Chapter 2: Warning Signs
So we had to ‘do our deal’ on the film stock and processing. We knew it was going to be tough getting the film in and out of Africa without x-ray, which might have destroyed or damaged it irreparably, and we also had to deal with the fact that it would need to remain refrigerated the entire trip across the planes of Africa. This would not be easy but it had to be done to achieve the look and feel we wanted.
Fortunately, my contact at the lab was up for a lunch to discuss it, and that lunch also involved a good couple of glasses of wine. The net result was that he would help in any way possible and that I just had to name the figure we had in our budget for processing and he would agree. And that’s exactly what I did. I appreciated the fact he was going to agree to the figure before I’d even said it, so I gave him the exact amount we needed to achieve to stay on budget, and that was that. I’m a believer in going for a good deal but not ‘taking the piss’ so to speak.
It’s ‘who you know’
We’ve all heard this before, and it’s particularly relevant when you are trying to put a low-budget film together, as this is the moment when you need to tap into what anyone around you might be able to offer to your production, be it services, materials, whatever, and it doesn’t even matter if it’s film related or not. So here’s another moment when a list is handy: a list of everyone you know and I mean EVERYONE, if your friend Cassandra makes curtains, maybe you could use some of her fancy material and save a few bucks. If your mate Terry has a truck and fancies being a driver on your production, sign him up. Hell, if he has a mate or 2 with another truck, maybe he fancies the title ‘Transport Co-Ordinator’? If your production requires a fancy old mansion house and you can’t afford to rent one. Cast the owner of the mansion in a walk on part as you ‘love their classic look’, then soon after you now ‘know’ the owner of the lovely mansion and you suddenly get hit with an ‘amazing idea’ – what about their beautiful home? Wouldn’t it be a shame not to capture its gorgeous architecture for eternal prosperity?
If that fails, then it’s time for; ‘Imagine how much it would go up in value when the film is a hit?’ – failing that then you’ve always got; ‘If we shoot there, we can also swing a Location Manager’s credit and it will be so much fun mingling with all the hot young actors and actresses in the party scene we’re going to do there’!. Sound a bit manipulative? Welcome to the world of film producing. Of course if you’ve got a big budget, you just wave your money hose at people and all these problems go away but, until you earn your money hose, it’s what comes out of your mouth that has to wash these problems away…
The same thing happened on film stock but that only required a polite face to face visit rather than a lunch. My timing was apparently quite good as, when I turned up at their offices un-announced the film stock company had a bunch of ‘end of line’ film stock in that was still in date but going cheap. Naturally I took it gratefully. At this point, it all seemed so easy. I should have known we were being lulled into a false sense of security and the first blow was soon to hit us hard.
Our original plan had been to shoot the film in Ghana, as we had been there before to shoot commercials and we liked the place, and there was the added bonus of it being English speaking. We had also met a wonderful Ghanaian lady called Barbara Tettey who worked for Lowe Lintas Ghana. She was super efficient and had worked with us closely on our commercial productions and was quite probably the very first person Jon & I knew we wanted on board the movie as we trusted her completely.
Things changed one evening when we met up with a French friend, Marie-Laure Babouram, whom I’d originally met when the last film I directed ‘Distant Shadow’ showed at the Cherbourg Film Festival in France some years back, where I’d managed to get horribly drunk at the after party and apparently created a memorable impression for all the wrong reasons.
Marie had since married an African guy (Chamberlin) in Burkina Faso, another West-African country that we had not previously heard of. The fact that we had not actually heard of it was instantly an attraction to us as part of the concept of the film was to take audiences on a journey through unfamiliar locations.

Howard and Barbara Tettey
It turns out that Burkina Faso is technically a poorer country than Ghana and, as a result, everything from hotels to food is substantially cheaper, as are the wages of the locals – at least those who are lucky enough to have jobs.
Marie suggested we at least take a look at it so a quick location recce trip was in order and, within a couple of weeks, we were out there in Ouagadougou and Bobo Dioulasso, two key cities in Burkina Faso. The location was perfect. Dusty, barren, with very traditional looking rustic huts - an Africa untouched by the modern world.
We particularly loved how dusty and dry everything was. This was an important part of the cinematic ‘look’ Jon and I wanted to create. Earthy colours - heat haze - the sun catching plumes of dust as our Zombies wandered the planes in search of victims... We were sure this look in itself would create an appeal for the film.

Recce Kids on Cart
We even went into a village and paid a villager to pose as a Zombie for a promotional still, very willingly wearing our white contact lenses and pre-prepared Zombie costume. The villagers seemed to enjoy our random visit so much we knew we had discovered our first location.

