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  • Jeremy Gardner

The Art of Storytelling

I: Chekhov’s Cave Painting 



In early 2019, a team of scientists announced they had made an incredible discovery.

After shimmying up a fig tree on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, in search of an entrance to a remote cave system, a member of their research group had stumbled upon a previously unknown prehistoric pictograph. 


By analyzing the calcite “popcorn” that had built up over millennia on the surface of the paint (a method of chronometric dating based on the slow decay of uranium into thorium, as well as some other scientific shit I don’t fully understand involving isotope levels), they were able to determine that the pictograph was nearly 44,000 years old. 


To put that into perspective, whoever this ancient artist was, who scrambled up that rock face with a coconut husk or horn or skull-bowl full of primitive paint and tagged that wall like some Fred Flintstone Banksy, did so forty thousand years before the Great Pyramid at Giza was built.  


Though not the earliest pictograph ever uncovered, the find at Sulawesi is certainly no slouch. When ranked strictly on a timeline, it slots comfortably into the top three. Age, however—as so many vibrant, older folks are fond of saying—is just a number; and the “when” of this particular painting, (impressive though it may be), is not what makes it so special.  


It is, of course, the “what” of the thing. 


On its face, the pictograph depicts a simple hunting scene. It is only upon closer inspection that it becomes clear the human characters have been rendered with exaggerated, animal-like features. Long snouts. Beaks. Horns and tails. Anthropologists refer to these types of artistic figures that appear in early human cave art all over the world, as “therianthropes.” A fancy word for Animal-People. Hybrids or shapeshifters.



In the painting, the hunters wield spears and face off against a menagerie of beasts that—although recognizable as native fauna—have been portrayed as outsized, disproportionate monsters. Kaiju-sized dwarf buffalo. King Kong warthogs. Taken together—the therianthropic flourishes of the hunters, the gigantic creatures—these artistic liberties suggest the pictograph may in fact be an expression of prehistoric folklore. Something more akin to mythology, or a fantasy narrative, than to a simple act of rote record-keeping. 


Put simply, the Liang Bulu’Sipong 4 pictograph may very well be the oldest known example of recorded storytelling in human history. 


Right around now you might start to wonder where the hell I’m going with all of this (admittedly pretty cool) cave painting history blather. That’s fair. Perhaps you’ve even backtracked to check you haven’t missed something. Or skimmed ahead, searching out keywords to confirm you’re reading the right article. Wasn’t this supposed to be about a local filmmaker? Something about that grumpy-looking bearded guy at the local brewery making some kind of monster movie? 


Don’t worry, you’re in the right place. 


I’m just having a bit of fun with storytelling structure. Employing a common entertainment trope known as “the cold open,” in which a movie or TV show begins suddenly, often in an unexpected setting, with unfamiliar characters, in media res. Essentially, the audience is dropped into the middle of an ongoing drama, devoid of context, and expected to trust that the storyteller will make it all make sense later. 

Believe it or not, I do actually intend to try to draw a line across a vast chasm of time, and connect a moment in ancient human prehistory directly to my own personal pre-high school adolescence. 

Because forty-four thousand years after that story went up on that cave wall in Indonesia, in the Summer of 1993, my life changed forever. 



Now, whether or not I manage to connect those two moments in a remotely convincing (or at the very least, compelling) way without running this whole thing off a cliff into a sea of pretension is still very much up in the air. Fifty-fifty, I’d say. For one, because how any one reader responds to any piece of writing is an inherently subjective experience. Also, quite simply, I haven’t written it yet.  


So, you’re just going to have to trust me. 


To help in that regard, you should know that I am also utilizing another, quite famous, storytelling trope in this opening. More of a “rule,” really, and one I have always endeavored to follow. Known as “Chekhov’s Gun” it is a narrative principle, established by Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, which states that if, in the beginning of a story, a gun is mentioned, or seen hanging on a wall, by the third act, it had better be fired. 


Otherwise, it shouldn’t be there. 


