Ghost Cop is a film about a Ghost that’s a cop, sort of.
He haunts the city that used to be his jurisdiction, solving crimes no human cop would touch. Again, sort of.
The idea was conceived in a cramped two person apartment that housed four of us (and often five since we always had friends sleeping over). The director, Jesse Monday, who now runs a pretty rad videography company, was my roommate at the time, and we shared an inordinate love for old-timey detective noir and also surrealist comedy. One night we sat down with Celtx open and absolutely no agenda, and a ghost cop was born.
At the time we actually decided to make the film, I was a manager at a tech repair shop and Jesse did setup and teardown at an inflatables rental company. If you’ve rented a bounce house in the Midwest in the last few years, you’ve probably met him. In any case, neither of us had much money to put into shooting a movie.
So nearly all of the budget went toward renting an anamorphic lens, which drastically reduced that nauseating sharpness that pervades digital cinematography. Nothing in the world can truly replicate the look of film (although 2016’s Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl comes impressively close).
Since we spent all our money of the lens (a fantastic choice, in hindsight), most of the props were borrowed, and there were really no sets. Everything was shot on location, which created some interesting challenges.
We only had three or four stage lights, and limited battery. So we had to put natural light to good use. This proved to be a blessing in disguise, however, as the natural ambiance, with minimal stage lighting, grounds the film a bit more in reality while the narrative projects it off into outer space.
We didn’t have any money to pay actors, so we promised to feed Gabe and Leah, who play the antagonist and the Damsel in Distress (our film is very non-sexist, as you can see) instead of paying them. I don’t remember if we actually fed them.
Almost the entire film was meant to be foggy. That didn’t work out. We could only afford one fog machine, and on the first day of the shoot it wouldn’t turn on. It only finally began working on the last night, in the antagonist’s lair. This also turned out to be a good thing, because the result was that each of the film’s major locations has a distinct visual aesthetic.
Early sequences in the bulding complex where Ghost Cop meets the Damsel in Distress have a grimy aesthetic. The walls are mustard yellow and covered in thick layers of dirt. The carpet is a strange purple that I’d never seen before. That was shot in the upper level of an old Presbyterian church, and its halls were haunted by the fear of God. It’s something out of a Flannery O’Connor story. Hazel Motes could live there.
The city is mostly lit in Tungsten, because we shot primarily with natural light in these scenes. Which is a bit regrettable, I suppose, because it dampens the otherworldy atmosphere we had otherwise built. Nevertheless, It looks good, and gives us, perhaps, at least one foot in reality to keep the story from nose-diving into Eraserhead territory.
I hate ‘doc style’ cinematography, almost invariably. I’ve come across a film or three that makes good use of it, but I can’t conjure them up off the top of my head. Occaisionally, the outdoor shots veer into ‘doc style’ territory because we were running out of time. On top of that, the stage lights were dying one-by-one, so there’s one scene in particular that’s both poorly shot and underlit. Thankfully, there’s only one such shot.
The antagonist’s lair was filmed in the lower level of the old Presbyterian church. It had been abandoned for upwards of two years, and was really as dilapidated as it looks in Ghost Cop. Also, I’m pretty sure it was a full on breeding ground for asbestos. We might die. All of us. Or we might be already dead. #GhostCop
The lair is a dweebish underworld. Watching the dailies from this night of shooting made me wonder what universe these creatures inhabit. We wanted the scenery to invoke nervous laughter – there’s a girl in a baby chair blowing bubbles, and a grown man playing with toy cars in a cowboy’s vest. There’s fog everywhere, never outside, but all throughout the vast corridors of the church. Hazy and dreamlike, it’s exactly as over-the-top visually as it is thematically.
Even from early scripting, we knew that visual style would be incredibly important. Jesse toyed with shooting it as a Steampunk fairy-tale, modeling the visuals on films like Blade Runner, but we had to regroup when it became clear that our budgetary limitations would not permit this.
So I ended up lighting the film like an old Giallo mystery. Especially once we move into the second half, we flood the onscreen space with hard reds and blues. Part of this is because I am color blind and can’t really see shades. Subtlety is invisible.
But the other part is that we wanted to make the spaces that Ghost Cop inhabits seem otherworldly. He occupies a haunted world. I tried to imagine what Mario Bava might have done had he remade The Maltese Falcon during that golden era when he churned out Planet of the Vampires and Kill, Baby, Kill.
In all, it was a fun experience, and we’ve started looking at future projects – a half-written apocalypse-Western, or a drama/horror about a town that begins unraveling, or Ghost Cop 2, or something else entirely. I’ve moved halfway across the country, but can’t wait to get to work on another project.
Ghost Cop may be premiering next week in Shawnee, Oklahoma on Friday, October 13 (fingers crossed?) and will be available to view online soon afterward. I’ll put up the necessary links once they’re posted!
The teaser trailer can be seen here.