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Zone 2
Tonight's Feature Presentation


an interview with lydia mulvey

and anna elizabeth james

The Green Room

Zone 2 is a Post Apocalyptic short film from Under the Stairs Entertainment, currently in the pre-production and crowdfunding stages.  Screenwriter Lydia Mulvey and director Anna Elizabeth James – half a world apart from each other – were gracious enough to provide us with a sneak peek at what to expect, and some insights into just how one goes about preparing for the world after the world has ended.

The Interview

Lydia Mulvey

Ziggy Berkeley: The short film you’re both working on is called Zone 2. What can you say about it without giving too much away?

Lydia Mulvey:  Zone 2 is about a mother and her disabled son as they fight for survival in an underground bunker. It's a sci-fi horror.

Anna Elizabeth James: The world of Zone 2 is as real to us as it is for our characters.  To survive under these circumstances can put anyone at the end of their rope.

Ziggy Berkeley: Lydia, as the screenwriter, what drew you to tell this story? What do these characters have to say or demonstrate that you don’t think the audience has heard or seen before?

Lydia Mulvey: I've always been haunted by the idea of living underground. It both fascinates and horrifies me.  All that time spent in one room, either alone or with other people. Both equally trying situations.  There's something compelling and at the same time terrifying about being stuck underground and unable to go outside. You're essentially blind, and that's what I wanted to convey with this story.

Making the male character blind was a deliberate choice, as I wanted the audience to feel as blind as he is. He's totally dependent on his mother to keep him safe from the new world above ground. And she will do anything to protect him.

As for what the characters have to say or demonstrate that I don't think the audience has seen before, well… I think I'd give too much away if I elaborated, so you'll just have to wait and see!

Ziggy: Berkeley: Anna, what drew you to directing it? When you’re considering a project, is there an “a-ha” moment when a picture of how you’d film a certain scene comes to mind that lets you know “this’ll work,” or do you not have a chance to get that far before throwing the decision switch?

Anna Elizabeth James: I knew I wanted to direct the story after reading the ending, and knew I had to direct it after meeting the producers, Sandra Leviton and Miranda Sajdak.

Ziggy Berkeley: As a production, Zone 2 is very much driven by women, and deliberately so. How important is that fact to you? Why should that fact be important to the audience, and how important is it – taken in this specific light – that Zone 2 is not a romantic comedy?

Lydia Mulvey: It's very important that the production of Zone 2 is driven by women. Incredibly so. Not to put too fine a point on it: the movie industry is a tough place to be if you're a woman, and even more so if you're a woman with strong opinions. This is why I connected so well with the women I'm working with. Miranda, Sandra and Anna are all confident, intelligent, and opinionated women, and we all recognize that there is a distinct dearth of women getting work within the industry across the various fields. There appears to be a perception that women directors and producers and writers and cinematographers and editors are fewer in number than men, which is absolutely untrue. There are just as many women trying to get work in the industry as there are men, and there are just as many women creating genre content as men. For example, many of the female screenwriters I know write gritty thrillers and science fiction and horror. Women are not just interested in romantic comedies and family films.

And it's also harder for a woman to be taken seriously. You have to work ten times as hard for the same recognition. And when women speak up about this stuff, we're sometimes demonized, mocked, dismissed, heckled. We're told "Oh, women don't want to write/direct/produce/do cinematography". We're told we're being hysterical. We're overreacting. We're too emotional. So it's important to create a network of supportive women (and men) who recognize talent whatever the gender. There's a serious imbalance that needs addressing.

Anna Elizabeth James: It's not so important that we have a strong female character in our story; it's that we have two complex ones.

Ziggy Berkeley: What do you think draws audiences to the concept of the Post Apocalypse to such a degree that it counts as its own genre?

Lydia Mulvey:  The possibilities, and fear of the unknown. As a species, I think humans are a little preoccupied with destruction and death and all-encompassing change. And it's no surprise, really, seeing as humans are hell-bent on self-destruction. I think the Post Apocalypse genre feeds this part of the human psyche. It's almost as if we're role-playing in preparation for that inevitable day, whether that's in 100 years when the population could become too big to sustain itself, or in a billion years when the sun swells to a red giant and consumes the planets. Because who hasn't daydreamed about the world ending? Who hasn't wondered what they would do? How they would react? Survive? And who hasn't daydreamed about being the last person alive on the planet? The loneliness. The strange freedom. The inevitable despair. I think the post apocalyptic genre is one where people can safely indulge extreme fears. The genre is perfectly comfortable with extremes. And I think that's why it's a genre I repeatedly return to in my work.