The Sulawesi cave painting is Chekhov’s Gun. 


II: The Couch, and the Door. 


I saw a couch in front of a door. 


That’s how we got here. How all of this started. 


The script I wrote. The movie it became. On up to this very article, even. 


This is, of course, a wild oversimplification. The main thrust of the screenplay—concerning long term relationships and the inevitable resentment that festers when one person shoulders the lion’s share of the sacrifice necessary to maintain it—had been percolating in the dark parts of my head and heart for years before I ever had “the vision.”  


Similarly, my singling out those three specific milestones—screenplay, movie, this article—intentionally glosses over the countless, arguably more important bits that came between them. All the hard parts. The really tough stuff. It ignores the struggle. The best, most rewarding experiences. The blood in the veins. The meat on the bones. The shit that really sticks in your teeth. Moments that, were I writing a different article, would be milestones in and of themselves.  


It is, in fact, another example of the profound power of storytelling: Its ability to collapse time. To turn entire epochs into ellipses. Those bits of white space between the script, the movie, and this article, essentially add up more than a quarter of my entire life. But in the interest of brevity (something I’ve never been particularly interested in, and as a result, have rarely managed to achieve) I have no choice, for now, but to leave those moments in the ellipses… 


And get back to that damned couch in front of that door. 


To be clear, it wasn’t a dream. I didn’t sit bolt-upright in bed, break out in a cold sweat, and reach for a notebook on the nightstand. I never considered it a premonition or prophecy of any kind because, well, that would be crazy. And I only previously made reference to it as a capital-V vision with my tongue planted firmly in the meat of my cheek. 


It was just an image. A flash across my mind’s eye that lasted all of an instant. 


Come from nowhere. Apropos of nothing. 


Like a bug smacking a windshield. 


There wasn’t even anything particularly interesting about either the couch or the door outside of their unusual proximity to one another. 


There was no corpse on the couch. No family sat on it, all dressed up in period clothes, like Dust Bowl-era farmers in their Sunday best; only with black eyes and their mouths sewn shut. There was no enormous Saint Bernard sprawled across the cushions, either. Slobbery, slick red muzzle. Gnawing on a long bone… With a foot on the end of it.  


It was just a couch. It was every couch ever made. All distilled down into one. The couch from every classic sitcom. The one the title family all piles onto in the opening credits. All shouldered together, smiling and being silly. 


The door was equally unremarkable. There were no bullet holes. No misspelled Beatles song title scrawled across it in blood. It wasn’t at the end of a long hallway, locked from the outside, with a peephole in the middle, looking in. Nor did it open on a rickety staircase that disappeared into a basement… where something, somewhere down in the dark, was growling softly. 


It was just a door. Wood. Painted, off-white, maybe. Maybe not, I’m not sure. But there was one other curious detail that stood out about it at the time: It was a front door. 


The main artery through which family and friends, food, overdue homecomings, big hugs, and sometimes bad news and even bad guys, flow directly into the heart of a home. And that couch, the one shoved up against it–it should be noted–was on the inside of the house. All but wedged into a narrow foyer. Its plush, curving arms scraping the walls on either side.  


I was, of course, immediately aware this was an unusual place to find a couch, not least because it flew in the face of nearly every, unassailable tenet of Feng-shui. I simply had to know more. 

Who would do such a thing? Why would they do it?  


Certainly, it wasn’t to stop someone getting out. Moving the couch to get out the door would be annoying, no doubt; and it would surely slow any attempted escape. But it was, at most, a minor inconvenience.  


Perhaps then, I surmised, it had been dragged out into the mud room and shoved up against the door in an attempt to keep someone out.  


Maybe even something.  


That had to be it. It was the only thing that made sense: I was looking at a rudimentary, hastily constructed barricade. 


I still had no idea who had put it there, but I had just managed to hook my fingertips on the edge of the “why.” Which, of course, turned out to be merely the flaky skin on the outside of an onion; and my peeling it away had managed only to reveal layer after layer of countless new questions. 