Test Zombie
It was, however, so incredibly hot, the reality was that our cast and crew might not be able to work in such heat and dry conditions. Even only after five minutes it was severely draining. Could we really expect people to shoot ten hour days? We started to have doubts that we could really pull this off.
However, we were quickly assured that September/October was much cooler but had exactly the same dry dusty look. That was clearly our answer.
We came back to the UK brimming with enthusiasm and armed with some stunning location pictures including our ‘test Zombie’, which looked great. The black skin and white eyes provided a fantastic look that we felt would be another added bonus for the film. To our knowledge, no one had gone to this part of Africa to shoot a movie before. Not only that, but no one had made an African Zombie movie before.
We soon discovered there was a reason for that….
We should have taken note of the ‘little’ signs that were flashing at us like beacons on a daily basis before we even flew out for the main shoot. For a start, we had foolishly ignored a statement made by the very first person to walk off set, never to return, and I only wish I’d paid more attention to at the time.
We had been setting up for one of the few UK unit shoots required prior to descending on Africa – the interior pre-airplane crash being the main one. Yasmin Moallemi had already been into make up and had been one of numerous cast, crew and extras waiting patiently into the night, while I tried to keep spirits up and Jon tried his best to fix the mysterious generator problem we were now having.

Amanda Ford
After many hours of delay when the lights finally did come on and we had a compromising amount of time to pull off the scene, Yasmin, who was going to be another cowering extra on the doomed plane, before we could actually roll a single frame of film, stormed off the set summing up our crazy activities exclaiming for all to hear ‘it’s taking a far too long time’: Amir’s three year-old daughter had just made the most accurate prophecy this production would ever hear and, in hindsight, we probably should have trotted off set with her! 
That very same night, Jon and I were meant to appear in a shot on the plane playing mercenaries, waiting for their fate as the plane went down. Considering we were going to appear on the coastal aftermath scene shortly afterwards in Africa (mainly as we could only afford to fly one actor out to Ghana with us, and there needed to be more fodder for the dead to munch on) we needed to be ‘introduced’ on the plane for continuity.
In preparation for our ‘Ford Brothers’ cameo shot, we both had spent the whole night wearing our army costume and I had avoided shaving for the last week, in an attempt to appear more mercenary-like, but, sadly, it had only resulted in a pathetic and rather questionable tash that made me look more like I had ambitions of joining the Village People than being involved in any sort of warfare.
At about 4am, after nearly putting my back-out getting everyone else’s close-up shots with handheld camerawork, for the effect of the rocking plane, and watching Jon nearly pulling all his hair out as he tried to wrestle with a constant stream of technical issues on top of trying to light and re-light every angle-change. Our actors had done a fantastic job, even our own sister, Amanda, had her cameo shots and we were very proud of how great she was, and now it would be our turn.
As we stepped up on the old DC3 plane I could tell that we were, for once, just a little excited. It would just be one shot of the both of us sitting together looking dishevelled but it was a significant moment for us – here we were, the same two brothers that dreamed of making this movie for more than 20 years and we were about to appear in it together, on screen, on 35mm film in the opening sequence of that Zombie movie we had always dreamed of.
We had set up the shot ourselves and it was all ready to go. It was the last shot of the night, there was about 10 minutes before the sun came up, which meant that we could no longer keep the illusion of the night scene, as the rising sun would flood the set and also we would no longer have the rental of the plane which we could only just afford for one night, thanks to a deal made by Daniel Gommé, our UK Unit production Designer with the Wings Museum, who owned the plane.

Jon on plane optimistic
I was just about to call ‘roll camera’ when the generator spluttered and came to a stop, plunging the whole set into darkness. ‘It’s out of fuel’ Jon said. I think this was the last time during production I would hear Jon speak without a swearword attached to the sentence.  We both knew it was over. There was no way we could unhook all the cables and take the generator to a garage for re-fuelling in time.
As people switched on their mobile phones for some safety light, I caught a look on Jon’s face, a realisation this was not going to go our way. It was a little thing, but the first of many ever-increasing cruel taunts this production would lay on us, each one getting steadily worse.

