ANNO 2020 – The Making of a Movie

ANNO 2020 - The Movie

As a producer for the movie Anno 2020, I have insights into some of its experimental creation, especially a one-day filming in Los Angeles at three different locations.

ANNO 2020 was filmed during the world lockdown of COVID-19. Since it was impossible to send a film crew to different locations, director James Morcan adapted the Anno 2020 screenplay from his published novel of the same name and decided to reach out to actors around the globe to audition for its characters. Originally, the idea was to have up to eight different storylines that were played out in over 17 different locations around the world. These dramatic vignettes, being filmed separately, were to all merge at the end of the story.

My daughter Jessica auditioned for the role of Emma, who is the daughter of a mother battling leukemia. Emma is locked down in China while her mother is located thousands of miles away in Michigan.

ANNO 2020 - The Movie

Director Morcan used the online casting website Backstage to audition for the film’s many characters. Jessica was chosen by executive-producer Gil Ben-Moshe from over 500 actors seeking the part of Emma. The intercontinental interactions were accomplished using home computers and smartphones, utilizing the Zoom app, which visually connects people from around the world using the internet. This medium was not only used for the auditions but also in much of the movie’s storyline. With the severe global restrictions in place, the movie’s resolutions differed greatly from its international participants. Its effects were foundational to the movie’s appearance.

One of the upsides of making ANNO 2020 was that everyone during the pandemic was wearing face masks, and film releases were not needed. (An Extra Release gives you written permission to use an extra’s likeness in your film or video.)

The scenes were recorded in many different time zones. Coordinating Jessica Castello in Los Angeles with actress Sheila Ball in New York, along with managing James Morcan directing from Australia, made the interaction a challenge. Even with these obstacles, the scenes played out well, which also had a lot of creative input from the actors. A style which Morcan felt empowered the storyline.

ANNO 2020 - The Movie

Several weeks after completing the indoor Zoom scenes with Sheila, Jessica received a phone call from the director explaining that the footage of Jessica and Sheila was so impactful in post-production that he wanted to expand their storyline. The new scenes would include Jessica writing a song that would also be performed live on stage, a scene from Chinatown, and a cemetery shot. I explained to Jessica that it was a great opportunity, and after several days of consideration, she agreed to take on the work.

Not only was a song to be written and recorded, but a film crew also had to be put together to shoot the three new locations that were needed. I’ve lived in the Hollywood area since 1986 as an actor and singer/songwriter and I had the connections and knowledge to make it work.

I scouted many locations, which included several cemeteries and nightclubs. I sent images and videos to director Morcan so that we could decide which would be the best for its cinematography. We eventually decided on Chinatown in downtown Los Angeles, Forest Lawn Cemetery in Burbank, and the Eighth & Rail nightclub in Santa Clarita.

ANNO 2020 - The Movie

Next, I put together a film crew utilizing my friend Toofun West. I met Toofun years ago in the domain name business in Toronto, where he was a camera operator for many major films. I went over the scenes and locations with our three-man crew, which included Lindsey, George, and Toofun. They had the perfect equipment and lenses for the task. The RED KOMODO is a wonderful camera that has its own cinematic look on screen.

All the filming was to be done in one day. We picked the day for filming, and everything had to fall perfectly into place for it to work. If one mishap were to happen, it could doom the whole day’s schedule.

LOCATION ONE – Chinatown – 7am

During the pandemic, Chinatown was empty, which was exactly the look we needed for the scene. Jessica and I arrived in Chinatown at 7 a.m. and met the film crew. While we were preparing the film equipment and actor, we noticed that we were being looked at by some unsavory individuals. Having lived in NYC, my senses and spatial awareness came alive with the potential for danger. We had over $60 thousand in equipment that was being assembled.

Camera assembly for our first location shoot

When one individual zipped up the hoodie around his face and started scanning the street around us, I told the crew to quickly get into their cars to leave. Since I had a large SUV, I positioned it between the potential thieves and the crew as they quickly put their equipment into their cars, and we pulled out of that area. We went around the block and found a better place that seemed safer.

Downtown Chinatown Los Angeles

We assembled the gear and quickly got to the area we had chosen for the scene. If we had been robbed of our equipment, the day would have been over. We took many different shots, and after about two hours of filming, we decided to call that scene a wrap. Now, we had to get to the cemetery by 11:30 a.m.