Not least of which was: If the couch was in front of the door to keep something out… 


What the hell was trying to get in?  


I sat down at my computer, opened my screenwriting software, and wrote the following:


INT. HOUSE - MORNING 


HANK wakes up on the couch. 


He is in his early thirties but is carrying a few more years under his eyes, and in the wiry beard on his neck and jowls. 


He swings his feet to the floor and yawns and cracks the knuckles of his toes on the hardwood.


Two things suddenly make this otherwise pedestrian moment quite surreal: 


The first, is when he pulls an enormous double-barrel shotgun from the cushions behind him and lays it casually across his lap. 


The second, is when it becomes apparent that the couch... 


IS BARRICADED AGAINST THE FRONT DOOR. 


Hank yawns. He scratches his greasy head. He claws the crust from the corners of his eyes. 


Then he stands with the shotgun and stretches and groans and lumbers out of frame. 


For a moment we linger on that bizarre image: 


A couch, in front of a door. 


Boom! Mystery solved. I had figured it out! The person who had built the strange couch-barricade was… 


A guy named Hank, apparently. Who–not coincidentally (on the off-chance I managed to finish whatever this was and get it made)–happened to look quite a bit like me. Though I still had no idea who this man really was, where he was, what he did for a living, or what he was trying to keep out of his house, I had made a bit of progress. 


That opening scene amounted to almost one single page of a screenplay. 


And this, dear reader, is but a glimpse into the maddening, inefficient, nightmare that is–and has always been–my writing process. Try as I might, to plot out my stories with Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, or make “mind-maps” or beat sheets, or lay three acts out on Syd Field’s Screenplay Paradigm, or in Dan Harmon’s Story Circle, I have never once managed to actually do it. 


Everything I have ever finished has been the result of a flash of inspiration, followed by weeks, months, and often years of blindly groping in the dark for breadcrumbs and lifelines. 


This article is no exception. It is part of the reason I resisted committing to it for so long. It is also why I have amassed no fewer than nine individual documents comprising an equal number of false starts over two months attempting to write it. And it is why I am still bushwhacking through word thickets on the eve of a deadline while my wife works my shift at the bar, to give me every last minute to maybe find my way out of the writing woods. 


Speaking of the woods… 


III: The Terrible Wilderness of the Middle. 


When I first saw the A.A. Stivender House, there was a moment—however brief—in which I thought I had actually manifested the damned thing. 


That I might literally have written it into existence. Willed the house into the world through sheer force of imagination. The power of a pen on paper. I could almost see it happening. Set back from the road as it was, hidden in a hug of oak trees behind curtains of Spanish moss, literally building itself, a board at a time. Not all at once, but over months and years. Each time I wrote a sentence referencing Hank’s home it would grumble awake in the woods and grow a little more. A little bit bigger. From the foundation to the wide wraparound porch, on up to the tall brick chimney jutting from the roof like a castle spire. Its crown choked by an enormous osprey nest. A beautiful green bloom of infection threatening to spread over the whole of the place that called to mind “The Lonely Death of Jordy Verill,” from George Romero’s Creepshow


In reality, of course, none of that happened. The enchanting, imposing, Italianate-style home that would become a major character in my third feature film was already standing a full hundred years before I was even born. Built in 1881, by a dentist from Alabama in what would become the city of Leesburg, Florida, (but at the time was a small citrus-industry outpost known as Eldorado,) it was absolutely perfect. 

So perfect, in fact, it had already been featured in a major motion picture years earlier. Away We Go was a sweet, rambling dramedy starring Maya Rudolph and John Krasinski, as a couple on the verge of parenthood who travel the country visiting friends and family, looking for the perfect place to put down roots. In the end, they decide on the childhood home of Rudolph’s character. Enter, the A.A. Stivender House. 


