Remember Will Smith and Tom Cruise’s characters, alone in two fictitious versions of a deserted New York (in I Am Legend and Vanilla Sky respectively)? Probably the most famous British version is Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, where Cillian Murphy’s character Jim wakes up alone in an empty London and walks around the central area desperately looking for any survivors.
With the lockdown period nearly over, and film festivals creating new categories for “quarantine” shorts, how do you recreate that in London? As you’re not Danny Boyle and can’t afford to recreate the famous shot of the doubledecker on its side in Trafalgar Square, how do you create a deserted central London – where around half a million people pass through every day on average?
As Boyle points out, cities are “weird without people” and that’s exactly what you’ll need to capture. Other big-budget shoots such as Survivors, Day of the Triffids, and Threads can close down large urban areas, but you’ll need to think of ways around that.
My solution was to start shooting my micro-short at 6am just before the lockdown was announced in March. My lead actor David Dooner plays a businessman, Si, who arrives early in Piccadilly Circus ready for work. Like Jim, Si finds himself completely alone in Piccadilly Circus looking at the Eros statue, although we didn’t have the budget to plaster it with the haunting pictures of missing people as 28 Days Later does.
Si has been on a “digital detox” out of town, so has no idea of why London is so quiet. Preoccupied with thoughts of work ahead and making calls to his assistant, instead of having to dodge his way through the early morning crush, as usual, he walks undisturbed to Leicester Square. He sees a copy of the Standard and starts to realise what’s going on.
It was one of the strangest shoots I’ve ever directed, with the bright early morning sunshine radiating down on silent streets to create an air of eerie peacefulness. Surrounded by no one but a few homeless people keeping an eye on us from the benches, some joggers, and a few interested road sweepers, we filmed in a completely empty zone one.
The professional challenges of shooting just before lockdown included not being able to find crew, so I had to shoot it myself. We had to get to locations with reduced transport, so cycled into town, and with the supermarkets and cafes closing down, brought containers of food with us.
Another technical challenge was that central London was astonishing clean, given the lack of people and many hardworking street cleaners, which meant we had surreally clean streets. This forced us to scatter newspapers in the streets to recreate a mess as though thousands of panicking people had run through the streets. Although we did of course collect the newspapers and put them back in the stands afterwards!
Staggering into Chinatown, Si sees the famous street of restaurants boarded up, with nothing but endless signs on the windows all reading the forbidding line: “Closed due to Government legislation.” Panicking, he cries out in the empty streets: “What legislation? What’s going on?”
David Dooner said: “Shooting in an abandoned central London just before the lockdown was a surreal experience for me, and one I probably won’t get to experience again soon. When we were filming in an empty Trafalgar Square, it really helped to get into my character’s mindset and what he would be truly feeling at that point. The scene where he finds himself lost running through Chinatown represents his complete desperation and loneliness.”
From a continuity perspective, David’s costume had to get progressively more sweaty and grimy, as Si runs throughout London, as he finally slides down a wall in despair to collapse on the floor, so the film had to be shot in chronological order.
After Si makes a panicking call to his girlfriend asking her to meet him in Brighton, we had to shoot the remainder in Brighton, where he is attacked in the empty lanes
Another of my favourite props used was a 1-kilo silver ingot, loaned by a friend, which Si finds. I borrowed that from a scene in 28 Days Later where Jim finds scattered cash, left by people trying to bribe their way out of London before they realised it was futile and dropped the money before they ran for their lives.
A final factor that drove home how perfect the timing was, that we didn’t even need to create newspapers with forbidding headlines, as they already existed with the real-life Standard and Metro’s front pages. Si finds discarded copies with forbidding front page leads: “Cities may be locked down”, “Worse death toll than the Blitz”, and “40,000 – our true death toll”. My personal motto is when you don’t even have to create your own bad-news headlines in mocked-up papers, you’re in business shooting a horror…