the civil dead

Clay Tatum discovered pre-production on his debut feature film, The Civil Dead, to be much different than he had envisioned.

“I always imagine leading up to pre-production, me and the DP are watching movies – I’m showing him all the great films that I love,” Tatum said in a Q&A this weekend at the Mammoth Lakes Film Festival.

“And what I was doing was making spreadsheets of shot lists the whole time,” Tatum continued.

Thankfully Tatum and his cinematographer Joshua Hill saw “eye-to-eye” once they connected on set, and didn’t need that pre-production time watching cinema together.

The Civil Dead is written by lifelong friends, Tatum and Whitmer Thomas. Primarily a two-hander between the two of them, the rest of the small cast is filled out by their friends in the L.A. comedy scene. Developed and shot during the pandemic, The Civil Dead is a “pandemic film” by definition, albeit one that you might not immediately identify. Tatum says this was intentional.

“I wanted to make a movie that was just me and Whit, and it’s believable why we wouldn’t be around other people,” he said.

So Thomas’ character Whit, was written as a ghost who only Clay can see. That way when the two were together — which they are for much of the film — they’d make sure no one else was around. Otherwise it might look like Clay was talking to himself.

whitmer thomas star of the civil day - directed by clay tatum

The Civil Dead co-writers/co-stars Whitmer Thomas and Clay Tatum also collaborated on Thomas’ comedy special The Golden One. Photo by Megan Thompson/HBO

The ghost story genre may be well-worn territory but The Civil Dead is highly original with its low-key slacker vibes masking expert story plotting that frequently surprises. With two comics at its center, it’s also very funny. Tatum and Thomas recently collaborated on the HBO comedy special, Whitmer Thomas: The Golden One. The future is bright for the duo, as The Civil Dead took home the grand jury prize for best North American feature this weekend at Mammoth Lakes Film Festival.

Also read: Mammoth Lakes 2022: The Noise of Engines: Surreal Comedy Examines How Sexual Images Still Shock

Shot on a shoestring budget with an initial shoot of 13 days along with a few pickup days, The Civil Dead was funded by an old friend of Tatum’s from college. The producer had come across his shorts and offered Tatum $30,000 to shoot a feature.

“I tried to pitch him on the idea and the guy’s like, ‘I don’t care. Just make a movie with this money.’ It was instantly greenlit,” Tatum said.

Main image: Clay Tatum (L) and Whitmer Thomas in The Civil Dead