Untitled Horror Movie: the challenges and realities of shooting the pandemic's first film
HELLO! speaks to the cast of Untitled Horror Movie about chemistry, bloopers and nosy neighbors
In March 2020, the entire world shut down when the coronavirus pandemic hit. Some of us turned to new hobbies - baking or crochet - but for Shadowhunters stars Kat McNamara and Luke Baines, and pals Darren Barnet, Claire Holt, Emmy Raver-Lampman and Timothy Granaderos, they chose to film an entire movie. Shot entirely over Zoom without ever meeting one another.
Luke, 34, and co-writer and director Nick Simon brought together their friends - and fan favorites from shows such as The Umbrella Academy and 13 Reasons Why - for the very meta project: a horror film based on a possessed pendulum, it follows six colleagues from a TV show who decide to film a movie themselves because their contracts won't let them get new work.
Filmed across several weeks, Kat, Luke, Darren, Tim, Emmy and Claire had to not only hit record but also learn how to light themselves, sort the sound, set design their own apartments, create their own make-up effects, and perform stunts.
HELLO! spoke with the stars of the film to discover the challenges and realities of shooting the pandemic's first film - and just who has the most bloopers.
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Can you talk through the initial concept and the decision to film during the pandemic?
Luke: Everyone was in lockdown and trying to be creative with tasks they had put off for a minute - and mine was Mario Kart. I feel like people of my generation are always really good at it and I would always come last so I knew I had to fix this. But I wanted to take this time to write and I had been trying to write for a few years so I thought I'd work with Nick as he is someone who knows my shorthand and I know his and the idea snowballed from a horror movie about a pendulum into, 'Let's shoot this right now in lockdown, and see what it could be.'
And I don't think, really, either of us knew we would ever have a fully finished film on our hands but we do!
How were you approached for this film, and did you have any hesitation?
Tim: Luke and Nick hit me up on a phone call and said, 'We have this story for a movie we potentially want to get made,' but they didn't have a script, just a foundation. I told them, 'Let me think about it,' but also, I was growing this really dirty moustache because I usually shave it for auditions all the time and it was the only time I've been able to grow one! So I said, 'I'll do it under two conditions, let me think and also I have to have a moustache.' Though I had some regret leading up to it. I called Luke two days before shooting, 'I don't think this should be in the film.' But they literally wrote it in as the character.
Kat: No hesitations! It was an experiment and at that point, we were so starved for social interaction and some kind of creative productivity, we just said okay and let the flow of the project and our faith carry us. My biggest concern was messing up the movie by losing a file or putting a light in the wrong place or not charging a microphone! But our director of photography Kevin Duggin put those fears to rest and was so kind to walk us through it every day, how to set up sound and lights. He is a saint.
Tim: Anytime going in to a project there is scepticism and doubt, but for this, it was, 'How are we going to make this watchable?' When you have people who are steering the ship that are passionate and motivated, it falls into place and doubt falls away really quick. And after the table read, it was a moment of 'We have something here!'
Darren: Luke and I met a year before on Agents Of Shield. Actually, years ago I auditioned for a role on Shadowhunters that I did not get - it was the role that Luke did, Jonathan - and for Marvel, I auditioned for a smaller role and they called me back in for a bigger role and the smaller role went to Luke! But we hit it off and a year later he reached out and I read the script and really enjoyed it. None of us were doing absolutely anything so it was an easy thing to jump on to and it was a lot of fun.
WATCH: Kat McNamara, Luke Baines, Darren Barnet, Claire Holt, Emmy Raver-Lampman and Timothy Granaderos star in Untitled Horror Movie
Kat, you've spoken before about your love of learning below the line elements, so this must have been a real treat?
Kat: It was, I am the actor who asks too many questions of everybody on set because I want to learn. I want to direct and the more you know how each element of production works the more tools you have at your disposal.
How did this change your way of approaching acting, was it any different to being on set?
Darren: It got me back to my roots. I had worked as a personal assistant and done a lot of behind the scenes work in the past, but it woke me up - not that I was unaware - but how much work everyone else is doing, and how the job of an actor is comparably easy - easy is the wrong word but, easy! So it really warmed me up for going back to a real set, because not as many people were allowed on set for Never Have I Ever including make-up and hair artists so it paid off to be more self-aware of what I needed to be doing as athere weren't many people around to help.
How did you all navigate building the chemistry remotely?
Darren: It was very quick. Everyone became used to the amount of FaceTiming as it was the only way we communicated. Nick really let us play a lot and so we started to understand each other's humor more, and it became a game of ping pong playing off each other. It was effortless.
