Songbird, the first feature film to be made during COVID-19 in Los Angeles, and about the pandemic itself, is a terrifying, hypothetical look into our future, depicting increasing isolation, militarized enforcement, fear and loss. It also champions values like love, courage, bravery and compassion. Its ultimate message is one of human redemption and hope.
Set in Los Angeles, four years in the future, the Covid virus has mutated, culminating in a more infectious and deadlier strain: COVID-23. Lockdowns are now mandatory, curfews, food shortages, and broken supply chains are a fact of life.
“It’s what we think would happen if the lockdown we experienced continued for another few years,” says Co-Writer/Director Adam Mason.
But at the film’s heart, Mason continues, “Songbird is a love story about two people who can’t be together – star-crossed lovers who must figure a way out of their dire circumstances to be together.”
Adam Mason graduated from the London International Film School in 1999. Since then, he has directed more than 200 music videos, 10 feature films and numerous commercials. Adam and his writing partner Simon Boyes have written and sold countless screenplays for, amongst others, Paramount, Relativity, Universal, Skydance and Lionsgate.
Boyes is originally from the UK where he graduated with a degree in Film and Literature from Warwick University. Since relocating to Los Angeles, Simon and his longtime writing partner have written Not Safe For Work, produced by Jason Blum (Paranormal Activity) and Hangman, which premiered at SXSW, an adaptation of the video game franchise Thief for Vertigo, Misconduct, starring Al Pacino and Anthony Hopkins, and the third installment of the Jason Statham action franchise Mechanic.
In Songbird, the COVID-23 virus has mutated, and the world is in its fourth year of lockdown. Infected Americans are ripped from their homes and forced into quarantine camps known as Q-Zones, from which there is no escape, as a few brave souls fight back against the forces of oppression. Amid this dystopian landscape, a fearless courier, Nico (KJ Apa), who is immune to the deadly pathogen, finds hope and love with Sara (Sofia Carson), though her lockdown prohibits them from physical contact. When Sara is believed to have become infected, Nico races desperately across the barren streets of Los Angeles in search of the only thing that can save her from imprisonment … or worse.
Mason was in pre-production on another movie when it became clear that the nation — and arguably the world — had shut down and closed everything due to the uncontrolled spread of COVID-19.
But another unique opportunity came the next morning when Mason’s writing partner, Simon Boyes, called him with an idea “of making a movie with our friends on cell phones and laptops,” says the filmmaker. “So we wrote a 10-page outline that day, which included a ‘call to arms’ about how we could lead the way forward during the lockdown and create something really exciting.”
Mason sent his call to arms to producer Adam Goodman, who wanted to make the film on a scale bigger than Mason and Boyes had anticipated.
“And the next thing I know,” Mason recounts, “Michael Bay was involved.”
A master of such epic blockbusters as Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, and the Transformers franchise, Bay has also produced and shepherded more modest anthologies including A Quiet Place, The Purge and Ouija.
Throughout his celebrated career, Bay has routinely hired, promoted, and encouraged young directors just starting in the film industry.
When Goodman reached out to ask him to come on board as a producer, Bay was eager to support Mason and the production in any way he could, even shooting some second unit for the director.
Says Goodman: “Michael brings more chaos and excitement to the screen than anyone, and he has created some of the best disaster movies of all time. But we’re not just trying to scare audiences; we made a film that will have audiences root for our heroes, hiss the villains, and realize that we’re all in this together.”
“Simon and I balanced that by creating a good natured, good versus evil story, which has a good heart. It’s not a dark or bleak story. Songbird is about the strength of the human spirit in the face of adversity. It has scope and scale, is deeply romantic, and is, in the grand tradition of Hollywood, making movies about momentous and dangerous times.”
Adds Goodman: “Movies can sometimes be escapism, or hold a magnifying glass to the world we’re living in. With Songbird, we’ve done both.”