Daniel Gommé
The warning signs had been there right from the beginning, quite literally in our faces: on the very first day of shooting, whilst still in the UK pre-Africa for the dream sequence where Murphy is seen returning to his home to be greeted lovingly by his wife and daughter, played by model/actress Katie Richardson whom Rob had perfectly cast himself and our niece Fae Ford-Brister, during our very first close-up of Rob, where our 35mm Arriflex camera tracked towards Rob’s face as he embraced his on-screen loved ones and our lens settled on those brilliant blue eyes that Jon & I had envisioned, BANG:  at that exact moment, a bulb from the lamp Jon had placed to give the sparkle in his eyes exploded sending shards of hot glass at high speed towards Rob’s eyes. Had it not been for the double-folded blue gel that had been placed over the lamp to colour-balance it, Rob’s eyes and the entire production might have closed indefinitely right there and then. Ironically, this shot was the first and only time his character would smile in the entire production.
Fae, our niece, who was 8 years old at the time of the shoot, we felt had some natural acting ability and our mother, Rita who was her on-set guardian for the day, gave her a big hug after the shoot, telling her how well she had done and asked her if she might like to be an actress one day. ‘No it’s boring and you have to keep doing the same thing all the time’ came the reply. Just like Amir’s daughter, it was only the children who could see the obvious. As payment for her scene, I bought her a pair of £50 shoes that had wheels underneath – these were the new fad at the time and what she really wanted. Sadly, she would later fall flat on her face whilst using them. No one came out of ‘The Dead’ unscathed…
There was another glaring sign that things were not going to be easy for us in the underwater post-crash shots that were also canned before we descended upon Africa. We needed to get some shots to try and build an ominous feeling under the waves and, if we’d had a budget, we’d have been in a proper studio’s underwater tank with waterproof lights, cabling and all the gear, but, on the budget we had, we couldn’t even afford the daily rental of the correct underwater housing for the camera, let alone the actual studio space.

First day of shoot
So, instead, we found ourselves in a swimming pool, hoping to God that the lights plugged into the main grid were not about to fall in and fry us. We didn’t even have a pair of flippers between us, and I had to operate the shots with a huge old cumbersome underwater housing we borrowed from a friend, who used to use it for nature documentaries.
Jon even had to quickly adapt the camera on-set and the only way we could get the camera in that old housing was without the eyepiece and without the ‘video assist’ monitor. This meant I would have to guess all the framing by aiming what looked like a huge wooden block at the cast, and we would also have to pre set the focus. We were really going back to basics here.
As if that wasn’t annoying enough, the only way I could stay underwater was to tie weightlifting weights to my feet and hold my breath, and it was incredibly exhausting even staying down there for a few moments, let alone coming out with a usable shot.
The poor cast had no luxuries either and, for several hours, Rob spluttered around and probably wondered what the hell kind of production he’d signed up for. In addition to the ‘corpse’ extras who duly floated around as necessary, our ‘drowning woman’ was played by Laura Jane Stephens, who also works on the production side at Latitude Films on a daily basis, so I was kind of hoping she wouldn’t drown for real. (Incidentally this is the same Laura Jane Stephens who admins the Facebook page detailed at the end of the book, so feel free to join up and say hi or tell us what you thought of the book!) Several hours of this later, she had probably swallowed far too much water and we all just about had the energy to climb out of the pool.
We had covered the whole sequence so we thought we’d better check how much footage we had left, as we were trying to conserve as much film as we could for the epic journey that lay before us. Well, let’s put it this way, we needn’t have worried about our film stock usage at this point, as, when the housing was finally opened, we hadn’t rolled a single frame of film. A tiny cable had come loose, presumably when I first got in the pool and the on button, that I duly pressed and quickly cut after each shot was not doing a thing.

Laura auditioning
It was an embarrassing start to say the least but, to everyone’s credit, we were straight back in to shoot it again. I don’t think a day went by when there wasn’t some sort of ‘unheard of’ or ‘unfortunate’ event occurring and, whilst film-making is a struggle at the best of times, we were about to have everything in the book thrown at us and many things that have never been in the book before.
The first major blow to the production was a sickening one. Having wrapped our UK Unit shoot and painstakingly purchased everything on our 5 page list. We had duly filled up our recently bought long wheel base transit van with every piece of equipment we needed, tailor made for our film; everything labelled and placed on shelves.
Jon had painstakingly created this moving film unit himself, to his exact requirements for accessing lighting and other equipment for a smooth production process. He had even hand made a lot of the equipment from reflector boards to a jib arm, using his engineering skills and ingenuity. His ability in this respect has always been a marvel to me and, without it, we would never have got this film off the ground.
The two of us had been up through the night, prior to the day of shipping, logging, labelling and double checking. We were not leaving anything to chance. We knew the value of being prepared for a production, and having the production vehicles prepared for efficiency would be the backbone of our shoot.
Driving the van, generator and Land Rover to the port that day felt like the start of what would surely be one of life’s wonderful adventures. A friend of mine, Steve, who works in IT happened to call me on the journey to the port and when I told him what we were doing he said ‘My God, you guys are taking life by the balls and going out there doing it, whilst others just sit at desks and talk about it’. I would think of these words many times in the coming weeks fantasising about sitting at a desk…
So, the vehicles and our precious cargo were now with the shipping company Grimaldi, and we had paid what we considered a handsome price for them to be shipped on a 3 week journey to the Port of Tema, Ghana, where we would fly in and collect them, shoot our coastal scene in Ghana, then drive, in convoy, the 2 day drive to Burkina Faso to meet the rest of the crew and shoot the movie over a 6 week period.