Luke: It was something no one can take credit for. When I was trying to think who I could put in this movie I really wanted to make sure it was people who would have fun together. The best working experiences are when you get to work with good people and I tried to find people I knew would be easy to work with, and would be happy to get stuck in. I was talking to Emmy the other day, and I was talking about the fact that all of us, from the first table read, looked at each other and went, 'I have to up my game, I have to be funnier,' and that was something that naturally happened with all of us getting together.
Kat: That was one of my biggest questions going into this. So much of the script relies on banter between the cast, and the chemistry between not just the cast of the film but the cast of the show within the film, as it were. But we knew from the initial Zoom table read that something just clicked, so from that point on we had more confidence to play, and that started us off on this wonderful trajectory of having fun.
We had so much freedom in the production process, we were allowed to find the film as we made it, and a lot of the really funny moments you see - a lot of them are Nick and Luke because they are so funny - but a lot came from improv because we played off what each other brought to the story, and allowed us to straddle the genres.
Tim: I knew Kat but hadn't met the others - and we still haven't met! But it was a credit to Luke and Nick to bring together actors that were right for the roles but also [actors] you want to be on a Zoom with. And it came fast!
Watch the worldwide livestream premiere on 12 June
Can you talk about the casting process for your characters, and where your inspirations came from?
Luke: I really didn't want to give myself Declan - I wanted to be Kip because that is really who I am in real life, I am a much more straight-laced type of human, I like a spreadsheet. I tried to build the characters around people who were doing it and work to their strengths, and it got to me and I said, 'Oh I guess I'll play what I usually play.'
There was definitely an element of, 'I am putting so much on the line in terms of writing, producing, and talking all of my friends into doing this crazy experiment with me, so let's not go crazy with a variable and do something completely new for me.' Nick wanted me to be Australian or British in the movie and the table read I did it with my natural accent, and I finished and said, 'No I can't do it,' it's way too far outside of where I am comfortable as an actor to pull it off when I am also trying to wear five other hats. And Claire called me after, 'Yeah definitely do an American accent!'
Tim: They said, 'We have this character for you, he's perfect,' and then I read it and this guy's super nice and a great guy but a goober. What do you think of me?!
Kat: Something that struck me when I first read the script was the characters come across as very archetypal, very two-dimensional but as they go through this gauntlet, as it were, you really see there is more than meets the eye, and it's just the tip of the iceberg, and I wanted to lean into that with Chrissy. She really does seem very shallow, a ditzy actor-type who is a little image-obsessed and cares more about Instagram than what's in her head, but as you go through you find out that really at Chrissy's core is commitment, no matter if that's her belief system or Instagram or career or friends or a scene, she will commit - to the bitter end! And that made playing her so much fun. She is so different to me but allowed me to take it to 11 and see what happens.
Darren: Max was the only option I had! Luke said, 'We have this guy, he's the heartthrob,' and I was like, 'Great I am getting pigeonholed as a heartthrob again!'... I know my problems could be worse! But he said, 'No he's honestly one of the funnier characters, he thinks he's so serious, he's such a tryhard' and I did think that was a lot of fun, there is plenty to do with it.
The cast had to do all their own effects
Luke, you brought personal jokes and experiences into the script - do these people know they were your inspirations?
Luke: I will never tell! I would say eight of ten people I used wouldn't know I was referencing them. Unless I pointed it out. For Alex, she's the kind of actor who would read on set to avoid talking to the rest of the cast - that is at least three actors I've worked with. And that's not entirely rude, they just would rather sit and pretend to read. And I am the kind of person who likes to stir the pot and also I am very observant... you've been on the page for 20 minutes. I know you're listening to the conversation.
Darren: I certainly know people like [Max].
Tim: I think a lot of Kip was based on me! What lens do they see me through? But some of the other characters are so very obviously a character. With Kip, I wanted to lean into the humble naiveness about him. Which is also maybe who I am?
You mentioned there was a lot of improv during filming - how much was left in?
Darren: A lot - every scene I am on camera there is at least one part off-book. The writing was great and that was what made it so easy to adlib because they gave Max so much to offer, it was easy to add. I asked Nick, 'If I am doing too much let me know,' but he said, 'No dude go ahead!'
The scene at the mom's house, I was using a friend's old laptop and the headphone jack did not work so I had to hold the computer for the camera and then hold the mic for the sound, and I couldn't hear my castmates so I had to lipread everything they were saying, and then react accordingly. And my favorite adlib is when my 'mom' comes out with the vacuum - that was adlibbing, and both Emmy and Tim broke but I couldn't hear anything so I stayed in character!
