Generating the kind of word-of-mouth buzz you’d normally expect to be associated with the Oscars, Keep the Gaslight Burning has been gradually lighting up the indie short film circuit like a slow-burning fuse. Given its impressive and enviable pedigree, it is no surprise this little Victorian Gothic gem has been selected for special screenings and is receiving recognition at short film festivals around the globe.
Keep the Gaslight Burning delivers an evocative, moody and creepy horror story about a Southern widowed lady, Mrs Maxwell (played by Markie Post) who is haunted by her dead husband (played by make-up maestro Rick Baker, of An American Werewolf in London fame). Only by keeping the gaslight burning in her chambers, which have effectively become her prison, can she stave off his vengeful haunting and a potentially grisly end. She has gone through a succession of young female companions who cannot cope with the horror, until the latest arrives, who proves she has more mettle than her predecessors.
This companion, played by Kate Armstrong Ross (real-life daughter of Markie Post), may be able to end the ghastly midnight visits, but at what cost? You’ll have to watch the film to find out.
Keep the Gaslight Burning had its beginnings during a dinner conversation over a year ago among four friends, Dave and Lou Elsey, and Don and Anna Bies, who shared their love of films. They wondered if there was a way to produce a film of their own that would showcase their impressive talents and years of experience, and serve as a kind of calling card for future projects.
Dave and Lou Elsey first met Don and Anna Bies when all four worked on Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith during 2003 in Sydney. Dave was the Creature Shop Supervisor, Lou was Fabrication Supervisor, Don was R2D2 operator / droid unit supervisor and Anna was script and location researcher.
Don, an American with over 30 years experience in the film industry – 19 of those working at George Lucas’ visual effects company Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) – had met his future wife, Anna, an Australian TV producer/writer/director (who would also work at ILM), during an appearance at a Melbourne Star Wars fan convention years earlier. Despite going off to work on other projects after Star Wars, the Elsey/Bies friendship remained strong over the following years.
During their dinner, Dave Elsey, a keen horror fan as well as a special make-up and creature effects expert, recalled a short story by British author Ronald Chetwynd-Hayes, to which Dave had bought the rights and used as the basis for a script he had written. This story had all the hallmarks of a good horror setting and the potential to translate well into a short film, especially given the friends’ past experiences working in the industry. They also had an impressive list of contacts they could call on, including people they had worked with over the years or whom they knew through mutual acquaintances.
Mulling over their desire to produce their own project, Dave said, ‘I’ve got a script,’ to which Don and Anna replied, ‘We’ll get the crew together.’ It mightn’t have been quite that easy, but in addition to the script and their years of experience, a remarkable number of elements (actors, location, set design, donated make-up team and spfx assistance, even the offer of a loan of an Arri Alexa camera) seemed to fall into place so perfectly it would seem this project couldn’t fail to get off the ground, especially with shooting commencing just 64 days later.
Getting the actors proved equally straightforward. After Star Wars, Dave Elsey’s extensive experience in make-up led to him working with special effects creator Rick Baker on Wolfman (2010), for which both received an Academy Award for Best Achievement in Make-up.
Rick Baker had previously won the inaugural Academy Award for Best Make-Up for An American Werewolf in London (1981), as well as winning a total of seven Academy Awards out of eleven nominations, and even has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (bestowed in 2012). Having him appear in Keep the Gaslight Burning as a favour to his friends Dave and Lou, albeit in an acting capacity, while they took on the role of make-up designers, must have seemed like old times for the friends.
When Don and Anna Bies came on board as producers, Don also worked as editor, assistant director and prop maker. Coupled with their shared background in the industry was a keen desire to work together on a project where they got to call the shots and indulge in their shared love of classic films depicting, as Dave noted, “supernatural and fantastical worlds”.
Dave and Lou Elsey’s neighbour, actress Markie Post, might not have seemed the most obvious casting choice to play the gruesomely scarred widow, Mrs Maxwell, but according to Don, “she was really up for it.” Her daughter, actress Kate Armstrong Ross, quickly came on board to play the latest companion, Maya, possibly lured by the opportunity to act opposite her mother for the first time. With Dave’s long-time friend Rick Baker agreeing to be the ghost, the tiny cast was finalised with Maureen Studer cast as housekeeper Mrs Duncan.
The film was initially shot in just two days in Petaluma, California, with producer Anna Bies explaining, ‘it was a rented ranch house currently empty and up for sale. The house became our studio as well as the location, and we all helped to dress the sets, even buying and hanging the drapery ourselves. Don made the bed out of plumbing materials.”
The production ended up returning to the house a few months later for six hours of additional pick-up shots, courtesy of the landlord who only charged them for the original two days.
“The crew all worked on this film as a favour to Anna and me,” recalls Don. “They wanted to be involved and were also excited to work on this project given its pedigree.”
The timing was fortuitous because the crew and production team would also shortly afterwards sign on to shoot a commercial for a mobile phone game from Elex Tech for “Clash of Kings”.
According to Anna, “there was a wonderful on set atmosphere, and we all had a great time. Markie Post and some of the other actors even paid for their own transport to help keep the production costs down.”
“All the effects were originally done in camera,” said Don, “as we were keen to embrace the idea of shooting everything as practically as possible.” Dave and Lou needed a few digital enhancements done, however, so reached out to old friend Phil Tippett of Tippett Studio, who worked on the original Star Wars trilogy, amongst many other projects. He lent the production a few spfx people, who added the layer of flies buzzing around and the shot when the camera passes through the glass, as well as digital blood spurts. An independent VFX artist, Oliver Phipps, also did a few clean-up shots to digitally remove some of the modern house fixtures.
