A film in quarantine without ever meeting
You know that scene in a disaster movie when the pilot gets knocked out, and an air traffic controller has to tell a nervous passenger how to land the plane over the radio?
That’s what it was like for filmmaker Nick Simon and his crew as they shot a movie in quarantine. They sent makeup, camera equipment, props, and lights to all the actors, who were each isolating at home, and explained how to set it all up over Zoom conference calls, reports Vanity Fair.
While Hollywood is struggling to figure out if it’s possible to make a feature-length movie in the grip of the coronavirus pandemic, this group of independent filmmakers and actors have already done it. “The whole movie has been written, produced, packaged, shot within quarantine. Now we’re in postproduction, and I had a first cut of the whole film done on Friday,” said director and cowriter Simon. As The Untitled Horror Movie nears completion, its producers are finally announcing the secret project and seeking a distributor. It appears to be the first movie created entirely within the parameters of the lockdown.
The horror comedy is about a group of needy and desperate young stars from a once-popular TV series who learn, via video conference, that their show has just been canceled. Fearing obscurity, they decide to stay in the spotlight by making a quickie horror film—but while shooting it, they perform a ritual that accidentally invokes an actual demonic spirit. Mayhem follows. “We kind of described it going into it as Scream meets For Your Consideration,” Simon said.
There’s a meta quality built into the premise, since it stars a slate of actors from actual hit TV shows. Claire Holt (The Originals and The Vampire Diaries) plays the prima donna starlet with a Chardonnay problem; Katherine McNamara of (Shadowhunters and Arrow), the ambitious brand-building newcomer; Emmy Raver-Lampman (The Umbrella Academy and a member of the original Broadway ensemble for Hamilton), a former child star who is used to managing big egos; Darren Barnet (Never Have I Ever), a heartthrob trying to prove he’s a serious actor; and Timothy Granaderos (13 Reasons Why), the affable nice guy who is friends with everyone in the cast (except maybe his ex). Cowriter Luke Baines (also from Shadowhunters), plays another of the suddenly out-of-work TV stars, an arrogant substance abuser who desperately needs some new success.
The Untitled Horror Movie is not just a placeholder title. It’s part of the joke—at least for now. “Until a distributor buys it and takes it away,” Baines said. “That was one of the recurring jokes we had with it. This group of actors couldn’t name their own movie. So it is right now called The Untitled Horror Movie.”
Starting Up in Shutdown
Baines appeared in Simon’s 2015 thriller The Girl in the Photographs, and was finishing work on the CW series Nancy Drew in Vancouver when the quarantine hit. Simon had just turned in his screenplay for a Choose Your Own Adventure-style movie to Amblin, so both of them hit a void in their schedules as the world went into shutdown mode. “Luke called and said, ‘Hey, I got this idea for this horror movie. Do you want to write it with me?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, man, I’m just waiting for those other things to get back and it might take a long time,’” Simon said.
That’s fairly common right now. Lots of Hollywood creatives have spent the quarantine developing, writing, and planning for the future. These two decided to take it further. “We basically started writing it, and talking about it. And then I said, ‘Why don’t we just do this movie now?’” Simon said. “If we could figure out a way to do this now while everybody is in lockdown, it could be really interesting.”
“Interesting” meant they could land some significant names who suddenly found all their other work on hold. “We started calling some actors that Luke knew and said, ‘Hey, we’re thinking about doing this movie for no money, and we’re going to shoot it ourselves.’ And they all said the same thing, which was, ‘Yeah, that sounds like a lot of fun because we’re not doing anything right now, and this sounds like it’d be a great distraction,’” Simon said.
“It was honestly a shock,” Baines said. “Within 12 hours of sending the script, almost all the actors that we wanted would call back and be like, ‘This is awesome. We totally want to be a part of this.’ It was such a crazy experience.”
But they had to move fast. “We’re going to lose this cast the second lockdown is over,” Simon said. “Everybody is available right now. And everybody wants to do something. So this is why we had to do it now.”
They pitched the project to producers Bronwyn Cornelius and Marina Stabile, who signed on to shepherd it and help acquire the necessary financing. Then they started building their behind-the-scenes team. “In many cases we have never met the people,” Cornelius said. “We’ve never met the cast and crew, and yet we all absolutely bonded virtually over these Zoom calls. It’s fascinating how connected you can feel to somebody having never physically met them. That’s another positive thing, an experience that has come out of this sort of new world that we’re living in. You don’t have to lose connection. You don’t need to lose that bonding just because we can’t physically be in the same space.”
