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Making a zombie movie – part one

My friend Ryan Fleming decided to make a zombie movie. What began as a throwaway conversation with friends turned into something else entirely, and the end result was WELCOME TO ESSEX, which celebrates the tenth anniversary of its release this year. I wrote about the movie a while back, and you can read my thoughts here. A decade on from its release, I asked Ryan some questions about how the film came about, and how him and his band of largely inexperienced mates turned an idea cobbled together in the pub into a fully-fledged feature.

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m a frustrated filmmaker at heart, and I’m full of admiration for what Ryan achieved. He was kind enough to give me a number of very comprehensive answers to my questions, and also to provide me with a lot of behind-the-scenes photographs. I’ve therefore decided to split this feature over two posts. Huge thanks to Ryan for agreeing to contribute.

Ryan Fleming, director of Welcome to Essex

I started by asking the most obvious question – where did the idea for the movie come from? I wanted to know whether he had a movie idea that he wanted to film, or whether he wanted to make a film so came up with an idea?

I’ve always been fascinated with the apocalypse, especially the transition part where things go from normal to collapse and chaos. The first film I remember seeing that triggered those feelings was the original DAWN OF THE DEAD. Even now, I still prefer the first 30 minutes of the movie to the rest of it. Watching a large city rapidly fall apart as the zombie plague grows exponentially is fascinating to me. One of my favourite shots in the whole film is one that most people don’t notice, especially when watching a non-HD version, like maybe an old VHS copy, and that’s when the scene at the police dock draws to a close and the camera focuses on the city skyline and the lights in the skyscrapers start blinking out. I don’t know what it is about that shot but I dig it the most!

So, fast forward a million years and I’m working as a mobile security guard, pulling 12 hour night shifts, driving around London and Essex, answering alarm activations. Sounds exciting but it’s totally not. The one thing it did afford me though was plenty of time to listen to the nonsense in my own head, which mostly involved fantasising about an apocalyptic scenario unfolding around me as I traversed the usually-empty motorways and main streets of the South East of the UK. Eventually, I was made redundant and, not being one of life’s worker bees, I decided to take some time before finding new employ. It was just coming into summertime of 2012 and the weather was already nice and hot, so I treated myself to many afternoons of ponderings in pub beer gardens.

Read more: Making a zombie movie – part one

At some point, you got in touch and asked me to fill in for you at an press day opening of a fully immersive zombie experience at a large nuclear bunker complex near me. I love visiting that place anyway so I said I’d do it. It turned out to terrifying and indeed fully immersive.

This is true. You can read Ryan’s report from the LAST SURVIVORS experience at KELVEDON HATCH SECRET NUCLEAR BUNKER here.

The next day, whilst having a pub lunch with my friend TASHA SMITH (‘Patient Zero’ in WELCOME TO ESSEX), I got to telling her about the bunker zombie thing. She introduced me to a friend of hers at the pub and he was very interested in it all. Over a few beers, we all started talking about making a zombie movie. It was a fun conversation that I knew would vanish when the hangovers did the next day. However, this time the idea had taken root, so I fired-up my ancient and very basic computer and knocked up a 3-page story outline. It seemed awfully generic to me upon reading it back so I started adding loads of humour. The TV show THE ONLY WAY IS ESSEX was filmed in my town and, at that time, was at the height of its popularity, so I thought maybe I could tie that in on some level. The idea of a zombie outbreak being caused by a contaminated batch of fake tan was born (small references to it still exist in the main movie. Look for posters for Flashburn Tanning Lotion!).

Welcome to Essex
Welcome to Essex

I actually originally wanted to do a nuclear war movie akin to THREADS but I knew that would cost money, and money and I are rarely on speaking terms, so I figured a zombie movie would be the cheapest option. I started telling my close friends about it and they good-naturedly smiled and nodded, as this wasn’t the first hare-brained scheme I’d had. But this time it felt different and I was determined to see how far I could take it.

I asked Ryan at what point he realised the project had become a reality – when he moved from talking about making a film, to actually making it.

I think the moment it went from a daft idea to becoming an actual thing was when I was introduced to PHIL SCOTT, who went to produce the film. We quickly realised we like a lot of the same things and have a shared love of MR JOLLY LIVES NEXT DOOR (usually, if someone likes that film, they’re alright with me!*). I told him about the movie idea and he said he wanted to get involved. Phil owns a local multimedia business and had a few pennies to chuck at the production, which at this point was nothing more than that 3-page treatment. I still felt the whole project would fall apart at any minute, once people grew bored of it, but I sat down and wrote the script.

