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Director reveals how TV’s “WIPEOUT” and a chance meeting led to “THE GALLOWS”

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Few treks out to the gallows are as inspiring or heartening as the one Travis Cluff first set out on back in 2007. “I’d been working in finance and ended up losing a lot of money in what essentially turned out to be a Ponzi scheme,” the co-writer/director of the high-school horror/found-footage flick THE GALLOWS (opening Friday) recalls.

“It was an awful situation,” he continues. “I didn’t really know how I was going to get through it, until one night I was at home watching television, and this new show came on ABC called WIPEOUT. My wife said, ‘You know, I think you could win something like that.’ I kind of laughed…and then started thinking about it more seriously: ‘Well, we could use the money, and at least I’d be doing something fun like an obstacle course, not eating hissing cockroaches or whatever on FEAR FACTOR.’ Call it a premonition if you like; in that moment, I just knew it would happen. I knew I would win.”

Idle armchair braggadocio? Hardly. As foreordained, Cluff successfully auditioned for the second season of WIPEOUT, rocked the hell out of a knockabout gauntlet of absurdist brutality, won his episode and walked away laden with a cool 50 grand. “It didn’t quite set us square, ’cause we had a big hole to fill,” he says, voice still tinged with wonder at it all, “but it floated us above the worst of what could have been.”

A cash windfall is a beautiful thing, as anyone in need of one will tell you. Something more important than a fiscal leg up transpired for Cluff during the shoot, however. “On set, I noticed that everyone from the showrunners to the sound crew to the casting people to the designers to the contestants was having an absolute blast,” he says. “I was like, ‘What have I been doing with my life? I need to be in the entertainment industry!’ ”

So Cluff returned home to Fresno, CA and, energized by new dreams and potentialities, sought his entrée into the magical, if confounding, world of (semi)professional filmmaking. This metaphorical doorway soon opened in the form of an open call for a brave soul to pull off a few stunts on a microbudget vigilante short shooting around town. “Of course, I had no such experience,” he laughs, “but having just won WIPEOUT, I considered myself basically a professional ninja, and was pretty sure I could reasonably imitate a stuntman.”

Much like the decision to audition for WIPEOUT, Cluff’s casting of his lot in with this modest production proved to be a serendipitous twist on his life’s winding path. He forged an near-instant connection with the director, Chris Lofing, a young, hungry wunderkind who had grown up watching classic ’80s horror in tiny Beatrice, Nebraska and now was thinking big as he finished up a one-year general filmmaking program at the New York Film Academy’s Los Angeles satellite school.

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“The first time I met Chris [pictured above center with Cluff], I thought, ‘How old is this kid?’ ” Cluff recalls of meeting his now-partner at Tremendum Pictures, who was born in 1990. “He looked so young. But we became fast friends. He was incredibly driven and focused and knew exactly what he wanted to do, which I was really drawn to because I’d been floundering for a bit. The more we talked and shared ideas, the more it became clear we needed to do something together.”

Smaller, tentative craft-honing shorts, local commercials, contests and genre experiments quickly gave way to plotting a full-fledged feature the writing/directing duo hoped would bridge the gap between supernatural found-footage standouts like THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, stark STRANGERS-esque horror and classic John Hughes teen romps—all blossoming from a true story of a kid who died on stage during a play at Lofing’s Nebraska high school.

Building the film up with the most skeletal of skeleton crews—sometimes consisting of only Cluff, Lofing and the actors—THE GALLOWS slowly took on a life (and buzz) of its own. “Our manager straight-out told us that our greatest strength in making this movie was our naiveté,” Cluff says. “We had no idea what we were trying to do was impossible, so it became possible.”

The project first captured the attention of Dean Schneider of Management 360, who was impressed by footage he caught during random YouTube-ing. “Dean sent us an e-mail: ‘Hey, are you guys in LA? Can you drop a cut of the movie off?’ ” Cluff recalls. “We said, ‘Oh yeah, sure. We’ll bring it by tomorrow.’ Then we drove down that night and slept in the van. We did whatever we had to do to make the most of any opportunity that presented itself.”

Then, major contemporary horror player Blumhouse Productions came calling, followed by New Line Cinema/Warner Bros. For such a ghastly tale, THE GALLOWS sure seemed to be morphing into a serious Cinderella story. “We navigated a lot of detours, but we kept working and the stars started to align for us in ways we could not have ever imagined,” Cluff says. “Our tiny movie somehow is being distributed by the biggest studio. I would wish this kind of luck on anyone. It’s been amazing.

“We called our company Tremendum, a word that means a feeling of awe associated with an overwhelming experience,” he continues. “That is what making THE GALLOWS has been for us, and that is what we hope our movies will be for everyone else.”

TO BE CONTINUED

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About the author
Shawn Macomber http://www.stopshawnmacomber.com
The ravings of noted South Florida pug wrangler Shawn Macomber have appeared in Decibel, Magnet, Reason, Maxim, Radar, Shroud, and the Wall Street Journal, amongst other fine and middling publications. He also hosts the podcast Into the Depths and pens the metal-lit column Tales From the Metalnomicon for Decibel magazine.
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