“The Walking Dead” cast offers encouragment.
"After a devastating nuclear explosion in Japan, a horrible outbreak attacks the human race. Felicia, a young girl who takes life for granted, begins to question her faith and after her world has been turned upside down, she meets a group of individuals who will stop at nothing to stay alive during what seems to be the end of days. Will they survive this apocalyptic world? Will they stay strong and ferret out the infected? Will they take the easy way out?"
That's the plot line behind Macon County resident Stephani Lofthouse's film, "Level 7." "Level 7" is an apocalyptic story based on a true event of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster of 2011. In addition to much of the movie being filmed right here in Franklin, the movie features local actors. “A lot of locals participated in the film due to casting calls I would post on Facebook,” said Lofthouse. “We even had volunteers from as far as Ohio and Florida.”
Portions of "Level 7" were also filmed in Dallas, Ga., Myrtle Beach, S.C., and in Asheville.
Garnering inspiration from horror flicks she watched as a child, Lofthouse set out to create her own masterpiece.
"I've always wanted to make films ever since I was a young teen. I would watch horror films with my friends. The remake of George Romero's 'Dawn of the Dead' was the main movie that inspired me to get into filmmaking. The way Zack Snyder captured those images are quite beautiful. Everything from the bright vivid colors to the fast, gory zombies as well as it being modernized... it was very well done.”
Lofthouse began production on the film in March 2012 and wrapped up the project in November 2012. The DVD was released in February 2013. Lofthouse had been working on the script for a couple of years, but after her friend, Kat Stewart, passed away unexpectedly, Lofthouse didn't know if it would ever be completed. “I dedicate the film to my friend who passed away in 2011, Kat Stewart,” said Lofthouse. “She was originally going to be in the film and also be a production assistant. After she passed I didn't want to even complete the script. In fall 2011, I started writing a little bit more. In January 2012, I rewrote the entire script and started filming by March. She was a big inspiration to me. If she knew I wasn't going to complete my film she would be upset with me and encourage me to keep going. Her parents helped with the film and even acted in it. A lot of her friends in the community came together to act as extras in the film as well. It was a fun experience for everybody. Her picture has been used in the film a few times as well as personal belongings and her memorial sign that is located on Cat Creek. There were a few times we would have little signs of her on set, almost as if Kat was with us.”
"I wanted it as realistic as possible," said Lofthouse. "I want people to relate some characters and feel emotion for them in certain situations. If you dislike a character, that's what I was going for, if you felt sorry for that character later on, that's what I was going for! A lot of people cried, got sick and scared at some scenes. I'm proud of that. I'm proud I made a feature film in less than a year on top of a short film!"
A horror genre enthusiast, Lofthouse has attended countless conventions promoting the genre. In February 2012 at a Days of the Dead Convention in Atlanta, Lofthouse met actors from AMC's hit series, "The Walking Dead." “I met Melissa Cowan (bicycle girl) Michael Koske (featured walker) and Savana Wehunt (featured walker and Carl, Sophia's & Penny's stunt double) from 'The Walking Dead,'” said Lofthouse. “I hired them for the film and they were a pleasure to work with. We had also made connections to three amazing FX artists at these cons, too including Carrie Sims from Alabama, Darla Wigly from Tennessee and Alicia Solesby from N.C.”
"Level 7 is absolutely amazing," Crisp said of Lofthouse's film. "I'm not saying that just because Steph is my best friend, I'm saying it because it is TRUE! Stephani worked so hard on this film and considering she wrote, produced, directed, edited, etc, completely on her own, with help of a few friends along the way of course, It is amazingg! But she made a feature film in less than a year and almost the entire cast of TWD and one of the head producers, Greg Nicoterro, have a copy of it!! Everyone who enjoys horror movies and zombies will love the movie and they should definitely buy their copy."
Through the successful connections Lofthouse has made by attending conventions, last weekend, she and Macon County resident Brittany Crisp travelled to Atlanta for the Walker Stalker Convention, which featured the entire cast of "The Walking Dead." While at the convention, Lofthouse continued the promotion of her film as well as building contacts in the industry.
