Making a Pandemic Horror/Thriller During a Pandemic: The Quarantine-and-Bubble Strategy of Banishment
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As studio and television filmmaking returns to production, an initial wave of microbudget films kicks in, shot amid the coronavirus-related shutdowns. One such film is the horror thriller drama Banishment, which is launching an Indiegogo campaign today for its post-production costs. Filmed in and around a remote shack in Lake Placid, New York for just $ 5,000, the film created its own secure production logs before official industry guidelines such as the recent Safe Way Forward plan were released. Even so, the basic principles of today's safe production – quarantine, social distancing, wearing masks on set – have been followed. Another element of today's production plans – a separate pod system – wasn't implemented simply because the shoot was essentially a pod. The five actors performed individually, and the entire crew, wearing multiple production hats, consisted of only about five people.

It was April 2020, shortly after New York had spent its first month of home ordering. While New York saw thousands of new cases every day, writer / director Daniel Byers and producer Werner Joachim Traut, both film students at Columbia University, canceled filming for the film school in the spring. At this point, Byers Banishment was quickly writing along with lead actor and co-writer Harry Aspinwall and the three decided to start a production that would reflect the pressures of the pandemic in both practical and dramatic ways. Byers says, “We asked ourselves what kind of story could we tell now? And how can we say it for sure? "Aspinwall says," There was a deep sense of insecurity every day. It all came out of this information and the only time we all really interacted with people was on screens. There was a deep feeling of not knowing where you are in Reality – not knowing who will be a danger to you or if you are a danger to other people. At least for me, that was a great thematic starting point. "Byers adds," Exile deals with many subjects which we as a society currently want to deal with together: isolation, loneliness, fear of the outside world, exposure, getting too close and (maintaining) love and trust when you can only communicate from a distance. "

At the beginning of the exile, the film's protagonist, David (Aspinall), was retired in his cabin for two years. As an asymptomatic carrier of a deadly disease, he communicates via video chat with his researcher Sam (Anita Abdinezhad), who is searching for a cure in a distant laboratory. Says Byers, “He set up this meticulous routine of timers: washing, eating, exercising, drawing blood, and swapping that blood for food. Our story begins when he suspects something is wrong. Sam could be in danger and this upsets the careful balance of David's life and exposes him to the dangers outside, the killers and monsters that now haunt the earth. "

The conception for the packaging took only six weeks. Scriptwriting continued throughout the prep, a process that included the usual – hiring the (small) crew and procurement equipment, including a Mavic Pro 2 drone and a RED Epic – as well as informing them about the coronavirus. "We've studied the available science quite a bit," says Byers. “Even then, it was pretty obvious that the coronavirus was an airborne virus and that the main threat to transmission was sharing unventilated air. And so we found that our best way forward was initially to keep the crew size to the absolute minimum. And the second was a quarantine and bubble strategy. Before production began, everyone was quarantined for 14 days. Once we were on set together, the set was completely isolated from the rest of the world. We also wore masks on set, social distancing when possible, ventilated interiors, and isolating ourselves from our sleeping environment, which meant people had to sleep in tents. Werner slept in the laundry room. «

Traut says: "We created a bubble, limited as many contact points as possible, and we were serious about everyone who worked on the quarantine of the film 14 days before their arrival, and when they arrived on the set, we conducted still the same security protocols. But our main advantage, as Harry said, was that we had this very small crew and tinkered the story around similar topics that we dealt with in real life. Much of the drama in the film takes place through long distance phone calls, video chats, and phone calls. We used the real-world limitation that we had in creating the movie as part of the logic of the world we created. "

One benefit the team experienced was the ability to hire experienced crew members who would not normally work on micro-budget production. Banishment had two DPs (Zachary Ludescher and Alexandra Gilwit) working in sequence, but with a three-day overlap as one assisted the other on the most demanding technical shots of the shoot. In other cases, however, the core filmmaking team has taken on double or even triple duties. In the first week of production, Traut produced AD and ran Sound for the first time. At the end of the shoot, Aspinwall and Byers stayed behind to shoot. “We were just a couple of days and carried the equipment for the last pickup shot up the mountain side. A drone flies around monitoring the characters that are part of the story. I operated a camera, pulled the focus and then had to fly the drone for this shot. So I did that with my teeth. "

In addition to the production design, Christian Masters acted, did stunts and the make-up effects. He also swapped kitchen chores. "I'd be in the woods building a set if I got a call and had to run back to block a stunt. While they were filming, I mixed a lot of molasses blood in the sink while chopping vegetables for chilli."

Speaking of the sets, Masters says, “The set builds were done by visiting a rural hardware store and figuring out how to make a sterile quarantine room or campsite with the limited product they had. This process reflected the way in which our protagonist must have cleaned up materials – not just the actors, but also the production team in the world presented by Banishment. "

The pandemic also had an impact on some of the usual rental and utility houses Masters would normally use for a show like this one. “Many suppliers were closed or had extreme shipping restrictions,” he explains. “As a result, almost all of the materials had to be purchased locally, from using unflavoured gelatin bought at the supermarket to create scars and textured wounds, to making an intricate phlebotomy set by disassembling an actual medical kit and parts were replaced with a syringe pump "and carefully replace the needle with a retractable pencil lead."

Although much of the film is set in David's booth, Aspinwall says Banishment isn't a one-location film due to all of the outdoor work. “We use the natural environment, the fog and the thunder to do something that is very engaging with the world. The film has a documentary heart. “While the filmmakers cite lo-fi science fiction inspirations like Paranormal Activity and Primer, they're referring to Trey Shultz's lodge-in-the-woods thriller It Comes at Night and Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel Year of the flood. Aspinwall also quotes Gustav Möller's police dispatcher drama The Guilty. "It's amazing what they could do in a feature film where you really only see one character. It was phenomenal and fascinating, a film that is ultra-minimalist in terms of cast and location. The tone is nothing like (banishment ) but it was a real inspiration. "

As Banishment collects its postal funds, the team watches other, larger productions being filmed under routines and protocols far more detailed than their own simple security strategies. "We looked at the Safe Way Forward guidelines and they are very good," says Byers. "They are very scientifically based and there is also an appreciation of cultural optics, for example when testing accessories are taken away for entertainment purposes when there is a real lack of medical needs." But there is still an environmental challenge, which is that the cases in Hollywood are very high. There's a focus in these on-set zoning plans, but with people still going home at night, it's hard to be foolproof. We hope that the challenges of creating new content can lead to small windows of opportunity for small productions like ours that can take the "bubble and quarantine" approach. And that a well-made, exciting story for $ 5,000 could have a spot. "


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