This connection was no coincidence of course. The house had been suggested to us by our friend, Juan Ortiz, who is a talented filmmaker in his own right. (Seriously, if you’re curious what I look like in a knit panda mask eating a severed thumb, check out his film Fingers). Anyway, years earlier, Juan had been hired to sit at the Stivender property to ensure no one vandalized the Away We Go set overnight. During these security details, he would often call Christian Stella, my co-director and lifelong filmmaking partner, just to have someone to talk to in order to distract him from the spooky sounds and pitch-black darkness of the location. 


It is no wonder he insisted we consider the place for our monster movie. 


Which, by the way, we were finally, officially, actually making. 


And it had only been six years since I first saw that couch in front of that door. 


In that time the script had gone through countless rewrites. Some, a product of my own restless tinkering; but a fair amount that were insisted upon by a rogue’s gallery of producers (with mostly good intentions) who mostly, eventually, just quietly vanished. My personal life had changed dramatically in that time, and I had begun to question, if we ever managed to get the movie made, whether I would still be able to relate to the themes and emotions that had inspired me to write it in the first place. 


By the last of those endless drafts, one character had been cut down to nearly nothing, two characters had been collapsed into one, (come to think of it, two monsters had been collapsed into one) and nearly thirty pages had been excised completely. Somehow though, I mostly still recognized it as the story I originally wrote. 


The biggest change to the script however, wouldn’t be implemented until that final rewrite. 


During a conference call with investors and producers, I got the sense that interest might be flagging a little when the subject of where we envisioned shooting the film was raised. From the very first draft, I had always imagined the story taking place in New England. I was living in Connecticut when the story was written, and we had shot our previous two features in the upstate town of Kent, near the border of southwestern Massachusetts. At that time, there had been quite a few recent indie, artsy, horror movies set in the moody, foggy forests and meadows of old-world America, and for some reason, without running it by my partners, I blurted out something along the lines of: 


“I’ve always wanted to make a movie in the middle of Florida. In the part of Florida most people don’t see. The part that feels like the south. No beaches or theme parks. I’m talking about sweet tea and Spanish moss. Snakes and gators and swamps and old orange groves and good old boys in big trucks.” 


A month later, we were knocking on doors in Leesburg, trying to find the owner of the house I thought I might have written into the world. 


IV: Making a Monster 


Much ink (and even more audio) has been spilt on the making of After Midnight.


And why not? Filming a movie is the fun part. 



Running around town scouring flea markets and thrift stores and filling a box truck with enough furniture and knick knacks and bric-a-brac to turn a hundred year old home with no electricity or running water into something that looked warm and loved and lived-in. Catching a half dozen beautiful yellow rat snakes that seemed to be furiously mating and occasionally dropping from the rafters onto the porch. Working with some of my favorite creative people in the world. Trying not to crack up laughing next to Henry Zebrowski, one of the funniest comedians alive, every single time he was on camera; and at one point having to be gently told by producers during the editing process: “You know you can’t leave every single one of his ad-libs in the final movie, right?” Getting permission to sing, on screen, the entirety of a song that was a touchstone anthem of the early nineties. And of course, having the unbelievable opportunity to have one of my special effects heroes make a full-body, practical monster suit inspired by words I wrote, and then getting to actually physically fight that monster. It was a dream. Every single day. 


Of which I believe there were exactly eighteen. 


That’s it. Eighteen days. Less than three weeks.  


Then it was off to a dark room to edit and color correct and sound design and sound mix and add temp score and argue and wait for the real score and phone calls and phone calls and notes and notes and notes and notes and flying to Los Angeles to make monster roars and snarls and growls and oh by the way, I wasn’t working while all this was happening so pretty soon it was back to the day job! 


Which brings me to another reason I politely declined the offer to write this piece, and screen our film, in the past: 


I don’t particularly like telling people I’m a filmmaker. 


More often than not, I would rather most people not know I make movies. 


I am well aware what a difficult circle that is to square, given the three thousand bloviating words I’ve dedicated to talking about precisely that subject up to this point. 


And in the spirit of transparency—to peel back the curtain a bit—this particular section has proven such a difficult and delicate one to write, I have in fact skipped it, written the ending, and come back to it now to tackle it last. 


