“Survivor Girls” director and writer Daniel Bamberg (left) sits with executive producer Tabitha Boyd (right) on the set on of the film, next to Harp & Clover in Gadsden.
By Katie Bohannon, News Editor
Gadsden is getting ready for its close-up.
With the cast and crew of upcoming independent film Survivor Girls settling in the City of Champions for filming, Gadsden steps one foot forward in a promising direction, promoting a unique project with a powerful message and fostering future growth for the community’s involvement in the arts.
Local connections abound in Survivor Girls’ genetic makeup, with a partnership forged between neighboring Boaz High School graduate and executive producer Tabitha Boyd and Homewood resident director Daniel Bamberg, who wrote the script. Albertville native Boyd’s vast understanding of the film industry proves immense, with her experience ranging from acting and modeling before transitioning into roles as a makeup artist and producer.
“Tabitha is absolutely the reason why this thing has gotten its feet off the ground and the ball has started rolling,” said Bamberg. “Tabitha reflects all these ideals, all these things this film represents. That’s what was perfect about it. She was prime and ready to be an executive producer, but she was also a full-on representation of what message we’re telling. If Tabitha never agreed to come on, I would still be seeking someone like her.”
Despite former award-winning news reporter, columnist and photographer Bamberg’s lifelong dream and enduring pursuit of filmmaking, he reached a point when he questioned his purpose. Following a series of disappointments, Bamberg reevaluated his passion and found himself standing at a crossroads, wondering which path to venture downward. As he sat down and sifted through hundreds of scripts, preparing to sell his work, he discovered a project that sparked his interest –Survivor Girls, a film that resonated with his personal life, giving him hope to try once more.
While Bamberg battled giving up on his aspirations, he simultaneously faced difficulty relating to three of the most influential women in his life: his mother and his two aunts, who exemplify strength, resiliency and determination. Despite the challenges his mother and aunts endured and the obstacles they overcame, Bamberg’s mother never considered herself a victim. Rather, she visualized herself as a survivor, because her fighting spirit never wavered.
“I’ve always had this example of how to treat women, how women should be looked upon – not only as equals, but how they take on more responsibility than men in a lot of ways and their strong suits [in my mother and aunts],” said Bamberg. “There’s a line in the film when one of the people says, ‘I’m not a victim. I’m a survivor.’ That’s what my mother always taught me, to fight and never give up. I thought Survivor Girls was the perfect point to get this message across.”
Described as a “women-first” horror-comedy, Survivor Girls personifies a film created by women, with women in mind. The majority of the film’s cast and crew are women – from executive producer Boyd, to actresses Alex Williams and Mallory Ivy, to marketing professional Jessica Murphy, to lead hair and makeup expert Tabitha Davis, to production assistants Abbi Rush and Sophie Thornton and many more. Together, the cast and crew of Survivor Girls create an environment that fosters respect and embraces women’s dynamic contributions to the industry. While the film’s message of women empowerment resides underneath its tones of entertainment, comedy and horror, Survivor Girls considers specifically what horror films lacked in the past regarding the genre’s portrayal of women and introduces a new concept.
With a film built upon a foundation upheld by strong women, Boyd, Bamberg and co-producer Andy Harp defined the term for themselves.
“For me, a strong woman is just someone who never gives up,” said Boyd. “You take a challenge and you fulfill it. You follow it through. That’s a strong woman to me. It doesn’t mean that you don’t lose a battle here or there, it just means you never give up.”
“I think the strongest representation of a woman is how she reflects on men to pay attention,” said Bamberg. “Men are very hard and stubborn. For a woman to impact a man, based upon how men are expected to be in our society, those are strong women. I’ve known a lot of them. The strength of women is the ability to not just say what they mean in the face of contradiction from society, but to actually believe it and live it.”
“It’s really amazing to look back and see how far women have come in general and overall,” said Harp. “To be able to stand now side-to-side with a female in this industry [like Tabitha], that has way more experience at this than I do, and gives me a chance to learn from her…I think that’s just a great representation of how far we’ve come. I hope it gives encouragement of how far we can go as a society for all those types of issues. It’s encouraging for me to just be able to finally make a movie like this – I think that’s a testament to all women and the strength of all women to get us to this point.”
Collaborative efforts coincide to create a pleasant working environment on the set of Survivor Girls. Seasoned cinematographer Bill Schweikert joins the production, bringing years of perspective as the director of photography on 28 feature films. Boyd’s own expertise in delegation secured strong department heads for the film.
“My theory has always been surrounding yourself with the right people who have similar experiences and know what not to do,” said Bamberg. “You have to have a sense of humor. You have to be able to argue with someone and make your point, but walk away and respect each other. This three-person dynamic [myself, Boyd and Harp] – it’s been a great team.”
