How 'Songbird' Director Navigated Filming in the Age of COVID
"There were questions of whether or not we could even have two actors in a shot together."
That's what writer-director Adam Mason faced in the days leading up to filming Songbird, his pandemic thriller that, in July, became the first film to go into production in Los Angeles after the city-enacted COVID-19 shutdowns. The Songbird team, which included producer Michael Bay, had conversations about doing split screens and other tricks to make the movie work, but fortunately, COVID testing became more available just in time to change the script for the better.
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"We were able to regularly test and with [COVID] protocols in place, we were able to have actors in the same scene with each other," Mason tells The Hollywood Reporter. "So there was some last-minute, frantic rewriting."
Songbird, out on PVOD from STX, is a film that was shaped by necessity, with a script that evolved on the fly. It featured a small crew and is full of scenes with actors alone or wearing hazmat suits and gas masks to stay in line with safety protocols.
Songbird takes place in a future Los Angeles in which COVID has become even deadlier and raged for several years. It follows the star-crossed romance between a courier named Nico (K.J. Apa), who is immune, and Sara (Sofia Carson), a young woman who must stay at home with her grandmother. In this world, who test positive are sent to a government-mandated Q-Zones, with the cast also including Demi Moore, Bradley Whitford, Craig Robinson, Peter Stormare, Alexandra Daddario and Paul Walter Hauser.
For Mason, his Songbird journey started with heartbreak.
When lockdown began in March, Mason was just days away from filming a passion project, one he'd dreamed about for years. When it was shuttered, along with the rest of Hollywood, Mason was heartbroken, but his writing partner Simon Boyes called him the next day with an idea: they should shoot a no-budget film with friends over Zoom and FaceTime.
"Originally it was going to be a monster movie, with 200-ft. King Kong type monsters roaming around L.A.," says Mason. "Then we shifted that to make something a bit more true to life."
Things went from homemade to Hollywood when producer Adam Goodman read the script and wanted to help, with Michael Bay soon boarding, with the team moving fast to get something out by the end of 2020.
They conducted casting and chemistry reads over Zoom and no role was harder to fill than their leading man, Nico.
Mason hadn't seen Kapa's hit CW show Riverdale, and wasn't sure he was right for the part. But after five minutes on a video call with Kapa — sporting a giant beard and traveling around the country in his truck at the time — Mason knew he'd found his guy. But everything nearly fell apart when Kapa ran into visa issues, making it seem he would not make it to L.A.
"We went back looking for another actor to play Nico, right up until the 11th hour, and just couldn't find anyone at all. It was terrible," says Mason. "A terrifying feeling for me, because Nico and Sara are the backbone of the entire movie."
Then just days before production began, the visa issues cleared up and Mason's two leads had their first chemistry read over FaceTime. The director encouraged his actors to come up with their own backstory for their romance, partially out of expediency.
"The movie was moving like a freight train at that point. It was a question of dividing and conquering," says Mason.
On set, the production used a tiny prototype camera from RED that cinematographer Jacques Jouffret had used on commercials.
"That really opened up the visual canvas of the movie for us," says Mason.
Despite the heavy subject matter, Mason considers Songbird a hopeful film about how people come together during a crisis. While making it, he thought back to stories his 85-year-old father told him about growing up during the London Blitz, which saw Germany bomb the city during World War II.
"A lot of his most formative, happy memories as a child were actually during this terrible time in British history," says Mason. "He would always tell me about this sense of community that rose up out of that and the safety he felt within that community."
For Mason, making Songbird brought unexpected joy during a time of sorrow for the world, and provided him with experiences he didn't think he'd ever have.
Recalls Mason of his surreal experience: "There's Michael Bay over there, filming for my movie. That's something I never thought would happen in my life."
by Trilby Beresford
by Richard Newby