While many creatives faced creative and logistical roadblocks during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Timothy Stevens became inspired.
The Dallas filmmaker had just launched his new production company but knew his larger-scale ideas wouldn’t get off the ground. So instead he came up with The Ghost Lights, a microbudget horror film exploring the Marfa Lights phenomenon near Big Bend.
Stevens wrote the script in a week, quit his day job, and by October, cameras were rolling. A year later, the finished film will debut on Friday as part of the Lone Star Film Festival in Fort Worth.
“The pandemic was kind of like a wake-up call, especially for artists,” Stevens said. “It isn’t worth waiting for the stars to align. Maybe the stars will never align. We just need to find a way to do what was our calling. It felt like now was the time.”
The film takes a road-trip structure in following a journalist (Katreeva Phillips) who returns home from New York to Dallas after the mysterious death of her estranged father. She discovers an old cassette tape featuring an interview with her dad and a miner claiming to have seen the “ghost lights,” which prompts her to head to West Texas in search of the truth.
“Beneath the aliens and UFOs and X-Files-type stuff, it’s a story about a woman who is carrying a lot of regret about a relationship that she feels like she squandered with her father,” Stevens said. “She’s trying to repair that post-mortem. How do you reconcile regret?”
The idea stemmed from research Stevens had done a few years ago for a proposed docu-reality series about the paranormal. The pilot was going to be about the Marfa Lights, but the show never materialized.
“I did a lot of research on the origins of the folklore, and some crazy interviews with people who claimed to have up-close encounters with these lights. They were pretty traumatic events for these people,” Stevens said. “It worked out into a story that was executable with very few people in a very short amount of time with not a lot of money.”
Production took place over 10 days with a small local cast and crew that traveled together along the same path as the story, starting in Dallas and finishing near Terlingua. Stevens operated the camera himself when he wasn’t on-screen, and other actors handled multiple responsibilities, too.
Stevens, who graduated from the University of North Texas, has made several short films in the horror and Western genres, in addition to the 2018 cowboy documentary Let’Er Buck.
However, The Ghost Lights in his first narrative feature since starting Dallas-based Spectrograph Films with his business partner, John Francis McCullagh. Their second film, the McCullagh-directed action thriller Dead Hand, currently is in post-production.
Stevens prefers horror and hopes his debut will open more opportunities for bigger projects down the road.
“When you’re working in horror, you can pretty much do whatever you want as a storyteller. Thus, you’re able to express more esoteric, spiritual, or philosophical ideas that people will accept because of the elevated reality in that genre,” he said. “Films are most powerful when they can force you to look at life differently, and hopefully that’s what The Ghost Lights does.”