2020 has been a turbulent year, to say the very least, and among the many, many businesses affected by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has been film and TV production. While some projects have been able to begin filming again since, in the midst of this, we’ve seen some brand new material created in ways no one could have expected in the past, including new, filmed-from-home episodes of series like Parks and Recreation and Happy Endings and a number of inventive shorts and longer films created in and around homes by industry professionals.
Fandom spoke to three key figures involved in projects that have been created under these conditions:
- Brian Lynch, the screenwriter behind Minions and The Secret Life of Pets, who wrote and directed the comedy short Calls, released on YouTube, about two friends making prank calls together.
- Actress Amy Acker (Angel, Person of Interest, The Gifted), who wrote and co-directed the ominous YouTube short Outside, with her husband James Carpinello serving as co-director and her costar, in a story about a couple trapped inside for mysterious reasons.
- Rob Savage, who directed and co-wrote the hour-long horror film Host, about a Zoom-chat gone very wrong, which debuted on Shudder to strong reviews.
All three talked about coming up with their ideas while stuck at home, figuring out how to actually get them made, and the unusual obstacles they had to overcome, given the circumstances.
Plenty of us have been keeping weird sleeping habits during this time, but Amy Acker turned that to inspiration, recalling, “I woke up one morning at around 5:30, and I just wrote kind of the idea, the outline, and then James woke up and I said ‘I wrote an idea for a movie for us to shoot…’ That day, I just typed it out as a script, and I think we started two or three days later. So it was quick. If we had thought about it, we probably would have come up with a reason not to do it.”
Acker said the original intention was to quickly make and release Outside, noting that while it was only recently put online, “James and I [filmed it] by the first two weeks of April, and we thought we were only going to be in our houses for like two weeks, so we thought we should take advantage of those two weeks and make something. Cut to four months later… “
The genesis for Host meanwhile began with a viral video Savage created, though he notes, “We call it a short, but really it was a prank video. My friends weren’t in on it.” Having made the very effective video simply using Zoom, his own home, and a cleverly inserted clip from Rec, Savage said he then thought to himself, “Hey, so this clip has gone well. It seems like you can cut a movie from Zoom footage and people will watch it. Why not try that for something longer?”
I’ve been hearing strange noises from my attic, so I called a few friends and went to investigate… pic.twitter.com/CxmJAf44ob
— Rob Savage (@DirRobSavage) April 21, 2020
He said his pitch to Shudder was simple. “It was just the line, ‘A bunch of friends do a seance on Zoom. And you have to trust us on the rest, because we’re gonna figure it out!’ Shudder, to their credit, trusted us, and were really excited by the prospect of doing it in such a short period of time. They really trusted us to go and figure it out.”
Lynch said, regarding the genesis of Calls, “It’s weird, because the beginning of this is actually unrelated to the pandemic. I was cleaning my office, because I have time to clean now, and I found a DVD of the movie that I made in 1997 [Big Helium Dog] with a lot of these same actors. I put it in and I’m like, ‘These guys are so funny, I haven’t done anything with them in so long but I still talk to all of them.’”
Deciding how he could put his free time at home to good use, Lynch revealed, “I wrote Calls in like two hours. I sent it to Matt [Kawczynski], who’s the male lead in the short, and I said ‘Is this funny?’ He’s like, ‘Yeah, let’s make it.’”
Lynch was then inspired to bring in more of his Big Helium Dog collaborators, recalling, “Kevin Smith emailed me back within an hour, and he’s like ‘I’m shooting something right now, what do you need?’ I was just putting out feelers, seeing if this was a good idea, and he’s like ‘Just send me a copy of what you want me to do, the way you want me to shoot it.’ So I quickly shot it in the very room I’m in now and sent it to him. He sent his video back within two hours.”
Lynch said happily, everyone he reached out to said yes, including some non-Big Helium Dog folks like NSYNC’s Joey Fatone, who he’d only met a handful of times. “I think everyone was really excited to do it because we’re all stuck here.”
MAKING IT HAPPEN
So how do you begin to make a movie at home, given all the elements you need to juggle? Acker and Carpinello have two children, and noted, “”We shot it while our kids were at school on Zoom, so we’d sneak away next door for a couple hours each day and shoot a scene or two.” (more on that “next door” mention below)
Acker added, “Then we tried to edit it ourselves, which we have both learned is not a skill we have. Though James was better at it than I am, I have to say… I called [Editor] Lisa Lassek, who I know from Angel and Cabin in the Woods, and she’s done Avengers and all of Joss [Whedon]’s stuff, and I said ‘Do you happen to know anyone who might want to help us with this?’ Tommy [Aagaard] is one of her assistants from Avengers. He was great. He made us look like we had worked way too hard for nothing. He was like, ‘Oh, here you go!’”
