The Making of an Amateur zombie film: Part 1

April 2018 – Creation

Having been an avid fan of cinema since a very early age, I’ve always had one of those niggling thoughts at the back of my mind that one day I should make a film.  This has never gone away – could I direct a film?  There was only one way to find out…

I don’t tie myself down to any particular genre, when asked what sort of film I prefer.  Among my favourite movies ever are Dunkirk, The Matrix, Aliens, T2, The Dark Knight, Die Hard…ok, so far, ‘action’ seems to dominate, but among other films I’d rate 5 stars are the likes of The Sound of Music, Pulp Fiction, Goodfellas, Seven Samurai…

But on that list you will also find movies like, The Exorcist, The Sixth Sense, Sinister, Tremors, IT, The Ring…and Dawn of the Dead.

As much as I like zombie films like 28 Days Later, for me, zombies don’t run.  Ok, there’s no hard-fast rules.  They don’t exist!  You can pretty much make them whatever you want them to be. But I recall seeing the original DOTD aged about 10yrs and being scared shitless by these ridiculously slow-moving corpses.  For me, that is what a zombie should look like.  Slow as fuck and yet somehow always on your tail.

As over-saturated as the zombie market is right now, it was zombies I couldn’t get off my mind.  Over several months, I formulated a plot in my head, constantly adjusting detail here and there, and about two years ago I eventually got round to the metaphorical pen-to-paper.  I started work on a screenplay.

Though, my vision was a bit different from most zombie films.  I wanted to focus purely on one character.  A man, grieving from the loss of his wife and son, retreated to the countryside to get away from death, only to question whether life’s worth living anymore. How the hell can I make a film interesting, with only one main character in it?!  How would I achieve realistic zombie make-up?  Where the hell would I film this?!  Who would play the main character?

Well, I already had leave booked late April 2018 with nothing planned.  I finished the screenplay early 2018 and emailed it to Steve Launay.  My leave fell nicely with a break between other Beacon productions.  Day 66 was a go!

Who could I rely on to always turn up to filming days (mid-week too) whilst I was off work?  My shifts are notoriously difficult to accommodate filming and I would need to make the most of the leave I had. Who could take on this difficult role?  I chose myself.

I’m completely honest about my abilities. I have the acting range of a newt.  I have a tendency to revert to ‘crazy-eyes’ when attempting any sort of acting-expression.  Why the hell would I want to do this?  I knew I would be available when I was.  Simple. 

I went on a recce with Steve and the first place we visited was a gold mine. There was open countryside, thick forest, a lake, a stream and more within walking distance from the car park.  That was our location sorted.

In the weeks before filming, I began assembling a range of props. I spent the entirety of the allotted Beacon budget within days!  Luckily, I’d set aside my own funds to get other essentials. Days before filming was due to commence I still had no idea who our crew would be.  I was panicking somewhat.  Would this all work out fine?

May 2018 – Action!

Wednesday 25th April 2018 was Day 66’s first day of filming. 

Steve Launay confirmed the crew the previous day – Connor Cleary (Director of Photography), Giorgio Cavacuiti (camera / runner), Reece Palmer (camera / runner) and of course, Steve.  We would all travel in my car, but without Steve’s dog, Oska, meaning our time in the sticks was limited before Oska staged a dirty protest.

We met at Steve’s and discussed my vision for the film.  We then collected Giorgio from Swanwick station before setting off.

The first scene involved my character, Jack, washing at a stream.  The water was an odd red/brown colour and tasted horrible.  It was a very overcast day and washing bare-chested was rather cold!

Then the rain started spitting, mid-scene.  It kept stopping and starting.  We managed to get that scene done to our satisfaction.  In what would prove to be a truly amazing moment, mid take, two deer raced past in the background – all in shot!  They were followed a few seconds later by dogs chasing them.  Fortunately, whilst I reacted in shock, I didn’t ruin the take, so we’re able to use some of that in the finished scene.  Complete luck but a fantastic moment – you can’t plan stuff like that!

Alas, that would be the only luck we had.  There were some curious passers-by but they never threatened filming.  The rain, however, was a right bastard.  We were able to get some scenes filmed but all got thoroughly soaked, with only trees as shelter.  Amazingly, given the forecast, I was the only one wearing a coat (at times – when the script allowed!).  The crew would soon learn!  Filming was aborted when the camera misted up…

Upon returning to Steve’s, we set the tent up in his living room and filmed an interior tent scene.

The next day, it was just me and Steve initially – we would spend the day down Beacon favourite, Addison woods.  We got a few scenes filmed involving Jack’s camp site.  We were then joined by returning crew members Connor and Reece, who brought along new recruit, Ryan Wilson (runner).  Steve left us to it whilst he returned home to get work done.

Despite the rain returning, we managed to get quite a bit done.  Fortunately this time, we had the tent when rain got heavy.

