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Meet Gabriel Theis

Today we’d like to introduce you to Gabriel Theis.

Gabriel, please share your story with us. How did you get to where you are today?
I’m a local filmmaker, recently graduated from the University of Houston. Currently, I work as a Video Production Specialist for Outreach Strategists. Having written and directed multiple short films throughout college, I’m currently on post-production for my debut feature film, “The Curse of Professor Zardonicus.” However, my journey leading up to this was not an easy or particularly sure one. Unlike Austin, Houston didn’t have a major film scene when I was growing up, and there weren’t many resources for aspiring filmmakers. Like many other directors, I started making shorts with friends (ones that I would never show anybody) and writing screenplays. I wrote my first feature-length screenplay in sophmore year of high-school (again, not showing anybody), and continued on the path of screenwriting for the duration of my high-school career.

I resumed my directorial efforts at the University of Houston, where I majored in Media Productions. With my production company, “All Nighter Productions,” I produced several short films, ranging from horror-thrillers to comedies. My first short to hit the festival circuit was a vigilante-thriller called “Nitelife,” which was nominated for Best Horror Film at Oregon Scream Week Horror Film Festival. My next short, at 40-minutes in length, is better described as a mini-feature. It was a mockumentary titled “The Dilemma of Winston Kirp,” and was recently nominated for Best Texas Screenplay at Houston Comedy Film Festival.

This all lead up to “The Curse of Professor Zardonicus,” which was shot with a crowd-funded budget of $3,500. A dark-comedy about an eccentric young man who recruits a film student to prove the existence of an urban-legend, it was produced economically, with a skeleton crew. This challenged both as a writer and director. As a writer, I had to write a screenplay that could be made with limited resources. As a director, I had to find creative solutions to budget problems.

With the “Zardonicus” screenplay receiving a nomination for Best Dark Comedy Feature Screenplay at Austin After Dark Film Festival, it’s already been a rewarding experience. Every filmmaker has to face a seemingly endless amount of rejection and doubt. Lord knows that I have. But now, with the advent of digital filmmaking, we have more power than ever. We don’t have to wait for permission, and we don’t have to leave it up to chance. Anybody with just a phone or camcorder has all the resources they need to become a director or actor. Anybody with pen and paper has all they need to become a screenwriter. As Quentin Tarantino, “I didn’t go to film school. I just went to films.”

Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
Having not grown up in a major filmmaking city, such as Los Angeles or New York, it was hard to know where to even start with my filmmaking career. The very concept of making a movie seemed daunting and impossible. While I always knew that I wanted to be a director, ever since childhood, I was always intimidated by the industry. At the time, I thought a “proper movie” had to be shot with the best equipment, star the best actors, and be sold by the best executives. Anything below the gold standard wasn’t worth making. After all, filmmaking is such a demanding, if not exhausting process. And there’s no guarantee that you’ll see any success afterwards; there’s certainly no promise for financial success.

But with any craft, you have to start somewhere. At some point, I realized that I had to stop making excuses for myself, and finally put my hands on a camera and finally shoot something. For inspiration, I looked towards independent cinema, the films of Richard Linklater, Wes Anderson, and John Cassavetes. Filmmakers who started out with nothing more than a burning passion to tell their stories(and a couple of credit cards that they weren’t afraid of maxing out).

So I learned to get past my own personal insecurities, but my next lesson was dealing with rejection. A lot of it. I didn’t get into the High School of Performing and Visual Arts. Then after high-school, I was rejected by UT, UCLA, and NYU. While I’ve been supported by my friends and family, my drive would have be independently-motivated. I had looked to these institutions for validation, almost as if they would hand me the “golden ticket,” a free-ride to everything I had envisioned for myself.

But the truth is, I wouldn’t get validation from anybody but myself. Nobody was going to hand me the chance to produce a feature-film. Not that this would automatically happen had I gone to those universities, but these rejections provided a wake-up call. I continued to produce more shorts and write more screenplays, each project more ambitious than the last. In between projects, I would take part in other productions, either as an assistant director, camera operator, and sometimes an actor. I was lucky enough to get a few gigs on larger-scale projects, such as being a production assistant for the “Sicko Mode” music video.

This routine continued throughout my college career. But then I reached my senior year and realized that I wasn’t fundamentally closer to that initial dream of making a feature-film. Moreover, I didn’t even have a better idea of how to get this done. There’s no “one way” when it comes to filmmaking. No one-way to get an agent, no one-way to score a role, and no one-way to produce your debut feature film. The answer, as it turned out, was simple. Well, the kind of simple that becomes drastically more complicated as it goes along, but it was the best idea I had.

