Interview with Timothy Stevens, the writer and director of The Ghost Lights and Review of the Film by Kate Keenan
Big Bend Literary Magazine's Kate Keenan and Spectrograph Films' Timothy Stevens discuss his film shot in Terlingua, the Big Bend area, mysterious lights, and beers on the Porch.
Kate: When did you first fall in love with the Big Bend area?
Timothy: When I visited Terlingua for Halloween and Dia De Los Muertos in 2017. A friend of mine, knowing my proclivities for the strange and gothic, recommended I visit. Before then I knew relatively little about Far West Texas. I'd heard of the Marfa Lights of course, but for whatever reason, I hadn't looked deeply into it. My trip across Texas, first to Alpine and then the long winding road south to Terlingua, was a magical experience. The colors, the skeletal mountains, and sweeping valleys cascading before my eyes mesmerized and enchanted me. Then there's Terlingua itself - a strange little collection of ruins and outlanders. I remember vividly, sitting on the Old Porch on Halloween as the sun set over the Chisos thinking to myself, "It feels like the very ends of the earth." This line would find its way into The Ghost Lights, remarked by Aurthur as he stares out over the starry vastness of the Big Bend.
Kate: That's beautiful. I think most of us are overwhelmed with that feeling first seeing it. How did the cast feel about filming in Terlingua? Were they as affected by the Big Bend region as you were your first time visiting?
Timothy: I think the cast and crew were just as taken in by the magic of Big Bend as I was my first time. Terlingua especially has a strange, almost mystical allure. Perhaps it's the mine ruins or the skeletal landscape eroded by centuries of digging and constant movement of wind and water. I think they sensed like I did, that Terlingua is haunted in a way by the memory of those countless souls who passed over the desert valley before. You need only step into the old cemetery to feel their presence.
Kate: What inspired you to write this film?
Timothy: I did some research in 2019 for a documentary TV series about the Marfa Lights and more generally about the strange tales of the Big Bend. The series never came to fruition, but the research I did drew me down an incredible rabbit hole of strange tales. One of the first books I read was "Tales of the Big Bend" by Elton Miles. His thorough recounting of the origins and lore behind the Marfa Lights made it clear to me there was more to the lights than the simple explanations of reflected headlights that many have given over the years. I began to ask myself, "What could the lights be?" Was there a spiritual connection as the area's native tribe the Chisos Apaches believed? These questions tumbled and rolled around in my head until, finally in the early spring of 2020, the script for the Ghost Lights poured out of me. I wrote the script in five days, the quickest I've ever written anything.
Kate: Who are your greatest influences when it comes to working in film?
Tim: I take a lot from literature. Some of my favorite stories are the famous gothic writers of the 19th and early 20th century - Stoker, Shelley, Wilde, Lovecraft. In the past six or seven years, non-fiction history and folklore books have driven much of my screenwriting. I'm obsessed with all things paranormal, supernatural, and historical and it tells in my writing.
Kate: I love those writers, as well. Definitely, the gothic genre is trending. Your website for Spectrograph Films states that you aim to “explore universal themes through transformative storytelling”. Can you tell me more about how the characters in your films transform, especially how the main character in Ghost Lights transforms throughout her journey as she connects with the memory of her father?
Tim: The main character, Alex, is haunted by feelings of regret from missed opportunities to learn from and get to know her late father, who she was close to as a child. Her journey is one of reconciling that regret and connecting with his memory.
Kate: I think we can all relate to how grief transforms us. It's a journey that lasts a lifetime. Why the name Spectrograph Films? Is that name reflective of your goal to show the interaction between storytelling and its transformative power?
Tim: A spectrograph is a device used by astronomers to make visible the properties of distant stars. I've always viewed filmmaking and more broadly storytelling as a similar almost alchemical process. We take the inner workings of the human soul and display this transformation on screen. Our motto is "Tracing the Invisible," so, like a spectrograph, we visualize the intangible parts of human experience. On a separate note, stars and the Milky Way are all over The Ghost Lights, so it feels appropriate that this is our first feature film.
Kate: Last, but perhaps most importantly, how many beers did you enjoy on The Porch?
Tim: I could not tell you! Five, ten, twenty? I may never know!
This Critic's Score:
4 out of 5 Sotols
First, let me just say I’m a sucker for the great things in this film: an impressive lead actor (Katreeva Phillips), cinematography, sound quality, a sci-fi thriller script, and, needless to say, my favorite town as a setting. Having said that, The Ghost Lights is not only better than the expected low-budget indie films, but it is a lovely story that pays sincere homage to those who live in the area where it was both filmed and set.
While Terlinguans and other Big Bend area longtimers often express skepticism for newcomers, including artists, Stevens clearly understood that in order to write a story about the history of this place, he’d have to respect its many timelines and cultures. The plot itself is twisted through time and place, rooted in Chisos Apache culture, nodding to our storytelling cowboys and hardened old men whose folklore enraptures us on relaxed Sunday evenings, then acknowledges the new world encroaching upon us (with its eye on our secrets). Best of all, Stevens reminds us that these secrets are out there to be found by those willing to put in the work, buy into the old folklore, and put faith in a desert whose barren surface hides nature’s mysteries and wonders beneath and above its rugged and challenging exterior.
Of course, given the film’s location, the movie is eye candy. Wonderfully, Stevens included a plethora of still photography throughout the movie, which gives the viewer time to pause and savor the beauty of our desert. There’s a certain authenticity to the culture of still photos that lends itself to Stevens’s style. This authenticity extends to other elements of the film, as well. At one point, Alex awakes in the desert in her shorts, comfy white t-shirt, messy hair, and sandals, reminiscent of how my friends and I dress daily while fighting the desert heat. So, both the still photos and Alexandra are not only relatable but also realistic to Terlingua life. Did she just stroll around town, despite cameras following her, and effortlessly blend into this world?
The only negative I can give is Alexandra’s father’s soliloquies feel acted, especially in comparison to Phillip’s steady lead. I got to thinking about these lonesome little narrations, however, and, though we call them “acting”, they do in many ways reflect the waxing and waning storytelling heard from old-timers in Terlingua. Indeed, oral storytelling is the basis of the film: Apache folklore. Hearing the same stories told over and over again is much the same as watching an actor rework his material. I don’t know, maybe I’m just forgiving. But if I’m going to watch someone try to act as a storyteller, well, I don’t mind if it’s a little hokey.
Other than that, friends, I loved the film. It’s got an unexpected ending that doesn’t fit the “unexpected ending” tropes, keeps you on your toes, and makes you wanna cheer, “There’s my home!” the whole way through.
The Ghost Lights teaser
Spectograph Films - Reel
Timothy Stevens has worked for over a decade in the industry and began his work in television and film shortly after graduating from film school at the University of North Texas. His first professional experience came from the cable network RIDE TV. Timothy has worked in nearly every department, beginning first as an editor, then camera operator, and later as a writer and story producer. He now directs and produces scripted and reality television while producing award-winning independent horror and action films. He has also written more than a dozen short and feature screenplays. His goal - to write and direct thrilling and thoughtful horror films.