For Host, Savage remarked, “So much of it was a learning process. No one had done anything like this before really, and certainly not under lockdown conditions. So a lot of it was us trying things out, them not working, and trying something different. And being able to call them up, saying, ‘I want to try this gag with a bunch of fishing wire, I’ve ordered you some fishing wire on Amazon. Try to slam a door with the fishing wire.’ Or you know, ‘Show me your attic. Is your attic scary? Maybe we can do a scene in an attic.’”
Calls focuses on two main characters, played by Meiyee Apple Tam and Matt Kawczynski, with many other actors popping up briefly. The cast all filmed themselves on their own time, but first Lynch said he and his two leads, “Did a run-through together, so she knew how Matt was gonna do it. Matt had already recorded his part, but I will say I kept sending him [additional] things. Matt produced the short with me and I kept sending him stuff when we ran into roadblocks. When I would send Matt footage, I’d be saying, ‘Look how good he is’ or ‘Look how good Meiyee is,’ and he’d go, ‘I’m redoing mine. I wanna be as good as them.’ And he redid everything, and we used all his second takes.”
When it came to editing Calls, Lynch said, “I got in touch with my friend, Jess Lane, and I was like, ‘By the way, everyone was so excited to do it, but I don’t know if this footage is going to match.’ She said ‘I’ll make it work.’ And she did.”
Host has its fair share of scenes that required special effects, but Savage noted less was done after the fact than you might think, explaining, “There’s no shot in it that’s wholly VFX. Every single thing I’d say is 90% on camera, and the VFX is just a bit of wire removal or clean up. You know, found footage is very unforgiving with that, so we wanted to make sure that every single scare had a lot of weight to it and it felt like we were there in the environment. Sometimes we weren’t able to get people into the different spaces they needed to be, so we kind of figured out clever ways to use visual trickery to do that…. It was really important to make sure this was very old school scary and it held up, and that it just felt like a normal Zoom call gone very badly wrong.”
Outside has some special effects in it as well and Acker explained, “It was David [Beedon], who did Person of Interest and The Gifted. He’s actually making a really cool short too, and he was like ‘If you help me with mine, I’ll help you with yours.’ I told him, ‘I love it!’”
Acker recalled telling Beedon and his team, regarding a big FX reveal in Outside, “’You guys do this all the time, can you just make what you think you could make look the coolest? That’s what we want.’ They were like. ‘Wait, we’re confused, usually people are very specific, we need pages of notes, and you have to tell us exactly.’ We were like ‘No, we just want you guys to have fun with it and do whatever you want!’”
USING WHAT YOU HAVE
Acker and Carpinello were filming from their house – sort of, as they actually were shooting next door to their own home. As Acker explained, “We have a house next door to us that my parents use and my sister uses; my whole family kind of has this house. My sister designed it all, and that’s why it looks so nice. My parents haven’t been able to come out during Covid, so it’s been fairly empty for most of the time. And there’s no people there, so it’s a nice, quiet film set.”
With their DIY approach, Acker said they would use anything they could around them, noting, with a laugh, “James has a motorcycle, which is a thing we always fight about, because I don’t like him to ride it, so I was like, ‘I’ll use the motorcycle!’ I was just trying to think of anything that we had that we could use to make a movie.”
Lynch noted that with Calls, initially, “The only concept I had was that two people were trying to crank call other people, and things were going wrong. It was just a matter of picking why things were going wrong.”
When it came to the actual explanation of what was happening near the end, “That was a very late addition. And it was a chance to bring all these new faces in. It was fun to see all these new people you haven’t seen yet and they’re really funny. There was a girl, Maydelle Clarice, that worked at Illumination with me and she’s so bubbly and friendly and then I saw her acting reel, and she’s super serious and kind of mean in it, and I’m going, ‘I didn’t know she was that good an actor!’ So I said to her, ‘Will you play this, and also do you know any other actors?’ They’re all in her sketch comedy group. So it was a chance for them to get to do a sketch when they’re stuck in their apartments too. It was great to have all my old friends but also bring in new people.”
Savage enlisted his friends as well – most of whom were seen on his viral prank video – to make Host with him. The director said everyone quickly rose to the challenge, which involved helping pull off in-camera stunts and effects themselves, with no crew.
Savage had really only explained the bare-bones idea of an online séance gone wrong to his cast when he received a surprise. “Haley [Bishop] and her boyfriend sent me a video ten minutes after we got off the call, and it was just Haley sitting at her laptop. I was like, ‘What are they doing?’ And then suddenly she gets pulled back in her chair and slammed against the wall! They’re climbers, so they had some climbing ropes, and they just rigged it to the chair. And that whole bit with the chair moving was something they came up with themselves and just pitched to me. Everyone’s brains were just switched on to how we can make this film as awesome as possible.”
