Craig Griffith on the making of isolation film 'Lockdown'
Writer and director Craig Griffith tells us in his own words about the making of his quarantine film Lockdown, the cast he pulled together to create it including comedian Richard Herring, the logistics involved in directing from self-isolation and getting the film ready in time for its online premiere.
Lockdown came about in such a strange way. I didn’t really have a plan for the film as such, it wasn’t some elaborately constructed piece. It was just the pure reaction to the very sudden situation we all found ourselves in and it was my way of dealing with all the craziness of that. I knew I wanted to make something about what was going on but I had no idea how or where to start. I just knew that I had to do something.
I was in the middle of working on a web series with my old actor friend Paul McCarthy. Paul was in my first feature Through The Looking Glass and we’ve worked together a lot over the years. He started his career as part of the original cast of Grange Hill and he had had this idea to reunite several of the old Grange Hill cast members for the new show. We had several scripts all ready to go and we were just looking to shoot the pilot but of course lockdown meant that we’d have to postpone the series.
So, although I was feeling frustrated by that, in the grand scheme there are far more important things right now… but I’ve never been very good at sitting at home twiddling my thumbs and like most people I felt helpless and that there was nothing I could do to be of use. With no distractions it kept rattling around my head that there must be some way we could still do the pilot. Then about 2-3 days into the lockdown I woke up in the middle of the night with the idea that what if we get the actors to film their own scenes in the safety of their own homes as if they were the characters posting vlogs of themselves on social media about their experiences during lockdown. I thought that instead of fighting the situation we could make use of those very limitations to actually tell the story. I grabbed some paper and scribbled down the bare bones of the idea and some scenes and then went back to sleep.
The next morning, I looked at the scenes and thought actually, these aren’t too bad, maybe I can make something of them. So, I fleshed out what I had and turned them into 1-pagers. The more I watched the news, the more I felt like I really needed to talk about it and this seemed like a good way to share what I was feeling. The 1-pagers were very much informed by what I was watching and reading and inspired particularly by a very poignant tweet from a doctor who had just come off his night shift talking about the small details that had touched him and it deeply moved me. How could I not write about that, what people are going through at the moment? It’s way too important not to say something if I can. I didn’t mean to get on a soapbox but I felt I had to say something because the situation was terrible and it seemed that if the people who are supposed to be our leaders had just done their job’s properly in the first place, then an awful lot of this wouldn’t have happened.
I wrote about 12 of these 1-pagers. Each page was a basic story outline for that character and dialogue. The idea was that each actor would then improvise around that to reflect their own experiences and make it more personalised. I did a test that night shooting myself in character as a sci-fi book nerd doing book reviews to keep himself occupied (it never made the cut). I sent this “tester” to Paul as an example of how I wanted to do it and he got it straight away. He did one the very same day and suddenly I had started.
I decided because I wanted to do it quickly I’d send the call out and the first six people to come back with shot videos would be the ones I’d use. I wouldn’t normally do that but I felt momentum was the key to this project. I felt the longer it went on the less likely it would get finished or that someone would do it better before me.
I wanted a diverse collection of characters to reflect the Britain I know and I really couldn’t have asked for a better cast. Besides Paul, next up was comedian Richard Herring who I have worked with for a long time now and is a great fella. I really wanted each character to have a different feel, and I knew Richard could make it funny but still have a serious side. That’s what he does so well in his shows and I knew the character needed that.
Phoebe McIntosh as the harassed mother trying to juggle home schooling with getting baby food and nappies from the shops was my next stop. I had cast Phoebe on my second feature The Long Road and I knew she had that calming earth mother vibe that would be just right.
Rupert Booth who plays the man angry at the government and at how big businesses have treated staff, is a writer himself and I had been brought onto a project of his called Protoverse as director. We had just got first monies in place on that when the lockdown happened, so as with the project with Paul that has also been shelved for the time being. We’ve had many political conversations over the years and I knew that he had that angsty energy that the part required.
I’ve worked with Ben Cawley who plays the doctor quite a few times as he comes in and helps me with a directing actors’ workshop that I do at a London film school. He has a real likable quality and I felt that he’d do a great job of conveying the harassed weariness of someone who has to deal with the frontline of all this and is bearing the real brunt of it all.
For me it was essential that we talk about the NHS and what those staff members are putting on the line for us. Who knows what those people are really going through but I’m sure we haven’t heard any of it yet. I dread to think what stories we’ll hear after all this. For me the NHS is the absolute bench mark of what is good about this country. Without it we would be a much poorer place on every level. I was born in Cardiff so growing up Nye Bevan was an absolute hero to us. If one thing comes out of all this I really hope that people see just how essential it is and how much we must fight for it. Of course, the trick is not to get too preachy about it so when I read that tweet by the doctor I knew that was the way to present the argument because it says it all in such a human way.
