The importance of pre-production and staying alert by director Bertie Speirs

How to make a short film for no money!? Well 50 Kisses had laid down the challenge and I wanted to be ambitious directing my first proper short. The team thought a Zombie comedy at night would be a test, and boy were we right!

Step one: be prepared!
After early meetings with our great leading makeup lady, Chloe Edwards, I knew the actors would be in for many hours of makeup and prosthetics work.

Collaborating with her really pushed our production value up, as Chloe and her team fabricated a prosthetic ribcage and fake organs. The preparation time for the twelve zombies, with all the prosthetics, would prove to be 10 hours.

With so much makeup and prosthetics (which were our main expense), we had to get the film in the can in one night – so we would shoot fast and use the maximum night time available, from dusk till dawn.

Working with DoP Oliver Kember, I spent my evenings after work (and trips to the pub) mapping out all the shots and blocking far in advance. I even put together a Pre-Viz which really helped make sure the whole team were on the same page. In true Guerrilla style, this was made entirely on the free trial period of the software (the excellent Moviestorm).

Step two: production
Enjoying one of the warmest driest Septembers, our shoot night was booked for 21st/22nd and we were ready for action. Then it started to rain. The temperature dropped. A lot. Suddenly I was looking at twelve actors who had been through hours of costly make-up and yet storm clouds were gathering over the production. Sitting the cast in front of the inspiring Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland, I emerged onto the wet streets with the producers, grabbing any junk we could to dress the set. We found discarded ripped carpet, broken bottles and even that genre mainstay: a toilet!

The stage was set, and the weather cleared to give us a few hours’ respite. We grabbed shots as fast as we could – yet it was slow going – after almost every take shivering zombies had to be shepherded into warm cars and houses. Local residents came out to watch the spectacle unfolding on their doorstep. When I say local residents however, I don’t simply mean people… we were also attracting wildlife. The scent of 10 real pigs’ hearts on set had brought out scavengers and at one point it looked as if the whole shoot was in jeopardy. A cunning fox (living up to the stereotype), outfoxed us (see what I did) and stole the bag of hearts! It was a tense man vs animal sprint, but thankfully it dropped the bag and we could resume filming.

With the temperature falling and the foxes circling, we were keeping a close eye on the clock. The sun would be coming up soon, and we weren’t done. I kicked into mean director mode: no more warmth breaks. The actors put on a brave face and held strong We would finish! The caffeine was flowing and our tight planning beforehand meant we got every shot we needed. It sounds cheesy, but the whole team felt closer after surviving the pressure. They actually are smiling in the end of shoot team photo!

There is a twist at the end of our production tale. After all the build up, the gruelling 9.30pm – 6.30am shoot, the eating of real cooked hearts and chasing of foxes, something happened which we were not prepared for. This was the dark side of guerrilla filmmaking – and a lesson I hope all reading this will heed.

At all times during the shoot we had remained vigilant, leaving people guarding the set and gear even during warmth breaks and rain stops. But for one moment, just after wrapping, our guard slipped. Outside on the set, people were chatting and cleaning up debris. Inside I was congratulating the team, packing away gear and looking for our expensive and borrowed boom microphone. I can’t find it. No-one can. Someone mentions a white van has just driven through our area. Surely not? Surely not??

We take flight, tearing off down the streets of west London. Thank God Britain hosting the Olympics had guilt-tripped me into going for a few runs because we need some of that Mo Farah style stamina now. At last we see a white van. It is in the middle of the road, stuck behind he who would become the anonymous champion of our shoot – the milkman. White van cannot flee, he has blocked off the narrow street. We start talking to the dodgy drivers, and demand our equipment back. After a nervy couple of minutes they surrender our gear. Not only had they grabbed the boom mic, but also coats and even a camera used to shoot some of our behind-the-scenes stills.

Lesson learned: keep going for runs, and next time, have a behind the scenes documentary crew to record the off-set drama! And… just perhaps… look into improving security!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *