Camera kits

Indie feature shoots under Covid-conditions

Indie feature shoots under Covid-conditions

Reports of the death of independent filmmaking are premature. Indie feature This Is The Night Mail has been produced entirely under lockdown with a degree of ingenuity and ‘can-do’ spirit that augurs well for the future of the sector. 

The micro-budget British feature was written and shot in Covid conditions by filmmaker Joanne Reay. A successful screenwriter and producer with credits including Bring Me the Head of Mavis Davis, Gallowwalkers and Brothers of the Wind, Reay began to write This Is The Night Mail as an exercise in keeping herself busy when quarantine shut down the industry in March. 

“I had this striking image of a row of five old-style telephone boxes which I couldn’t shake out of my mind,” she says. “I knew there was a story there but I didn’t know what it was until lockdown gave me the time to explore it. The only benefit of the industry going on hold was freedom from the time pressure of your normal work agenda. I thought, if I don’t write whatever this story is going to be in lockdown, I will never get it out of my system.” 

She describes the story as a love letter to London, and a satire on the gig economy with a supernatural twist. 

“In the gig economy you can hire anyone to do anything for you – so what would happen if the person hiring you was dead?” 

Reay finished the screenplay by the end of March; about the same time as producer’s guild Pact released the first set of guidelines for filming under Covid conditions. 

She hadn’t scripted with Covid shooting conditions in mind but of all the projects she and business partner Andrew Goth had in the pipe, This Is The Night Mail suddenly looked the most viable. 

For instance, the interaction between characters in the film would be mostly between an actor and a ghost, in other words actors acting with themselves. The story takes place over 24 hours meaning actors could start and finish in the same costume. 

“I lived most of my career on instinct so no matter how crackpot it sounds I did wonder what had been the driving force in my brain telling me to write this story which ended up fitting so well into the parameters of Covid,” she says. 

Nonetheless, with the pandemic not only halting the photography but icing investment too, Reay and Goth (who together run indie Unquiet Skulls) decided to fund production themselves. 

They located a make-shift sound stage in a huge freezer at a disused abattoir at King’s Cross which creative studio hub Tileyard plans to develop into a fully functioning production space.  

“I had to adapt the script to make it less reliant on location but the advantage of being producer, director and script writer is that I only had to argue with myself about the treatment of my creative vision,” she laughs.

“We had the good fortune of being connected to VMI through our B-unit DoP Nicky Matthew. We had absolutely no hope we would shoot on ARRI Alexa. That was so far beyond our budget. We were prepared to borrow cameras from friends and colleagues and that was the way we approached it when we met with Barry at VMI.

Reay continues, “What was so incredible was where Barry was in his personal journey in terms of wanting to commit to projects with meaning and purpose rather than just churning the wheel. He was immediately positive about what we doing in terms of trying to get production moving again. Someone had to be the first to jump off a cliff and he really responded to the fact we were willing to take that risk.

“I think we’ve both learned through experience that when confronted by a challenge you can’t let it beat you - you have to find a way to respond. For the first time in my career the deal we made with VMI was based more on mutual support, belief and encouragement than any financial transaction.”

The camera package, worked out with director of photography Beatriz Sastre, included two ARRI Alexa Minis paired with Cooke S4i lenses. They also used GoPros mounted to motorcycles for one stunt sequence.

 Meanwhile, casting for all 34 actors was completed remotely over zoom.  “We made sure the film was fully cast a month before shooting, including all the minor roles,” Reay says. “Everybody signed Covid safety procedures and undertook to report any sign of infection to our dedicated Covid officer. We couldn’t do any last-minute casting or revisions so we worked incredibly fast and furious with zoom auditions.” 

This also benefitted the actors who enjoyed the direct by internet link with the director and reportedly felt more comfortable than having to wait in a room eyeing up the competition. 

Next, a team of runners was enlisted whose sole job was to ensure hand sanitisation for actors and crew, regularly refresh face masks and clean the surfaces of all kit, props and craft stations. 