Harp, who owns and operates local restaurants Harp & Clover and Nola on 2nd , solidified the film’s establishment in Gadsden, via a professional friendship with Boyd that originated decades ago. While the pair kept in touch throughout the years, working peripherally on various projects, when Boyd signed on as executive producer for Survivor Girls, she initially contracted with Harp to provide craft services for the film.
As Harp’s involvement with the film progressed, his belief in the film’s message flourished and he found himself investing more and more. Harp’s heritage of artistic endeavors sparked with his grandparents. Harp’s grandfather served as a set designer for Warner Bros. studios before he and his wife returned to Alabama. The couple began a Gadsden photography business in 1945 that Harp’s parents would later inherit. When the opportunity arose for Harp to channel his creative roots and co-produce a film, he considered Survivor Girls an offer he could not refuse.
“Throughout this partnership with Tabitha and Daniel, it’s a really unique opportunity where the three of us are definitely working on the same project, but we’ve all got slightly different aspirations and what we hope to accomplish with the movie,” said Harp. “I think this is going to be a springboard for a lot of opportunities – especially with Daniel and Tabitha – in the movie industry. There was a time when Gadsden was defined by the steel mills and blue-collar industry, and we’re just not that anymore. Gadsden’s in a place that is at a crossroads of finding out it’s identity again. My vision for Gadsden is becoming an artistic and different place than it is now, a tourist destination point that transforms our community.”
Bamberg noted that Alabama emerges as a state suitable for filmmaking, only second to California. Its ecologically diverse landscape, enriched with endless resources and untouched natural beauty, provide filmmakers with a playground of possibilities. He shared that Gadsden, with its waterways, historical hidden gems and charming downtown offer surprising and prime locations for a variety of aesthetics. In addition, Gadsden’s malleable locations feed into a director’s talent to manipulate scenes for an audience’s gaze, giving filmmakers the chance to explore several easily-adaptable spots that can transform from scene to scene.
Survivor Girls shot several scenes next door to Harp & Clover on Court Street and traveled to the site of the former Sauquoit Mills yarn plant on 711 North 8th Street, which will serve as Town Creek Village – a cultural and entrepreneurial incubator, with a performing arts center – in the future.
“Gadsden’s locations fit perfectly for the scenes we had for the movie,” said Boyd. “Gadsden is a great hub of talent that’s coming from Atlanta, Birmingham and Nashville. It’s a wonderful central location.”
“From a director’s eye, Gadsden has a small-town vibe which is appealing, specifically for independent films,” said Bamberg. “It’s more humanistic…any time you can get to the core of humanity, that’s more exciting for people who aren’t telling the big superhero epic or things like that. There are plenty of small towns in Alabama [similar to Gadsden] from a visual standpoint, but one of the things that separates Gadsden is it’s actually wide open for a film to come into. [When you make a film], you’re not just thinking about the story. You’re also thinking about the process, and I think Gadsden is perfect. It has an independent film look and has the capabilities of housing an independent film, which is unlike a lot of places.”
Bamberg and Boyd reiterated Gadsden’s accommodating nature, with Boyd sharing that necessary resources like U-Haul, passenger van and drapery rentals are all being facilitated in Gadsden. Bamberg noted his pleasant surprise at the extensive number of hotels and restaurants in the area, which establish a symbiotic relationship between the cast, crew and community, resulting in an economic boost for local businesses who provide guests with needed services.
“If you have 60 people on the crew site, all those people work with other people and some are aspiring filmmakers,” said Bamberg. “You never know when those experiences are going to bring future films back to the community. Gadsden could easily host several films a year if that was something the community got behind.”
The innovative efforts of Boyd, Bamberg and Harp culminate in Gadsden’s involvement in an exciting project, projected for release in 2022. Though filming wrapped in mid-May, with the support of professionals and the united efforts of passionate community leaders, Bamberg believes Gadsden could debut as a treasure in the film industry.
With the hope of returning to the city for future projects, Bamberg leaves the community with a message of encouragement.
“Be very film-friendly, but stay true to your roots,” said Bamberg. “Let homegrown film and film’s independent spirit thrive in Gadsden. It could become a great art community. It depends on how people react, how the community accepts [film projects]. If people react well and they’re receptive to it, Gadsden could become a little mini Sundance community where there’s a film festival here, or stars start showing up every now and then to watch and promote certain films. Someone has got to take the reins and be the leader of independent film in Alabama, and I think Gadsden is prime to do that. It has a lot of potential, and I think its future could be really bright. There’s no way not to be inspired living in Gadsden.”