“I've promoted my film via Facebook for the most part. I would post on the Facebook pages of the conventions that my friend Brittany Crisp and I had been to,” she said. “Between Facebook and attending conventions promoting the film, so far I have sold about 430 out of 600 copies made of the film. Celebrities such as Robert England aka Freddy Krueger, Jamie Kennedy, Kevin Smith, the musicians of Halestorm, Shinedown, Billy Idol, Rob Zombie, as well as, Norman Reedus, Michael Rooker and Andrew Lincoln from AMCs 'The Walking Dead' and many other cast members, have all received copies of the film. I've sold copies as far away as Japan for followers of the film. Just by Facebook and how much it's spread through there I've been picked up by I AM ME Magazine as well as Blood Magazine and even had a job offer from them due to all my promotion with celebrities connections with the film.”
With movies and television shows about a presumed zombie apocalypse becoming more prevalent every day, Lofthouse said it was the thrill that attracted her to the horror genre.
“The horror genre is a very exciting genre, she said. “To be able to have an effect on someone as they watch your film whether they laugh, cry or their heart rate goes up in fear ... No other art form can accomplish that! Horror sticks with people. Nobody talks about how romantic comedies or action films have impacted their lives. Horror has a life long effect on people. Characters like Freddy Krueger have made people terrified of going to sleep. 'Jaws' made people terrified of swimming in the ocean. That means the filmmaker did their job and a great job at that!”
For as far back as Crisp can remember, she has been a horror genre nut. "I love horror movies/tv, I always have," said Crisp. "I was five years old when I first watched A Nightmare on Elm Street and I have loved horror movies ever since. There is something about being scared that I enjoy, call me crazy but I love it! Haunted houses, scary movies, horror conventions, I love it all. A lot of people don't understand it but that's okay, it's something I thoroughly enjoy taking part in and that is all that matters."
Lofthouse has attended a total of six conventions this year. “The Walker Stalker Con in Atlanta was quite amazing,” said Lofthouse. “Of course my favorite part would be meeting the celebrities that have been an inspiration to me. They have all been so very kind and have actually emailed me after conventions to say that they really enjoyed the film. It was awesome to meet 'The Walking Dead's' Andrew Lincoln for the first time seeing how he does not do conventions due to him living in England. Turns out that Andrew Lincoln attended the convention for charity, making it that much better.”
After last weekend's convention and receiving a copy of the film, "The Walking Dead" actor Irone Singleton sent Lofthouse a message encouraging her to continue her dream, “I watched your movie and would like to encourage you to continue to work hard and hone your talent as a filmmaker,” he wrote. “I applaud you for your effort and look forward to when we work together.”
Melissa McBride, who plays an actress named Carol on "The Walking Dead" gave Lofthouse a bit of star treatment at the convention. “She actually opened my DVD and handed it back to me and insisted that I sign it for her saying that it would be an honor, that really made my day,” said Lofthouse. “I met with Greg Nicoterro, who is a world-famous special effects artist on the show as well as director and producer. The first thing he said while looking at my DVD was, 'Level 7,' I've actually heard of this from some of the cast members.' We talked about Kat Stewart and he has a Kat Stewart wristband now, I actually started to cry and he comforted me. IronE Singleton who plays T dog on the show emailed me to tell me he is very impressed with 'Level 7,' understood the metaphors and strong meaning behind it, and wants to encourage me to keep going and he would like to work together one day.”
Crisp, who attends the conventions with Lofthouse and shares her love of the horror genre, said her favorite part of the weekend was meeting Andrew Lincoln, the actor who plays Rick Grimes on ‘The Walking Dead.’ "He has never done a convention near here and for him to do one in Atlanta was simply amazing," said Crisp. "Besides Norman Reedus, who plays Daryl Dixon, Mr. Lincoln is definitely one of my favorite actors/ characters on the show! I literally almost cried when he walked into the room for his Q&A panel, I'm not ashamed."
Lofthouse has only begun her filmmaking adventure. "I'm currently working on a documentary about Macon County native Kyle Morgan and then I am going to start on my next film hopefully by fall of 2014," she said. Maybe one day I will be directing with the biggest names in the film industry. You gotta start somewhere right?"