South African film-maker Tim Greene was the driving force behind Boy Called Twist and Skeem. Known for his pioneering spirit, Greene has underlined this characteristic with his latest project called Cabin Fever.
Now in post-production, it was filmed during lockdown after Greene decided to run with an idea that involved casting and directing actors remotely. Spling got in touch to find out more about the film and screenwriting process.
Cabin Fever has been a team effort. Was the process of screenwriting similarly collaborative?
When I was stuck for ideas I’d definitely ask the cast for suggestions about what their characters might do next. This was one of the most thrilling aspects of writing on the fly. I’d write about five or ten pages, send the scenes out to actors on the WhatsApp group and the next day we’d
do a read through on Zoom.
I got a lot of very helpful suggestions and input. Always with understanding that I was free to ignore all and every suggestion entirely! Sometimes you’ve really just got to trust your gut and go with the flow. Especially when you’re creating at a breakneck pace with no chance at a second draft.
The cast have a lot of control over the camera and their performances. Did you direct them live or was it more of a planning and feedback process?
We’d rehearse on Zoom together with however many actors were in a given scene. First just reading through, then putting it up on it’s feet. And that was when I’d be able to ask the actors to be in a certain place, or find a certain background, or move the phone closer or further away, or to find a particular lighting effect.
And then we’d hang up and they’d go away and I’d wait until the high rez file arrived to see if they’d been successful achieving what they need to. And nine times out of ten, they had. It was really rather thrilling, seeing what they’d accomplished.
How strict were you about the cast sticking to the script? Did you allow for ad-libbing?
I’m not a huge fan of ad-libbing, especially not in a context like this, where one can’t be on set to hear the proposed changes. But even when I am on set, I’m wary of it. The writers slave for weeks to find just the right turn of phrase, to embody just the right sub-text, to make just the right communication… and nothing is in the script by accident.
I think it’s presumptuous to start just changing their words on the fly, just because you can. And in the past I’ve learned the hard way, when you get into the edit suite and realise that you overlooked some important bit of
communication which you hadn’t considered in the hurly-burly of shooting on set.
The screenplay was written in a short space of time, relying on found objects and available locations. How did this affect the screenwriting process?
Right from the very outset the script was tailored to the actors, their location and the props they had access to. I knew I wanted to write something about a far-flung family coming together online when someone was dying, but that’s about it.
Then as we started casting, I could start putting the permutations together. Not only of who the actors were, but what their homes offered in terms of locations.
What tips would you have for guerrilla filmmakers wanting to fast track a film of this nature?
The lockdown is an amazing opportunity. People are less busy then usual, and are more willing to participate in fresh ideas. Take advantage of that, it won’t come around again in a hurry. Hopefully.
Did you cast the actors based on their ability to roll with the punches? It seems like there was an overwhelming response.
When I put out a call on Facebook saying I was thinking about making a lockdown movie, and would any actors be willing to help, I really expected a handful of replies. Instead there were hundreds. So much so that I had to start the Lockdown Movie Project and put out a call to writers and directors to join us and start in making some other movies. To date there are about
300 actor intros on the group.
Did you adhere to any general screenwriting structure in the screenwriting process?
I spend so much of my life writing TV and film that has to follow some narrative structure, that I felt a welcome relief that there would be no producers, no script editors, no commissioning editors asking for rewrites, and I was very, very free to do whatever came into my head.
That said, I’m a really big fan of David Howard (How to Build A Great Screenplay, St Martins Griffin, 2006) and his eight-ten-minute-sequence model and I think it’s always in the back of my mind when plotting out a story. Even when I’m doing it on the fly, in parallel to the shoot itself!