In any other year, filming an aerial view of a desolate Los Angeles for a post-apocalyptic film would mean a herculean feat of logistics or millions in computer-generated special effects.
To shoot "Songbird" this spring, director Adam Mason needed just a $900 drone — the one perk of making a movie about a pandemic during a pandemic.
"Most of those shots were me going out in a city that was completely shut down," Mason said. "So we kind of got a production value for the movie that you would struggle to get on a massive studio budget.
"But there was this feeling of loneliness. I felt like the line between art and real life was blurred. I felt like a character in my movie."
"Songbird," opening on premium video on demand Friday, is the first feature film to have been made in Los Angeles during Covid-19, which made the sci-fi love story at times feel a little too close to a documentary as the skeletal cast and crew put their faith in unprecedented safety protocols.
"There was nothing easy about making this film," Mason said. "The most simple of scenes that you would never have thought twice about in 2019 just became a huge undertaking — we didn't even know if we could have two actors in a scene together."
In the thriller, the Covid-19 virus has mutated into Covid-23 by the fourth year of lockdown. Those who are infected are put in camps, and only those who are documented as immune are allowed outside their homes. One of them, a courier named Nico (KJ Apa), must save the love his life, Sara (Sofia Carson), whom he hasn't seen in person since the lockdown began, after she is targeted by the authorities. That puts him on a collision course with a married couple (Demi Moore and Bradley Whitford), who are willing to kill to protect both their black market business and their immunocompromised daughter.
"Rarely do you get to play a character and tell a story that you are actually living and surviving in real life," Carson said. "This is art imitating life while we're living it. All those fears, all those concerns, the nightmare was real for us. I channeled that into Sara."
The movie arrives on television screens just shy of nine months after the first day of the California lockdown, which halted a passion project film that Mason had been working on at the time. Mason's writing partner, Simon Boyes, called him that week to pitch the idea of doing a bit of guerrilla filmmaking while they were in limbo, the plan being to ask several actor friends to shoot scenes on their iPhones or laptops to be edited together later.
Within a day, the writers had put together a 12-page document that was part rudimentary story and part manifesto on how they planned to shoot it in the middle of the burgeoning pandemic.
"We didn't have any aspirations of it being released. It was more of something to do to get our focus off the scary world we were living in," said Mason, who was born in Britain. "I have a wife and three little kids, and I couldn't see my parents, who are 6,000 miles away in England."
The story kept mutating like the virus, from a found-footage creature movie like "Cloverfield" to a thriller about the less tangible monster currently rampaging around the planet. They sent their document to producer Adam Goodman, who greenlighted the production the next day. "Transformers" and "The Rock" director Michael Bay joined as a producer shortly afterward.
Because so many actors were eager to work after months of work stoppage, Mason could land veterans like Moore and Craig Robinson in supporting roles by the time cameras started rolling in June.
Getting a low-budget movie financed is one thing; getting it made when the film industry and the unions were scrambling to set new safety protocols is another. "Songbird" would be the proverbial canary in the coal mine.
That meant Mason used a crew of 30, about a tenth of a standard production in previous years. On the set, because some actors would be unmasked during filming, the only other people present were Mason and the director of photography, Jacques Jouffret, who operated the camera. There would be no fiddling with lighting or makeup touch-ups because of social distancing requirements.
Carson said that the cast agreed to quarantine when they were not on set during the 17-day shoot and that every actor was tested for the coronavirus four to five times a week.
The coronavirus, in its supporting role, did sometimes help. Having bad guys in hazmat suits and gas masks in the script proved an efficient way to work around the need to keep extras in protective equipment. It also proved a big boost for Carson to get into character for a tense scene in which she is surrounded by masked soldiers.
"It feels like a such an impossible thing to happen, and yet it's not so far away from our reality," Carson said of the climactic scene. "That's what made every scene of this movie, every line that was spoken, incredibly surreal: the fact that it felt so real."