Director of Photography Bill Holshevnikoff (Emmy-winning director of photography, lighting designer and educator) was keen to work with Rick Baker, which provided the incentive to secure his services. The original ten minutes of music was scored for the film by Joe Kraemer (who also scored Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation), who was interested in working on the film when Don and Anna approached him through a mutual friend. As Don noted, “it was a flow-on effect from knowing people in the industry, so that at each step the bar was raised higher and higher.”
As in most productions, the biggest challenges were coordination, with Don explaining, “we had to align all the cast and crew’s schedules and find a slot of days when we could shoot. We shot on a Sunday and Monday; Rick Baker flew up Sunday morning and he, Markie Post and Kate Armstrong Ross all had other projects to move onto on Tuesday, so we had to be finished.”
Don added, “we didn’t shoot a lot of coverage because our schedule was so tight, so we had minimal options to work with when editing. However, the actors were so professional, they gave nuanced performances which varied slightly from take to take (we averaged only about two to three takes per shot) and that was extremely helpful given our limited footage.”
One moment not originally included in the film but achieved during editing, and one of Don’s favourites, focused on Mrs Maxwell (Markie Post). “An edit that was suggested by an editor friend of the Elseys recommended that Mrs Maxwell have a moment when she picks up her dead husband’s razor. This was not scripted, acted or directed that way; we were able to take a couple of shots from before action was called and cut it in such a way that it allows her to have her ‘moment’.”
Don also noted that “we learned a lot about the post-production process; while we had experience with pre-production, production, editing and visual effects, we hadn’t organised a film throughout the entire process from beginning to end. Setting up a proper workflow was critical, and we had to learn all about file formats to hand over to the visual effects team, setting up proper audio for our sound designer, and incorporating music into the sound mix. Additionally, we needed to learn about the requirements for projecting the film in a proper theatre.”
When asked how the design/look of the film came together, Don explained, “Dave and Lou Elsey had an amazing collection of gathered photo references that ranged from costumes and sets to actual locations and mood pieces. These ‘mood boards’ really helped determine the look and feel and were used to share that vision with Bill, our DP, and Peter Overstreet (our Production Designer), as well as the actors.”
Don reflected on his experience working on the film. “It was a lot of work but the most fun I had while being exhausted in a long time. Creatively for me, it was incredibly satisfying. I’ve been lucky enough to have been involved in some high-profile film projects over the years, and this is one of my favourites.”
Don considers that “the film turned out very much like I hoped it would. I’m incredibly proud of it. It was very much a team effort, and the four of us worked very well together and we each brought a lot to the project. I’m also very proud of the crew who worked so hard to help make it a success. We couldn’t have done it without them.”
Since the behind-the-scenes experiences of working on any film are always of interest to die-hard film fans, Don was able to relate a few anecdotes from filming.
“We needed to get some shots after the main two days of shooting [pick-up shots] that we either missed the first time around or were deemed necessary as we were editing the film. We were granted access back in the house about three months after the initial shoot. It was a skeleton crew – no pun intended! – just myself, Bill, our DP, Shane McGee, our cameraman, and my son and daughter. My daughter played the hand feeding and activating the meter at the beginning of the film, as well as the shadow of the ghost. My son played the muddy feet of the ghost entering the house and climbing the stairs. As we were shooting the ghost entering the house, it began raining outside for real. We did need lights to simulate lightning, however, as there was no lightning storm.”
Mrs Maxwell’s blind eye was inspired by The Curse of Frankenstein, although she didn’t have a blind eye in the original short story. The blind eye was added so she’d have a lasting scar to remember the brutality of her husband that inspired all that happened afterwards. Her make-up was also partly inspired by some unused make-up that Dick Smith had created for actress Karen Black in Burnt Offerings. Rick Baker apparently got the reference straight away when he came on set, unsurprising given his own passion for and interest in special effects make-up.
Despite the film being short, there was still room for the producers to include some Easter eggs for eagle-eyed viewers. One of Dave Elsey’s and Don Bies’ favourite actors is Peter Cushing, and in 1972 he played “Arthur Grimsdyke” in Tales from the Crypt. As a nod to him, Don revealed that the gas meter seen in the film was ‘provided’ by the ‘Grymsdyke Gas Works, Ltd – Cushing Branch’.
Don notes that on Mrs Maxwell’s dressing table there is a replica glass vial of Dracula’s dried blood from Dracula AD 1972, while the tea set is from the Ian McKellen-starring film Mr. Holmes.
The second poster for the film was designed by Australian artist Hugh Fleming, who has also designed cover art for a number of Dark Horse Comics’ Star Wars series, Indiana Jones, and DC Comics.
Don proudly added, “the film has been well received on the film festival circuit – audiences seem to enjoy it. Additionally, several high-profile filmmakers have watched it and enjoyed it: Reece Shearsmith, John Landis and Peter Jackson. It was a thrill to get their seals of approval.”
Keep the Gaslight Burning has screened at a number of prestigious film events, including the LA Shorts International Film Festival, Berlin Short Film Festival, 2018 Women in Horror Film Festival, Sitges Film Festival (finalist), Festival Internacional de Cinema Fantàstic de Catalunya and DragonCon 2018 Independent Short Film Festival (finalist).
It has been nominated for Best Writing, Best Production Design, Best FX and Best Horror Short at the Women in Horror Film Festival, winning in the last category, and has won in the category of Best Horror/Thriller Short Film at the Burbank International Film Festival, which was held in September 2018.
The film will premiere on Amazon on-demand on Halloween (US and UK), with details still being worked out for inclusion on a short film distribution website.
Far from being a one-off project, the producers are hoping that Keep the Gaslight Burning will be the first in a larger anthology series, part of a bigger picture, where each episode will be set in a different genre and provide clues, leading to a wraparound story with a big twist at the end.
Not a bad result for an idea that originated over dinner one (possibly dark and stormy) night.