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Interview: Rachel Nichols, John Suits and Gabriel Cowan Talk Pandemic (Exclusive)

Struggling to understand how people with diverse backgrounds and personalities would cope with, and fight to survive in, a monumentally disastrous situation is a complex and terrifying circumstance. The new sci-fi action film, ‘Pandemic,’ offers a unique perspective into how distinctive people all uniquely act in such a devastating environment. The creative first-person point-of-view into the story’s title worldwide catastrophe will be shown when XLrator Media releases the drama in theaters on Friday, after it premiered at FrightFest Glasgow on February 26b. The thriller will then be distributed on VOD and iTunes on Tuesday, April 5.

The drama’s director and producer, John Suits, and his co-producer, Gabriel Cowan, who co-operate the production company, New Artists Alliance, discovered Dustin T. Benson’s script for ‘Pandemic’ on the 2012 Blood List and Hit List. After reading reading the movie’s screenplay, they successfully convinced the writer to allow them to bring his vision to the screen. The two filmmakers then worked with the scribe for over a year to determine how they could creatively bring the post-apocalyptic virus-fueled story to life. They decided to do so through a distinct mixture of found footage and first-person point-of-view, the latter of which is becoming an up-and-coming popular technique in genre films in recent years, in order to enhance the viewing experience for audiences.

Set in the near future, ‘Pandemic’ showcases how a deadly virus has killed most of the U.S., and overall world, populations. The virus developed and spread so quickly that the only available option for the remaining government officials is to retreat into a few heavily guarded facilities. With society having basically collapsed, those surviving civilians who haven’t reached the “Stage 5” case of the virus are left to protect themselves in their abandoned neighborhoods, where they ultimately either starve to death or are killed by the infected. Those people whose health have deteriorated to the final stage of the illness have essentially transformed into fast-moving zombies.

While a cure or vaccine for the virus have not yet been developed, Dr. Lauren Chase (Rachel Nichols) is now working in a medical facility in Los Angeles. She transferred to the government building after working on finding a vaccine while she was a CDC lab tech in New York, before the city completely collapsed. She was then called back to the Californian city, where a presiding physician, Dr. Greer (Paul Guilfoyle), immediately orders her to a four-person team. The group is charged with traveling outside the military compound’s walls to hopefully rescue a medical unit that’s stranded downtown in a shuttered public school.

Lauren’s colleagues, including ex-felon bus driver Wheeler (Alfie Allen), ex-cop Gunner (Mekhi Phifer) and sympathetic navigator Denise (Missi Pyle), are all more well adjusted to carry out their fight-or-die duties as they travel onto the horrifying streets of L.A. than she is. As a result, the doctor is more determined than the rest of her team to deviate from the mission Dr. Greer ordered them to complete, as she reveals a startling and motivating secret: she’s hoping to find her teenage daughter and husband in their suburban home, as she hasn’t been able to contact them since returning home from the East Coast.

Nichols generously took the time recently to talk about portraying Lauren in the sci-fi film during a solo exclusive phone interview, while Suits and Cowan graciously spoke about directing and co-producing ‘Pandemic’ together during a joint exclusive phone interview. The actress, director and producer all discussed how they were drawn to bring Benson’s script to the screen, as they all appreciated the strong characters he created, who are determined to protect themselves during the frightening outbreak of the horrifying virus. The three also complemented each other, as well as the rest of the cast and crew, for being able to easily bond together as they formed the sympathetic emotional arcs of the characters. They also noted how they happily embraced the at-times challenging aspects of creating the physicality of the roles, as well as the stunts, action sequences and camera movements, particularly on a small budget and short filming schedule.

Starting his conversation with Cowan, Suits noted that he became interested in directing Benson’s script because not only was it on the 2012 Blood List and Hit List, but he was also drawn to “the first person point-of-view perspective. I thought it was a fun way to tell a story. Beyond all that, you really feel for the characters,” the director explained. “So it seemed like a fun journey to take.”

