29th Mar2018

Interview: ‘Welcome to Essex’ writer/director Ryan J. Fleming

by Philip Rogers

Welcome to Essex is a new zombie horror film from writer-director Ryan J Fleming which will have its UK premier at The Romford Film Festival on Thursday 24th May. I got a chance to ask Ryan a few questions about what we can expect from the film, his influences for the look and style of the film and organising a horde of over 1500 zombie extras to run through Brentwood High Street.

welcome-essex-poster

Welcome to Essex is a new horror film which you wrote and directed. Why did you decide to make a Zombie film?

I’ve always been a film fan of every genre (apart from Westerns & musicals – not so into those), and I fancied having a stab at making one myself. The real-world situation aligned itself so that I could have a go, so I knuckled down to write something. Being a huge fan of apocalyptic fiction, I initially wanted to write a nuclear war-based story, something along the lines of Threads (1984) or The Day After (1983), but I knew that would cost a crap-load to make. I wasn’t good enough to do it justice, so I went with a zombie apocalypse instead.

I was aware that the sub-genre was somewhat swamped with low budget zombie flicks, so I put my time into writing a generic plot but packing it out with comedy and ‘what would I do in that situation?’ set-ups. Some of that made it into the final cut, some didn’t and some never made it past the first draft. I really wanted, in my naive mind, to create the next Night of the Living Dead (1968). Something that was plot-heavy and contained loads of hidden depth. That soon went out the window though when I realised I wasn’t good enough of a writer, so I just loaded it with fart and knob gags instead.

The main reason I made this film is because it worked out cheaper than going to film school! Besides, I’ve always been a firm believer in ‘learn by doing’, so to make all my mistakes up front on my own film made sense to me, rather than screw up someone else’s script. That’s not to say I’ve learnt everything an am a consummate film maker now – far from it – but I sure know a lot more now that I did back in 2012!

What can we expect from the film?

I don’t want to give too much away but what you won’t get is a bunch of civilians suddenly becoming urban super-warriors, armed to the teeth, fighting off hordes of the undead. This is England, after all, and guns are hard to come by, so our heroes are anything but. They’re just the people one might easily encounter in Essex on any given day.

Although it’s a micro-budget film, you will get some ambitious set pieces. I didn’t want to set the whole thing in one location, as that gets stale quick, so Welcome to Essex moves about a lot. It’s essentially a road movie without the cars. I’m always impressed by low budget films and TV shows that go for grand set pieces, especially post-apocalyptic ones, so we tried to do that. Budgetary constraints prevented a lot of what I wanted to show from being filmed, including having every outdoor scene covered in litter and crashed cars and dead bodies, but we did our best. We even tried some CGI but it didn’t work out, so we binned it.

You’ll get quite a lot of comedy, mainly through the dialogue. Welcome to Essex was initially written as a flat-out, Shaun of the Dead (2004) style comedy, with fake tan being the cause of a TOWIE-style horde of zombies overrunning the area. As the drafts went on, this angle was dropped (it’s alluded to in the opening titles still) and the comedy angle was pulled back in. The character of Muzzy still has a lot of comedy lines in there (way more in the original cut) and it’s this that I think will pleasantly surprise people. There aren’t many zombie films with fart gags in them!

On top of that, we tried to keep the pace moving in the film, so our characters don’t fanny about talking all the time. They’re running for their lives after all. We tried to film on location whenever possible (although we had to take a bit of artistic license with the geography of Essex) and we also made sure we avoided all the Essex clichés too, as they’re usually incorrect and often lame.

What were your influences for the look and style of the film?

I didn’t really try and style it after any particular film. There were a few reasons for this. The first being we didn’t have the equipment to try to emulate other films. When we started filming, we had one Canon 7D and a Zoom audio recorder. 4K was too expensive in the early days and drone filming was out of the question. By the time we finished the reshoots, we were using GH4 and NX1 cameras, multiple drones and RODE audio gear. We had to dumb the footage down to match the 1080p stuff from earlier!

I wanted Welcome to Essex to be a linear film and didn’t want it to be too fancy or experimental. Remember, this was our first film and none of us came from a film background, so we went for basic shots and set-ups. I kept thinking of Kevin Smith actually, as he favours a static camera and prefers to let the actors tell the story rather than the camera. If I did it all again, you’d be watching a very different looking film, as I learnt so much making this one.

The film went through several changes from the original concept. What were the main factors the changes prior to the release and how do you think it has affected the end film?

As mentioned above, the biggest change was the overall tone of the film, from a comedy to the action-movie-with-zombies/dark comedy you see now. Other changes mainly were all about fleshing out the characters and giving them more targeted dialogue. I also changed the main character from a male to a female after Cat Delaloye auditioned for the role and nailed it. It was kind of written sexless anyway but once she came on board, I made subtle changes to feminise her lines when required, as well as playing to her accent (there was a whole scene cut from the final edit explaining why she has an American accent). Because we had such a long post production time, I kept tinkering with the edit and making changes here and there, which can be deadly to a film (Star Wars Special Editions anyone?) but I think it helped us greatly, as it tightened the film up a lot and kept the story rolling along. It’s easy to get bogged down in exposition in a film like this, something I’m fully guilty of as a writer, so chopping out scenes from not only the script but the edit really helped with that.

What were your favourite scenes to film?