Making a movie in general always has its challenges, but there were unique ones making something from home. As Acker put it, “James keeps saying that the real movie is all of the behind the scenes stuff.”
For example, she noted, “The stunt choreography was a group effort. Usually, when you’re doing a stunt where you’re hitting someone with a wrench, they give you a foam or plastic wrench that you can really swing at them. And we didn’t have that, we had a real wrench, and so the first few times I was hitting him, he was like ‘Why aren’t you doing it right? You’ve done a million fight scenes and this doesn’t look good.’ And I was like, ‘Because it’s a real wrench!’ He goes, ‘Just do it! Don’t hit me, but make it look good!” And then the next take I took the wrench, and it was so heavy and I swung it and it just cracked him. The sound was awful! But it made the hit look really good, so we finally got that. It was a lot of trying to fight while we were holding a camera in our other hand.”
For Host, Savage stressed, “Everyone was quarantined, and no one broke any of the rules while we were filming so we had to get really creative about it. I don’t want to spoil anything, but there’s a lot of clever doubling, a lot of clever in-camera edits. One thing to look out for is a lot of the actors’ houses were made up of several different houses. So for a specific stunt, we’d cut to a stunt person’s house, who could do the stunt with all the guidelines in place. And then we’d have a hidden cut and it would take us back to our real actor. We kind of cast with that in mind. We cast Teddy Linard [who has experience doing stunts on series like Vikings] for instance because we knew exactly what we wanted to do to him and what we wanted to do to Jinny [Lofthouse]. We knew if we cast them in those specific roles, we can do everything within the guidelines. It’s a very weird process, having to factor that in, but it makes you have to be creative.”
Savage noted they would use Zoom while the actors were filming themselves, “so I could kind of monitor the performances and the angles. But we were quite worried about the internet connection cutting out just as we were doing stunts or something crazy like that. So we got everyone to tape their phone just above the laptop camera, so you’d get almost the exact same footage that you got on Zoom. I could monitor on Zoom but then we had a higher-res bit of footage to work from when we needed to do VFX, if we needed to blow it up or do anything with it. And it also didn’t rely on internet connection, because that’s terrifying.”
Making Calls, Lynch wasn’t live on Zoom but rather sent everyone their part and gave them info on how to do it. For the most part, he wanted to avoid having to ask anyone to reshoot anything, noting, “You know, they weren’t getting anything out of this, other than we can watch this and have fun. I will say this though, Michael Ian Black was the second person to send back footage, and he sent it back with him looking into the camera. He assumed it was a Skype call. And it was really, really funny footage. And I had to send that email almost immediately, because I didn’t want him thinking he could move on from it. I was like ‘I love it, and if you can’t redo it I can make it work, but would you mind not acting like it’s into Skype, it’s just a regular call?’ And he’s like ‘I don’t know why I thought it was Skype. That makes no sense, why would you crank call Skype?’”
Of course, doing any work from home has some amusing, unavoidable moments involving those you share that home with, and Lynch recalled how going through the footage, “Most people had just set a camera down and recorded it and I can hear their family coming in on a lot of the takes going, ‘What are you doing, Dad?’ or, ‘What is this thing?’ And they’d go, ‘It’s for my friend. I’m doing comedy.’ So I got to get a little peek at their home life.”
MORE FROM HOME?
So having all made films from home once, would they want to do it again? All three of those we spoke to said they were up for it.
Said Acker, “I think it would be really fun, yeah. I have one idea, so maybe we’ll get our act together and try to make it happen!”
Said Lynch, “I think so, for sure. I got such joy from getting the footage back and working with the editor, even though it was on the computer. I think we need it right now. I think we need those distractions, and creating is a really good way to keep my spirits up. I would love to. And I also just love these people that I work with.”
“I’m dying to,” replied Savage, when asked if he’d like to do more from home. “Honestly, this is just a warmup. I’m a big fan of found footage. So it’s not just something I’ve ticked off my bucket list. I’d love to do something with new things in this subgenre. I think there were things that we wanted to do for Host but we couldn’t, because we were in full lockdown when we made it. So now, things in the UK have lightened up, and I think we could really do something that we couldn’t with Host.”
Could that include a Host sequel? Said Savage, “I think the idea that we’re playing with at the moment isn’t a direct Host sequel, but the response to this has been great, so maybe we’d find a way to make it more of a crossover. What I’m interested in exploring is this new kind of reality that we find ourselves in, communicating in different ways, and what kind of new fear is that dredging up? I think there’s so much you can do with that. And it seems like even if we get a vaccine soon, we’ll still be living in the shadow of Covid, and still be communicating remotely for a large portion of our lives, and I think there’s something really interesting to explore there, and kind of play on a lot of the same kind of topics.”
Calls and Outside are both available on YouTube – and embedded above.
Host is available on Shudder.