Suits added that he and Cowan “are often looking for movies that are new and different, or challenges that we haven’t tackled before. When this one came across our table, it seemed like an ambitious project to tackle.”

The helmer then described the casting process as being fun, before noting that the first actor who signed on was Phifer. “We really thought he would be great for the role of Gunner, and he was awesome to work with,” Suits revealed. “We then got Rachel on board, and then Missi and Alfie. We then had conversations with all of them, and they’re all amazing to work with.” The director added that he felt the crew was extremely fortunate to sign the main actors onto the thriller, as they’re all talented. “They’re also fun and awesome people to be around,” he further emphasized.

“I have a history of playing some strong, kick-ass women,” Nichols noted during the beginning of her interview, when she initially began discussing what drew her to play Lauren in ‘Pandemic.’ “Everyone, including my acting coach, always says that I like being in peril, because in most of the movies I choose, the characters I play are in peril.” The actress then explained that she also “liked the script a lot. I think Lauren is a really strong character, even with all the challenges she’s facing. She really wants to get back to her family, even though it seems like it will be impossible. I like that about her.”

Once Nichols signed on to portray Lauren in ‘Pandemic,’ she did additional preparation to help her connect with Lauren before principal photography began. “I have worked with my acting coach, Nancy Banks, for about 10 years,” the performer revealed. “Nancy and I have created a multitude of different characters, whether it was Scarlett in ‘G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra,’ Kiera Cameron on ‘Continuum’ or Lauren in ‘Pandemic.’ We work on the script together, and talk about the character,” the actress explained. “I’m not a mom, but I have played moms before. That was an important part of the Lauren character in ‘Pandemic,’ as she wants to get back to her daughter and husband.”

The performer added that she finds that “if research needs to be done, it’s because there’s some kind of mental or physical condition. Those are the types of things you need to research, as you have to get additional information on the character. In the case of Lauren, I spent a lot of time going through the script, and putting her together through an organic process.”

Once the actors were cast, Suits wanted to make sure everyone was “on the same page about their characters and arcs, and where they’re all going. Then as we began filming, we had daily conversations about where the characters were in their journeys. That gave them the perspective on how to approach each scene,” the director explained.

Also chiming in on collaborating with the rest of the cast on building their characters’ relationships, Nichols said that “Alfie, Mekhi, Missi and I all got along extremely well. We rehearsed our scenes before we shot them, as we had to block them, and determine where everyone was going to go. There is always room for discussions,” the actress explained. “We would say things like, ‘Oh, at this point, my character would do this,’ and we wanted to see if everyone else agreed…For us, it was a very collaborative cast with not only each other, but also with John. We all respected each other, as we were going on this adventure together. I think we got along because we did respect each other so much.”

Nichols also mentioned that she spoke to Suits over Skype before she signed on to play the thriller’s protagonist. “I really like John; I thought his vision was good, and his collaborative attitude was great. I also thought the way they wanted to shoot the film was going to be interesting. So I wanted to get on the bus and take the ride,” the actress added, partially punning the fact that Lauren and her colleagues travel into the streets of L.A. on a bus.

The sci-fi film’s lead actress further praised her director’s abilities on the project, adding that she thinks “John is great. I really enjoyed working with him. He’s really collaborative, which, for an actor, is wonderful, because he wasn’t married to any of the dialogue. He didn’t take the punctuation into account. He wanted us actors to make the characters our own, which is very important,” Nichols explained.

“The other thing is that John never lost his cool, not even once,” the performer further commended the filmmaker. “We didn’t have a lot of money to make this movie, so we were under a lot of time and budget constraints.” Nichols further expressed her admiration for Suits always being able to remain calm, even when they fell behind schedule. “It’s easier for actors when they’re environment isn’t angry. I can’t speak for them, but I would say that the other actors in the film would probably agree. John was easy to work with,” the actress added.