There is just simply no easy way to say you would rather the public at large be unaware of your ambitions, without sounding either ashamed of said ambitions, or otherwise ungrateful of the job that keeps your lights on and supports your pursuit of those goals. 


And yet I am neither ashamed nor ungrateful of either. 


On the contrary, were my moviemaking endeavors ever considered to be even the faintest of freckles on the vast body of cinematic history (somewhere on the back of the thigh probably) it would be one of the proudest achievements of my life.  


Similarly—though it may be harder to believe—I consider my day job slinging beers at Grove Roots Brewing, to be one of the most rewarding “obligations” I’ve ever had the privilege of lucking into. 


Had I not weaseled my way into such a warm, supportive place, there is little to no chance my wife and I would still be in this town, let alone the state. 


It may be a cliche to say your coworkers are your family; but if they all end up members of your wedding party, and their children are your flower girl and ring-bearer, or when they’ve given you six months off to make a movie, and so many customers ask after you that they name a beer “Where’s Jeremy?”, the sentiment rings a bit more true. 


Nevertheless, regardless how I feel about my involvement in either my day job or my dream job, they are rarely symbiotic. Consider the following, fairly common scenarios: 


INT. BREWERY - NIGHT 


Jeremy is behind the bar. A customer approaches. 

         

JEREMY 

     How we doin today? 

         

CUSTOMER 

     Good, good. 

         

JEREMY 

     Can I help you find something? 

         

CUSTOMER 

     Don,t you make movies? 

         

JEREMY 

     Uhh, well... Kinda, yeah- 

         

CUSTOMER 

     Cuz I make videos too. I got this new drone, and I,m trying to make a bunch of promo stuff... 

Jeremy sighs. 

 

DISSOLVE TO:

 

INT. BREWERY - AFTERNOON 

Jeremy hunches over the sinks behind the bar, washing dishes. A customer approaches. 

         

CUSTOMER 

     Hey you make movies right?  

         

JEREMY 

     I’ve made a couple, yeah. 

         

CUSTOMER 

     What are they called?  

         

JEREMY 

     Well there's a few, but the ones I wrote and directed myself-

         

CUSTOMER 

     Cuz I got one of those Fire Sticks, so I can watch pretty much any movie for free. 

Jeremy sighs. 

 

INT. BREWERY - NIGHT 

         

CUSTOMER 

     I heard you make movies.  

         

JEREMY 

     On occasion. 

         

CUSTOMER 

     You gotta cast me in the next one. 

 

INT. BREWERY - EVENING 

         

CUSTOMER 

     Are you the guy that makes the movies? 

         

JEREMY 

     Uhh, I mean. Probably, yeah. 

         

CUSTOMER 

     Well there,s no paper towels in the men,s room. 


Obviously, these interactions are the exception, not the rule. And for the most part the people I have met in this town have been supportive and generous, to an almost sickening degree. In fact, when it was announced After Midnight would have its international premiere at a festival in Switzerland, the regulars at the brewery were the ones who bought nearly a thousand dollars worth of t-shirts I’d designed to try and raise money to make the trip. Most of them never even picked up the shirts. They just wanted to help. 


The reality is, I have gone bowling with [name redacted] and competed in a Moon Pie eating competition with [name redacted]. I have snuck out of a live performance in Montreal to get burgers with [name redacted] and done a live, drunken reading of the Road House screenplay for charity with [name redacted]. I have stood for an hour, signing autographs in a foreign country after a sold-out screening of my film, and been all over the world and won countless audience and acting awards. I did a People magazine photo shoot at the Tribeca Film Festival where my last movie had its world premiere, and if all of that sounds a bit pompous that’s because it is supposed to. 


Because I often find it very difficult to explain these things to people when they think it is “cute” that I make “videos.” And I rarely feel like a filmmaker, when I’m sweeping up glass or cleaning up spills. 


So, why have I agreed to write this at all? 