Still, the realities of the present moment provided a kind of mirror to the story Mason and Boyes were crafting.
“Writing and filming was a wild ride because I felt that what I was writing on the page was, at the same time, happening all around me,” Mason explains. “For example, I’d be writing a scene about a curfew, and a menacing helicopter enforcing the curfew. Adam would tell me, ‘No, that’s too dystopian and sci-fi,’ but that same afternoon there’d be helicopters flying over my house, announcing a curfew!”
As principal photography came to its conclusion, the cast and filmmakers took time to reflect on what they hope audiences will experience when they watch Songbird.
Carson starts with the bird that gives the film its title. “A songbird continually and fearlessly sings the song of hope,” she points out. “Adam told me that in his heart, Sara is the songbird. A warrior of hope. He also reminded me that even though our film takes place during one of the greatest survival stories of our time… ultimately our film tells the story of the triumph of hope and the power of love…in my heart, I hope that that’s what audiences will feel when they meet our Sara and Nico.”
For Apa, the experience of working on Songbird, during a global pandemic, will leave a lasting impression. “The experience of shooting a movie during this time gives me hope and is all about pursuing your dreams in the face of some major obstacles,” he relates. “We made this film because we all love making movies. We did the impossible during a global pandemic and did it safely. At the same time, I loved the film’s theme, as we were telling an incredible story of survival and triumph.”
Mason concludes: “We took what was going on today and then we twisted it. It’s a time capsule of the world we’re living in right now. But most of all, we want it to be an entertaining, action-packed love story that takes audiences on a ride.”
How To Love During A Pandemic
At the core of Songbird is a love story about two people who have been isolated for a long time and have a desire to be together but cannot be in physical contact.
According to Mason and Carson, the Nico-Sara love story is fully captured in a scene where Nico visits Sara’s apartment – staying strictly outside the door – and where the two young people reaffirm their feelings for each other, along with their frustration in not being able to connect physically.
“In the midst of all of the chaos, grief, sadness and hardship brought by the virus and lockdowns, there’s a bright light; there’s love and there’s anything that you would do for love and for that hope,” says producer Jeanette Volturno. “The story resonates in its extrapolation of what our world is going through right now, and even more so in the theme that there’s always hope. And with love, anyone can prevail.”
Adds producer Marcei A. Brown: “Love and intimacy are like food and water; basics that everyone needs to survive. Ultimately the movie is about hope and humanity’s great ability to find a way.”
The film’s protagonist, Nico, is one of the few who are immune to the virus.
But his immunity is a double-edged sword. “Those who are immune are also super-carriers of COVID-23,” says KJ Apa, who takes on the role, “so Nico is highly toxic to just about everyone he comes in contact with.”
Songbird ups the ante of the conventional Romeo and Juliet love story. Instead of feuding families, the star-crossed protagonists must battle a global pandemic amidst the consequences of a sweeping contagion.
“Nico and Sara are lovers who can’t be with each other, and they’re unable to consummate their relationship in any way,” Goodman offers. “One has immunity, and the other doesn’t. This story is about rooting for this couple to somehow find a way to come together. Setting that challenge amid a wild and tumultuous event makes their connection feel even more intimate.”
Nico is one of a small group of individuals known as “Immunies,” who are safe from infection and thus must take on essential jobs that keep society running – such as it is.
“Nico’s job is a delivery man,” says Apa, who also has a starring role in the hit series Riverdale. “He delivers packages to people around the city. In the course of his travels, he meets, from afar, Sara, and they fall for each other. I hope their relationship gives people some hope for the future. Don’t get me wrong, the movie is scary in terms of how the virus has mutated. But at the end of the day, it comes down to empathy.”
