What did you do during the lockdown? Learn the oboe? Check the complete works of Proust? Bake your own weight in banana bread? British director Adam Mason has directed a major star-studded topical thriller; the first film shot in Los Angeles since the pandemic took hold.
Supreme Action Michael Bay was a co-producer; the cast includes Demi Moore, Bradley Whitford and Craig Robinson. “I was just thinking of getting a bunch of friends together and writing them something so they can shoot on their iPhone,” Mason says. Instead, he wrote Songbird, a sci-fi action movie that will feature in every history book that covers the film industry in its most difficult year yet.
Mason tells me about Zoom, of course. In his late forties, he wears a Meat Is Murder T-shirt on a sunny afternoon in Los Angeles; more precisely, in the front seat of his car. “There are three little kids in my house who wouldn’t allow this conversation,” he explains, “so this is my office now.”
Until recently, Mason’s resume was a list of low budget horror movies you might not have heard of, as well as music videos for Alice in Chains. In March, when California went into lockdown, the project he had lined up was halted after four days of pre-production and he returned home “very scared and worried about the situation.”
So he and his writing partner, Simon Boyes, decided to focus on a pitch: a 12-page preview of a movie. They shared it with a friend, who paged Bay. The rest is recent history. Filming began in June and 17 days later the film ended.
However, as quickly as Songbird was created, it has come a long way from Mason and Boyes’ initial concept of a Cloverfield-style creature function. They had imagined 200-foot-tall monsters roaming Los Angeles, spotted by figures stuck in their apartments. “But it was like we were beating around the bush,” Mason said. “It seemed silly to invent a monster as a metaphor for what we went through when there was a real monster we couldn’t see outside our front doors. After being stuck in our homes for three weeks, there was something appealing about the worst-case scenario four years later.
The story they found themselves with is set in 2024. The world has been ravaged by the latest and deadliest strain of coronavirus, Covid-23, and the government’s system to stop the spread is much simpler than anything involves thirds and scotch eggs. Every morning at 9 a.m., you use a mobile phone application to check for the virus. If your test is positive and suitable for hazardous materials from the Sanitation Department, you break down your door, throw you in a van, and get you quarantined in a high-walled slum.
But some people are immune to Covid-23 and have yellow ID bracelets to prove it. One of those “munies” is Nico (KJ Apa), a bicycle courier who shows off his washboard abs whenever he has a moment. Two of his clients (Moore and Whitford) sell counterfeit immunity bracelets on the black market, and Nico hopes to save up and buy one for his girlfriend (Sofia Carson). “It’s dystopian,” Mason says, “but ultimately I think the film is a lot sweeter than where we are now. At the time of writing, we were wondering if we should impose a curfew or if that would be hard to believe. And then there were helicopters passing over my house announcing a curfew that night.
Of course, the script was written “with safety in mind”. One character, played by Paul Walter Hauser, was designed as a drone pilot because Mason thought he might have to shoot the movie using drones. In the majority of the scenes, the characters are in separate rooms. Given the circumstances, however, it’s surprising how often actors are faced with an unmasked face. “There was a lot of communication between the unions, our production, the cast and crew about what would be considered safe and sane,” Mason says. The result has been a set of protocols that have now been adopted throughout the industry.
Mason has been tested for the coronavirus three times a week. The cast and crew were separated into different ‘zones’ to limit their interaction, everyone wore full PPE, and the cast did not remove their N95 masks until they were ready for a take. Each prop was sterilized and vacuum packed after use, and the next time it was needed, the appropriate actor would open the package with his own scissors to be sure no one else had touched it. And so, unlike the creators of The Batman, for example, the creators of Songbird got the shoot off without any infection. “It was incredible to experience,” Mason says. “I didn’t want to put my family in danger, but because of all the precautions, I felt much safer on the shelf than ever at the supermarket.
In fact, he adds, he came to enjoy cinema during the coronavirus era. Safety procedures may have been “extremely complicated”, but other aspects of production were thankfully straightforward. “The process was really liberating for me. There was no ego or drama because everyone was thankful to work. All the superfluous stuff and Hollywood bullshit you get caught in came out the window. We had a small crew, no big movie lights and a cinema-quality camera prototype the size of a coffee mug, so I could give the actors complete freedom to experiment and improvise on set. . It was like an independent guerrilla movie, except with a cast and crew that brought in endless production value.
Overall, the making of Songbird was “cathartic,” “a welcome distraction,” and “like going to movie school.” The only question is whether viewers will get as much from the film as Mason did. It’s not hard to spot its producer’s influence, so anyone who isn’t a fan of Michael Bay should be wary. Another problem is that Songbird may already be out of date. With its curfews, roadblocks, paramilitary law enforcement and heavily guarded ghettos, the film describes what the near future might have contained if a vaccine had not been formulated and if Donald Trump had not. not lost the election.
There is every possibility that 2020 has more horrors in store for us, of course, because 2020 is like that. But it looks like America is moving away from the world of Songbird instead of heading there. However, Mason is not too worried. “Frankly, I hope the movie looks outdated,” he says. “I couldn’t see my parents again at home in England. My dad is 85 and maybe a few weeks away from getting the vaccine, so if the movie becomes a weird little time capsule of that weird time we’ve all been through, this would be the perfect way to end the year.
Songbird has been in theaters and on VOD since December 11