Well, first and foremost, because twenty-five years ago, in my hometown of Kissimmee, Florida, someone thought it worthy to organize a film festival. 


Because of that person, that event, and that communal space, my friends and I felt inspired to make our first feature film. We also met numerous other aspiring filmmakers we never would have known were making the same kinds of silly movies in the same stupid town. One of those people, twenty years later, would ask me to put on a panda mask and eat a man’s thumb, and later lead us to that hundred-year-old house I might have manifested. 


So if writing this article, or screening our film, somehow facilitates an interaction between a few shy kids who feel like they’re alone in wanting to make weird movies in this big, weird, state, well, then every unsolicited audition I’m forced to endure, or drone reel video I’m forced to watch on someone’s phone while I’m working will be worth it. 


Now, about that cave painting… 


V: Chekhov’s Cave Painting 2: The Paintening. 


I was twelve years old in the summer of 1993; so the particulars of the night itself escape me. But considering it was the middle of June in the middle of Florida, it’s probably safe to assume it was pretty damn sticky outside. And for my money, humanity has yet to dream up a more perfect sanctuary from the heat than the cool, dark of a movie theater. 


Which is where I found myself that evening. 


I have to assume some of the more film-savvy readers, by this point, have long figured out what it was I saw that night, so I won’t beat around the bush any longer…  


It was Jurassic Park


Steven Spielberg’s classic sci-fi adventure may seem like little more than big budget, high-brow Hollywood camp to some people; but I imagine those people weren’t twelve when they first saw it.  

I was obsessed with dinosaurs as a child. My grandmother is fond of recounting being told by my first-grade teacher that I corrected her spelling of Diplodocus


And here they were, larger than life, flesh and blood, as real as anything I’d ever seen. 


Jurassic Park is not my favorite film of all time, but it will always have a piece of my heart, and it changed the trajectory of my life because I became so infatuated with the film (mind you, this was before the internet) that I gobbled up every bit of media I could find about it in an effort to stay connected to the feeling I had from watching it. Magazines. Newspapers. TV news shows like 60 Minutes and late night talk show interviews with the cast. As a result, I became, for the first time, keenly aware of the making of a movie, irrespective of the experience of simply seeing it.  


I was twelve years old in the summer of 1993; so the particulars of the night itself escape me. But considering it was the middle of June in the middle of Florida, it’s probably safe to assume it was pretty damn sticky outside. And for my money, humanity has yet to dream up a more perfect sanctuary from the heat than the cool, dark of a movie theater. 


Which is where I found myself that evening. 


I have to assume some of the more film-savvy readers, by this point, have long figured out what it was I saw that night, so I won’t beat around the bush any longer…  


It was Jurassic Park


Steven Spielberg’s classic sci-fi adventure may seem like little more than big budget, high-brow Hollywood camp to some people; but I imagine those people weren’t twelve when they first saw it.  

I was obsessed with dinosaurs as a child. My grandmother is fond of recounting being told by my first-grade teacher that I corrected her spelling of Diplodocus


And here they were, larger than life, flesh and blood, as real as anything I’d ever seen. 


Jurassic Park is not my favorite film of all time, but it will always have a piece of my heart, and it changed the trajectory of my life because I became so infatuated with the film (mind you, this was before the internet) that I gobbled up every bit of media I could find about it in an effort to stay connected to the feeling I had from watching it. Magazines. Newspapers. TV news shows like 60 Minutes and late night talk show interviews with the cast. As a result, I became, for the first time, keenly aware of the making of a movie, irrespective of the experience of simply seeing it.  




PLEASE JOIN US FOR A PRIVATE SCREENING OF  AFTER MIDNIGHT

WHILE WE RAISE FUNDS FOR THE HISTORIC RITZ THEATRE.

Q & A WITH DIRECTORS JEREMY GARDNER AND CHRISTIAN STELLA TO FOLLOW. 

OCTOBER 26, 7 PM   

VERY LIMITED SEATING, PLEASE RESERVE YOUR TICKETS IN ADVANCE. 




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