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Making a zombie movie – part two

This is the second part of my interview with Ryan Fleming, writer and director of WELCOME TO ESSEX. Last time, I talked to Ryan about how the idea for the movie came about, and the first steps he took to turn that idea into a reality. This time, we cover more about the production of the film, and how a Hollywood A-lister (unfortunately now a prominent conspiracy theorist) came to be involved.

As a first-time director, how did you prepare for the shoot? How did you feel shooting the first scenes?

WELCOME TO ESSEX was my first film. I’d not made anything before; no short films, no YouTube videos, nothing. I think this actually helped as much as it hindered me, as I had no expectations going into it. I just knew what I could see in my head and it was my task to get the crew and cast to produce that for the cameras. That makes it sound simple, and it’s really not, but as with anything, the more you do it, the easier it gets.

The first day of shooting, which was Catherine’s scenes at an abandoned ammunition depot, (used during the opening titles) were shot on a cold February morning in 2013 and were difficult. Cat did an amazing job and delivered everything I asked of her, but our inexperienced crew and me being an inexperienced director made getting a few simple shots take hours. Contrast that with, say, the RUSSELL BRAND footage, which was shot a year later as additional scenes, and we had a multiple camera set-up, live audio, on-location filming and with an actual Hollywood movie star that could only give us a short amount of his time before he had to run off to do some promo for his book, and we had it all in the can in under an hour with enough time left over for a few extra takes and a quick photo shoot.

Despite not having directed anything for many years, I would feel totally at ease walking on to a set full of professional actors and crew and getting shots done with no problems.

You mention Russell Brand, and in the first part of this feature you hinted that you managed to film all the major stuff you’d written into the script. How did a film planned after a random discussion in a pub scale-up so impressively?

Need a helicopter? We phone some local airfields, looking to hire one, and find a guy with an ex-Argentine Air Force Huey that got ‘waylaid’ after the Falklands War. He agreed to let us have our way with it for a day in exchange for some “liquid payment”, so a quick run to Sainsbury’s secured that. We asked people doing much better than us in life and managed to borrow an Aston Martin for a morning. We cheekily called around and secured a shopping mall in Romford for a weekend to fill with zombies and blood (that was a fun day of shooting, especially the prank we played on our two main female leads. And we got it on film!). We managed to get the local and county councils to agree to shut Brentwood High Street for 8 hours on a Sunday morning so we could load it with over a thousand extras.

One of my favourite ‘blags’ came about because I wanted to use a can of Fosters lager being sipped in an early scene. I emailed Fosters  in Australia and was told they’re owned by Heineken, so I emailed them as well, asking for permission to use a can of Fosters on screen. I included the script pages for the scene, along with some storyboard pictures and an assurance that the brand would not be misrepresented in any way.

A few days later, I got an email from a company telling me to bring a van up to near Stansted Airport, as Heineken had a few bits and pieces for us. I assumed it would some branded stuff we could use or keep. What we actually got was two crates of every drink they make under their banner, which nearly filled the van!

The downside to the tale is that all this took place just before the producer’s 40th birthday, and the booze was stored at his house, so none of it made it through the weekend, forcing us to have to buy a 4-pack of Fosters anyway!

I’m often asked how we got so many extras and the simple answer is Facebook. All we did was set up a Group page on there and put the call out to as many zombie groups as we could find. Pretty much instantly, we had hundreds of replies . I think we had over 2000 people interested, with about 1200 actually turning up on the day, along with over 100 crew to wrangle them all. Looking back on it, it was an immense undertaking but, at the time, it was just a hoot ‘n’ a holler!

And about that Russell Brand cameo?

I happen to know his cousin a little bit, as he lives just up the road from me. I got him to call Russell one day whilst we were having many beers in a pub garden and ask him to film a scene for our movie, knowing he’d say no. However, he said yes but we had to film it near him in London and he could only spare us an hour of his time. Naturally, we weren’t remotely prepared for this so, the next day, I knocked up a scene requiring only the cast I knew we could get for the shooting day, which was a week or so hence. I wrote some dialogue and loaded it with humour, as well as some plot points, but also left plenty of wriggle room in case he wanted to ad-lib a bit. We then did something we’d never bothered with up until that point and rehearsed the shoot! We spent an evening with our camera and sound guys, planning the shoot and filming it with myself and Phil standing in for Russell and his cousin.

I took an afternoon and scouted locations in Dalston, near to where Russell was living at the time, and took many photos. We then decked out his cousin to look like Marty McFly, for no reason other than to fuck with him, as he’s usually incredibly sartorial and having to wear a body-warmer pissed him off no end. Eventually, it came to shoot. We all got to the small, dead-end road in London, knocked on doors and told the residents what we were doing and set up the cameras.

Phil asked our production manager, Laura, to nip to the local shops and buy a big bunch of flowers for Russell’s assistant, who had helped organise a lot of the day. Laura asked what she should get Russell for helping us out. Phil told her that, because Russell doesn’t drink any more and is a vegan or whatever, she should get him a Battenburg cake, as he really likes them. Eventually, the star of ROCK OF AGES, GET HIM TO THE GREEK and ARTHUR arrived to be in our stupid little film. Laura gave his lovely assistant her flowers and proudly presented Russell with a Battenburg cake, which he graciously, if slightly bemusedly, accepted. Phil then told Laura he has no idea if Russell likes Battenburg cake.