Genuinely all of them! It was such a rush to hear dialogue I’d written acted out by a talented cast on a daily basis! That said, there were a few days that were cooler than others. The helicopter scene was fun to do, as we spent most of the time pissing about with the Huey chopper, playing Predator (1987) or Die Hard (1988), much to the annoyance of the female cast, who just wanted to get on with it.

Filming with Russell Brand was a highlight too, not only because he’s a proper movie star but also because we planned that day’s filming for a week in advance, as we knew we only had him for a few hours. As a result, the shoot with him went perfectly and he was a delight to work with. He’s very funny and charming and affable. He’s also very professional, which was and still is weird to me, as there was me, this no-nothing upstart, telling this Hollywood-level actor what to say, how to say it and where to stand!

One of the most impressive scenes in the film is the zombie horde running through the streets in Brentwood. What was that like to arrange and film?

Looking back on it, it seems ridiculous to even attempt it! We put a call out for extras for that scene first and soon had nearly 2000 applicants. We thought we’d best see if we’re allowed to actually do it, so we approached Essex County Council and Brentwood Council who, whilst trepidations at first, soon came around when they saw our game plan.

In order to close Brentwood High Street, we had to get permits, re-route buses, close off and man all access points to the road and inform every house and business within a certain radius of what we were doing. We also needed all the shops in the High Street to agree to not leave their signs and lights on overnight, as we were filming on a Sunday morning and everything had to look powerless. All agreed (although a few forgot!). We also convinced some pubs and food places to open at 4am to cater for our zombies.

All this was done months in advance. On the actual weekend of filming, most of the core crew worked without sleep from Friday afternoon through to after the shoot on Sunday evening. On the Saturday night, after the pubs had shut and the High Street emptied, around 3am, we had the extras start to arrive from all over the UK. We had over 100 crew marshalling them into teams and they were then led through registration and down to a local pub that had allowed us use of their large beer garden for makeup. We had that set up like a production line and, before long, all 1500 extras were gored up and raring to go. (We asked for 500, got 2000 ‘yes’ replies and 1500 plus change on the actual day).

The shoot itself took about three hours (longer than we wanted but there was some fog we had to wait for to burn off) and the High Street was cleaned up and opened bang on 10am, as agreed. The police and councils never received a single complaint about that day, which surprised them and us, as you can’t usually have that many people in one place keep quiet. Turns out our extras are a breed apart and are fantastic!

What makes Welcome to Essex stand out in the horror genre?

I keep coming back to it but the comedy aspect, I think. That and the fact I don’t consider it a horror film but rather an action film with horror elements. If it stands out at all remains to be seen but I hope, it’s viewed favourably, and people don’t take it too seriously because we didn’t! I never set out to make a genre-busting movie, I just wanted to make a flick that people would enjoy and be pleasantly surprised by.

It is an ongoing debate between zombie fans, what type of zombie is better walkers or runners?

I like both. I think walkers make more logical sense, given as they’re dead, man, they’re all messed up, but they don’t really pose much of a threat, seeing as you can just jog away from them. Some films have used walkers really well. Most of George Romero’s ones (we’ll gloss over the zombie on horseback), obviously, but probably the finest examples would be The Dead (2010) and its sequel. They really managed to get across that the zombies were actual cadavers and posed a minor threat unless they were in large numbers or within lunging distance.

Runners work too, from a storytelling point of view, as they pose a massive threat, especially in mass. Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead (2004) remake nailed it, but other films have taken it a bit too far. The 2008 remake of Day of the Dead had parkour zombies, which was just a bit too much for me. That said, Devil’s Playground (2010) used them and that kinda worked.

Welcome to Essex actually has both, with the unspoken reasoning being that once you’re killed and infected and reanimated, you’re still ‘fresh’ enough to run after your prey. Over time though, your dead blood starts to coagulate, and you stiffen up, become a more ‘traditional’ zombie. I did write a scene in which two characters discuss this, but it felt a bit forced and didn’t fit anywhere in the plot, so I dropped it. So, to answer the question: both. It’s personal preference and, as zombies are pure fiction, there is no right answer!

What was one of your favourite scenes in the film?

My favourite SHOT in the film is one that was cut. It’s one of the original endings in which a character stands under Southend Pier and looks out to sea. It just came off beautifully and was framed perfectly. However, we changed the ending and, when we re-shot it, the tide was in and it wasn’t possible to recreate it. My favourite scene though would probably be the supermarket car park zombie carnage scene. We had a stunt team in that day and got to do lots of stunt work, as well as trash up the makeup guy’s car! We also had the cooperation of Sainsburys, which we never thought we’d get. It’s nothing spectacular on screen but it felt like the most ‘movie’ thing I got to do!

If someone is looking to direct their first film, what advice would you give them?

Keep it simple. Don’t overreach on your first time out the gate. Pick a genre you know about, write a good script and make the dialogue realistic. Pick good actors, a better crew and, most importantly, GET GOOD AUDIO GEAR! We screwed up royally on that and had to re-record all of the dialogue and foley the entire film (hence the long post period) all because we cut corners with the audio. Remember- people will forgive questionable visuals, as that can be put down to artistic style, but nobody will forgive crappy audio. It throws the viewer right out of disbelief. Also, get a crap-load of money, cos you’ll need it!

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