Last but not least this brings us to Anarosa Butler. I wanted to start and end with the same person. I knew that the key was to frame it around someone who needed to learn the most from their experience and that we go through that change with them. At the beginning they should just brush it off and not understand how serious it all is, almost frivolous, but by the end they are the one who fully understands the implications of their actions with social distancing and how quickly it has affected her group of friends so that she comes to see the important things in her life. This gave the story somewhere to go and some meaning, other than just being a collection of talking heads.
I knew I needed someone sparky, full of life and engaging to watch and Anarosa didn’t disappoint. She was so excited and really threw herself into it. She added so much to the character and gave her a real heart that by the end you can’t help but be touched by her. I gave her the bare bones and she just ran with it, turning her character into this glitzy wannabe You Tuber who by the end really understands the changes she is going through. For me that touch was a real stroke of inspiration making the character one that a lot of us can relate to.
Obviously not being able to leave the house made directing something of a challenge. It’s a very different way to make a film and you couldn’t really direct it in the normal way. All my directing was done beforehand, in the writing, in the chats we had and the notes I gave. I had to rely so much on the actors giving a strong performance as I couldn’t really be there with them. I did toy with the idea of shooting each scene using Zoom where I could be there to direct but then I thought actually I’d just get in the way, so I trusted that we’d prepared enough and let them get on with it, in their own time.
I didn’t get into giving them notes after they’d filmed or ask for any re-shoots as I wanted it to feel raw and I felt that if I started to over work them it would lose its spontaneity. I wanted the whole thing to be genuine and not too slick, that would’ve killed it. I laid out the parameters and then gave the actors a free range in that sense. I wanted it to be about them as much as the characters. The scripts were really a starting point for them to improvise from and bring their own true-life experiences and feelings to it.
As the footage started to come it I cut it together but it quickly became obvious that the 10-12 minute short I was aiming for wouldn’t be possible. The material I was getting was far too good to lose. Once everything was assembled it was running at 1hour 30 mins. I knew it couldn’t work as a feature length and that I had my work cut out for me to get it down but I set myself a target of 30 mins, which I thought was a reasonable length for the idea.
Again, as with the shoot, I knew I had to keep the momentum going or else risk not getting it done as the other pressure of home schooling etc mounted so I set myself a deadline that I’d have to make no matter what. I set the premier for the following Friday on my YouTube channel TERRORtUBE.
By this time, I had asked my old friend Christopher Nettleton to score the film. He’s done the music for a few of my projects now including The Long Road and we’d literally just finished a short called Ghost in the Machine. He suggested that we use the idea of children singing the alphabet as the main music, to reflect the governmental advice of how long we should wash our hands to kill the virus. We both recorded our children doing just that and he set to work. At first, he was worried that a one-week deadline might be too tight but having worked with him I knew he would deliver and boy did he.
As the deadline drew closer it was a real push to get the film done and I had to pull a couple of all-nighters but we just about got there. As always with any film you reach a point where you just have to let it go or else you’ll be there forever tweaking. I’m sure in hindsight there are probably things I would tighten if I had more time but I really just wanted to get it out asap as a record of what was going on as it was happening rather than a retrospective thing.
The premier went well with a lot of people attending as it were, and the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive although we did get 1 thumb down on You Tube. I’d love to talk to that person and see what they didn’t like about it. I tend to like the bad reviews more than the good ones. Gives me something to learn from.
Overall, I think the film worked because it cathartic and sums up the moment pretty well. It’s really down to the truthful performances from the actors. I think we can all see a bit of ourselves in what these characters are going through because the actors are actually going through this just like the characters.
The most important thing for me was that the film be a truthful record of what life was like under the lockdown, I didn’t want it to be exploitative or opportunist in any way. It had to be real so it was vital that the actors brought their own experiences to it. I wanted it to feel like we were watching the video blogs of real people, who we’d go back to from time to time to see how they were getting on.
Once the film had premiered, it took off and the next couple of days the viewing figures jump quite substantially for something that didn’t have any budget and just me armed with my phone and social media to promote it. I have to say I’m pleased that more people than I’m used to, are watching it. It’s satisfying that people are enjoying the film and feel that it is an honest representation of what we’re all going through. I hope it is anyway because that was the aim.
You can follow Craig on Twitter: @WorkshopCraig