The AUTUMN movie – set report

Here’s the second in my series of blog posts about the AUTUMN movie. Principle photography on the film began in November 2007 and, in early December, I was fortunate enough to be able to fly over to Canada to visit the set and meet the cast and crew. On my return to the UK I posted a report which I’m reposting (in a slightly re-edited form) here:

Do you have children? If you do, have you experienced the hell which is their first day at school yet? Anyone who has will know exactly what I’m talking about. With your stomach churning you drop your innocent and unsuspecting little offspring off in their new and unfamiliar classroom with their equally new and unfamiliar teacher and you walk away. No matter what your kid is doing – screaming, crying, laughing, singing, fighting, hanging onto your legs and pleading with you not to go – you have to turn your back and walk away. It’s hard but you have to do it.

So what’s that got to do with the AUTUMN movie?

For a long, long time Infected Books was just me working alone and I took responsibility for everything. I’m a control freak – I generally have a pretty firm idea of how I want things to turn out and I’ll do all that I can to make them happen. After working alone for many years, when Renegade Motion Pictures contacted me and acquired the film rights to the book, I had to get used to the idea that AUTUMN wasn’t going to be just my baby anymore, and that other people were going to put their own stamp on it. When I signed the paperwork and handed it over, I felt just like I’d done when I’d left my children at the classroom door on their first day of school. I didn’t want to let go but I knew that I had to. I needed to have faith and walk away and butt out!

Over the months I kept in regular contact with Renegade, but I didn’t get too involved. I handed over a draft of the screenplay and turned my attention to some of the other projects I’d been working on. Every so often something would come my way which would grab my attention and ramp up my excitement and curiosity – movie posters, teaser videos, cast announcements, early footage – but I resisted the temptation to stick my nose in too much and I kept my head down. In December, however, came the moment I’d been waiting for… the chance to fly to Canada and visit the set and see how my ‘baby’ was getting on and growing up.

CAST & CREW

AUTUMN is a very British story. Although the locations are inspired by real places, the names of the towns and cities are fictitious (although since writing the book I’ve learnt that almost every place name I thought I’d made up actually exists!). For practical and financial reasons, however, the movie was to be made in Canada. Although not ideal from my point of view, it was something I had to get used to. Early on in pre-production, the director Steven Rumbelow (who comes from the UK himself) expressed his intention to cast British actors in the lead roles to try and maintain the British perspective and feel of the story.

As anyone who’s read the book knows, AUTUMN is more about the relationships between Michael, Carl and Emma and their individual deteriorating emotional states than it is the living dead. The casting of these characters was therefore crucial to the success of the movie.

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Dexter Fletcher plays Michael. Dexter is well known from his roles in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking BarrelsBand of Brothers and many other movies and TV series. I had the pleasure of watching several scenes being filmed at the farmhouse and was also able to watch a lot of footage that had already been filmed. Dexter’s portrayal of Michael was absolutely spot-on and his chemistry with Carl and Emma was as natural and intense as I’d hoped it would be. I mentioned in my earlier post about the movie that, as a writer, I have a clear vision of how each scene in the book plays out. Watching early footage of scenes in the farmhouse between Michael, Emma (played by Lana Kamenov in her first major role) and Carl (Dickon Tolson), I was struck by how closely they compared to what I’d originally envisaged. There are some conversations which have survived through every draft and edit of the book and which have made it into the movie too. I’m sure those people familiar with the original novel will recognize them…

The food was good – probably the best meal they’d eaten together – and that, combined with the wine, helped perpetuate an uneasy and fragile sense of normality. That taste of normality, however, had the unwanted side effect of helping them to remember everything about the past that they had been trying hard to forget and ignore. Michael decided that the best way of dealing with what they’d lost was to talk about it.

‘So,’ he began, chewing thoughtfully on a mouthful of food as he spoke, ‘Wednesday night. What would you two usually have been doing on a Wednesday night?’

There was an awkward silence. The same awkward silence which always seemed to hamper any conversation that dared broach the subject of the way the world had been before last Tuesday.

‘I’d either have been studying or drinking,’ Emma eventually replied, also realising that it made sense to talk, ‘probably both.’

On the face of it they might seem like trivial, almost insignificant conversations, but they help show how the three survivors bond and also highlight the differences between them. In AUTUMN, scenes like this are as important as the action.

More people ask me about Carl than pretty much any other character in the entire AUTUMN series. Without doubt he’s the key figure in the first book but Dickon (who has a strong track record in UK TV drama) didn’t seem at all fazed by the weight of expectation he was carrying on his shoulders. The crew were full of praise for his performance of a man slowly coming to terms with the bitter realization there’s no point trying to survive when there’s nothing left to live for.

Steven Rumbelow and I spoke on numerous occasions during pre-production and it was clear from day one that he understood what I was trying to do with the book, what it’s really about and, even more importantly, what it’s not about. This is no production-line, blood and guts, brain-eating, special effects driven zombie movie – it’s about ordinary people struggling to come to terms with a world that has been turned upside down without warning or explanation.