With all scheduled scenes completed, we returned to Steve’s, with the intention of filming interior tent scenes I’d forgotten to include Wednesday.  However, on returning, I realised my knife prop was missing. Only the sheath remained on my belt.  This was a disaster – it features heavily in the film and would be required for most remaining filming days. 

I was determined not to spend another £15, so returned to Addison with Steve in search of it.  It wasn’t in any of the obvious places but then Steve, knowing the size of my bladder, suggested I should check wherever I‘d taken a piss that afternoon.  Sure enough, near my urination spot was the black knife, barely visible amongst the fallen leaves littering the ground.  Phew!

I spent Friday preparing for the weekend’s filming.  That evening, Mat Hasker came round mine to watch Escape From New York and help make tin can props for the following days shoot.  John Carpenter is one of the key influences on Day 66’s theme tune.  I’ve always loved how his tunes seem so simplistic, yet very effective.

Saturday afternoon consisted of interior scenes at Steve’s house, doubling for the inside of whichever isolated countryside house we use.  These scenes were the first to require sound.  The previous days filming would only need foley sound adding.  We rattled through these scenes with relative ease. 

Sunday saw a return to the sticks, where we were treated to our first rain-free day!  We made great progress – I decided to leave a few scenes until we have a drone at our disposal…

We only did an hour on Monday, involving two interior tent scenes.  These were the first filmed in the Beacon studio.  My 10 yr old daughter, Ella, was off school sick with tonsillitis, so naturally I dragged her along to hold the boom!  Parenting at its finest.

 Steve was at work Tuesday, but had arranged to leave a key out so I could film some further interior house scenes, with the assistance of Reece.  The key was indeed left in the agreed spot, however, the door from annex to kitchen was locked.  Fortunately, I was able to break into the house to get filming completed! 

Tuesday was slow, as Reece was doing both lighting and camera work.  The tight confines of the upstairs hallway also posed difficulties, as some doors will lead into rooms within the country house.  We therefore had to be devious with how we shot scenes, so we’re not limited in future elsewhere, for continuity reasons.

Tuesday’s extras performed very well.  I‘d ordered live maggots for some truly disgusting scenes and they certainly did not let us down! With my annual leave over, filming would be more sporadic over coming months.  Steve’s biggest concern throughout has been how I’d achieve the ‘hordes of zombies’ as scripted.   Read on to find out what my cunning plan was…

JUNE 2018 – Day 66 goes public!

So…how would the ‘hordes of zombies’ become a reality?!

A couple of weeks before filming commenced, I set up a Day 66 account on Twitter (@Day66_Movie – pause reading this and follow us at once! Please!).  When that was done, I needed to find a way to attract followers.

The Twitter account attracted around 400 followers in under 2 weeks.  I also set up a Day 66 Snapchat account (day66movie), so people could get live-time updates from filming.  This was all very well, but in our first location, none of us had phone reception, so the live-time updates promised were in fact somewhat delayed.

About a week before filming, I sent an email to the Daily Echo, telling them what we had planned, expecting to hear nothing back at all.  After all, there are much more important things happening in the world than a bunch of film geeks making a low budget horror film.

After the first few days of filming, I received an email from a journalist at the Daily Echo, asking me to give him a call, as he was very interested in writing an article about Day 66.  I couldn’t believe it.

I phoned him and he was extremely enthusiastic about the film.  He liked that there were many different angles with which he could approach the story from – from the reason we had chosen our location, to the subject matter of the piece.  He requested photos of the production and one of myself.  Fortunately, we had taken quite a few photos and I found a nice selfie photo of me and my son, Lincoln.

We chatted for quite a while and on Wednesday 2 May 2018, the article was published. We even got a front page mention, “So you want to be a film zombie? See page 14…”. Albeit, this was immediately to the right of the main headline, “ABDUCTION ALERT”…

I opened the paper to page 14 and there was my ugly mug, with poor Lincoln completely cropped out.  But hey ho, that’s show business my son, get your own movie!

The Bournemouth edition of the Echo also ran the article, with their websites adding the same, only with more photos.  The Salisbury Journal caught wind, as did the New Milton Advertiser, who contacted me and also ran articles. I even did an interview on radio with Sam FM!

Before I knew it, the Day 66 hotmail account I had set up was bombarded with members of public offering their services as a zombie extra!  It seems there is a HUGE appetite for all things-zombie and everyone wanted to be a part of it.  Managing the email became a full time job for about a week and things would get ridiculous again every time an article was published.

I would estimate I have had over 400 emails to date – mainly people wanting to be zombies (some emails volunteering entire families and groups of friends!), but also others offering their services completely free for professional SFX make-up, editing, general crew work, graphic designing…I even had someone offer me the use of their yacht and another offering me the use of their collection of American police cars!  The response was absolutely fantastic – beyond anything I could have imagined.