My first draft focused of getting the (generic!) story down, with a beginning, middle, and end. That was easy enough. Then I started fleshing it out with scenes I wanted to see on film and dialogue I wanted to hear. My whole thought process for writing the script was “This will never get made so just write a multimillion dollar movie!” so I started adding things I knew we’d never get if we ever actually made the film, like a helicopter, thousands of zombies, deserted towns and cities, etc. As I revised each draft, I noticed the comedy side of it all was becoming more and more laboured, so I dropped it entirely from the script, leaving just a few of the funnier lines of dialogue in, mainly because I didn’t want to take it ‘too’ seriously.

The moment for me personally that it went from ‘idea’ to ‘actual thing’ was when we got contacted out of the blue by BBC Essex, who wanted to do an interview live on air about the project (must’ve been a slow news week). That was a big deal to me. It was the BBC!

That also put us on the map and started getting us offers of assistance from all over.

*at this point, I have to echo Ryan’s mention of MR JOLLY LIVES NEXT DOOR. It’s one of the greatest things ever committed to film. If you’re in the UK, you can watch it on ALL4 (and you really should).

What was the writing process like?

One of my biggest challenges when writing the script was getting the format correct. I literally spent weeks downloading free script software and reading conflicting and lengthy articles about it before realising I’d be directing it and it would probably just be my mates acting in it so it didn’t really matter! Once I was over that hurdle, the floodgates opened and I had a finished, polished script in a week or two (I write fast!).

Now, for those who may not know, a page of script is roughly equal to a minute of screen time, so you ideally want to aim for a 90-page script. My trouble was, I didn’t have any word processing programs on my knackered old computer, so I wrote the whole thing in WordPad (which doesn’t have page numbers. Or page breaks, actually. It’s just one continuous document!) and gave it my best guess. Eventually, my computer started to fail (I’d bought it in 2003 and it was now 2012) so I got myself a new one. This one had Word installed and Word had page numbers so I transplanted the script across and added said page numbers, hoping I was just over or just under the 90 minute mark. 330 pages. That’s over 5 hours long. My genuine feeling at the time was “Ah screw it, we’ll film it anyway!”. And we did – I have an edited, fully finished cut of the movie that comes in at four and a half hours, including some pretty rad scenes we had to cut from the theatrical release purely for time!

So apart from the producer, did anyone involved have any film-making experience at all?

I had zero film-making experience but I’ve always been an avid movie fan. 2012 was still the age of the DVD and I had hundreds. I was that geek that would watch the movie then watch it again with the Director’s commentary on, then watch all of the special features. I could (and still can) quote entire scenes from hundreds of movies. The way some people are with football, I am with movies. It’s probably the only thing I have in common with Tarantino!

Talking of DVD special features, they are an excellent way to sort-of learn how to make a movie. At least, they give you an idea of the order in which to do things. A fine example would be both the 2-disc edition of JAMES CAMERON’S THE ABYSS as well as the ALIEN QUADRILOGY box set, with the latter being a cracking resource for the first-time film-maker. Remember, the budget is just numbers – the process is the same. Another must-have is a copy of ROBERT RODRIGUEZ’S book REBEL WITHOUT A CREW. Apart from being a fun read anyway, it really will put the wind in your sails when things seem a bit futile!

Welcome to Essex

Before I knew it, we had a crew. Everyone involved in the movie worked for free. They had to because we didn’t have a budget.

We held auditions. I actually got to sit in front of beautiful people as they stood on a stage and read out the stupid words I’d written. And then I got to decide if they were good enough for my dumb little movie. It was insane!

Talking of auditions, an interesting side note is that CATHERINE DELALOYE, who plays the main lead role of Ryley, asked to read for that part, even though I’d written it for a male. She was so good though that she won me over instantly and I had to rewrite all her dialogue to fit her gender. I even wrote (and filmed) a whole scene explaining her American accent away but it got cut for time.

The filming started in early 2013 and rattled on here and there until late summer of that year. Because nobody was getting paid, and we had such a large ensemble cast, we had to work around everyone’s schedules. I can’t say the script evolved too much from page to screen as it was a pretty basic plot to begin with, but all of that daft, ‘we’ll never get it’ stuff I wrote back in the early drafts? We got it all!

In the second part of this feature, we’ll cover the filming of WELCOME TO ESSEX (including some of the audacious set-pieces and guest spots) as well as audience reactions to the film.