck with me. What if, if you’re haunted by ghosts, instead of being scared you’re just annoyed? Then the whole story kind of formed in my brain.

WT: Clay basically said, “This is the beginning of the movie. I think it’d be fun if we had a poker scene. And then this is the end”. Then we just had to fill in the rest.

Let’s talk money – $30,000 isn’t a lot for a feature.

CT: Yeah, we shot it for like $30,000. And I think on the last day of shooting, we came in at $29,000 is what we spent.

WT: But that felt like an endless amount of money compared to like the stuff that we had been making. It felt like we could do so much. And we still just wrote this movie as if it was one of our short films.

CT: I mean, we’d gotten into the habit of making a short film every time we had a good tax return. And our tax returns are tiny. So we figured out how to make these little things as cheap as we possibly could – while paying all the crew and stuff, of course.

clay tatum and whitmer thomas in the civil dead
Credit: Bulldog Film Distribution

What is it that you’re doing differently?

WT: You’re just taught that you’re supposed to make a movie a certain way. You know, a lot of what we did felt kind of stolen, shot wise, location wise. We wrote a lot of the movie to be inside of Clay’s apartment, but then we’d get to a scene and go, “Why don’t we just take this outside, grab a camera with a long lens, and then we shoot me and Clay walking down the street?” It didn’t really feel like tricks, I guess the real secret is a long lens.

CT: A long lens and a small crew. Yeah. And we’ve done other people’s short films and stuff that’s supposed to be for, like, no money. Then you get there and there’s the makeup tent, here’s the costume tent. And here’s all the trucks to carry the tents. And those trucks have a driver… It’s just about not having any of that. It’s having three people behind the camera, one on sound, and that’s it.

WT: I’ve had friends who’ve gone from The Civil Dead-scale to a bigger movie, and they say the biggest thing to wrap your head around is how much harder everything is once you get to a big budget. Because of all these new rules you have to follow that are kind of arbitrary. Most of the times I’ve shot bigger movies, there’re always a few trucks where the doors never even open. I don’t know why they’re there.

CT: Here’s another thing: limit your C-Stands. If you get a crew around some C-Stands, they can spend hours figuring out new ways to mess around with them. Because you know, lighting is difficult, and sometimes you cast a shadow, but you want to hide that shadow. But with this, we thought we’d keep it simple. We just drove our DP insane a little bit.

WT: We had a little joke with our DP, Josh Hill, about how much we hate C-Stands. But then Josh kind of like took it and ran with it. He came to Clay’s apartment a few days before we shot and he pre-lit the whole set. The ceiling was filled with these different dolly things for a light to move around. That’s the other thing: if you can figure out how to use as much natural light as possible, and pre-light as much as you can, then the movie is just going to be shot so much faster.

It’s interesting that you guys were able to plan so much in advance, because the film has a really improvisational feel…

CT: It was kind of improvised in the writing stage, where me and Whit would talk out a scene and we would like saying things in a certain way. And then we read the script about 3000 times while doing revisions and stuff until we had the movie seared into our brains. So when it came to shoot it, we were maybe going off script here or there. But we knew the script so well that often what we thought we were improvising was actually in the script the whole time.

WT: And if you were to read the script, I mean, Clay and I aren’t good writers. We write exactly how we talk, and we don’t talk well. All of our characters sound exactly the same. Me and Clay especially are completely interchangeable the way that we talk on the page. So it might also feel like improv, because it’s exactly how we speak.

Jumping from your shorts, sketch comedy and all this smaller-scale stuff to your first feature… Did it feel like a different experience?

CT: I thought it was gonna be really different than shooting a short film. We were finally making a feature, so I thought there’d be something about it that felt elevated, or like we were doing something brand new. But really it just felt like we were shooting a short, it just took longer.

WT: And we shot you know, usually we started at 10. And we would end around 10. And it was a small crew. So I think for that reason, it just felt like a short – we shot it in about 12 days in the beginning of 2021, I think. It didn’t feel that because we’re working with our friends who were producing the movie, I don’t think it felt as ‘make or break’. And I don’t really think we even had an expectation while we were shooting it, we were just happy to get to make something in the thick of the lockdown. I don’t think our agents or anyone even knew that we were making a movie.

Clay tatum civil dead
Credit: Bulldog Film Distribution

Are you worried about that loss of freedom from increasing the budget to $5 million, $10 million, say?

CT: We would love to shoot a movie for that much money, but I think we’d still want a tiny, tiny crew. And that’s not even for financial purposes, I just think it simplifies the entire shoot. I mean, having this as a job, to live off this, would be a big thing by itself. But I get really stressed out going to a set that has thousands of moving pieces. And I’m not really convinced yet that it’s absolutely necessary to have that many people.

WT: Yeah, no, it’s definitely not. I mean, we have a couple other things we want to get off the ground. One is small, and one is for a movie star or someone, you know, so hopefully we’ll get to make one of those. But right now, I was saying to Clay after we finished The Civil Dead, like, “Dude, I could just keep doing that”.

The thing is, is when you make movies this small it’s hard to even know if people will see them. We got lucky with cool distribution, and it came out here on Paramount Plus and Showtime and stuff. But you want a little bit of the industry on your side going into making the movie so that you know you can get it seen, you know? So going into 2024, I’d like us to become more a part of the system. Let’s sell out.

Read more: The Civil Dead review | Off-beat buddy comedy is an indie delight

Onto the film itself, there’s a couple of sequences I really loved. The poker montage at the midpoint made such a great use of music…

CT: We’re, like, gambling freaks. We have some kind of a problem.

WT: I think there’s always going to be a gambling element and everything that we make. And it’s very, like, teen boy of us. You know, I’ll never forget being a kid going to Clay’s house and he’s always watching Rounders or something like that. We’ve always just liked how romantic casino stuff is in movies.

There was this other movie we wanted to do that would have cost even less money. There was a scene where two knuckleheads go to a casino and they raise money to fix their car or something by playing a specific strategy on a roulette table. And we thought it would be so cool if we raised the money to make the movie doing this actual strategy that the characters do in the movie. And we did it for about three weeks, going to the casino once every few days, and we came kind of close. Then we lost it all in one round. We had to really think about our lives after that.

…And that ending. Spoiler alert, but it’s quite the tonal shift – were you ever worried about taking the audience with you on that journey?

CT: We kind of knew the ending before we actually started writing it. So we wrote towards the end, set it up like a joke, and we were super, super confident in that. And when we started shooting the cabin stuff at the end of the movie, we really started noticing that these two characters are really enjoying each other’s company in such a genuine and heartfelt way, and we were really feeling the impact that we were going to leave the audience with.

Our producer even said: “Are you sure about this? We can shoot alts just in case?” But we said, “Nope, we’re just going to stick with this”. We literally spent the whole past hour proving the point that this character shouldn’t be trusted.

The Civil Dead is in select UK cinemas and on demand from the 19th January 2024.

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