Velvet Road

by Faith Bennett
Velvet Road is local director Gustavo Cooper’s latest and most ambitious project to date. The short film, which runs just barely over 10 minutes, explores the idea of a zombie apocalypse affecting the “racially charged South of the 1960s.” Recognizable commercial actor Tom Martin plays the lead role of Bobby, a white mechanic who awakens in a wrecked car to find his pregnant wife Carolyne (played by local actress Heather Ricks) missing. Knowing she’s already been bitten, Bobby follows a trail of blood down the road leading to “a fateful encounter and an unthinkable choice.”
Before shooting even began, the film spent months in preproduction. Alexandria Lewis, along with Cooper, first spent time crafting the story before moving on to the even lengthier process of casting and finding funding. Executive producer and local filmmaking veteran, Jon Shepard, was gracious enough to talk to EU about what the preproduction involved.
Because of the equipment used, the equally professional special effects, and, of course, all the labor required, Velvet Road needed quite a bit of funding to get off the ground. Shepard admitted raising the money was the hardest part. But Shepard, along with Lewis, Cooper and fellow producer, Heather Burky, got creative. “We did a couple parties. We auctioned off posters, artwork, zombie key chains [made by Lewis], storyboards, T-shirts. And we literally took donations on the street.” They also used fundraising website Indieagogo to take donations from family, friends and anyone online who believed in the project.
Eventually, when enough money was accrued, the team was able to focus more on locations, actors and props. Being that Velvet Road was to take place in the 60s, everything on screen had to reflect that. A third producer, Mike Masson, helped “scour the earth” for wardrobe, matching cars, the things in the cars and so on.
The location amongst cornfields and cabbage patches in Hastings, Florida, was also chosen to reflect the story. “We needed Deep South farmland with vast horizons,” Shepard said, which they certainly achieved with the blue-skied Hastings location.
The casting was easy compared to the rest. Male lead Tom Martin was a friend of Shepard’s and was chosen for the role without an audition, and the rest of the characters were cast locally through Courtney Gardner. After all the preliminary work was done, the cast and crew were able to move to the much faster and much more physical process of production.
Shot in only three days, the making of Velvet Road was a very labor-intensive process requiring cooperation from every member of the extensive crew on board. The crew was comprised of not only the director, writer and trio of producers, but also the director of photography, fellow camera operators, camera assistants, the assistant director, audio assistants, audio technician/boom operator, grips, gaffers, hairstylists, makeup artists, assistant editors, and production assistants would show up early to set everything up.
The actress and the actors would then spend hours each day in the makeup trailer where they were transformed by Penny Dreadful, the same makeup team to work on such successes as The Walking Dead and Zombieland. As Shepard says, “The most fun is rolling the camera.”
Though everyone on set was suffering through the Southern heat and the recurring clouds of gnats, nobody’s performance suffered. A massive truck holding dozens of C-stands, reflectors and other equipment like dollies, a jib and many sandbags (used to keep expensive equipment from moving) was parked by base camp each day on location, and the tasks required from the crew were as varied as the equipment. Armed with walkie-talkies to communicate with producers, production assistants took turns keeping cars from driving down the “velvet road” while filming was in progress.
Meanwhile, over half the crew would be around the scene itself performing various tasks to ensure the image was satisfactory. Large reflectors were positioned around the actors so that the natural light used would hit the right way. At any time, two RED cameras where being operated so that there would be multiple shots to choose from for each take and, yards away, media manager Stephen Aymond extracted the footage from p2 cards so they could be erased and hold more footage.
They shot for 12 hours each day, with additional time being used to set up and break down equipment. The process was exhaustive, but necessary (and well worth it) to create a nice finished product. As Cooper says, “The best thing is seeing it come to life.”
The final step was post-production, and Velvet Road’s editor, William Gaggins, was able to help describe the “unseen art.” After assistant editor Keagan Anfuso synced and organized all the footage, Gaggins was able to complete the initial edit in just one week, but spent much longer tweaking it closer to perfection. Gaggins and Cooper worked together on the edit, ensuring that both voices were heard through the finished product. Gaggins notes, “I guess the most difficult part of editing is finding a good balance between respecting the director’s vision while trying to hopefully add something to it.” He also mentions that “you don’t get everything you want and have to adjust,” but says that the most rewarding part is when someone recognizes the post-production work that was put in and appreciates the edit.
As for the fate of Velvet Road, it’s yet to be determined. The 10 ½-minute short was just finished and tailored for festivals in which it will surely succeed. Gaggins says that his “hopes for Velvet Road are that people watch it and say to themselves, ‘Of all the 10 ½ minutes I’ve spent doing things in my life, that was one of the better 10 ½ minutes.’”
Shepard mentions that they plan to take the short to festivals as a prologue for a feature they intend to produce with the same theme. “It’s a sizzler for a feature,” Heather Burky says. The possibility of the full-length civil rights zombie film gets every crew member excited, though Shepard says, “As of right now, the feature is unwritten.” Though both the feature and the future of Velvet Road are unwritten, they each seem full of promise.