Local filmmaker Jordan Graham finds success in the found footage subgenre, getting a distribution deal for ‘Specter’—but is already looking to finance his next big thing
A friend of mine who worked as a puppeteer and model-maker on direct-to-video ’90s films like Pi- nocchio’s Revenge and Leprechaun IV: In Space once told me there was literally no way for a low-budget horror film to lose money. Even bottom-shelf titles like these, he explained, were guaranteed to be profitable, because they could be made dirt cheap, and were often well into the black by the time their distribution deals were signed.
When I say “dirt cheap,” keep in mind that Leprechaun IV, which currently holds a 0 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, is estimated to have cost one and a half million dollars. That’s 100 times what Paranormal Activity cost in 2007, before it went on to make over $100 million.
There was only a decade between them, but it was a lifetime in terms of low-budget filmmaking, both artistically and financially.
You see, it used to be that low-bud- get movies burned through much of their financing trying to look as much as possible like a “real” movie. The idea was to achieve maximum production value; they called it “putting the money up on the screen.” If it looked like a major production, this line of reasoning went, audiences would be more enticed into buying tickets, or forking over their rental dollars.
One movie changed all that in 1999: The Blair Witch Project. Made for less than $50,000 (the precise budget is widely disputed) by di- rectors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, it turned heads in the film world when it was picked up for $1.1 million by Artisan Entertainment, and then blew them up entirely when Artisan rode it to a quarter of a billion dollars in revenue. Arriving just before the dawn of the 21st century, it was the first cultural phenomenon to define it.
Blair Witch wasn’t technically the first “found footage” film— meaning one in which the action on screen is constructed as if it was first captured by the cameras of the characters, then later recovered and brought to the audience by usually unexplained means—but it was the first to truly understand the potential of the concept. It didn’t try to look like a big-budget film; instead, it reveled in its own cheap technology and lo-fi resolution.
For low-budget horror filmmaking, it was the beginning of a new punk era. Glitches in the picture were no longer a mark of shame, but a badge of pride. As with the Velvet Underground’s feedback revolution in music 30 years earlier, noise was as important as signal to the overall composition. And static became the defining visual symbol of a new generation of filmmakers.
Dozens of found footage movies flooded the market through the mid-2000s, and Hollywood, always quick to overdo even the simplest idea, even made some big-budget found footage movies, like Cloverfield and Chronicle. Meanwhile, the Paranormal Activity movies were made more effectively—and profitably—for a fraction of the cost. The V/H/S and V/H/S 2 anthologies in the last couple of years have pushed the limits of the subgenre in every direction, taking found footage’s reverence for low-tech to fetishistic levels.
But for all that, there may be no movie in the entire history of the subgenre that lives up to the description of “found footage” quite like Jordan Graham’s Specter.
Staking Out Midground
The 28-year-old Graham, who was raised on Santa Cruz’s Westside and graduated from Santa year after it came out, he made his first short film, with his cousin, during a trip to Arizona. He was 13.
“We went out in the desert and made a really quick short film,” he remembers. “It was a Blair Witch type of thing, and I scared my family. From then on, I was like ‘OK, that’s what I want to do.’”
At Mission Hill Middle School, he started making movies with his friend Michael Daniel.
“I was 11, he was 13,” says Daniel. “We started skateboarding, and we started doing these little skateboarding videos.”
Even then, Graham was a perfectionist. “That’s when I got into video production,” he says of his early partnership with Daniel. “But everything was in-camera edits, so I couldn’t edit anything. I was absolutely a nightmare to work with, so he quit.”
Daniel doesn’t remember quitting, but he does admit his friendship with Graham was rocky for a few years. Nonetheless, he ended up in about half of Graham’s film projects in high school. Today, the two of them work together doing weddings and other videography in Ocean House Productions, which Daniel founded in 2010, and Daniel is perhaps known behind the camera for shooting the videos for popular local alt-hop band Eliquate.
“Jordan pretty much taught me everything I know about video. He’s been my mentor,” says Daniel. “He got me to the level where I could do music videos.”
Daniel also got a role in Graham’s first stab at a full-length movie, 2008’s Midground, which came close to getting Graham into the Guinness Book of World Records for cheapest feature film ever made, with a budget of $300. The setting was the fictional town of Midground, a pseudonym for Santa Cruz that recurs throughout Graham’s films (and creates a clever in-joke in its allusion to The Lost Boys, the most famous movie filmed locally, which changed the name of its Santa Cruz setting to “Santa Carla”).
“It was fun to look at for all of us,” says Daniel of Midground and its cast of Graham’s friends. “But that was just a stepping stone for him to get to Specter.”
