How we made The Bystanders

The Bystanders. Image shows left to right: Frank Baron (Seann Walsh), Peter Weir (Scott Haran)

The Bystanders - a new film now in cinemas - is an off-the-wall, sci-fi comedy set in a parallel dimension - a world in which invisible immortals watch over their subjects and intervene in their lives, often not for the better. Here, we have gathered together some of those involved in making the movie to share their experiences...

Gabriel Foster Prior - writer/director

The original idea for The Bystanders came when I was playing video games with my brother and we spent about forty minutes customising some armour for an Elf. It occurred to me that if we had guardian angels they would hate us. That made me chuckle so I took it to my co-writer Jack Hughes and we started work.

I really loved working with my cast. I had enough friends that worked in the film industry to crew up the film, but I didn't know enough actors to populate an entire feature film. Alex Fidelski, who runs The Reel Scene, an acting school in London, helped bring on board up-and-coming actors Andi Jashy and Georgia Mabel Clarke (Luke and Sarah in the film) who were fantastic to work with and have big futures ahead of them. They consistently arrived well-prepared and also had a genuine eagerness to experiment, which made the process really fun.

Alex also brought in a lot of the supporting cast too who were either doing or had done classes at his school and they were all really up for it. Not only did they want to be in the film but many wanted to help with the production side too, so we got assistants and runners through this which was another key factor in getting the film made.

The Bystanders. Peter Weir (Scott Haran)

The more seasoned actors like David Schaal and Frank Harper were very supportive too. We had Scott Haran who was the lead in a BBC show called Wizards Vs Aliens - written by the Doctor Who screenwriter Russell T Davies. Because of this experience, he had a great understanding of the craft of screen acting. He was also really patient when it came to doing VFX plates, like having to scream in front of a green screen twenty times while being hung upside down. We also had comedians in our cast; like Seann Walsh, Nick Helm, Lauren Douglin, Jake Lambert. Having them on set is good for morale.

I have known Seann for a long time, so he felt comfortable giving me, the director, as much stick as anyone else. I think it was cathartic for the crew at times. Like when I would ask for 'just one more take' for the third time in a row he would cut through the tension with a joke. Then I would get another two takes and we would move on. I think Seann is a very good actor and he has been praised for his performance in the reviews. He also won Best Actor at the Sydney Sci Fi Film Festival. What we found funny about that was that Sir Ben Kingsley was nominated in the same category. He must be doing something right.

One of the best pieces of advice I got was from BAFTA-winning filmmaker Will Gilbey. He told me how physically enduring the shoot was going to be; so to treat pre-production like I was training for a marathon. So in the build-up try and be as healthy as you can. Hit the gym, stay off the bevvies. He also said when you get on set don't always go for coffee and chocolate bars at the craft table, sometimes go for an apple and a water. I still just drank coffee all day, but it is solid advice.

Another good bit of advice came from one of my production managers, Simon Lewis Marriott. He said to me that low budget filmmaking is like boxing. You might do your prep, but once you get into the ring, you can't be in your head. The world is going to be throwing punches at you and you've got to be bobbing and weaving. He was very right. There were so many things which we shot that are not in the script. Locations that are different, scenes that we made up on the spot because we needed to fill a gap when other scenes couldn't be done. The approach was dealing with these punches but making sure the solutions feel designed and like they were always the plan when you watch the film.

Image shows left to right: Luisa Riviere, Gabriel Foster Prior

Luisa Riviere - producer

In terms of production, The Bystanders was an exciting opportunity and a great challenge. It was a constant back and forth, finding a balance between what we could afford, not only in terms of budget, but also in terms of crew and time, and what we wanted to achieve on the creative side. You might find your dream location but if it requires lots of crew or too many logistics to sort out and then you have to let it go. And this was actually the case! For example, for one scene we wanted to shoot just outside of London in an open field full of black taxis but the requirements to make it possible were unattainable from a production perspective. But we did find a taxi repair shop!

The Bystanders

For our director, Gabriel, it was very important that we managed to recreate the human world and the bystanders dimension in several different locations. Gabriel suggested that a clever, cheap way of doing it was to find different locations that already looked or were what we were after rather than build sets. But we do also have a few scenes on sets that we created from scratch - we built an arctic cabin for example.

Props and costumes were a mix of rentals, second hand shop purchases and our own stuff! As soon as someone said 'I might have one of those' the response was 'bring it!'. With equipment we had to make the best of what we could get. We needed creativity rather than equipment to achieve some of the shots. Turns out there are cheap, fun ways of doing very clever shots.