Anne Davaud and Jon Ford
We were a couple of days away from boarding our flights.  We had cast Rob Freeman in our lead role, a very talented and experienced, but relatively unknown Canadian actor, who would play our American lead.
We had assembled a brilliant team of crewmembers flying out from the UK, including special effects guys and we had other crew coming in from Ghana and Nigeria.
We had cameras and some film stock in hand (We could not carry all the film stock at one time, so had booked another 3 flights, just for the rest of the stock to be carried by Marie’s sister Vanessa and Anne who happened to be Jon’s girlfriend and would also play a doctor in the film). We had completed our script and I had locked down a pretty decent looking schedule. We were moments away from all descending on our location to kick filmmaking ass.
Within my mass of paperwork that had now accumulated, just one document seemed to be missing. We still didn’t have our ‘bill of laden’ for the van and equipment, which I understood we would need in order to collect the vehicles at the other end. I had thought this would have arrived by now.
So I call the shipping company and the lady agreed that we should have had it by now. Perhaps it was missing in the post. Either way she would call me back and if necessary get a duplicate couriered out to me in Africa.
Then the call came. ‘You’re not going to like this’ she said. ‘They didn’t ship the van, in fact it’s still sitting at the port in Tilbury with the generator attached’. I nearly threw up. My brain spiralled as it looked for a solution to the enormity of the problem, but nothing came back. ‘Not only that, but the next ship doesn’t leave for 10 days and then it will take a further three weeks to get there at best’ she said. Suddenly I calculated that we were not going to have any equipment for nearly 70% of our production period. Using very technical terms, we were F**cked!
They had cited ‘mechanical failure’ on the van but we know this was impossible as part of our rigorous preparation process was to insure the vehicles were mechanically perfect. It started first time every time. It was something else Jon had worked on in great detail, everything from new filters, spark plugs to filling the tyres with stuff so we did not get punctures on the tough African terrain.  
It may not have looked perfect from the outside (this was a strategic plan so our van did not look like it was holding valuable merchandise), but inside it was a finely tuned machine. We had also decided to keep the previous owners fading company logo on the side.
We went straight to the port and found the van and generator dumped there with the padlock removed and no explanation as to why. We put the key in and it started first time, as we knew it would. I couldn’t believe that they could do this to us. Not only that but Grimaldi had never even called or written to us to tell us it hadn’t got on the ship.
It was truly devastating. What the hell would I tell my once merry band of cast and crew, whom I’d just managed to drum up the required amount of enthusiasm necessary to sustain them through the production period? Now we would have no equipment, props, electricity or supplies for the first month. Not only that, it would then turn up in Ghana and we would be 25 hours drive away in Burkina Faso by then. Who would collect it and drive it all that way in a foreign country?  It was a logistical nightmare.
There was only one thing for it. Call the insurance. Which Amir did straight away. I personally hate claiming on insurance but, on this occasion, I agreed we were the victims of something outside of our control and it seemed justified. But very quickly the response came back drawing our attention to some clause or other that stated we were not covered for third party causing delay. We would not receive a penny.
We couldn’t cancel our flights as we could not have afforded to re book and, in any case, everyone involved had put aside the time (we had confirmed them) and, therefore, we would have been liable to pay their fees anyway.
Not getting on board those flights would have been the end of the film for sure. We had spent a lot of money by then and we would have lost everything, so the damage limitation plan was that we would fly out as planned, hand carrying the cameras, and shoot what we could without lights, props, generator or grip equipment of any kind.  
Having run my own production company, albeit a small one, I had always taken pride in delivering on time every time. That’s why we often had repeat clients.  I would always stay on schedule and on budget and, if I said I would have a commercial ready by a certain date, that’s exactly what I would do. Whatever it took. But on this film, I would have to learn the hard way that I was not going to be able to control the beast.
Jon never really recovered from the blow. From this moment on, he operated only on two levels, pissed off, or very pissed off. All of our pre-planning and intentions for how we were going to shoot the film would have to be scrapped. We would simply have to make it up as we went along.
On top of this, we had already turned down a couple of decent TV commercial jobs for this production. One for an overseas bank and the other for a client in London we were starting to build a good relationship with. Not only that but it was a nice script. A glamorous, ‘Sex and the city’, style ad around London. A good one ‘for the reel’ as they say.
Little did we know things where about to get much worse.

 Tell A Friend  Share on Facebook
 1962 Times
 Back To Index