28 Days Later isn’t your typical run-of-the-mill zombie movie. In fact, I think it’s wrong to call it a zombie movie even if the enemy can infect the film’s heroes with a single drop of blood. Instead, it’s a virus movie that feels eerily familiar to us now, 20 years later. 

Some of the most famous shots in 28 Days Later are the scenes filmed in the empty London streets. Made on a tight budget of $8 million, the film did not have the resources to shut down huge areas of London or have the film on the best gear. 

How did director Danny Boyle and his team shoot 28 Days Later, and why can’t this formula be replicated in the modern era? Let’s break it down. 

Accessing the Empty Streets of a Busy City

Boyle knew that 28 Days Later would be a special film after reading the first 10 pages of Alex Garland’s script. In an interview with NME, Boyle recounted his first impressions of the story, saying, “[Jim] wanders around London on his own and you just thought ‘Oh my God!’ What an amazing idea: a deserted London. It’s actually come to haunt us [since COVID]. We complain how overcrowded [cities] are and about the stress, and then in an instant, life as we know it in many, many different forms can empty them.”

Filming scenes on Westminster Bridge that are supposed to show a desolate London is an incredible challenge since the bridge is situated right in the center of the city and is one of the busiest areas due to its proximity to the House of Parliament and the South Bank. 

Shot before the September 11 terrorist attack, the film crew was easily able to close off sections of streets for minutes at a time, usually early in the morning before sunrise on Sundays and 45 minutes after dawn, to shoot the location devoid of traffic and passers-by. 

Why '28 Days Later' couldn't be made today.'28 Days Later'Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures

“The central city security was almost unrecognizably relaxed compared to what you will understand as city center security now,” Boyle said. “That changed with the millennia and we benefited from deciding to shoot those early mornings in July.”

He adds, “We hired all these girls to be traffic marshals. One of them was my daughter who was 19 at the time and they’d say, ‘Would you just mind waiting here? We’re making a film…’ It’s just bizarre the way it worked.”

The only time filmmakers would have been able to film on the empty city streets would be in the rare chance that a stay-at-home order gets placed during a worldwide pandemic. Fingers crossed that we don’t experience another time like that again in our lives, so what’s the solution to filming on location as they did in 28 Days Later

Unfortunately, filming in most locations requires a city permit today. Without a permit, local authorities will shut down your production for the day and cause a major upset in your shooting schedule. It isn’t that people want to stop you from filming. Instead, they want to make sure you have permission to do and are following the appropriate safety precautions for the shoot. 

Of course, the guerilla style of filming is still in use today in productions that don’t have the budget, time, permits, expensive sets, or rented locations, a style that Boyle fully embraced for 28 Days Later. But if you want to follow the rules and make sure that there is no way for your film to get sued, get that permit. 

Why '28 Days Later' couldn't be made today.'28 Days Later'Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Was it filmed on a Motorola Razr? 

One aspect of 28 Days Later that I adore is its visual language, which was enhanced by the Canon XL 1 digital video (DV) camera. Yes, the Canon XL 1 has a very specific look that is out-of-place in the modern era of filmmaking, but the style is undeniably stripped back with its realistic texture. 

The $500 camera is much smaller and easily maneuverable compared to traditional film cameras, allowing the cast to capture brief shots quickly during the short amount of time they filmed in busy locations. The Canon XL1 has a real resolution of 512x492 and a virtual resolution of 750x492. The image is just very low resolution, high contrast, and sharpened to hell, so there are halos around everything.

The Canon XL 1 allowed Boyle to capture wide sweeping shots as well as shaky movements that followed the brutality of the story. 

However, this quality of the camera has been outshined by so many other affordable cameras that are easy to maneuver. The best camera to use on a shoestring budget is the one that is in your pocket.

I am a big fan of smartphone filmmaking. It allows young filmmakers to create a movie without needing expensive equipment that they can’t invest in. The camera quality of most smartphones is far superior compared to the Canon XL1, using apps like FiLMiC Pro can mimic the effects of a traditional filmmaking camera, and can allow you to shoot anywhere at any time. 

Why '28 Days Later' couldn't be made today.'28 Days Later'Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures

While there are more challenges when it comes to filming in a busy world that is now extremely cautious about what is and isn’t allowed to be filmed, we have so much great technology at our fingertips that is affordable and simple to work with. 

28 Days Later was an indie horror that has been able to stand the test of time and can serve as inspiration for your next project. Boyle, Garland, and the entire cast and crew of the film show us that all you need to create a film that will live on forever in cinema is a tight script, inexpensive equipment, and a team that is willing to get the best shot every time the director yells “action.” 

What other films do you think couldn’t be made today? Let us know in the comments!

Source: NME