I’d been thinking of a story that would be set in a post-apocalyptic future. I loved films like Mad Max and A Boy And His Dog, I also remember watching Screamers around the time, which partially inspired ‘In Vitro’s story, but -for the record- had never seen Children Of Men (which I now see has very similar story ideas, and even a child called ‘Dylan’…). There was just something emotionally striking to me about placing a young child in such a harsh apocalyptic environment and from there came the story of the mother who has to protect the child.
Emotionally it was a good place to be writing from as I knew my six year old brother would be playing the child and being twelve years older than him I strongly felt the same protective instincts that my protagonist was going to feel and act upon. Yet, I also knew I wanted a twist ending that I hoped would shock the audience, which obviously I cannot reveal here.
I shot the film over 6 days, the 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 6th, 8th and 9th of October in 2011. I think we had to shoot three additional days as we fell behind schedule. There were three sets which I had to build and two locations. Being a post-apocalyptic setting I searched around Bristol for decaying, abandoned places and found online that there were old war bunkers in the woods not too far from my house. I walked to the area and found the war bunkers (which were mostly underground) were all fenced off, yet I climbed over the fences and explored them anyway. I found a concrete hole in the ground and climbed into it, only to discover the perfect location for the film. When it came to the first day of shooting I led my cast up to the war bunkers and they hesitantly climbed inside, performed the scene and luckily we weren’t disturbed, or injured. My other location was in the woods. I’d found a very high-up, particularly rocky area for some scenes and beneath it was a very low-down gloomy area that was full of fallen trees, which would be perfect for the film’s climax.
The sets I built were simple. I basically had to recreate the set from one of my previous short films ‘The Nation Depopulation Program’, but with slight alterations and much stronger walls. This set was to be the “Birthing Chamber”, where the protagonist would have a messy encounter with a metal tube. The main difficulty was that I only had enough space in my garage to have one set at a time, which meant (due to scheduling actors) I had to film in the tent set one day, the birthing chamber the next and then in the tent again. This gave me only a few hours to build the birthing chamber, which I built late into the evening and very early in the morning of filming the scene. The tent set was also simple. It was just my tent, which I had to cut open in order to get the shots I wanted, decorated with all the old junk lying around the garage that I could find (or from local bins) which is a great thing about making post-apocalyptic films on a low budget. We then rebuilt the tent in the woods and covered it with sticks as if the characters were trying to camouflage themselves.
The third set was recycled from my previous film ‘Scare Vent’. We stood the set upright and I filled it with wire and tubes. My actor Charlotte Roest-Ellis and I had to carry part of the Scare Vent set all the way up a huge hill and over some fences to get it in the war bunker for one scene. By the time we finally had got the heavy set there it was nearly dark, which is why that particular sequence is so grainy in the film. When it was dark in the war bunker I shot the films opening credits images by shining a torch on the scratched, decaying walls of the bunker. I also travelled all around Bristol to find demolished buildings and boarded-up houses for the intro sequence. I got some great shots in a quarry but only used a couple as they didn’t match the rest of the locations level of apocalyptic-ness. The climactic scene of the film, in which Charlotte’s character fights two men, was not executed to the level I’d intended. We were an actor short, which threw the gun fight choreography so much that I basically improvised the action as we went along. It also -as you can clearly tell from the film- started getting very dark very quickly, making the shots ugly and grainy. Of the whole film, that scene was my biggest disappointment and really we should have done a re-shoot.
It was really fun to work with my younger brother on set. He was six years old when we shot the film but he concentrated hard during filming and was extremely patient for someone so young. My directing tip for working with children is to buy them lots of sweets (but it also helps if they’re your brother I guess). For obvious reasons he wasn’t allowed to watch the film when it was finished, and still has never seen it. I held a screening of the film on the 29th of February 2012 and followed the film with a lengthy Q&A, which was -once again- an invaluable learning experience. To be told members of the audience cried during a certain scene was thrilling as I’d tried to make the film as emotional as I could. ‘In Vitro’ probably still is amongst the best storytelling I’ve achieved.