Get ready for Covid-23: making a pandemic thriller in a frightening near future

What did you do over lockdown? Learn the oboe? Tick off the complete works of Proust? Bake your own weight in banana bread? British director Adam Mason made a big, starry, topical thriller; the first film to be shot in Los Angeles since the pandemic took hold.

Action supremo Michael Bay was a co-producer; the cast includes Demi Moore, Bradley Whitford and Craig Robinson. “I just thought I’d get a group of friends together, and write something for them to shoot on their iPhones,” says Mason. Instead he wrote Songbird, a sci-fi action movie which will be in every history book that covers the film business in its rockiest year to date.

Mason tells me about it over Zoom, of course. A greying fortysomething, he is wearing a Meat Is Murder T-shirt on a sunny afternoon in Los Angeles; specifically, in the front seat of his car. “There are three little kids in my house who would not allow this conversation,” he explains, “so this is my office now.”

Until recently, Mason’s CV was a list of low-budget horror films you will not have heard of, plus music videos for Alice in Chains. In March, when California went into lockdown, the project he had lined up was halted after four days of preproduction, and he went home “feeling very scared and worried about the situation”.

So he and his writing partner, Simon Boyes, decided to keep busy with a pitch: a 12-page outline of a movie. They shared it with a friend, who paged Bay. The rest is recent history. Shooting commenced in June, and 17 days later, the film wrapped.

As speedily as Songbird was made, however, it progressed a long way from Mason and Boyes’s initial concept of a Cloverfield-style creature feature. They had envisaged 200ft-high monsters roaming Los Angeles, as glimpsed by characters who were stuck inside their apartments. “But it felt like we were beating about the bush,” says Mason. “It seemed silly to invent a monster as a metaphor for what we were going through when there was a real monster that we couldn’t see outside our front doors. After we’d been stuck in our houses for three weeks, there was something appealing about imagining the worst-case scenario four years down the line.”

The story they ended up with is set in 2024. The world has been ravaged by the latest and deadliest strain of coronavirus, Covid-23, and the government’s system to stop the spread is a lot simpler than anything involving tiers and scotch eggs. Every morning at 9am, you use a mobile phone app to scan yourself for the virus. If you test positive, hazmat-suited goons from the sanitation department break down your door, throw you into a van, and drive you to be quarantined in a high-walled shanty town.

But some people are immune to Covid-23, and have yellow ID bracelets to prove it. One such “munie” is Nico (KJ Apa), a hunky bicycle courier who shows off his washboard abs whenever he has a moment. Two of his clients (Moore and Whitford) sell counterfeit immunity bracelets on the black market, and Nico hopes to save up and buy one for his girlfriend (Sofia Carson). “It’s dystopian,” says Mason, “but ultimately I feel that the film is a lot sweeter than where we are now. When we were writing it, we were debating whether we should put in a curfew, or whether that would be hard to believe. And then there were helicopters going over my house announcing a curfew that night.”

Naturally, the screenplay was written “with safety in mind”. One character, played by Paul Walter Hauser, was conceived as a drone pilot because Mason thought he might have to shoot the film using drones. In the majority of scenes, the characters are in separate rooms. Given the circumstances, though, it is surprising how often the actors are face to unmasked face. “There was a lot of communication between the unions, our production, the actors and the crew members about what would be deemed safe and sensible,” says Mason. The result was a set of protocols that have now been adopted across the industry.

Mason was tested for coronavirus three times a week. The cast and crew were separated into different “zones” to limit their interaction, everyone wore full PPE, and the actors would not remove their N95 masks until they were ready for a take. Every prop was sterilised and vacuum-packed after use, and the next time it was needed, the appropriate actor would cut open the pack with their own scissors so as to be certain that no one else had touched it. And so, unlike the makers of The Batman, for instance, the makers of Songbird got through the shoot without any infections. “It was incredible to experience,” says Mason. “I didn’t want to put my family at risk, but because of all the precautions I felt far safer on set that I ever felt at the supermarket.”

In fact, he adds, he came to enjoy film-making in the time of coronavirus. The safety procedures may have been “extremely complicated”, but other aspects of the production were blessedly simple. “The process was really freeing for me. There were no egos and no drama because everyone was thankful to be working. All of the superfluous stuff and the Hollywood bullshit you get caught up in went out of the window. We had a tiny crew, no big movie lights, and a prototype cinema-quality camera the size of a coffee mug, so I could give the actors total freedom to experiment and improvise on set. It was like an independent guerrilla movie except with a cast and crew who brought infinite production value.”

Overall, directing Songbird was “cathartic”, “a welcome distraction” and “like going to film school”. The only question is whether viewers will get as much out of the film as Mason did. It isn’t hard to spot its producer’s influence, so anyone who isn’t a Michael Bay fan should be wary. Another issue is that Songbird may already be out of date. With its curfews, roadblocks, paramilitary enforcers and heavily guarded ghettos, the film depicts what the near-future might have held if a vaccine had not been formulated and if Donald Trump hadn’t lost the election.

There is every possibility that 2020 has more horrors in store for us, of course, because 2020 is like that. But it looks as if the US is edging away from the world of Songbird instead of towards it. Still, Mason is not too concerned. “Frankly, I hope that the film does feel outdated,” he says. “I haven’t been able to see my parents back home in England. My dad is 85, and is maybe a few weeks away from getting the vaccine, so if the film becomes a strange little time capsule of this strange time we’ve all lived through, that would be the perfect way to end the year.”

Songbird is in cinemas and on VOD from 11 December