Wildseed Studios stirred up excitement for The Darkest Dawn with an exclusive screening prior to the official premiere, and TenEighty was invited!
The screening took place in London theatre space The Vaults, the entrance to which is on a graffiti-lined tunnel beneath Waterloo station. The screening took place days before the world premiere at MCM Comic Con in London.
Notable guests for the screening included UK horror filmmaker Jake West, horror author and journalist Kim Newman, and YouTubers Mark Ferris, Lewys Ball, Gary C, Pete Bucknall, and Paul Neafcy (who has a memorable role in the film).
Stars of The Darkest Dawn in attendance included Bethan Leadley, Cherry Wallis, Jamie Paul, and Stuart Ashen. Writer/director Drew Casson and producer Miles Bullough introduced the film, and instructed the audience to wear the headphones provided for maximum intensity during the screening.
The Darkest Dawn is a sequel to Drew’s 2014 film Hungerford, and follows teenage sisters Chloe (Bethan) and Sam (Cherry) as they try to survive an alien invasion. Producers Jesse and Miles have built a strong understanding of the YouTube community from their work at Wildseed Studios, so it seems natural that they would turn to that community when casting the film. As Cherry said: “We got emails and phone calls asking if we wanted to act, to which I was like, ‘Yes please! I’ve always wanted to do that’.”
Stuart needed a bit more convincing, but then he saw Hungerford. “It was so much better than nearly all the low-budget horror I’d seen for about a year, to be brutally honest,” he admitted. “It had that great thing of using the found footage as a series of vignettes and exciting stories to keep you going, but also the overall arc works. I was really impressed with it. So immediately I was, ‘Right, sign me up for the sequel! I don’t care if I have to play Pikachu, I will be in this film.’ Fortunately they gave me a slightly better role than that, so hats off to them.”
Despite her initial enthusiasm, Bethan too had reservations. “I was really scared because I’ve never acted before,” she said. “I don’t think Cherry had either. And we were just kind of like, ‘You’re putting a lot of faith into us right now’… Even though they did get us to sort of do an audition.”
The audition process was more of a test than a formal audition, as Cherry explained: “It was like an improv workshop to see what we could do under pressure. I was on my own with Drew, an acting coach called Sarah who plays the mum in the film, and Georgia [Bradley] who plays Phil, so it was those three and me and we just did some improv. It was really awkward because I didn’t know the guys at all.”
As with Hungerford, a key component of the film is that everything we see is filmed from the main character’s camera – in this case, the camera belonging to aspiring vlogger Chloe. For Bethan, this came with its advantages. “I have to talk to the camera a lot,” she said. “I’m sort of like a vlogger in the film, weirdly.”
She recalled her own early YouTube experiences while preparing for the role. “When I started YouTube and when I first kind of got an audience on YouTube, I was 16,” she explained, “and it was really kind of weird to go back to that really quirky sort of nerdy side of me. And it’s weird because when I watch the film back, it’s like going through your old Facebook photos – that’s what it feels like.”
For Cherry, the experience was almost the polar opposite of vlogging. “It was weird for me, because obviously I’m used to filming at home in my bedroom by myself,” she said. “I don’t have an editor, I don’t have someone to film stuff for me, it’s all done on my own. So to go in front of a massive crew, with cast on set as well, and to be under that pressure, was pretty intense.”
Stuart is less of a stranger to acting, and felt there were parallels with vlogging. “Originally I was stage acting, far more years ago than I’ll admit to,” he said. “I used to do stuff on stage in and around Norwich, and there’s always an aspect of it when you’re doing YouTube. You have to be able to present things in a certain way, and it’s been so nice to get back into proper roles and act properly.”
He also enjoyed working with other YouTubers on the film. “I like it because people who make money from YouTube, that’s a very small subset of the country already,” he explained, “and then the people from there with transferrable skills to something like a film are smaller still, so it’s really nice to meet other people who do this kind of thing and be on the same wavelength.”
For a found-footage film to work, the performances have to seem natural and as if they have been caught in the moment. Drew had the actors develop the characters themselves during an intensive rehearsal process, as Cherry explained: “We were trained to become so familiar with our characters that we ended up writing some of the script for the film. So the things that you hear, for example, Sam and Chloe say – that has come from Sam and Chloe.”
Stuart described how this process helped: “We wanted something more organic because of the kind of film it is. So we sat in a village hall and came up with what the characters are like, what we think they would do, how they would react to situations, and then we went through what happens in the script and we improvised the dialogue and we sharpened it and the result is it actually feels like something genuine.”
While the technique resembles the development process of renowned filmmaker Mike Leigh, it also has its similarities to the vlogging process, as Stuart explained: “My YouTube stuff is entirely improvised, so again that’s something that appeals to me, just because it’s something I’m used to.”
The shoot was even more intense than rehearsals, taking place over nine days with three days additional shooting once the editing began. Working on a tight budget naturally came with its challenges. “Halfway through the film, me and Cherry wanted to kill each other,” Bethan admitted. “I think that’s kind of what happens, though. You are so close together. We were literally sleeping in the same house together and really squashed. Sometimes we were sleeping on mattresses on the floor. It was intense.”
“It was intense,” Cherry agreed, “but we got through it.”
Stuart had an easier time on his two days of shooting. “We were just in the basement of a building in Bristol,” he said. “It wasn’t a very nice basement – it kept flooding and they had to keep pumping it out. But I was never there when it flooded, so I was fine!”
Cherry was quick to praise her co-star Bethan for being present when she wasn’t on camera. “Even if you don’t see Bethan on camera, she was physically there for every scene,” she said. “She was behind that camera even when she wasn’t being filmed so it helped me act if I was talking to the camera because that camera is my sister in the film.”
One of the most impressive aspects of the film is the visual effects, all coordinated and implemented by Drew. Working with the visual effects designer on set did have its advantages, as Drew always knew what the characters were seeing, as Bethan described: “You’d have Drew just being like, ‘There’s smoke over here, a plane’s just gone overhead’, and he would describe the scenes for us.”
“He was very descriptive,” Cherry confirmed. “You just have to really use your imagination and submerge yourself into the role and what’s going on.”
“Being a vlogger is a lonely world,” said Bethan. “It’s nice to be part of something a bit bigger.”
Cherry added: “We were together for a couple of months, I’d say. And we became a really close-knit family. I remember the last day of shooting I ended up bursting into tears.”
That sense of teamwork and triumph over adversity runs throughout The Darkest Dawn, and the finished experience is a testament to the ambition and drive not only of the characters, but also of everyone involved in the making of the film. It is also a project that has grown organically from the YouTube community and yet attains a universal appeal not dissimilar to its big-budget Hollywood equivalents.
Check out our behind-the-scenes interviews and images from the set of The Darkest Dawn, or read more about Wildseed Studios and their partnership with Pinewood.