At a nondescript professional building off Park Avenue in the University of Memphis area, Brad Ellis and Sean Faust are hunkered down, putting the finishing touches on Daylight Fades, an ambitious local feature film that director Ellis and his cast and crew began shooting in January 2009. The film's premiere is a week and a half away, and while the color-corrected picture is locked, there's still work to be done on the sound.
Ellis and Faust (the sound coordinator and composer on Daylight Fades) are co-owners of New School Media, a music and video production company they operate out of this location. Here, they do corporate video projects, produce the PBS Sun Studio Sessions series, and, in partnership with producer/engineer Doug Easley, provide studio space to local musicians such as Harlan T. Bobo and the Magic Kids.
But before New School, there was Old School — Old School Pictures, a filmmaking collective formed at Houston High School in the late '90s by Ellis, Daylight Fades screenwriter and co-star Allen Gardner, and other classmates. Old School has produced 10 feature films in all, starting with an entirely unauthorized shot-by-shot remake of John Carpenter's Halloween, directed by Ellis and starring Gardner in dual roles.
The Old School crew evolved into something more substantial, emerging as a serious local-film force with their last feature, 2005's Indie Memphis prize winner Act One, a clever post-collegiate comedy again directed by Ellis and written by and starring Gardner.
But if Act One was a major step forward for the crew — bigger budget, better writing and acting, more polished production values — Daylight Fades represents an even bigger leap.
Gardner says he began taking notes for the film — a relationship drama with a vampire-themed overlay — during production on Act One, developing the script soon after. After a long pre-production process, primary shooting was done over the course of six weeks in January and February 2009 at 40 different locations, mostly around the South Main District and Midtown (including Earnestine & Hazels, the P&H Café, and several private residences), using a cast and crew that mixed local and out-of-town talent.
Gardner, who moved to Los Angeles after high school to pursue acting and writing for the stage and screen, conducted casting sessions in California, which produced three of the four leads (Gardner is the fourth). Ellis and executive producer Ryan Watt concentrated on fund-raising and location scouting back home.
"We had the film cast before we had [financial] resources," Ellis says. "We wanted to get as many elements in place before we let the cameras roll. We wanted potential investors to see that we had it together."
"We had a launch party in October 2008," Watt remembers. "At that point, we had decided we were shooting in January '09, and we had about a third of our budget together. It's one of those things where if you don't treat it as if it's going to happen, it's not going to happen. So we had this party at Emerge Memphis and invited anyone who might be interested in investing or helping out in some other way, like providing a location. And a lot came out of that party. That gave us some momentum, and we were able to raise enough money to get us through production."
After making Act One for $12,000, the Old School crew ended up pushing the budget for Daylight Fades into six figures, with most cast and crew working for reduced pay or for free to put as much of that money on the screen as possible.
"We had done movies for $12,000 or less, and we could have gone that route again," Gardner says. "But we decided we needed to hold out for as much as possible. We felt that we needed to step up and raise the bar for ourselves, which was painful at times. It took a lot longer to do it. But when Ryan came on board, things started to click."
"We had a decent amount of money and decided it was going to go into production values. We were going to have to make this a team effort," Watt says. "That meant that for two months none of us were making any money, which made post-production difficult because by March we all found out we were more broke than we realized."
After working for years making movies with friends, Ellis suddenly found himself commanding a large crew filled with people he didn't already know.
"We would hire the department heads and entrust them to get the rest of the crew," Ellis says. "We had lots of people on set. We had schedules to uphold. There were things that were pretty much new to me."
In shaping the film's look, Ellis worked closely with director of photography John Paul Clark on what was Old School's first high-definition feature. Ellis and Clark used a Red One camera — a digital camera that can approximate the depth of field of a film camera.
Ellis and Clark also chose to shoot the film in a widescreen ratio, a first for Ellis.
"I wanted to tell a small-scale, intimate story but wanted it to seem larger than life or be presented that way visually," Ellis says. "But blocking was a concern. How do you fill the frame? John Paul helped me a lot on composition. You can fit more information in a wider frame, so you don't have to do as much cutting, as much editing. You can give more information in a single shot. That way you don't have to do as many set-ups."
Ellis and Gardner are both guarded about the film's story. But it's clear that Daylight Fades is a suspenseful drama focused on relationships among twentysomething characters — with a vampire element thrown into the mix.
If it seems like Daylight Fades is an attempt to cash in on a new wave of vampire-themed pop culture given the popularity of the Twilight book and film series and HBO's True Blood, that's an assumption the Old School crew is sensitive to. The reality is that Gardner penned the script before those twin peaks of vampire pop emerged, during what he ruefully describes as a "fallow period" for vampire material.
"By the time I'd even heard of Twilight or True Blood, we were deep into pre-production on this," Gardner says. "But I think it will highlight how our film is different. It really is a stripped-down drama, ultimately. I think that will surprise some people. For some, that will be for the better, and for others, who knows, it could be detrimental. But overall, you have to make the most personal film you can. That's the only way you can really connect."
Gardner compares Daylight Fades' take on the vampire genre to the sideways approach that Donnie Brasco took toward mob movies — situating a straightforward relationship drama within a genre milieu.
"We're all excited, because we know it's still different," Watt says. "It's darker and more realistic. It's not teenybopper. It's not horror either. And it's not the campier True Blood angle."