LOCATION TWO – The Cemetery – 11:30am

Forest Lawn Cemetery is where many of the greatest Hollywood actors are laid to rest, from Elizabeth Taylor to Errol Flynn, Humphrey Bogart, Nat King Cole, Clark Gable, and Michael Jackson, to name a few. While professional filming is not typically permitted there, the setting was perfect for our scene. Jessica now needed to change her hair and wardrobe, and the closest available area was the Whole Foods grocery store nearby.

Jessica using the Whole Foods bar to get ready for our next scene

The bar eatery inside was setting up for opening time, and we asked the bartender if we could use the power outlet for the curling iron that Jessica needed for her hair. Luckily, the bartender agreed, and Jessica changed into her outfit for the next scene.

While we had previously chosen a place with a church background, that area of the cemetery had changed over the course of a couple of weeks. Since there were many more people dying of COVID, our original spot was teeming with burials in progress. We decided to move up the hill, with a treeline behind us and the hills and burials below us. While security is constantly driving around the grounds, we had several spotters who were on walkie-talkies to warn us if they were approaching our area.

Forrest Lawn Cemetery – Second Location

With James directing over Zoom from Australia, we shot many takes of Jessica placing flowers on the grave and whispering her lines while we shot and recorded nearby. The overcast sky and the isolated area made for the perfect effect.

We were utterly respectful of the area we were in as we walked to our filming location. The closing shot was of Jessica standing up and walking away. Several times, black crows flew overhead, cawing, while a procession of black hearses moved in the background. We had the shots we needed. We packed up and made our way to the next destination.

LOCATION THREE – The Nightclub – 4pm

Preparing on stage at the Eighth & Rail bar

Our final location was the Eighth & Rail nightclub in Santa Clarita, where we were to meet actress Crystal Huang, who was chosen as the mother of Jessica’s best friend. This scene was going to be the most challenging. We needed a live audience, a stage, and a separate table to do our scenes. The owner of the nightclub was Louise Castaldo. Louise had been my lighting director in the ’70s and stage manager for our production company on Sunset Strip in the ’90s for the Whisky a Go Go and Roxy Theater.

I had asked Louise if we could use her bar, and she told me she would do whatever was needed. From Forest Lawn Cemetery, we arrived at the bar around 4 p.m. Previously we placed signage on the club’s entryways announcing that filming would be done that evening, letting those know that if they were inside, they knew they could be in the film.

The crew started setting up the stage—hanging the lighting, film equipment, and more advanced recording gear for the scene. We had everything but one thing, a small detail which was a major piece of the onstage performance—we didn’t have a microphone holder. We had the stand and the microphone but no holder! I called around to several friends in the area, but no one had what we needed. Finally, one of the crew pulled out a tiny holder, and we were able to force the mic into it to make it work. The microphone we used was the same one I used in my music video Tokyo Rose in 1986. Now, 35 years later, my daughter was going to sing into it for the movie.

The crew set up lighting for the stage and the audio for the live performance of the song “Chances Are (Emma’s Lullaby),” which Jessica composed. James had requested that the song resemble a haunting lullaby. I had previously recorded the piano accompaniment, which would now be played back so that Jessica could sing along. We also needed audio of a live audience applauding afterward. The scene was recorded several times, capturing many angles of Jessica in front of the bar. The next scene involved Jessica leaving the stage and being approached by Crystal, which would then lead to a table for an audio interaction between the two.

Jessica Castello and Crystal Huang tabletop dialog with director Moran via Zoom

As with the cemetery scene, James was directing from Australia through multiple Zoom-connected smartphones. The interaction at the table at times required a quieter moment, and the noise from the bar patrons was interfering with the audio. We asked Louise if there was a way to get everyone outside, and without hesitation, Louise shouted out, “Everyone outside, drinks are on me!” With that, we had a cleared-out nightclub to capture the desired audio tracks.

With any successful endeavor, chemistry, collaboration, creativity, and a willingness to enjoy the moment are what make for great movies. As the day’s events flowed like clockwork, we wrapped up soon after what was normally closing time at the Eighth & Rail. We couldn’t have asked for a better ending.

ANNO 2020 Trailer
Anno 2020 (2024) – IMDb
Jessica Castello: Jessica Castello – PLAYERS TALENT AGENCY

One thought on “ANNO 2020 – The Making of a Movie

  • March 12, 2024 at 9:59 pm

    As Associate Producer and Story Consultant on Anno 2020, not to mention father of director James Morcan, I resonate with the challenges you Michael, Jessica and your crew faced to complete the shooting of those scenes – and all in one day!
    A wonderful, informative summary of filmmaking under the most unique circumstances.
    My thanks and HUGE congratulations to you all.
    A brilliant effort and a brilliant result!
    Best regards from Down Under.


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