As we were consistently looking for options, we became adaptable. The great thing about having to explore is that you start to believe everything can be done, and with this in mind the way to go forward was to do some research and ask questions. And so we did many times. Many times. We were calling potential locations, agents, talent, crew and asking for what we needed, sometimes thinking no way they would do it for this money but you'd be surprised by the amount of times people say yes! More often than not, as we explained the project, people were excited to get involved.

Getting our crew together was such a nice opportunity to meet lots of filmmakers. At the start of the project there were a few core collaborators that helped push through the project. As we started thinking about the shoot we realised we needed more people. If there were crew members who couldn't do all the days they would say "oh, but I have a friend that might be available!". In this way it became a communal project, and we could've not done it without everyone's enthusiasm, patience - mainly patience! - and creative contributions. Cast, crew and collaborators became like a family and we are deeply grateful.

We also could not have done it without the laughs of our cast on set. Every single one of them was amazing! Easy going, up for the weirdest takes and dialogue, and since a lot of them are comedians they were always making jokes. This helped ease up the difficulties of shooting within a very small budget. They brought clothes and props from home to help their character, they worked over Easter weekend just before meeting their families, they travelled from other cities just to help us finish the film.

Making an independent film is hard work, making it with very little money is harder, doing it over the span of a pandemic is unbelievable. We often joked that we should drop the actual feature, and just do a documentary of the making off, you can't script it!

This film is also an homage to William 'Bill' Carrick, who went into acting in his 80s and loved it! Bill was a long-time collaborator and sadly passed away before he could watch the film.

Andi Jashy - Actor (Luke)

The Bystanders. Luke Gillespie (Andi Jashy)

I feel very lucky to have been a part of The Bystanders, not only did I have so much fun working on the film, I also feel like I have made some long term mates! From the initial rehearsals with Gabriel working on the script and really exploring my character further I knew I was going to be in for a fun ride! Scott and I really grew close on this shoot and we had so much fun! Also, working with Seann is amazing, he made me laugh all the time and was super kind.

We had some amazing crew in all departments too, who you can see really got to imagine and realise this world with the sets, costumes and props, even the more techie bits like making bicycles ride by themselves or a wallet just hanging in mid air.

I personally feel in many ways working on The Bystanders is an experience I will never forget. It was exciting, challenging, inspiring and complicated. Filming during COVID has its drawbacks as I'm sure many other filmmakers would agree.

Above all Gabriel had a vision and he made it happen regardless of what was thrown at him. His perseverance and drive to see it all through is nothing short of inspiring. As an actor, to see this I find it incredibly motivating and being on set with him really made me feel comfortable and free to explore my character of Luke and have fun with him.

Foz Foster - Composer

Foz Foster

When approached to do the soundtrack for the film, my first thought was a downbeat Jazz Exotica combo for the human world and a Sci-Fi Synthscape for the Bystanders.

For the black and white human scenes, Gabriel suggested listening to the French film composer André Popp, I'm also a big fan of Jaques Tati's soundtracks especially Playtime which was an inspiration, and for the Bystanders world, I was inspired by Mark Mothersbaugh's work on The Life Aquatic and John Carpenter.

We had previously worked on a series of silent comedy online shorts called The Drunk where the music hits the comedic beats and becomes part of the comedy narrative and felt this would also work for the film. For an off-kilter melodic motif that runs through the film, I had a friend (Jem Egerton from [rock band] David Devant & His Spirit Wife) create a one-man male voice choir / barber shop quartet, that sounds like a 1960's male vocal group, the effect is downbeat, melancholic with a dash of hope, definitely something you don't hear a lot of in modern film.

Along with vocals are, double bass, jazz guitar and xylophone, with a sixties lounge vibe. For the synths I used analogue instruments similar to the ones used by the Radiophonic Workshop of Doctor Who fame and a Critter & Guitari Organelle as used by Mark Mothersbaugh. Over the top of the soundtrack, to create an otherworldly layer, I used a selection of odd and peculiar sounding instruments, these included: Harmonium made to sound like a fairground organ, Bowed Xylophones, Music Saws, Theremin, Waterphone, Dulcimers and amplified boxes with springs, wires, rubber bands and metal bits attached, creating a weird musical foley that helps hit the comedy beats. It was great fun to do!

Published: Monday 6th November 2023
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