“That’s an entire tier of work we’ve never had to have before,” she says. “Working in a bubble and maintaining social distancing on set was, on the face it, very daunting. Filmmaking is a very social intimate experience especially on set but it did turn out to be achievable as long as the processes are in place. For instance, nobody could share a walkie talkie as you would normally. Each handset was personalised.”  

Communication and workflow weren’t impaired by social distancing measures. “There’s normally a lot of casual drive-by conversation and white noise around set but that couldn’t and didn’t happen. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. We had to choose what to say and who to interact with; to make sure every single interaction counts.” 

The biggest challenge was dealing with actors who had to take on far more responsibility than usual including getting to and from set and their own hair and make-up. At the end of a day’s shoot they would put their costume in a bag to be sanitised overnight and then pick it up the next day. 

Stylistically, Sastre and Reay opted for an “extremely photographic style” rather than the raw, handheld style that's more typical of stories with a Gen Z target audience. 

“We decided to deliberately counterpoise that ‘edgy’ style and go for something more formal; far closer to a Wes Anderson picture," Reay explains. "That allowed us to have a very composed frame, where positioning our actors either side of a doorway suggests symmetry, whilst at the same time gives us social distance. It might seem that such a visual style is at odds with an urban supernatural narrative, but in this case the juxtaposition adds another level of interest." 

A live grade LUT supervised by on-set specialists Notorious DIT leant the film a 1970s color look; a retro ‘70s soundtrack including tracks by tracks by Joe Meek and Smokie enhanced production values. 

For a few sequences involving hand to hand fighting the actors worked separately with stunt coordinators to choreograph moves akin to training for a dance routine. 

“When they came on set, we put the two sides of the dance together,” Reay says. “On the few scenes which necessitated actors and crew to be really close to each other we shot the scene quickly for the least amount of contact time.” 

With all the PPE and health safety procedures in place, Reay chose to crush the picture’s 18-day shoot into just nine days by shooting A and B units in parallel. 

“Once we’d brought our team together the onus was on me to go forward. Everybody gave of themselves in time and effort to make it happen come hell or high water but there comes a moment where you can’t exploit people’s goodwill any longer. It was not possible to shift our schedule back.” 

The intense timeframe was extremely stressful for her, she admits. “You get no downtime because you’re constantly running between one unit and another but it’s the only way we could maintain Covid standards. I’m not sure we could sustain this over an eight-week shoot simply because everyone’s vigilance would naturally begin to flag. This Is The Night Mail is proof of concept to show financiers that there is a way to shoot safely.” 

The film’s editor Stephen Forrester also directed B camera, partly because he was keen to expand his experience in that area but also as a smart means for the director to keep in touch with the footage. 

“Since we were filming in parallel it made sense to work with someone who was closely involved with the footage,” Reay says. “It meant he could collect dailies from the DIT team and then load into his laptop watch rushes albeit not sound synced and make selects while on set. We’ve worked together before and I trust that his instinct of what I want in a good take is the same as mine.” 

Online and grade is being headed up by Michael Pentney, co-founder at Newcastle and London-based Fantomeline Pictures with Reay aiming to send out first screenings to buyers in the early autumn. In an ideal world it will open the doors to a bigger budget movie for Reay such as ‘8 Track’ a love story from her script set in South Wales which was in pre-production prior to lock down. 

“The way indie moviemaking works is that you do a movie for next to nothing reliant on the goodwill of others and then you land a proper paying gig and you can go back to the people who helped you before. In that instance, VMI will be the first I hire equipment from, without a doubt.”

Photography by Duncan Sibley, trading as Photography by James Millington

View all HD Today stories

VMI are proud sponsors of:

The British Society of Cinematographers The Guild of Television Cameramen The Guild of British Camera Technicians International Federation of Cinematographers Plasa - Rental Guard Plasa member Cinematography Mailing List Xhire - Anri fraud network