“Gabe, who’s one of the producers, was also great to work with. This was guerrilla filmmaking, but working in an independent film, you get to do whatever you want. So that’s the fun part,” Nichols noted as she began discussing the benefits of making ‘Pandemic’ independently. “I was talking to Gabe the other day, and I was saying that I love filming independent movies, as we get that freedom. We weren’t beholden to anyone; we could do the shots that we wanted, and that’s really special.”

The actress did acknowledge that filmmakers don’t have a lot of money when they’re making independent films. But on ‘Pandemic,’ she appreciated how Suits, Cowan and the rest of the producers “took great care of the cast and crew, which was very sweet on such a small budget. It was nice to have that freedom” they offered to the cast. The actress also revealed how extremely proud she felt of the film when she saw the final cut. “I wrote an email to John and Gabe and said, ‘I’m amazed at the movie we were able to make with the the small budget we had.’ That’s a testament to them. I think everyone involved in the project is really proud of it, because it looks like a million bucks, even though it wasn’t,” Nichols added.

Cowan also noted his appreciation for Suits’ working style when he explained why he decided to serve as one of the producers on the thriller. “John and I have made about 20 feature films together. I like working with anything that he’s involved in,” he revealed, after the two worked together on such movies as ‘The Scribbler‘ and ‘Cheap Thrills.’ When the filmmakers read the script for ‘Pandemic’ after it appeared on the Blood List, they “started talking to Dustin about producing the script. We became invested and involved with the characters, and what was at stake.” The three also discussed what as supposed to happen in each scene in the script, before they then started putting the cast together and decided on what kind of shooting style they wanted to use.

“We also spent quite a while in the editing room together,” Cowan noted, before also praising Alec Puro for the music he created for the action movie. The producer also commended Joe Barrucco for the sound design he crafted for ‘Pandemic,’ which the producer noted helped put the pieces together. “So it was a great experience,” he mentioned about the whole process of making the sci-fi action film.

Also discussing the process of putting together the music and sound they wanted to include in the thriller, Suits mentioned that they had to “give it a lot of thought. Luckily we had worked with the music team before, so we had a lot of good conversations.”

The director added that they were thinking of including “a more naturalistic sound, and have the music be very minimal.” He added that since the movie is told through the first-person point-of-view that’s reminiscent of video games, which use elaborate scores, it ultimately “gave us more freedom in how we could approach the music, which was very liberating.” Suits then chimed in on working with Barrucco, revealing that they decided not to use “subtleties. We decided to go big. We wanted to emphasize the peaks and valleys.”

In addition to closely working with the music and sound department on ‘Pandemic,’ the cast and crew also worked closely with the camera crew, in order to best determine how to shoot the film. “It was something we did a lot of research and pre-production work on as we tried to figure out how to best tackle it,” Suits explained. “Ultimately, we decided to work with this company, Radiant Images, which specializes in gear, so that we could figure out which cameras worked best with which rigs. We ended up going with seven different cameras and three different rigs.”

Suits further revealed that the main camera they used to shoot ‘Pandemic’ was a RED, which they put on rigs on a helmet. The cameras “weighed 25 pounds, so whenever there was any action involved, or we were working in tighter spaces, we had a function we could use for that,” Suits said. “I think the best thing we tried to figure out was how to adapt the cameras, so that when the person filming walked, there were elements of the found footage shaky cam. So there was a lot of effort that was put into that.”

When principal photography on ‘Pandemic’ began, “we had a male and female camera operator play the different parts. Besides shooting the footage, they also had to act like an actor,” Suits explained. “Rachel, Missi, Alfie and Mekhi would work with them on how they were going to film a scene. They would talk about things like when they grabbed an object, which hand they would use. The operator would also have to put on an outfit for the character, and reenact the actors’ movements.”

The director added that that filming perspective was difficult as they were trying to make it through their day. “We would have the extra step of camera rehearsal. The camera operators had to match the actors’ movements, and made sure their movements matched the actors’ actions. I thought we got better the further we got along.”