Anna Elizabeth James: I think we're living in a time where our current rising generation hasn't necessarily experienced any major calamities.  For the most part, we have gone unscathed.  Yes, parts of the world are in unimaginable situations, but those who tell stories and have the opportunity to reach the masses do not necessarily live in these places.  So I think many storytellers have a propensity to imagine "worst case" scenarios based on “what ifs.”  In our minds we tell ourselves, "The pendulum must swing back the other way right?  It can't remain this calm forever."  So inevitably we imagine everything that could possibly happen or be coming.  Some of our best ideas come from this place of fear.

Ziggy Berkeley: The Post Apocalypse genre provides some pretty fertile ground to play on. It’s also loaded with tropes and clichés and unwritten rules to go with its various formulae. Are there any of those genre clichés that either of you have a mission to avoid in Zone 2, and what about them has tired you out or drives you crazy?

Lydia Mulvey:  Anything is up for grabs. That's what makes it so exciting. For me, the tropes and clichés define a genre because they are the parts that are most recognizable, that occur the most frequently. And as I'm unashamedly in love with this genre, I tend to accept it as is, warts and all. That doesn't mean that I can't do my best to write stories that are fresh and exciting and introduce characters that are different from the usual fare. And if you're writing authentically and mindfully and not just hacking out a story-by-numbers, it's perfectly possible to inject originality and flair and avoid the tropes and clichés almost by default. Not as easy as it sounds though.

Anna Elizabeth James: I think we're in a good place, in that our story doesn't necessarily follow any tropes or clichés.  It definitely is its own thing.

Lydia Mulvey: One thing I kept in mind when I first wrote Zone 2 was how much I wanted to keep the story lean, clean and uncluttered; and above all, small. Post apocalyptic stories tend to be far-reaching epics, full of biting commentary on politics and environmental issues, with dystopian governments or oppressive regimes, often with large casts. But I wanted to see if I could do something a little different with Zone 2. It's small. It's only got two characters. It takes place in a single claustrophobic location. So within those constraints, I had to build an entire world and then sell it. Working with Sandra and Miranda has been brilliant because they've offered strong guidance about how to really work the premise to the maximum. And in recent weeks, I've been working closely with Anna to develop some really interesting ideas that wring every last bit of tension out of the fact that we're essentially working with two characters in a room. It's a dance between the two characters. About how to hide your fears from someone you can't get away from.

Ziggy Berkeley: On the flip side of that, are there any particular tropes or clichés from this genre that you especially enjoy, whether or not they’ll end up appearing in Zone 2? What about them do you find entertaining?

Lydia Mulvey:  I love a good old fashioned post apocalyptic road movie. In fact, I'm writing one right now.  There's something endlessly appealing about the idea of the world as we know it breaking down and having to take to the road to find sanctuary or locate your loved ones or to get away from danger. It's a pure concept. It's a person on their feet, getting from one place to another and encountering obstacles along the way. Simple. Linear. But with massive scope. Almost like a platform video game.

Anna Elizabeth James:  I love a good puzzle.  I love when a storyteller takes you on a journey where you have to pay close attention to pick up on everything, and even then, you have to watch the movie again to see what you missed.

Ziggy Berkeley: Do you have any favorite – and/or least favorite – Post Apocalypse films, and if so, what are they?

Lydia Mulvey: Favorite Post Apocalyptic films:

Children of Men. One of the most underrated films of the genre (or any genre for that matter) in the last decade. And I say this as someone who was annoyed at first that they changed so much of the original book. But it's grown on me to the point that I will drop everything if it comes on TV, and it taught me that adaptations don't always have to be completely faithful to be utterly amazing.

Twelve Monkeys. Gilliam at his finest. Brilliant script by David and Janet Peoples. And it's also got time travel. And Bruce Willis. What's not to like? And incidentally, it was also the first time I heard the phrase "voice mail" used in a movie.

28 Days Later. Bleak. Uncompromising. Hopeful. Who wasn't left open-mouthed by the eerie scenes of a deserted London? And even though Cillian Murphy is the central character, Naomie Harris pulls the entire story together with her humanity. She takes you by the hand and guides you through. And you really fear for the characters. That's something that's incredibly important in this genre. You have to care for the characters first and foremost. If you don't love them, what's the point of placing them in such adverse/dangerous circumstances?

Anna Elizabeth James: I'm definitely a fan of Hunger Games, as well as the Divergent series, but I also have a teenage daughter, so I suppose I'm into whatever she's into more so than most of my filmmaker friends.  These stories will eventually run their course though and audiences will be looking for a new approach they haven't seen yet.  In junior high, I remember reading "Farenheit 451" and it had always stuck with me.  I think more facets and ideas for this genre are coming.