The Twitter account picked up followers and stands at 550 at time of writing.  I have since started a Facebook page.  The Snapchat has picked up quite a few followers to date, although with production slowing since that initial period of annual leave I had in April, there is often more to Tweet or “Face”(?!) about, than to snap.

I did get 5 embroidered Day 66 baseball caps made, which are pretty cool.  These were snapped up by mates, eager to buy something ultra-geeky!  If the demand is there once the project is complete, I can always look into ordering another, larger batch. Who knows, maybe one day people will be wearing Day 66 t-shirts too!

I want to get all non-zombie related stuff in the can first, before then moving on to the fun stuff!  I have created mail lists for extras, and makeup artists, for when that time comes.

I want to get all non-zombie related stuff in the can first, before then moving on to the fun stuff!  I have created mail lists for extras, and makeup artists, for when that time comes.

JULY 2018 – Day 66 turns professional!

Wednesday 16th May 2018 saw further scenes filmed at Beacon HQ, aka, various rooms at Steve Launay’s house.  Giorgio Cavacuiti joined us for the shoot, involving a collection of brief scenes documenting main character Jack’s recuperation at a country cottage.

We were keen to make scenes as challenging as possible.  Up went the black drape in the dining room, blocking the sunlight to allow for evening scenes, where Jack “enjoyed” a candle-lit dinner. Into the cramped attic I went with Giorgio, to film Jack searching for items that may assist him on his journey. 

My favourite shot of all though involved Jack brushing his teeth and spitting the toothpaste into the sink.  How to make this simple action more interesting?!  Steve’s brainwave involved the camera being positioned under a glass shelf, which I then spat on.  Seems simple enough but it took a couple attempts for my toothpaste-loaded spittle to land in the correct place!  Great result though and worth the time taken.

On the evening of Saturday 2nd June, we went camping.  Well, not quite. We shot campfire scenes down Addison woods. The ever reliable Giorgio once again joined Steve and I, accompanied too this time by Sarah Miatt and my brother, Howard, who I asked along to stay independent to filming to ensure the fire remained under control.  Approaching the longest day of the year meant we had to shoot late, timing it right to allow sufficient light so we weren’t just recording pitch black!

We all had fun creating some truly awesome shots of Jack with the flickering glow over his face, as he mourned his family.  Once again, I’d written in some eating for Jack to do, meaning I got to cook steak.  The cold baked beans were less welcome…

We filmed a couple quick scenes back at Steve’s before calling time.

Monday 25th June saw us at a mate’s house in Stubbington.  Work colleague Sam Warne and his wife, Helen, joined Steve and I for the shoot, along with their baby Thomas.  Helen is playing Jack’s wife, Alice Richards.  Sam played the part of DC Jason Mitchell.  The couple swapped baby duty when it was their turn to act.  The shoot went well and we were all done after about an hour.

A mixture of the World Cup and everyone’s busy lives away from Day 66 saw a whole month pass without filming.  However, when Day 66 returned, it turned professional…

Wednesday 25th July happened to be Beacon Productions’ 31st anniversary.  We met at 0900hrs at Steve’s house. Work colleague Luke Goble played the part of ‘zombie farmer’, after original choice Neil Miller was unavailable.  Little did Luke realise he was in for one hell of a transformation!

One of the unexpected results from the media coverage had been the offers of help from makeup artists.  This had never been something I’d considered appealing for, but the sheer number of offers I received from keen individuals was astounding.  The standard of work from photos they sent was staggering. 

I’d sent a global to artists who’d made contact. Five were able to attend. Five on makeup for one zombie would’ve been overkill, but I was keen to provide opportunity for as many as possible, so assigned one the lead, with two to assist where needed but primarily to ensure continuity throughout the production.

Molly Savery took the lead, having previously sent me a photo of someone with a pencil sticking out their eye!  This was actually exactly what I needed for this scene – only not a pencil but rather a stick.  Penelope Pitman and Rhianna Kingdon assisted Molly and it was like the three had known each other for years.  They instantly clicked, chatting enthusiastically about their experience.  It was clear we had one hell of a team assembling!

I’d allowed an hour for makeup and this overran slightly, making me nervous we’d struggle to fit the shoot in, as Steve had arranged for family to pop by at half 11!  We got down Addison woods just gone half 10 and that’s where the fun happened!  You’ll have to wait for the finished film for full details, but needless to say I stabbed Luke in the eye during a fight.  Molly had already fashioned an eye piece, meaning when we were ready for injury detail to be applied, she was able to do so in only around ten minutes. 

Of all the filming we’ve done so far, this was by far my favourite and I can’t wait to do more zombie scenes!  What a fantastic way to celebrate Beacon’s 31st that was!