Making a Film in Lockdown: How ‘Songbird’ Triumphed In 2020


Songbird, starring KJ Apa of Riverdale fame, is the first lockdown/pandemic movie of a new genre that we’re sure to see more of. It’s a futuristic tale of a new virus, COVID-23, that rips through the population in a terrifyingly familiar fashion to the one we’ve experienced over the past year.

Extrapolating forward trends from the present, the film explores the theme of aggressive government responses to a new viral contagion that threatens to end our way of life. Interwoven here is the Romeo-and-Juliet story of true love trying to survive the horrors of the outside world.

While the subject might sound bleak, it’s actually an uplifting tale of love and sacrifice during trying times; universal themes that are supremely relevant to the present. The triumph of Songbird is the fact that it was created during a pandemic, with cast and crew having to work around lockdowns and COVID restrictions in order to pull it off.

How has this film come about? And how is it possible that in just over 12 months, we’re looking at a big-screen adaptation of what the world has experienced? Let’s take a closer look at the first film in the pandemic genre.

How to make a movie during lockdown

Adam Mason
Writer and director Adam Mason

While most of us were making sourdough and getting really into Animal Crossing, British filmmaker Adam Mason turned his lockdown distraction into a Hollywood blockbuster.

In March of 2020, as the world was shutting down to stop the spread of COVID-19, Mason got in touch with his long-time writing partner, Simon Boys, and decided to make a film about the real-life disaster scenes unfolding around them.

“He and I came out of this very guerrilla filmmaking world back in England,” Mason told the LA Times.

He said, ‘what’s happening is terrible, but we should just get together and make a movie like we did in the old days’.”

Mason is a Brit living in California with his wife and two kids. He’s over 8000 kilometres from home and at the time, was living in one of the worst-hit areas in the country with the worst COVID outbreak. Having mainly done small-scale horror flicks with titles like Blood River and The Devil’s Chair, he channelled the feelings of fear and societal breakdown into his creative work. He never expected to have a huge international release with top-billing actors just nine months later.

It took the pair just one day to put together a 12-page document, fleshing out their ideas into a workable storyline, and planning how they could possibly shoot a film during a pandemic. It started out as a Cloverfield-esque found footage film, using video captured from actors on iPhones and later edited together.

“We didn’t have any aspirations of it being released. It was more of something to do to get our focus off the scary world we were living in,” said Mason.

When they pitched it to producer Adam Goodman at the end of March, he jumped on the idea and the team set about putting together a cast and crew.

As the film industry was hit hard, with all productions being forced to stop as restrictions came into place, lots of actors were looking for work. That’s how they were able to land veterans like Demi Moore and Craig Robinson.

The team worked with a cast and crew of just 30 to pull the film together – a tenth of the size of a normal production crew. On set, unmasked actors meant that only the director, camera operator, and photography director could be present during filming.

When you want to film a massive disaster movie in LA, you normally need millions of dollars to shut down streets and make the place look deserted. For Mason, all of this backdrop was already provided for. All he needed was a $1000 drone.

While the setting took care of itself, Mason still reports that the film was a huge challenge. “The most simple of scenes that you would never have thought twice about in 2019 just became a huge undertaking,” Mason said. “We didn’t even know if we could have two actors in a scene together.”

Sophia Carson, the lead actor playing Sara, said that creating the film was like living in a bizarre reality show.

“Rarely do you get to play a character and tell a story that you are actually living and surviving in real life,” Carson told NBC News. “This is art imitating life while we’re living it. All those fears, all those concerns, the nightmare was real for us. I channelled that into Sara.”

During filming, the cast had to quarantine when they were not on set and actors and crew received COVID tests every few days. It’s a massive undertaking and one that proves that even in the most difficult of circumstances, art can triumph.

What’s the film about?

As you’ve probably already guessed, Songbird is a sci-fi pandemic thriller. Using lockdown LA as a backdrop, the film tells the story of a courier named Nico trying to save the love of his life, Sara, from incarceration and probable death in the now-established concentration-like camps of the quarantine facilities. As modern romance goes, this one is very 2020, with Nico and Sara having only ever met and conducted their relationship online.

The film depicts a COVID pandemic on steroids, with the worst of all possible outcomes writ large. Armed police patrol the streets looking for infected people and apps constantly monitor the population for temperature and signs of infection. Anyone who fails these required tests is swiftly disappeared by the state into a quarantine camp where the outcome is often fatal.

It’s told in the universe where COVID was never kept at a manageable level, and has spiralled out of control into lethal mutant strains. The world is now in year four of a never-ending pandemic and the government has gone to extreme lengths to try and halt the spread. At the same time, the black market is thriving, and married couple Piper and William Griffin end up clashing with Nico to protect their underground business as well as their immunocompromised daughter.

Cast list

K.J. Apa as Nico

Sofia Carson as Sara

Craig Robinson as Lester

Bradley Whitford as William Griffin

Peter Stormare as Emmett Harland

Elpidia Carrillo as Grammy / Lita

Alexandra Daddario as May

Lia McHugh as Emma Griffin

Paul Walter Hauser as Dozer

Demi Moore as Piper Griffin

Paul Sloan as Boomer

Andrew Howard as Reg

Carol Abney as Marie

Michole Briana White as Alice

Darri Ingolfsson as Steve

Songbird will be in cinemas across Australia from tomorrow, May 20.

Read more stories from The Latch and subscribe to our email newsletter.