People were either starstruck or professionally busying themselves with their equipment. I took the moment to introduce myself to Russell and asked him if he was okay with the dialogue, as I had some script pages with me. He told me he was just going to his own dialogue and wing it.

Now, at this point, it’s worth mentioning that Russell Brand is very tall, standing at about 6′ 4” in his boots. However, I’m 6′ 9” in my trainers and I want him to say my lines, so I stood a bit closer to him. Not to intimidate, mind, as he’s doing us a massive solid, but rather than to assert myself as the top dog on that set in that moment. I told him I need him to do my dialogue, as it contains plot points for later in the movie. I also added that we’d do three takes; one of mine, one for whatever he had in his head and one where he could totally ad-lib it all. He was totally professional and courteous and kind about it all and immediately ‘fell into place’ as an actor. In person, Russell is incredibly nice and polite and really rather shy, nothing like his brash on-screen persona.

We rolled camera and went for it. He nailed my lines perfectly first time out with no mistakes. We reset and let him do his thing, which was utterly hilarious, both versions. In the final cut, I ended up using a mixture of all three takes and I think it works brilliantly. A week or so later, I edited it all together and sent it to him to look at. He was pleasantly surprised at how well it all came out and that made us happy.

The production was very drawn out. Why was this? Did you ever think you might not get to cross the finish line?

Filming with Russell was one of the last things we shot for the movie. We had a few pickup shots to get here and there but they were simple enough and, before long, the film was in the can. It was late-2013.

Now we started post-production. Our sound man had a Mac with Final Cut on it so we started using that. Before long, it became apparent that his Mac wouldn’t be able to handle the massive amounts of data we’d created so our newly-formed production company, Smoking Monkey, commissioned a bespoke editing computer. We now had all the gear but still no idea, as none of us had edited anything before. However, as it transpired, cutting footage together is pretty easy. We were using the latest version of Adobe Premier and all the tools that came with it, as well as countless YouTube tutorials whenever we got stuck. After a couple of months, we had a rough draft. It was 5 hours long and sounded like shit.

Chopping it down to 2 hours was easy for me and took another month or so but the problem with the audio was terminal. Despite literally half a year of attempting to salvage it, we came to the conclusion that the original audio for the entire film was unusable. A bit of advice I was given at the time (from DON MURPHY, producer of the TRANSFORMERS movies and a nice guy who replies to random emails from idiots like me) was that you can put any old crap up on the screen and call it ‘artistic choice’ and the audience will forgive it but they won’t forgive bad audio.

So, we took the momentous decision to ADR (Automated Dialogue Replacement) the entire movie. That meant we had to get the cast back, one at a time, to re-record all their dialogue into a microphone in our tiny studio while watching themselves in the movie. As you can imagine, we knew this was going to be a nightmare but, very much to our surprise, they all nailed it first time! We even got to piss about and do some ‘alternate audio’ for some of them, many of which play in the out-takes over the end credits. An unforeseen side-effect of ADR is that now there was no background noise at all, so we had to learn how to add every single sound artificially in a process known as ‘Foley’. It took about 5 months of 8-hour days, 6 days a week to get it all done. Then all the audio had to be mixed and levelled whilst at the same time the footage was being formatted and colourised and cleaned up.

Before we knew it, we were well into 2016 but we nearly had a finished film at last!

What has audience reaction been like? How did you feel about the response?

We finally ran out of money and patience and all agreed we’d polished this turd long enough, so it was time to release it into the world. We’d made a good friend in SPENCER HAWKEN, another local film-maker who was 2 films ahead of us at this point. He was also heavily involved with the burgeoning ROMFORD FILM FESTIVAL (still going, by the way!) and they were focusing on horror films that particular year (2018). He invited us to premiere WELCOME TO ESSEX and open the festival with it, which we obviously agreed to do.

We advertised it all on our Facebook pages and groups and sold out both screens of the multiplex the festival had us on at. It sold so fast that they booted SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY on its opening night to put us on a third screen!

I sat right down the front on opening night, as I had to do a Q&A afterwards. I could hear murmurs and hubbub behind me as a few people came into the cinema. Then the film started. When the first visual joke appeared on screen, the place erupted with laughter, causing me to finally turn around to see a packed house all laughing at the stupid knob and fart gags I’d written on a barely-functioning computer six years ago. I gotta say, it was a great feeling!

What were your high points?

The high points for me were seeing everyone come together to make a stupid idea of mine come to life. The longer people got involved, the more passionate they became. Or that’s how it seemed to me at least. There really weren’t any low points. I’d say the worst of it all is that the entire industry changed whilst we were in production. When we started, there was a tried and tested way to get a film out there: you made a movie, shopped it around and hoped someone would buy the DVD rights off of you. By the time WELCOME TO ESSEX came out, DVD was dead and it was all about streaming and we just weren’t prepared for that at all and I think it cost us dearly in the end.

How can people watch WELCOME TO ESSEX?

Currently, the only way to see it is on DVD, which you can get from Amazon, eBay or from our website. We initially avoided going down the streaming route, as it pays so badly to the creators. These days, now it’s a largely-forgotten film, I probably will chuck it some streaming platforms before releasing it on YouTube, or I might just go straight to YouTube and aim for the views. Don’t forget to like and subscribe!