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Clay Tatum & Whitmer Thomas | THE CIVIL DEAD

Written By:

JAMES "MAGIC" PERKINS
The-Civil-Dead

To celebrate the upcoming UK VOD release of the brilliantly funny ghost comedy The Civil Dead, we here at STARBURST were honoured to chat with director/co-writer/star Clay Tatum and co-writer/star Whitmer Thomas to talk about the film and sticking to an indie budget whilst telling a big and grounded story.

STARBURST: Congratulations on the film, it’s absolutely brilliant, we thoroughly enjoyed it.

Clay Tatum & Whitmer Thomas: Thank you so much; that means a lot.

Such a crazily unique concept and execution – where did this idea come from?

Clay: I thought of this during lockdown during the pandemic, and the basic premise was what if a ghost just annoyed you instead of scaring you when you’re being haunted? And I thought it was a funny idea. The story naturally arose from that premise. And it led me towards a certain ending that felt true and really interested me. So I thought that that would be a cool movie to write one day, then a friend of mine offered me a little bit of money to make a feature, so I pitched him this idea, and he said write it – so Whit came on board and wrote it with me. It was a really quick turnaround from the first idea to us making the film actually.

Whit, what were your thoughts when Clay came to you with this idea?

Whit: I thought it was cool. Clay just made something I was in that was similar tonally, so I was pumped to get involved with this one. The only thing I specified that I wanted to do is play the ghost, and Clay agreed [laughs]. There have been so many movies like this, but we wanted to make it stand out so we had the ending and wrote towards that ending and made it unique along the way.

You have both been friends for a long time – and that shows in your on-screen chemistry – and you play characters with your names. Did you draw a lot of inspiration from your real friendship and characteristics?

Whit: We will always end up writing to our real friendship. I’m definitely that guy who is banging on Clay’s door, saying, “Come do this cool thing”. Clay is definitely like his character in a lot of ways without spoiling the film [laughs]. It’s very true to us.

Clay: It’s also based on some people that we knew that followed us from Alabama to LA, expecting us to hang out a lot, and there was a weird friendship dynamic between us all. We couldn’t give them the time they wanted so that definitely helped us write this film, with that being the film’s main drama.

Whit: Everything that Clay and I write together, we’re always going to play these sorts of characters.

Clay: You don’t have to act as much when you don’t want to do something in a film [laughs].

Many aspects of the narrative will resonate with people – especially those in the creative industry. Is that a part of the story that was always important to include?

Clay: It’s like the adage of ‘write what you know’. I’m professionally unemployed all the time or under-employed, so that’s a thing that you think about 24/7, so it definitely helped.

Whit: We always make things super relatable. We will always have a character that needs $3k for something, as that is a life-changing sum of money for a lot of people. Some people would laugh at that, but we know how much you can actually do with that, so we always like to reference that. What kind of stories would we tell if we were rich? Only time will tell, who knows (laughs).

The film is very funny while also being bleak and real. How did you find writing that balance?

Clay: We always want to make ‘real movies’ and our main priority isn’t necessarily comedy, but we want to make it real and cool, and the comedy naturally comes with that. If you make someone laugh, then you know you’ve done something right, so comedy is important. I’m not brave enough to make something purely drama right now.

Whit: Writing stupid little jokes is something we will always do, and if people love them, then that is an extra bonus. While we were writing this, we were a little stressed – there is a scene where my character has no idea what 5G is. He thinks it means $5k, and it’s the dumbest joke in the whole script and we thought, “If this doesn’t work, then the whole tone of the movie is off”. But thankfully, people seem to love that moment.

Clay: That makes us way more comfortable in our future as writers and comedians, too. 98% of good movies are funny, so to have that moment resonate with people makes us feel great. You can have a movie that is bleak but also funny.

 

The bread crumbs and Chekov’s gun moments in the film are so well thought out and treat the viewers as intellectuals, which we love. Do you feel that that is an important part of storytelling in film?

Clay: Yeah, it’s hard to treat other people as intellectuals, though, when I guarantee I have a double-digit IQ, and with us, we want to show our confidence in our audience understanding the direction we are taking things.

Whit: What we hope that we’ve learned from this movie is that you don’t need to hand-hold the audience for them to understand you and your story. One of the scenes we had originally dumbed down, but then cut a bunch of stuff out as we realised that the extra bits were unnecessary. We have definitely grown as filmmakers throughout this whole process.

Let’s talk production – we love hearing stories of how other people get their films made. Can you tell us about some of the challenges you faced during the process?

Clay: This whole movie came about after my friend told us to take some money and make a movie. So that was painless, as everything came out of one phone call. The most trouble we had was fitting everything we wanted to do into a day. We shot a lot of pages per day, as we could only afford so many days to shoot. Whit had the realisation to save time and money by shooting some dialogue-less scenes without a whole cast and crew behind the camera. So a lot of the scenes of just walking from car to house, and that sort of stuff, was done with minimal crew to save a bunch of time.

Whit: When you’re making a lower-budget movie in 12 days – you don’t have to think about those 12 days. Shoot all the big important stuff first and then work out fun and cost-effective ways of getting those little moments, and the whole thing comes together nicely.

THE CIVIL DEAD is out now on VOD in the UK. You can read our review here.

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