Also speaking of filming ‘Pandemic’ in the first-person point-of-view style, Nichols admitted that the shooting style “was one of the reasons why I signed onto the movie to begin with. I loved John’s ideas and perspective on the way he was going to film the movie. I thought the first-person style of shooting was an interesting idea.”

The actress also noted that the thriller had “several great camera operators. I have to give 100 percent of the credit to Amanda Treyz, who did most of the operating. She had to wear this heavy helmet camera. She did a lot of the legwork, as she was filming from several different point-of-views, whether it was mine” or any of the other actors. Nichols added that “If it was my point-of-view, she had the helmet on. If it was Mekhi or Missi’s point-of-views, she also had the helmet on” to reflect their perspectives.

Nichols then described the filming process on ‘Pandemic’ as “interesting, because when we were having a conversation with Missi, for example, we would be shooting from my point-of-view. So that meant that Missi was looking directly into the head camera that Amanda was wearing, and I was cowering behind Amanda, saying my lines.”

She paused to laugh before then saying, “You can imagine how different it was to be looking directly into a camera when we were filming someone else’s perspective. It was also interesting to be cowering behind the camera when you’re filming from your perspective, and you’re working with another actor.” Nichols then admitted that the process “wasn’t as difficult as I thought it was going to be. I can’t speak for Amanda, because she would probably disagree. But it was a totally different and cool thing to do, and I’m really proud of it-it looks really cool.”

Following up on the process of filming the action sequences, Suits noted that the actors did some of their own practical effects on the set. “But the film also had an amazing stunt team. Our amazing stunt coordinator, Van Ayasit, was able to get an incredible group of individuals who worked with us every day.” The director laughed when he added, “If you study the film, you’ll notice the same people popping up over and over again. We put different make-up on them.”

Suits added that “There was a lot of collaboration between the actors and the stunt team, including them figuring out which parts they’d all be doing. Mekhi was very good with guns, for example. Rachel also collaborated very well with the stunt department, based on all the films and TV series she has worked on.” The director also noted that they worked on a case-by-case basis of when they should use the actors, and when they should the stunt doubles in the scenes.

“I love doing stunts and action sequences, and have spent a lot of my career doing them,” Nichols revealed as she began discussing the process of forming Lauren’s physicality. “Obviously, there are a lot of stunts that I shouldn’t do. There are some stunts that I will say, ‘Dear stunt double, you’re so much better at this than I am.’ There are a lot of amazing stunt women and teams who I have worked with over the years.”

The actress added that “There weren’t a lot of stunts that we needed done on ‘Pandemic,’ but it was very action-packed. I would say the most difficult part of the action was that we were filming in L.A. in very warm temperatures, and we were wearing helmets and Hazmat suits for the entire shoot. That was a challenge because we were sweating as we were running and fighting, and our visors inside our helmets would fog up if we were breathing too heavily. But that all provided itself well to the final film,” Nichols revealed. “Blocking the action sequences always took time, as we wanted everyone to be safe and know what was going on.” The performer laughed as she then divulged, “One of the biggest struggles was sweating to death as we tried to look cool and calm.”

In addition to the stunts, the overall look of all of the characters, including the type of clothing and make-up the actors all wore, was based on the film’s shot shooting schedule. “It was very challenging, because we had to create all of these different looks,” the director explained. “On some days, we had up to 100 extras. We had to get them all in their costumes and make-up, which was a big job.”

The helmer added that there were two days were they had to shut down several blocks of downtown L.A. “Yong Ok Lee, our production designer, and her team were amazing,” Suits said. “We’d close the street down, and within two hours, they’d transform it into a post-apocalyptic street. I think given our budget, every day of our production was ambitious. So our goal was to keep pushing ourselves and trying to elevate what we were able to do.”