Kat: I couldn't tell you what was in the script and what wasn't! The Allison Janney bit was something I just blurted out and thought was funny, And the 911 bit we came up with between takes.
Tim: We had a lot of freedom. We were all shooting our own footage so it gave the editors the freedom to cut around stuff if it didn't work, if we broke and started laughing, or just looked dumb - which I did a lot of time.
Luke: A lot of it, and it was very cool. We created this world for people to work in but it was interesting from a writing perspective to have people take something you have and run with it. One of my favorite lines is, 'Hello is this 911?' and Kat came up with that on the fly, and I was like, 'Yeah that's Chrissy.'
"It's an intimate, vulnerable thing to do because this is our sanctuary"
Were you at all worried about fans seeing your apartment? Did you tell your neighbors what would be happening?
Tim: As we get closer to the release, yes. It's an intimate, vulnerable thing to do because this is our sanctuary, especially after the last year. So the answer to the question is yes. But we did some set design of our own so we did put up some pictures or move stuff around.
I live with my fiancé Kate and she's the true hero because for the entire shoot she had to isolate herself. And she would listen and be like, 'Are you guys rolling?' and then ask to use the bathroom! And luckily we didn't have a dog at the time - we got one shortly thereafter - but you can only control so many outside forces.
One day, we were shooting and it was a more serious scene and I hear this techno music. I look outside and the two neighborhood boys across the street are washing their car with shirts off and music blaring. I had to poke my head out like a grandpa, 'Can your turn the music down just a little bit?'
Darren: I got to curate the angles I wanted. Unfortunately, there is a part where I am running through my apartment in the beginning and I ran through what was - I have moved - my storage room so the mess you see on the floor is not set design! That was just me being a pig.
Luke: The producer in me did tell the neighbors, and also, when we were shooting with Kat, I specifically said, 'It's just the two of us, there's no crew and I am on the outside of the house so we definitely need to tell the neighbors we are making the movie or someone will call the cops!'
I think I am more concerned over if the fans will find it as funny as I found it. There are a lot of Shadowhunters references about training and stunt guys and I put them in there as it's a nice Easter Egg for fans to watch and have an inside laugh at.
Kat: I wasn't particularly worried, my place is pretty nondescript but we did have a moment of, 'What do we have to think about?' Not showing the apartment number, for example.
The biggest thing for me was that I was worried I would unleash a real demon into my apartment. Chrissy is the one using the actual pendulum and it was my last day and I was shooting the incantations, and that night and into the next few nights there was noise in my apartment that kept happening and I Facetimed Luke and said, 'If I die, I will haunt you! You made me release a demon into my house! I get you want payback for the fact Clary killed Jonathan but this is too far!'
Luke left in Easter Eggs for Shadowhunters fans
There are some interesting technical elements considering it was shot solo - how did you film Chrissy sleeping?
Luke: That was actually Kat's mom! She stepped in and lent a hand; we were doing reshoots after the lockdown restrictions had lifted and that was one we needed. She was in town and so I called her and said, 'I need a favor,' and she was like, 'Do I have to be good at this?'
Were there any surprising differences you noticed between writing for screen and writing for Zoom?
Luke: We wrote it as a screen-based film anyway but wanted to try and shoot it in lockdown and didn't want it to reference the pandemic - even though we put the date of the movie in as I thought that was funny. But up until three or four days before shooting, most of mine and Kat's stuff was in the same room and SAG said, 'Absolutely not, no two actors in the same room,' so we had to rewrite that the day before shooting. Nick always talks about how creativity can come from limitations and that was one we had that we had to overcome and I think it makes the movie better for it.
Can we expect a bloopers reel?
Luke: There is a blooper reel! I think Claire Holt has the most - because she is the funniest!
Tim: Darren had us cracking up! He said some off the wall stuff!
Would you be interested in a sequel?
Kat: It has been discussed, but we'll see how people receive this, but we would love to work together again if we can work in a capacity working in the same space. We had a Zoom wrap party and drank together for hours, but moving forward it would be nice to amplify that by being in person.
Darren: An in-person sequel, I think, would be so fun! I think if we have so much chemistry miles away from each other on Zoom, in person it would be insane.
Tim: Yes, but more to service the fact we want to hang out!
Untitled Horror Movie is out worldwide on digital and VOD on 15 June 2021.