Adam Mason & Simon Boyes Talk “Songbird”
Screenwriters Adam Mason and Simon Boyes had an idea. Lockdown had just begun and they began working on their next screenplay, Songbird, determined to shoot it during a pandemic that was expected to last a few months. It began as a monster story set in a pandemic. Nine months later, Mason (also the film’s director) and Boyes overcame the technical obstacles of filming during the pandemic they released Songbird, a vastly different expression of their initial concept.
In the midst of a pandemic, the industry has been flooded with a barrage of apocalyptic, virus-related stories. The writers decided to make theirs a dystopian parallel love stories centering on the romance between Nico (K.J. Apa), an infectious courier with immunity to the virus, and Sara (Sofia Carson) and May (Alexandra Daddario) a singer struggling to get her career off the ground and Dozer (Paul Walter Hauser) a war veteran with PTSD who hasn’t left the house in six years.
Songbird, set in 2023, four years COVID-19 first ravaged our communities and forced us into extended lockdown, the Los Angeles-set thriller depicts a futuristic place grappling with COVID-23. The city is divided into the have and have nots, some have acquired immunity to the virus, some are sick, some have recovered, and the privileged will pay anything to obtain fake clearance to move around the city.
The initial incarnation of the film was a monster movie set in a lockdown inspired by Cloverfield. “The monster was a metaphor for the virus, but we quickly realized the invisible monster (virus) is scarier than a two-hundred-foot beast,” said Mason.
The time shift four years into the future allowed Boyes and Mason to explore various creative avenues while remaining loyal to the effects of the lockdown during 2020. “We didn’t want to tell a story about something exactly going on right now and create some distance between it,” explained Boyes. “We wanted to explore what we’re currently going through on a human level about how bad things might get through the extreme emotions associated with forced isolation, being apart from those you love, and forced to be with those you don’t.”
There is a tremendous audience expectation about handling a pandemic story in a sensitive way while we’re in a grip of a pandemic. The filmmakers had to walk the cinematic tightrope in terms of staying true to actual events and fictionalizing the drama to tell an entertaining story while the world is reeling from pandemic fatigue. That was a key reason for setting the film four years in the future. “We spoke to various economists, futurists, and scientists who posited various hypothetical scenarios for a prolonged pandemic,” said Boyes. This helped the writing duo ground their film in reality while allowing them to explore their creativity. They balanced the possibility of events with their anticipated with the probability of them happening to make their story feel real. “These included sterilizing deliveries at the front gates to someone’s house.” Respecting the necessity of realism, Boyd and Mason never lost sight of making their movie thrilling and entertaining.
Songbird quickly became a situation of art imitating life, and in some cases, “the real world became more dystopian than the world we were creating,” mused Mason. Despite the gloom associated with Songbird, the screenwriters were compelled to tell a story that was hopeful, positive, and optimistic, hence the relatively uplifting title.
Songbird, (named after the song with the same name by British band Oasis) tracks Nico and Sara, two people hopelessly in love, but can’t be physically intimate. Paradoxically, wealthy and corrupt William Griffins (Bradley Whitford) and his wife Piper (Demi Moore) are physically close, yet emotionally distant as they languish in a loveless marriage. In the early drafts of the screenplay, Piper and William were separated and she invited him back during lockdown so she could be with their daughter Sara. These relationships were extensively explored early on in the development process, but were edited from the final film courtesy of producer Michael Bay. “The more streamlined version of William having an affair with May had more impact.”
Nico’s role as a courier is no accident. The delivery business of “essential” goods and services has thrived more than Zoom calls during the pandemic. “Nico is a messenger of hope,” said Boyd. He is a quiet, everyman hero who developed immunity from the virus and delivered packages around town. As a member of the coveted “Immunie” class, he was one of the few people who could leave the house. “He represented an ‘essential worker’ with access to different people and created connections between them.”
Songbird mines several potent social themes such as massive wealth disparities, veteran PTSD, militarization of society, vigilantes, and corruption of the ultra-wealthy. Admittedly, Boyes and Mason didn’t set out to make a cause film, but these themes were difficult to ignore in light of how the pandemic has shone a light on these social issues we previously ignored. In an earlier draft of the script, they had a physical wall separating the rich from the poor along Highland Avenue, a prominent thoroughfare in Los Angeles. Although its DNA remained in the film it was distracting and edited out, along with a Q-zone (forced quarantine zones).
Times of crisis bring out the best and worst in people. A pandemic can elevate a sense of community during a crisis and bring people together. Songbird is a love story set during a crisis. “We watched The English Patient several times for inspiration as we were writing this,” said Boyes.
They also looked to Rome and Juliet, Beauty And The Beast, Rapunzel, The Notebook, and Titanic to help them contour their story. Additionally, they also looked to movies like Children Of Men, The Purge, to help them write the apocalyptic side of Songbird. The visual aesthetic of their film was inspired by the look of The Purge. This is no coincidence since the two films shared the same cinematographer. Stylistically, the duo was also inspired by Robert Altman’s use of intercutting narratives and disparate character relationships.
Michael Bay was a key producer of the film. Known for big-budget action movies like The Rock and Transformers, he also brought The Purge, Ouija, and A Quiet Place to the screen. Bay actively mentored Mason on Songbird. “Bays fingerprints were all over the movie in the way it was crafted.” It was a steep learning curve and totally different than anything Boyes and Mason had done before. Bay was also present during the post-production process advising the duo to focus on the Nico, May, and Sara story and reduce or remove scenes that distracted from them.
“The script we shot was one hundred and forty-six pages long (around two and a half hours) and the movie you saw was eighty-five minutes long. A lot of what we filmed ended up on the cutting room floor.” The initial cut had a more indie/ character-based sensibility. “Michael Bay helped us mold it into something more commercial and mainstream.”
One of Bay’s initial observations was that there was too much exposition and world-building that needed to be edited out. “He helped us get the emotion and world across through judicious use of ‘narrative real estate’. Every scene must serve the audience, every second. There was no time to waste.”
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