Cowan also chimed in on the experience of shooting ‘Pandemic’ across Los Angeles. “Finding locations on a relatively low budget is always a challenge,” the producer explained. “We had previously shot at the location were we set up the main compound” where Lauren and her colleagues were working. “We shot another film there, which is called ‘Extracted.’ I think (‘Pandemic’) was the last movie that got to shoot there before it all closed down. It was a very popular place to shoot for independent productions. It was just outside of Los Angeles, and it was modestly priced. I think it was formerly a juvenile incarceration facility,” the producer explained.

Suits added that the youth detention center closed about 20 yeas ago, and the building was then immediately turned into a filming location, which remained open for the past two decades. “Luckily, we were able to shoot there before it closed for good, and it turned into apartments or something,” the director noted.

“So we were able to shoot quite a bit of the interiors at that location,” Cowan added. “Obviously shooting down streets in downtown Los Angeles on this modest budget required a little friendliness with the city and people who wanted to walk down those streets,” the produced laughed as he further explained the process of shooting on location in the city. “While it was challenging, it ended up being rewarding.”

“We shot in a bunch of different areas. We were everywhere from downtown L.A. to Whittier,” Nichols noted as she began discussing the experience of shooting the thriller on location. “We were also up north at certain points, like in Valencia and Magic Mountain. So we definitely hit a bunch of different areas when we were shooting,” the actress also revealed.

Nichols also noted that the cast and crew “did a couple of weekend shoots when we were in downtown L.A. It’s much easier, and I’m sure also much more economically efficient, to close the streets there over the weekend, instead of during the week.” The actress added that filming in several different areas throughout L.A. county “was fun, and I’m glad we went to all of those locations. I haven’t filmed anything in L.A. since ‘Criminal Minds,’ I think. So it was nice to be back home in L.A. for a little bit, especially when the weather wasn’t so nice in Vancouver,” where she shot ‘Continuum,’ an action-sci-fi-drama television series, between 2012 and 2015.

Once the filming and editing of the thriller was completed, and the producers determined how the movie was going to be released, Cowan noted they decided there were benefits of,releasing ‘Pandemic’ in both a limited theatrical release and On Demand and on iTunes. “All of the new distribution platforms are presenting exciting opportunities for independent filmmakers to get their voices out there. We feel very fortunate that quite a few of our films are also being released theatrically,” the producer explained.

“‘Pandemic’ will also be released in theaters on Friday in about 10 different markets. But the fact that people are also able to watch this on their 60-, 80- and 100-inch screens at home, with their 7.1 surround sound system is great,” Cowan further explained. “Obviously, we love watching movies with an audience, as there’s nothing quite like it, but being able to take a break and drink a soda in your own kitchen is also great.”

Watch the official green band trailer, and check out the official poster and stills, for ‘Pandemic’ below.

Pandemic Poster

Rachel Nichols Pandemic

Rachel Nichols as Lauren in the sci-fi action film, ‘Pandemic,’ an XLrator Media release.
Photo courtesy of XLrator Media.

Rachel Nichols Pandemic 2

Rachel Nichols as Lauren in the sci-fi action film, ‘Pandemic,’ an XLrator Media release.
Photo courtesy of XLrator Media.

Rachel Nichols Pandemic 3

(L-R) Missi Pyle as Denise and Rachel Nichols as Lauren in the sci-fi action film, ‘Pandemic,’ an XLrator Media release.
Photo courtesy of XLrator Media.

Written by: Karen Benardello

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As a life-long fan of entertainment, particularly films, television and music, and an endless passion for writing, Karen Benardello decided to combine the two for a career. She graduated from New York's LIU Post with a B.F.A in Journalism, Print and Electronic. While still attending college, Karen began writing for Shockya during the summer of 2007, when she began writing horror movie reviews. Since she began writing for Shockya, Karen has been promoted to the position of Senior Movies & Television Editor. Some of her duties in the position include interviewing filmmakers and musicians, producing posts on celebrity news and contributing reviews on albums and concerts. Some of her highlights include attending such festivals and conventions as the Tribeca Film Festival, the New York Film Festival, SXSW, Toronto After Dark, the Boston Film Festival and New York Comic-Con.

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