“This whole movie was nothing but luck,” says Graham of Specter, the found footage horror film which has been his primary obsession since he started it three years ago. Made for $1,300, it tells the story of a group of friends in Midground who decide to try a much-hyped new drug the same day that a series of bizarre natural disasters strike the city. The film starts off with a field of static, as if establishing its place in the new wave of underground filmmaking; indeed, Specter (in which Graham himself plays the character of the cameraman shooting footage of his friends) makes full use of the visual vocabulary of glitches, another example of how the up-and-coming generation of filmmakers, rather than trying to hide or eliminate the technological shortcomings of their equipment, make them part of the fabric of their movies.
As channels flip, we see an advertisement for Midground that features Santa Cruz’s iconic spots—the wharf, the surfer statue, the lighthouse, the harbor, the trestle (another Lost Boys callback), the Boardwalk (locals in particular will appreciate in-jokes like the repurposing of the Boardwalk’s longtime ad copy “Admission is always free”). Many of these locales will reappear later in the film in a decidedly creepier light. The film then cuts to a series of natural-disaster shots around Santa Cruz— people flocking to a bridge to see a half-submerged boat, an insane wave thrashing the harbor, a car being dragged up from the ocean at the wharf, cops all around trying to keep things orderly. There’s no way you can’t be impressed by the visuals— and wonder how any filmmaker could have orchestrated them without a Hollywood budget.
And of course, Graham didn’t— it was truly “found footage.” He remembers deciding to make a horror film in 2011, and kicking around a few ideas with Joe Patron, who would end up being the lead actor on Specter.
“It was just fun, and we didn’t really take the whole thing too seriously at first. I never thought it would truly go anywhere. We just wanted to do something different,” says Graham. “We were a couple weeks into coming up with an idea for the story when the tsunami hit. We weren’t ready to shoot at all, but my friend’s camera was at the house. So we grabbed it, rode down to the harbor and miraculously got our first shots for the movie.”
After that, there actually was a series of freakish events (flooding in Capitola, fires in Soledad) that Graham managed to get shots of and incorporate into his movie—though he has mixed feelings about taking advantage of disasters that damaged homes and businesses locally. Perhaps he had a karmic debt to pay off, because Specter became both a bless- ing and a curse—a sprawling, overly ambitious adventure into which he got sucked deeper and deeper, with a story he now calls “a mess,” on which he worked with only his core group of actor friends and no crew.
“I did all the audio wrong,” he says as an example. “It wasn’t the way I should have set it up. I have 100,000 little clips, years of work. They’d say ‘OK, we need five tracks of audio.’ How am I going to go through that? But I did, I spent a month, just getting [the basic sound right].”
The plot complicated things, too.
“The second half of the movie, Santa Cruz is wiped out—we don’t know why. The characters come downtown and there’s nothing around, there’s no cars or anything. But you could hear people talking, you could hear cars going off in the background. So I had to dub the whole second half of the movie. That’s what took a long time. It was two years of editing. I did it all,” he says. “And
the legal stuff, that was the biggest nightmare. I had to blur out license plates, I had to get all these people to sign contracts. I just went out there and made a film, I wasn’t thinking about all these things.”
There was definitely some craziness on the shoot, remembers Daniel.
“We’d have to start filming at 4 o’clock in the morning. For me, that meant I wouldn’t get any sleep, cause I’m a night owl,” he says. “But poor Gabe [Nicholson]. Gabe had to stand in the middle of the road, buck naked, with fake blood all over him. It was always in the back of my head—what if somebody drove by and saw that?”
But Gabriel Nicholson, who plays the spaced-out Andy in the film, didn’t mind.
“I just want it to be awesome,” says Nicholson. “Blood, sweat and tears—I’ll do whatever it takes.”
He wasn’t even phased when somebody did drive by and see him, and report it to the cops. In no time, five SCPD squad cars were on the scene.
“I put my hands up, and the first thing I say is “I’m making a horror movie!” says Graham. “The cop I was talking to stops, looks at me for a moment, grabs his radio and says ‘they’re just making a horror film.’ They were so relieved that’s what we were doing, because they said a week before there had been a stabbing right where we were filming. The police have always been so understanding when it comes to filmmaking here, I’ve noticed over the years.”
“The funniest thing was they actually complimented Jordan before they left,” says Daniel. “They said, ‘Good job on the fake blood. It looks really real.’”
Have a Cigar
Once the film was finished, Graham found a music producer who said he could sell it, but a year went by and nothing happened. That’s when he started getting nervous, as the found footage trend seemed like it was peaking.
“While he was taking this time to sell the film, I’m seeing all these found footage movies come out,” he says. “And they’re starting to be kind of similar to mine, and then there was a movie called The Bay, which was very similar to mine.”