Lydia Mulvey:  Least favorite Post Apocalyptic films:

28 Weeks Later. I wanted to burn the world after watching it. That's how much of a negative impact it had on me. Like its predecessor, it's bleak and uncompromising, but unlike its predecessor, it's also entirely devoid of hope. I felt wrung out after it and not in a "I've been brought on an emotional journey with these characters that I love" kind of way. But in a "I've just had my heart ripped out for absolutely no reason" kind of way. It was devoid of humanity. I guess that's kind of the point but it really didn't work for me and left a really bad taste. Actually, I don't want to talk about it anymore. Let's talk about something else. Like coconut cookies. Or warm sand. Or hot tea on a cold day.

Ziggy Berkeley: Returning to your own project at hand, one of the keys to this genre is world building, and with a short film, you don’t have a lot of time to do that. How do you overcome that challenge?

Lydia Mulvey: By completely ignoring it!

Seriously though, the best thing to do when there is no time/budget for world building is to focus entirely on the characters, the relationships between them. Allow the characters to do the world building for you through their actions, their dialogue, and how they react to the location they're in. If the characters believe in their world, the audience will too. It's a sort of cinematic sleight of hand.

Anna Elizabeth James:  Details. It's always in the details when establishing a world in seconds.  Short films are just as much work to prep as features.  (The only differences are the budgets.) You must ask yourself lots of questions in terms of your characters.  How do they use the restroom?  Where do they sleep?  What's their addiction?  What's their outlet for their energy? Their escape?  All these things, coupled with imagining a daily routine, provide a good lens to look through when prepping.  Once you're on set, the movie has, essentially, already been made.  In order to make the audience believe, you have to honestly ask yourself: do you believe?  And you have to do that weeks ahead of time.

Ziggy Berkeley: In feature length Hollywood, the idea of a pristine script is generally laughable; the pages that were bought usually aren’t going to be the same pages that make it to the screen. But what about here? How likely is it that the Zone 2 of the screen ends up the same as the Zone 2 of that original script? Whether or not it is in this case, how do you, Lydia, approach the reality of your words and scenes being changed after you’ve sold them, and how do you, Anna, approach making the call as a director to override the blueprint that you signed on to build from?

Lydia Mulvey: I first wrote Zone 2 about eight years ago. Then kind of forgot about it. Then I dusted it off, gave it a few tweaks and sent it to [the production company] Under the Stairs. When they optioned it, we agreed that it needed a little fine-tuning to make it really great. So after the option, I think I wrote ten drafts of the script to get it to the point where we were all pretty happy with it. Then when Anna came on board, she brought lots of exciting ideas. So another draft was done. So that's eleven drafts since it was optioned in February. And I'm sure there'll be more.

My point is that a script is a fluid thing. It goes through many different versions before everyone's happy with it. And even then, there will always be things that need changing when the realities of shooting in the real world take over the fantasy of what's on the page. So as the writer, it's up to me to park my ego and understand that a script will always change, no matter how good I think it is. My words are not precious snowflakes. Nothing is sacred. And writing the script is only the first part of the job. You can be the best screenwriter in the world, but if you can't collaborate with the people who are trying to bring your story to the screen, then you're already sunk. In reality, collaboration with other people is incredibly exciting, because they can help you to see ways to tell your story that you may not have otherwise seen. So it really is a team effort. And you have to have an open mind and open heart.

Anna Elizabeth James: The script will stray a little from the original draft, but the truth and gem of the idea will not.  I've always believed shooting the movie is the second rewrite and editing is the third.  At the end of the day, you have to throw the blueprint away and look at what's in front of you.  You have to stay present and be very aware of what you're feeling from each take, each performance.  Instinctual responses become paramount.  I love the feeling at the end of a day when you know you've caught gold. 

Ziggy Berkeley: Prior to the YouTube revolution, short films as a medium got relatively little public exposure. How would you describe what the rise of net-release video has done for the medium? Looking at things specifically from the perspective of professional filmmaking, do you see the world of short films as it stands now as a medium that is sustainably coming into its own in terms of being marketable specialization, or are they primarily the stuff of stepping stones and demo reels and the Oscar categories that only Academy members ever actually see the nominees for?

Lydia Mulvey: I was at the cinema only the other day and for the umpteenth time, I wondered why they don't show more short films before the main feature. That would be a great way to expose shorts to a much more vast (and captive) audience. I mean, not any old short film but good short films. Look at the success of the Pixar short films that were shown before Monsters, Inc. and Toy Story, etc. I think the world of short films is still pretty niche and still exists mostly for filmmakers to cut their teeth on.

I would love to see themed anthologies of short films being released on Netflix or DVD, much like we see anthologies of short stories in books, and I can't for the life of me work out why this doesn't happen. Is it because short films are so much harder to get right? Possibly. Short films are an art form in their own right, much like short stories. You have to get your point across so much faster. So it's possible that short films often fall short and fail to capture an audience's imagination in the way features do. That said, I definitely agree that social media and website like YouTube have greatly leveled the playing field. If someone wants to watch a short film, they have far easier access now than they used to.