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Literally minutes after I’d landed in Canada, Steven phoned and told me about a final piece of casting news which took me completely by surprise. Those of you who have read the book (and his back-story in THE HUMAN CONDITION) might remember the character of Philip…

Philip obediently turned and led the others back towards his cottage. Emma looked him up and down as she followed him indoors. He was thin and shabbily dressed. A noticeable stoop made him appear much shorter than he actually was and his grubby clothes were well worn and had obviously not been washed or changed for several days, maybe a week. His tired face was ruddy, pockmarked and unshaven and his hair greasy, ruffled and unkempt. Philip itched and scratched at himself continually.

Philip was played by the late, and quite brilliant, David Carradine. Even now, almost two years later, I still find it hard to believe that Carradine (Bill from Kill Bill 1 and 2, Caine from Kung Fu and Frankenstein from the original Death Race 2000 to name but a few of his many, many roles) stars in AUTUMN. As a long-time fan and movie geek, it’s difficult to comprehend the fact that such a genre-favourite has portrayed a part that I’ve written. My big regret is that I missed meeting him on-set by just a few days. In his brief appearance in the film he delivers a tragic and pitiful performance, completely against type and like nothing I’ve seen from him before.

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Philip’s mom, incidentally, was played (under several inches of make-up) by Diane Salema, a presenter from MTV Canada.

FROM PAGE TO SCREEN

The plot of AUTUMN has remained generally faithful to the original novel. Book and film are vastly different mediums, of course, and what works on the printed page won’t necessarily translate well to the screen. The main characters in the book do a lot of thinking about who and what they’ve lost and about the horrific situations they find themselves trapped in and it’s hard to effectively convey their thoughts on screen without having to resort to forced dialogue or tacky voiceovers!

Some other minor changes were made through necessity. A scheduling conflict meant that Carl had to be the one to meet Philip at his cottage, not Michael and Emma. Also, pretty early on in the shooting schedule, an unexpected and very heavy snowfall meant that AUTUMN turned to winter overnight! What do you do? Delay shooting at considerable inconvenience and cost, or just keep going and work the story around the weather? Fortunately the team decided to press on and I’m glad they did. The wintry backdrops added an otherworldly aspect to the film which works well. There’s something about the contrast of the bodies with the snow which looks great on screen, and the weather seems to add to the feeling of isolation experienced by the survivors at the farm house. It makes their already difficult struggle seem all that much harder still…

I spent several days with the crew up at the farmhouse location outside Hamilton, about an hour out of Toronto. It made a great Penn Farm – plenty of space, surrounded by trees and with a stream running alongside it. Inside the house was rustic and yet still felt modern and contemporary. As the author, watching the footage being filmed at the farm was a surreal experience. I watched Michael and Emma console each other in front of the fire after Carl had left to go back home to be with his family, I saw Michael cleaning the rifle he’d found and then watched Carl take it off him and barge outside to take pot-shots at the dead, I watched them discover the generator in the shed and I watched the three survivors sit around the kitchen table and discuss their lives before the end of the world… It’s difficult to put into words how it felt to see scenes which I’d written come to live so vividly. Even though the location was out by about 3500 miles and it was snowing heavily outside, everything still felt unmistakably like AUTUMN.

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PLAYING DEAD

‘So, David,’ Rachel (Renegade’s Executive Assistant) asked, ‘would you like to be a zombie tomorrow?’. It took me about half a second to answer. Just over a day later, standing out in the freezing cold Canadian night covered in zombie make-up, I lived out every horror fanboy’s dream and played dead.

A talented make-up team worked on AUTUMN under the guidance of Randy Daudlin who has worked on many films including the Dawn of the Dead remake. Many would argue that I didn’t need much work, but Randy and his team pulled out all the stops to make me appear as gross as they could using copious amounts of latex, paint, blood, drool, pus and god knows what else.

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I staggered through the snow, ‘acted’ with Dexter Fletcher (he acted, I just stomped around) and dribbled blood as I staggered towards the camera. You can see a couple of pictures here and if you’re interested, my cameo appears on page 117 of the book (2007 Infected Books edition) as Michael becomes aware of a group of bodies hanging around outside the shed which houses the generator…

ZOMBIES

Of course, I never use the ‘Z’ word, but I couldn’t finish this piece without mentioning the hordes of willing and enthusiastic zombie extras who turned up on set day after day after day. Being in a movie dressed in full zombie make-up and costume sounds cool, and it is cool… for the first hour or so. Standing outside at all hours in sub-zero temperatures with false-teeth chattering and latex and glue freezing on your face, the novelty quickly wore off (for me anyway!). So thanks to the many, many extras who came back again and again to be a part of AUTUMN.

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It was hard leaving Canada and AUTUMN behind, but it was probably for the best. I’ve said many times before that I’m a frustrated film-maker at heart, and I’d have started sticking my nose in where it wasn’t wanted and getting in the way. One thing I’ve learnt quickly in this industry – directors and writers can be like oil and water – they often don’t mix well.

Visiting the set was an unforgettable and overwhelmingly positive experience. In my next post I’ll talk about some of the less than positive situations, developments and events which besieged post-production. In the meantime, please keep your questions coming for Steven Rumbelow.

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Photo credits – Steve Genier, Renegade Motion Pictures and the crew of AUTUMN. Copyrighted material. Used with permission.