After about two months of writing, prep, and finalizing the deals, they were ready to roll in May.
The “How to Make a Movie” Kits
The filmmakers insist that this is not Zoom: The Motion Picture. Only part of the story involves a video chat (and it won’t be identified onscreen as that particular brand). The rest of the film is shot traditionally, so all the department heads had to figure out how to instruct the actors to do their respective jobs remotely. “We sent every actor cameras and lights and microphones. And we used Zoom as a way for for me to direct the actors,” Simon said.
Baines helped put together the filmmaking kits and shipped them out to all the actors. “My entire apartment looked like Best Buy,” he said. “We had to test everything, make sure everything worked, and then essentially make up little boxes that were delivered to everybody contact-free because at that stage, we were very much in a lockdown and we didn’t obviously want to get anybody sick. We wanted to abide by all the rules and make sure we were complying with SAG and what they wanted.”
Each package held cameras, lights, reflective bouncer screens, makeup and hair materials, and lots of extra batteries and gaff tape. “We had to think of every single thing that could possibly go wrong,” Simon said.
What’s gaff tape? That’s the filmmaking version of duct tape, a substance that can be used for anything and everything. “You would use it for the mic. We used it for light boxes. There were moments when we were taping the cameras to the computer,” Simon said.
“If it was daytime and the scene was set at night, they’d gaff-tape blankets onto the windows so that it looked dark,” Baines added.
Stefanie Terzo, the head of hair and makeup, sent out video tutorials so the actors could do their own bruises and wounds. Meanwhile, action consultants Shara Kim and Anita Nittoly helped choreograph the actors’ fight scenes without ever being in the room with them. “The spirit attacks the actors, [so there are] invisible forces throwing them, or the actors hitting themselves uncontrollably,” Baines said. “They pre-taped themselves performing the choreography and then did step-by-step tutorials to explain how to achieve the desired action.”
The actors also learned to rig lights and activate cameras, while cinematographer Kevin Duggin would study the setups via the conference call, making adjustments just before shooting started. “It was quite extraordinary, not only Kevin’s patience, but his ability to amazingly see and understand the light without physically being in the room,” said Cornelius. “He’d be like, ‘Is there a window in the back to your right?’ And they would say, ‘Yeah.’ He'd be like, ‘Can you go close that? Put a blanket over that?’ It was extraordinary to watch his talent in working, and the videos and workbooks that he and Luke had to create as tutorials for all of the actors.”
This was all new to the performers, who were used to walking on set and simply playing their parts. “Every one of these actors, in their own right, is a lead of their own Netflix show or something,” Simon said. “These are the type of actors who are constantly getting everything done for them. Here they had to light themselves, mic themselves, shoot themselves. They did everything themselves. As a director, I guess I would sit back and really just direct it like a play.”
The film also had a shockingly short shooting schedule. “We were doing 20 pages a day. We shot the whole movie in seven days because once we got everything set up and rolling, we could just keep going,” Simon said. “The actors really knocked it out above and beyond anything that I expected. Afterward, they had to upload all their footage so we could start editing and start looking at everything and make sure it all went through.”
The Unseen Enemy
While a phantasm menaces the characters, the off-screen villain of the production was noisy neighbors. “So many lawnmowers!” Stabile said. “We were talking about how lucky we had been with that, because we recently did a pickup shoot with one actor and it was the first time that we were repeatedly interrupted by lawnmowers and fireworks and all that."
“And delivery persons,” Cornelius added.
“Exactly,” Stabile said. “But somehow for the main part of the shoot, I think the stars were aligned and we lucked out.”
“We were in sort of a stricter lockdown when we were shooting,” Cornelius said—noting that as quarantine restrictions eased, interruptions increased. “Even a week or two later, you could notice that there was more activity.”
The characters themselves are never united, so their main interaction is only via video conference. The coronavirus is never mentioned, and neither is the quarantine. The story just happens to be playing out while they’re separated, with just a handful of exceptions. “There is some kind of interaction that does happen where more than one character is sharing a space with another character, albeit through glass so that nobody has contact,” Baines said.
“One person was outside and one person was inside the house,” Simon explained.
Eventually, when it’s safe, the filmmakers hope to get everyone together. Maybe for a premiere—although, who knows? It might be a while before that’s possible; depending on the distribution of the film, it may debut before the quarantine lifts.
“Hopefully, some day we can do an actual real wrap party,” Simon said. “So I can actually meet some of these cast members for the first time.”