Stretching the limits

Chee Keong Cheung on Redcon-1 and how to make a blockbuster on a shoestring

by Jennie Kermode

Oris Erhuero in Redcon-1
Oris Erhuero in Redcon-1

With a cast of thousands, dramatic action sequences and constant movement between locations, Redcon-1 is not what most viewers would expect of an independent film. It follows the journey of a group of soldiers sent into the quarantined south east of England to retrieve a scientist, fighting off hordes of zombies in the process. There’s outstanding work from director Chee Keong Cheung and everything about it oozes ambition. How does one create something like this without the backing of a studio, using just the money one can raise directly? I caught up with Chee to try and find out.

“One of the big things, I think, with the film – to achieve the scale that was written – was having the support of a lot of people from the community in each location that we filmed in. That really helped contribute to what was possible onscreen,” he says. “Going in, we knew that we didn’t have the budget of a big production so we were very mindful of finding creative ways to achieve what we wanted. A lot of the film was shot practically. We knew that we wouldn’t have a CGI budget so we tried to rely on doing as much in-camera as possible.

Katarina Waters and Jasmine Mitchell in Redcon-1
Katarina Waters and Jasmine Mitchell in Redcon-1

“We filmed it over 12 different cities across the UK. Each city we filmed in we had such tremendous support.”

How did they get hold of real tanks and military equipment?

“We had tanks and helicopters and humvees,” he says happily. “We’d visited several military shows and some of the shows where military collectors would showcase their vehicles and we’d just go in and kind of talk to them and tell them a little bit about what we were doing. They shared our vision for what we wanted to achieve, and I think that part of the excitement for them as well was having the chance to have their vehicles on camera and be part of the journey. I think some of the vehicles had been in bigger budget films like Children Of Men and GoldenEye and I think sometimes with those films perhaps their vehicles weren’t featured as prominently or were in the background. So what we tried to do was have people really engaged with the making of the film.”

He also made room for some of the collectors to appear in the film themselves, as extras. I ask how he went about reaching out into the wider community to get people involved.

“In each city we got some social posts out on Facebook, initially looking for people to be part of the film, and what actually ended up happening was that through that the actual posts went viral, so suddenly we had 4000+ people wanting to be part of the film, so it was kind of tremendous. And part of the community element of it was we would just go and visit towns and visit cities and talk to people and tell them about what we wanted to try and achieve.... I think people really connected and the film became just as much theirs as it was ours, and that actually carried through to production.

Carlos Gallardo in Redcon-1
Carlos Gallardo in Redcon-1

“We shot the film over several years. The extras and people who played zombies came from right across the UK. They included accountants, doctors, lawyers, primary school teachers, and they would travel along with us as we would visit each different city as we were filming. So people from London would travel to Rugby and then would join us in the south of Scotland, or in Glasgow. And now, actually, going into the promotional tour, we’ve been touring the film across the UK and what’s been really interesting is that many of those who we involved are now coming up and dressing up as zombies. We’ve organised several zombie walks as well, across the UK. We did one in Manchester, we’re doing one in Blackpool this weekend. And again, they’re there and becoming ambassadors for the film.”

So does that create a fun atmosphere on set?

“Yeah, yeah. There was a great sense of community and family. I mean, we’re an independent film and independent filmmaking is always a challenge, but the kindness coming from so many different people was really inspiring to me as a filmmaker and as a director, and it was very humbling to see that – how people would come down and bring their families and it would be a day out. They would book their own hotels and bring their own wardrobe and they’d help each other do their make-up and that was phenomenal and amazing to see. A lot of people came up to me afterwards and said that this was an amazing experience, kind of once in a lifetime, and something very different from their normal day to day job. It’s nice that now we’re taking the film on tour they can celebrate their involvement and having the film made.”

How does one keep control on a set where there’s so much gong on?

“It’s certainly a challenge! We had a community production team and they helped organise it. We worked with various groups and organisations as well. There were zombie groups and war re-enactment societies... they would come in and help us coordinate. But we had hundreds of extras so it was definitely quite an energised set.”

How did they find the main cast?

Mark Strange in Redcon-1
Mark Strange in Redcon-1

“We spent about six months interviewing and meeting people,” he says. “What I think was the first issue was that the film had very physical roles. I was very mindful of trying to have talent who would be able to deliver the stunts and deliver the action and be able to sustain the shoot. Katarina Waters I’d known for years and we’d always been looking for something to work together on. She’s an impact wrestler so that was great. Akira [Koieyama] who plays Lau in the film, he was in Street Fighter [the mini series], and I knew Oris Erhuero, who plays the lead, Captain Marc Stanton.”

The cast had a week of military training, he adds, so that they could learn how to move and hold weapons, plus a week of martial arts training.

“Also on the film we had Mark Strange who I’d worked with previously on Bodyguard: A New Beginning, and of course Carlos Gallardo, who was the original El Mariachi in Robert Rodriguez’s directorial debut – we met over in the ‘States through a mutual friend. We pitched the project to him and he really liked the idea of what we were trying to achieve. There was a lot of similarity to El Mariachi in terms of the filmmaking so he really connected with that and came over. Then we had Scottish actors Douglas Russell and Euan Macnaughton as well... I should also mention Jasmine Mitchell. This was her first feature film and we’d already met quite a few young, talented actresses but she was the one who really stood out and I spent a lot of time talking to her about the role and she was great. She helped to bring a lot of heart to the film.

“The film aesthetic was trying to go for almost a comic book style graphic nature with some of the visuals and the world that I wanted to try and create.”

Something that really stands out in the film is the way its zombies gradually start to display more intelligence and organisation, whilst we see two human characters who become infected going in the other direction. I ask if that overlap of identities and states of being was important to him, and he thanks me for noticing it.

Redcon-1 poster
Redcon-1 poster

“The film in a way is split into two halves. The opening film is kind of like an invasion movie. It’s kind of let’s go in, shoot first and ask questions later. The second part of the film was more Escape From New York. With the Marcus character at the start, I think in a way he becomes more human as the journey progresses. At the start he’s quite detached and as the journey progresses he takes on this realisation. In many ways it’s a sense of discovery and understanding... Each character is, I guess, doing what they feel is right, but there’s definitely a sense of a transition. What I was doing with those characters was to try and paint a bit of sympathy and emotion. With some films, zombies are treated as a general mass and I wanted to try and pick out individual characters... There is a kind of role reversal on the humans and the zombies and they kind of cross over.

“It’s very much about action and reaction, the film, I think. Everything within that narrative happens for a very specific reason.”

Where does he plan to go from a film as bi as this? What’s next for him?

“At the moment there’s a few things I’m developing and I’m reading a few scripts and exploring things. This process has been a few years so probably the next thing I get involved with will be another year or year and a half of my life, so I’m just trying to find something that can click and hopefully will take people on another ride.”

Would he like to work with a bigger budget someday?

“Absolutely, yeah. I think that’s always the dream and the hope. I think maintaining a level of independence is great. Making this film the way we made it certainly proved very challenging, which I found very fulfilling, but certainly the aim was to make something that can become a showcase and a platform for all those involved and for myself, and that people can see what the potential is and hopefully open the door on other opportunities.

“I think sometimes when making independent films you think it’s best to make something in one location with several actors. I wanted to try and make a bit of an impact and see how far I could push the bar of independent filmmaking... As a filmmaker I feel like I’m always growing and learning and developing, and the hope is that people enjoy what we’ve made and hopefully can support the next film that we do.”

Read what Oris Erhuero had to say about Redcon-1.

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