Anna Elizabeth James: The distribution landscape has absolutely changed for short form content as we are currently in the midst of a major shift.  For example, channels on Roku are focusing on branding themselves by using short films to pull you in, then hooking you by having you sign up for the longer form content.  I think we're coming to a place where all good short content will be gobbled up for these platforms, and suddenly more short form will be needed.  Film festivals, even though they may be good at promoting the film and filmmaker, cannot compete with a global audience provided in an instant.  Channels are like buckets, where each short film will find a home it belongs in. The shift is happening slowly, but surely.  

Ziggy Berkeley: You, Anna, have gained some notoriety in yet another content creation and distribution revolution. Tell us about iPhone filmmaking.

Anna Elizabeth James: The iPhone filmmaking was merely a challenge to push the envelope.  We asked ourselves, "Would it be possible to not only create an entire film on one device, but also distribute it on that same device, and to the world, no doubt?"  I wanted to prove to myself that I could.  I knew if I could do that, I could do anything.  

Ziggy Berkeley: What drives you as a director? Are there any other directors you look upon for inspiration?

Anna Elizabeth James: I generally only take on projects that I truly believe in. I have this feeling, call it a calling or a duty in life, to get behind stories that I know need me.  Every project I sign onto has to be a part of me, and come from a place of truth, otherwise I can't champion it the way it needs.  RIP Nora Ephron.  She had it.

Ziggy Berkeley: And who inspires you as a writer, Lydia?

Lydia Mulvey: I take inspiration from a lot of different people, but I would credit three writers specifically for directly inspiring how and what I write: Michael Marshall Smith, Margaret Atwood, and Stephen King. All master storytellers. All strong in their own unique way. Even if you read one of their novels blind, you'd know it was them writing it. I can return to their books again and again and find something new.

Other things that inspire me: People. Humanity. Emotion. Death. The bad things we do to each other. The good things we do to each other. The idea that we're all really just a moment away from being alone in the world. The idea that we're already alone. The idea that we're not alone. The fear of growing old. The fear that we won't get to grow old. The constant pulse of the human race. Seven billion hearts thumping away in seven billion chests. That's a lot of hearts. All those wants, needs and desires. All those secrets. Seven billion secrets. All those stories to be told.

Ziggy Berkeley: What’s the next stage for Zone 2, and when do you think audiences will be able to have a look?

Lydia Mulvey:  Next stage for Zone 2 is the crowd fund launch, which is very exciting. So be sure to keep an eye out for the campaign on the Under The Stairs Facebook and Twitter pages.

Anna Elizabeth James: Prep, prep, prep!  We will be holding auditions very soon as well as meeting with potential department heads.  It's always exciting to build a team.

Lydia Mulvey: Then once we've completed the film, we'll submit it to festivals in 2015.

Ziggy Berkeley: What do you think will surprise us the most about it? (Without giving away the substance of the surprise, of course.)

Anna Elizabeth James: Can't really say, but excited to see everyone's reactions!

Lydia Mulvey: I think that the biggest surprise will be how much story we're packing into such a short space of time and into such a contained location. We're basically the reverse of clowns coming out of a Mini. Only we're not using clowns. Or Minis. Or anything circus-related. In fact, I probably should have thought the whole clown thing through before I mentioned it.

Ziggy Berkeley: After Zone 2, what’s next for Anna Elizabeth James and Lydia Mulvey?

Anna Elizabeth James: Working on prepping my first feature.

Lydia Mulvey: While Zone 2 has been in development, I've also been working on a feature project with British TV director Steve Hughes (“Doctor Who,” “Casualty,” “Waterloo Road,” etc). It's a dark thriller with a brilliantly complex female protagonist. Steve and I have been working on the script for about a year now. We're aiming to have a draft ready to put out there at the end of October. Working with Steve has been amazing, as he's so talented and full of ideas. And very supportive.  When we were first discussing story ideas, Steve wanted to go with a female protagonist and gave me a brief of "She doesn't have to be likable". This was music to my ears, and opened up a much bigger bag of possibilities.

Ziggy Berkeley: Finally, what sort of cheese and recreational beverage would each of you pair yourselves with?

Anna Elizabeth James: I love an assortment of good cheeses with some walnuts and a little bit of honey.  I'm a sucker for white wine or a hot cup of tea.

Lydia Mulvey: This is a weird question. You're weird. I'm cutting this interview short... *hugs block of Wensleydale cheese and packet of Lady Grey tea*

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Anna Elizabeth James

- Interview conducted by Ziggy Berkeley, October, 2014

You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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