In the tradition of independent filmmaking, I would write a screenplay that specifically accommodated my limitations even turned them into strengths. So I wrote a found-footage film that would take place on a university campus, with a cast full of college-age students. I approached my previous collaborators, and they signed on. But, alas, we would need some kind of budget.

And so, we turned to crowdfunding, which I had done once before with my short-film, “Nitelife.” The goal this time was $3,500. Not much in terms of filmmaking, but more than we had ever seen for a project (the budget for “Nitelife” was a third of that). We came up with many rewards, such as an autographed poster, behind-the-scenes featurette, and the chance to be credited as an executive producer. We had 30 days to raise the budget, 30 slow, torturous days where we constantly checked our progress. I kept reminding myself that the majority of crowd-funded projects meet their goals within the last 48 hours, but I wasn’t ever going to be put to ease until we finally met our mark; and we did – a day before the deadline. I breathed a sigh of relief. Then celebrated with everyone, then remembered that the hard part wasn’t over.

That would be the constant problem I ran into. The “hard part” is never over. Not once you write the script, not once you raise the budget, not once you shoot the film, not once you edit it together, not once you promote it, not even once you move on to the next project. The hard part keeps on coming because that’s what creativity is all about – the “hard-part.” It’s all about discovering something within yourself, a story, a vision, an idea that is so powerful that you have to share it. Or maybe exorcise it. But with every step of the process comes another opportunity to explore that idea, to reshape it, to confront it, and by extension, to do the same with yourself. It’s the most visceral thrill – It’s the bungee-jumping of arts. It’s dangerous, and you’re never certain that it’ll end well for you. But when you’re in the air, you know that nothing else will ever make you feel that good.

We’d love to hear more about your work.
At All Nighter Productions, I often work within the horror-thriller genre. “Nitelife” centered a psychopathic vigilante stalking a trio of drug-dealers. Another short, “All Nighter,” followed a student who was being psychologically terrorized by mysterious forces.

In addition, I also produce comedies. My mockumentary, “The Dilemma of Winston Kirp,” is about an infamous director of so-bad-it’s-good disasterpieces, a la Tommy Wiseau and Ed Wood, who invites a YouTube channel, B-Movie Madness, to make a documentary about him. My upcoming feature, “The Curse of Professor Zardonicus,” is a dark-comedy, following an eccentric character who will stop at nothing to prove the existence of an urban legend. This drives him to perform ridiculous antics, where the film’s comedy derives from, but it also forces him into dangerous situations, which provokes tension.

After “Zardonicus,” I will be collaborating with Revolving Red Productions to write and direct a webseries pilot called “Night and Day.” A take on the “Odd Couple” set-up, “Night and Day,” is about an immature college student whose roommate turns out to be a vampire. “Night and Day” is in pre-production and currently in the casting stage. Finally, I also work as a videographer for Outreach Strategists and perform freelance gigs for local productions.

Any shoutouts? Who else deserves credit in this story – who has played a meaningful role?
Along the way, I’ve had support from countless people. First, there’s, of course, my parents. My dad was actually a film critic for the Houston Press, so I can thank my parents for introducing me to films and inspiring that passion. Not to mention, they have supported me in my pursuit of a film degree, despite this not being the most lucrative career choice.

I also have to thank my girlfriend, Iuliana, who has given me me endless support and patience. Every first draft, every rough cut, she’s the first person I turn to. She even helped me shoot my first couple of shorts back in college. Then I have to credit Professor Houk, who taught all of the filmmaking courses I attended at the University of Houston. He’s a seriously devoted teacher who held all of his students to a high standard. I also want to thank Brad Rushing, an LA-based cinematographer who has mentored me and provided invaluable guidance.

Filmmaking is inherently a team endeavor, and I’ve been lucky to work with some truly great people. First, there’s my good friend and frequent collaborator, Noah Goodman, who is currently a Colorist based in Austin. Back when I didn’t feel ready to try my hand at filmmaking, Noah was the friend that I needed. He pushed me to be more ambitious, and we formed a great team. He was the Director of Photography for Nitelife, so we’re still collaborating to this day.

Of course, I want to thank my main team on “The Curse of Professor Zardonicus,” – lead actor Alec White and Editor/Director of Photography Lucio Vasquez. I couldn’t have asked for a more dedicated and talented team. I also have to extend my thanks to anyone who has ever helped me with my films. Everyone involved helped bring my projects to life. This includes everybody who contributed the “Zardonicus” campaign. With independent filmmaking, every dollar makes a difference. And I couldn’t have made that film without their generosity.

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