Luckily, what Graham calls “an actual real sales agent” saw his trailer online, and reached out to him. Graham signed with him, and they brought Specter to the American Film Market exhibition in L.A., where it got a distribution deal.
“The day that got picked up, that was huge,” he admits. “Getting a film bought, that was my dream for 14 years, and I finally got there in February.”
Graham said the plan is for a fall release—“supposedly it’s going to be on Netflix and Redbox and Video on Demand and some Comcast thing. They made a trailer, and Redbox already made a poster for it. It got American distribution, and China just picked it up a couple weeks ago, Korea just picked it up, and I guess Germany and the U.K. are in discussion, and there’s negotia- tion in Japan.”
Graham’s head is still kind of spinning.
“It is weird. It’s not like I’m getting a lot out of it in terms of money, but the film is going global,” he says. “The sales agent was saying that if he met me a year before, Specter would have sold to a bigger distributor. But if he met me a year before, the movie was awful then.”
Into the Valley of exIle
In some ways, Graham is an intense guy—feverishly devoted to his work, yet extremely self-critical. When I tell him in a text exchange that Specter was much better than he led me to believe, he writes back “Wow, thank you for that! I do have a knack for talking down to my work so people don’t have high expectations. Then they are pleasantly surprised. I’m working on that though.” Then, in the same text, straight back to the self-criticism: “But I honestly feel Specter was a mess in the story. I was trying to express a little too much and play with too many themes.”
His friends say he can be like this while filming, too.
“He’s kind of high strung, depending on the shooting day. But once it’s done, he can laugh about it,” says Nicholson. “I’m more laid back. It’s a good balance.”
“It’s amazing how determined he is,” says Daniel.
And loyal, it would seem. In fact, all of Graham’s core group of collaborators were his friends at Santa Cruz High.
“I met him in high school, sophomore year,” says Nicholson. “I remember seeing his first video and thinking ‘damn, I want to be in that.’”
“I was in a video production class, which I failed,” explains Graham. “I met a lot of friends there, and I’d include them in my projects that I’d play at the rallies. I was not really good in high school, and this is how I’d pass classes. I would do projects for the classes to get the teachers to really like me. I’d put the teachers in my videos to play at the rallies, and they’d love it, so I’d pass the class.”
Ultimately, he wants to build sort of a Santa Cruz version of Kevin Smith’s Askewniverse, where the same actors and even characters (or siblings of characters) reoccur.
Besides co-starring in Specter, Nicholson and Daniel are going to play the lead parts in Graham’s upcoming project, Valley of Exile, which he’s currently trying to raise money for through Indiegogo.com.
Valley tells the story of a man on the edge of sanity who isolates himself in the woods, and begins to feel he is being watched by some- thing in the woods. Though also a horror film, it is not found footage, and Graham says it couldn’t be more different than Specter.
“Specter was loud, with a lot going on. This one is very psycho- logical,” he says. “This is a very atmospheric film. It’s very dark, it’s very gritty.”
He’s also anxious to get away from found footage and show what he can do as a cinematographer.
“The next one, I’m really trying to prove to myself that I can do something beautiful,” says Graham. “I need about $60,000 to shoot. Even though that’s not a lot for a horror movie, it’s a lot to me. And I can do a lot with that money.”
Though Daniel will be in the main supporting role, he actually has far more lines than Nicholson, who will be called on to show a lot more than his character is willing to tell.
“I feel like it’s written really well,” says Graham. “I trust them to bring out a lot in these characters. I’ve worked with these guys forever, so I’m not giving them something I think they can’t do. But I’m definitely giving them something that will challenge them.”
“There’s going to be a lot of pressure on me,” admits Nicholson. “Bring it on.”
“They progress as I progress,” says Graham of his friends, “and they know what I want. It’s all really my fault if something goes bad. You see them act horribly in my projects in 2005, and that’s because I thought it was great then. Then a couple years later, I’m like ‘that was awful.’” Nicholson says he can’t imagine not working with Graham—like, seriously. “We’ve been friends for a long time. We have a lot of trust for each other, and good chemistry,” he says. “If he suddenly ditched me after this long, I’d probably kick his ass.”
Daniel is more … philosophical. “I’ve always known Jordan was going to make it, one way or the other. He has the knowledge and the ability and the eye,” he says. “I know he’s got a huge future, and I want to ride the wave with him.”
“Jordan didn’t give up,” says Nicholson. “If he did give up, he’d be like everybody else. That persistence is what got him where he is.”
He pauses, and then laughs, thinking back to their high school days.
“We’ve been hard on him,” he admits. “Back when his movies weren’t going anywhere, we used to always tease him. Now that he’s sold one, it’s like ‘OK, give me the lead role in your next movie.’”