Updated: Jun 27, 2020
‘We are going to have to postpone the film for the foreseeable future.’
These are the words no producer wants to hear and which are likely to result in the producer passionately berating the Universe, God, the World and everyone in it for conspiring against their film.
Come early March and we have been in pre-production for our psychological horror feature, Daemon Mind for a year. We have a brilliant A-List actor attached, a hugely talented cast, an amazing production team, distribution in several international territories, a damned fine script partly inspired by a fascinating book 'The Daemon’ by one of the world’s most interesting writers, Anthony Peake, locations, costumes, sets... everything was good to go... and then the world stopped.
The UK went into lockdown and I went into a mini-meltdown when I realised that instead of spending several weeks on set making - Daemon Mind, I would instead be isolated at home attempting to finally finish reading James Joyce’s Ulysses (it’s been two years so far).
Salvation came in the form of a 5am e-mail from a friend, Alice Marinina who had a late-night idea for a film based on the life of people living in isolation during the lockdown.
This idea would rapidly become the feature-film, Strangers and Neighbours.
I called one of the co-producers of Daemon Mind, Barbara Toschi and proposed the idea to her. She was quickly on board. So, we now had a great idea for a film but now we needed to figure out how we could make a feature-length film without actually leaving our homes.
Where to begin?
Part 1 – The Script: I am generally a very fast writer and I believe that if you can’t complete a first draft script in 2-3 weeks then you are probably not drinking enough coffee. I began my creative life as a novelist so writing 10,000 words a week seems pretty normal to me.
But normally, most of the ideas which feature in my scripts are ones that have been percolating in the back of my mind for quite some time. Now I had to create characters, stories, situations almost immediately and they had to react to a real-life, ongoing global situation – The Covid Pandemic. Barbara and I decided that I should come up with six diverse characters who would each react to the crisis and the isolation it imposed in different ways. But what would these six characters have in common? We devised the idea that they all lived in the same block of flats, but had never met each other. They were quite literally strangers and neighbours – a common phenomenon in modern cities and one which worked well with our theme of isolation.
I put together a treatment depicting each of the character’s journey. The story would take place over the first six weeks of the lockdown and would reflect what was going on in the wider world. Each character begins feeling optimistic at the beginning of the lockdown and almost enjoying a holiday atmosphere. Over the course of the following weeks they would begin to suffer with the psychological effects of isolation and would each gradually descend into their own emotional and spiritual ‘abyss’ which would lead them to question their own lives and what was going to happen to a world that had suddenly been turned upside down and inside out. The final week would find them climbing out of the ‘abyss’, having confronted their own issues and also come to terms with an uncertain new world.
Part 2 – Casting: For one of the characters, Norm, we cast the actor, Paul Dewdney, who had featured in our multi-award-winning 23 min film, Mea Culpa.
He has a certain, rare, soulful quality that we thought would allow him to be the emotional center of the film. We put out a casting call for the other roles and spent a productive few days viewing the numerous self-tapes we received. It was difficult to make a final decision, but the actors we chose were genuinely outstanding, so it proved to be one of the easiest castings I have been involved with.
Part 3 – So, this was the most challenging element of the production. How to create a powerful and dynamic film without any of the actors or production team ever leaving their homes. We devised a system which we hoped would work.
Every week I would write a monologue for each of the actors to film at home using their smartphones. They would record a few takes and then send them back to us for review and after receiving some notes they would record some more takes. Also, each week the characters would have an online group chat and we would incorporate the material from their conversation into the finished film.
Part 4 – Post production. So, we find ourselves less than two months later with roughly five hours of powerful material, which we are now editing and sculpting into a finished feature film. It has been an intense but extremely rewarding and productive journey to say the least.
It has also been an unprecedented opportunity to chronicle a major historical and world-changing event as it happened and as it is still happening.
The future is uncertain but it’s still the future.
PS. I still haven’t finished reading Ulysses.
By Jason Fité - Owner at Peracals Productions Ltd and writer/director of Strangers and Neighbours