It’s not often that you hear a director
ask an actor, “Can we get a few grunts from you? Can you just get
that grunting? Okay, now how about some heavy breathing? And where’s
Zombie Number Two? We need you!” So begins a hectic day of filming
a five-minute thriller for the Sci-Fi-London 48-hour Film Challenge.
Director Vicki Psarias , who won last year’s 4Talent Best Filmmaker award, is asking actor Chris Rogers – playing “a strange man” – to re-record some sound. The planes flying overhead, the dismal weather and the lack of a sound monitor have made things a little more difficult than usual. The team only have a few more hours to shoot out in the forest by Barnes station in south-west London, as the next day will be devoted to editing.
On the morning of Saturday 5th April, the team’s writer and stills photographer, Vanessa Scott-Thompson , went to the launch at the Apollo West End to pick up the film title, a line that had to be worked into the script and a prop. Representatives from all 138 teams went through the lucky dip bags to find out what they’d be working with that weekend. Vanessa came away with Atlantic Mile for the title; the phrase, “It was so cold, your spit would freeze before it hit the ground,” which became more appropriate as the day went on; and the prop was a circuit board to smash.
Sci-Fi-London didn’t provide any equipment, so there would have to be a circuit board search later on. As the competition rules state, “All creativity must occur within the competition period: writing, rehearsing, shooting, editing, graphics, sound design, etc.,” so it was always going to be a manic morning. “It is definitely challenging… it’s a different way to do things,” said production assistant Fernanda Franco, while sheltering food and equipment from the rain with a selection of pink umbrellas. In ten minutes – you can get development. In five minutes – you can’t really
The inclusion of the Thriller director, John Landis, on the judging panel inspired Vanessa’s writing. In a cheeky shoutout to Landis, an homage to the 25-year-old Michael Jackson video is included in the zombie dance at the end of Atlantic Mile. As Vanessa said, “In ten minutes – you can get development. In five minutes – you can’t really. I wanted to make sure there wasn’t just the visual payoff, but that it had the funny.” She admitted that “there was some frantic writing” before the idea came together, but, now that filming had started, she was “happy to leave the story in Vicki’s hands.”
Preparation was the key to getting it all done. Vicki asked her contacts at the Ealing Institute of Media – where she taught a postgraduate last year – to provide her with equipment. She had decided on the location in advance, and got the vital permissions from the London Borough of Richmond and South West trains to shoot around Barnes station. She also made sure that the equipment was tested beforehand, to avoid any nasty surprises during the shoot.
Vicki also organised the cast and crew, bringing on some people from her earlier short film, Broken, as well as updating her Facebook status to garner interest online. The three main actors, Esh Hassan, Natalie Bromley and Chris Rogers, hadn’t worked together before, and so they were brought together just before the shoot for some improvising work to break the ice. This rapport helped the actors under the pressurised conditions of the shoot, when it was hard to keep up with all the on-the-hoof changes. As Chris put it, “You have to keep the bigger picture in mind,” despite the alterations and re-takes.
This is the worst case scenario for a director – and I’ve worked with children, animals and my dad! As the rain really starts to come down hard, the team head back to Vicki’s flat to film the second half, which includes the Thriller-esque sequence. This is where makeup artist, Petr Blecha, touches up any zombie faces that have smeared in the rain, while pasta is doled out for dinner, ahead of a shoot that goes on until three in the morning. The next day, the film is to be edited in an Avid suite at October Films, where Vicki asked a favour of a contact. She was up until 3am the next night as well, for the edit. Happily, though, Atlantic Mile made it in to the judges in plenty of time for the midday deadline on the Monday.
Would Vicki do it all again? She doesn’t think it likely, although she did enjoy the experiment. “A good thing about this is it’s forcing you. It stops you from procrastinating. This is the worst case scenario for a director – and I’ve worked with children, animals and my dad!” After all that, a zombie film in two days? No problem.