Sofia Carson was impressed by the depth and stakes of Sara and Nico’s love. “To love someone so deeply, despite never having breathed the same air, despite never having felt their touch on your skin, despite never having heard their voice in your ear, it’s like loving the impossible,” she points out. “For our heroes, their love is also their greatest risk- for it would be fatal for her if they met. And yet, their love is their salvation. It’s what they hold onto and what saves them. Sara and Nico’s love is the heart of our story, the greatest and most beautiful lesson: love really is the only thing we have in this world, especially now…and love will save us.”
In creating the character of Nico, Mason and Boyes were influenced by real-life essential workers, from the more prominent working on the front lines in hospitals and at emergency response centers, to those we take for granted like store clerks, maintenance laborers, utility crews and even delivery personnel. While so many of us were sheltering in place, these intrepid workers made sure necessary goods and services remained available.
“I would look out of my window and see driver after driver dropping off packages for almost every home on the street,” Mason recalls. “These people are everyday heroes. I was thinking that Nico needed to represent those people.”
Making a film about the Pandemic during a Global Pandemic
What does a plague-ridden Los Angeles look like in the year 2024? To cinematographer Jacques Jouffret, “It’s pretty empty, grungy, and nature is slowly taking over. You can see through the city’s fragility; it’s degrading little by little due to the pandemic and being unable to sustain itself.”
Jouffret and his team employed what the director of photography calls “opportunistic filmmaking” – employing non-native cameras such as iPhones, GoPro, and surveillance cameras – as video sources, which reflects the way so many of us are watching our world today.
Mason and Jouffret theorized that these technologies would be further enhanced in the near future, from technological advances as well as by necessity, to keep us connected when we can’t physically interact with one another.
“That kind of lengthy lockdown would force society to push the uses of those cameras, and we wanted to tap into that, incorporating the opportunistic footage into the material our motion picture cameras were capturing,” Jouffret explains. “The film’s visual language helps intertwine the stories of our characters in a way that audiences will relate to because we’re all experiencing a similar, if less dire, situation right now. We’re just accelerating that trend.”
“We didn’t want this movie to look like any other film,” Goodman asserts.
“It feels different and is being made like no movie before it. It’s raw and polished at the same time. It has a production scale that you could never recreate because we captured what was taking place outside of our doors.”
Producer Jason Clark notes: “Opportunistic footage has a privileged point of view into the world of our characters, but it’s not intrusive. We developed a set of rules that allowed us to reset creatively, as well as replace the set of the past with a new set, one that’s safe to work in during these uncertain times and uses various new techniques.”
Along with the opportunistic filmmaking, Mason shot much of the film with what the filmmakers call a “noninterference” approach. “There were almost no hair and makeup touch ups, no cuts, no resets, and almost no extended lighting setups,” explains Carson.
“Adam wanted us to move wherever we thought our characters would want to go at a given moment … everything was raw, real, terrifying, and exhilarating.
“It was almost as if you forgot that you were shooting a movie in the most beautiful way,” she continues. “You never saw a camera, lighting, or grips. We were completely immersed and lost in this world of Songbird so that every emotion was palpable and real. There was such a beauty and freedom to that, and I don’t think any of us had experienced it before. At the end of the shooting day, KJ and I would be so emotionally drained (in the most beautiful way) because, in a way, we were living like our characters were.”
That freedom and emotionality came from what initially seemed like formidable, if not insurmountable, challenges.
As Mason notes, “A ‘traditional’ production would struggle with the strict COVID protocols under which we’re all working these days, so we tailor-made the film to actually optimize these new rules and regulations. Limitations can foster ingenuity, and this film is certainly rich with ingenuity.”
“When the shutdown hit in March, we didn’t know what the future would bring, but we saw a lot of fear in the film community,” Clark notes. “Many people were scared, when and how we would ever find a way back to work. As producers, we wanted to find a way back to work safely, and Songbird gave us the opportunity.”
“Working with the state, county and city governments, as well as the unions and the larger film community in Los Angeles, we found a way back to work safely,” Volturno elaborates that. “We were able to shoot and post this film and finish it without anyone getting sick.”