Director Chris Cottam explains how skilful writing and world-class comic performances made this film’s animal rights message go down smoothly
This is a film about the issues behind the Covid-19 outbreak including the destruction of natural habitats, the illegal wildlife trade and unchecked consumption. That might not sound like a barrel of laughs. For animals and humans, it’s not. But ‘Bat Sh*t’, directed in collaboration between two of Chief Production’s directors, Nate Camponi in the UK, and Chris Cottam in LA, is actually a lot less heavy than you’d expect.
Filmed in May during the depths of lockdown in both cities, the mockumentary features superstar British comedian Romesh Ranganathan, who plays a rabbit that has endured a lifetime of cosmetic testing in a science lab, providing the voice of reason. He’s joined by an ensemble of other comic performers you might recognise, from Rich Hall to Rory Uphold. The short film gives a voice to some of the animal species who have fallen victim to human behaviour over the years including pangolins, rats, pigs, birds, rabbits and of course bats.
The mockumentary was welcomed by Bat Conservation International (BCI), a globally recognised conservation organisation dedicated to ending bat extinctions and helping to change negative perceptions of a creature that has been around for more than 60 million years, and will feature on BCI’s digital channels.
LBB’s Alex Reeves caught up with Chris to hear more about the project. Watch the film and read more below.
LBB> What was the original idea that led to the film?
Chris> My friend and producer Colin Offland is a very keen and active environmentalist along with his son Billy. They decided to use their time together in lockdown to figure out how to highlight some of the issues that might have led to the situation we are in at the moment. There are a lot of complex cultural, societal and biological myths around the pandemic and they wanted to approach it with caution but using the vehicle of comedy to get a message across. With that intention they contacted writers Tim Jones and James Cross along with myself, to figure out how to give this environmental message a bit of oomph.
LBB> And how did that turn into a much more far-reaching concept about the way that humans treat animals and their habitats?
Chris> We had an initial script to start with but we felt it was too specific and possibly misleading about the origins of the virus. So the more we developed and researched the script the more we thought we could take a broader look at respecting the boundaries of nature and biodiversity. It's not the fault of any animal that we contract viruses, it's generally human actions that are to blame. That was what we ended up making the message about.
LBB> Was it always going to be a comedy short? It's obviously a serious issue but delivered in a cheeky way.
Chris> I think you can make lots of good points with comedy and I think you may also be able to reach a bit further with a laugh. People who would perhaps shrug their shoulders at environmental issues might very easily turn off any message that doesn't grab them in the first few seconds. With this in mind, getting a laugh in, seeing a famous face, having a stupid costume makes the viewer curious enough to stick with it.
LBB> How did you convince the comedians to get involved? You got some big names!
Chris> As a comedy director I'm lucky enough to constantly work with comedy performers and stand ups. Having done it for quite a while I have a good list of people I can turn to when a project like this comes along. Because of the pandemic everyone was at home so it was easy enough for them to find time. All I had to do was give them a call, tell them it would be painless and that they would have the chance to dick around in stupid costumes and they all said yes immediately. Coupled with the fact that all the performers are also conscious of helping out for good causes that chime with them personally and we had a stellar cast ready to go.
LBB> What was the production process like, what with a pandemic on the go?
Chris> There are incredibly strict filming protocols to adhere to ensuring the safety of everyone on the crew. First thing we had to do was cut away 95% of an normal crew which meant that in LA for example it was literally just myself and my DP Kev Robertson turning up to an apartment looking like surgeons, cleaning the apartment down with alcohol rub for any surfaces that we came into contact with as well as keeping a distance from the performer.
Ordinarily you would have costume, make up, people to put up lights, people to dress sets, people to move equipment, people to cater people to make sure I'm comfortable with a coffee and soft seat at all times. Kev and I did all that alone and the performer had to figure out how to get into the costume which was more complicated than it looked. I know people sometimes roll their eyes when they hear that filmmaking is 'hard work' but it genuinely is exhausting. So when you add no manpower, extreme heat and a virus that you can potentially die from, it makes for a slightly fraught working environment.
LBB> What is your enduring memory of making this film?
Chris> Nate Camponi who co-directed this, was working with me on Skype as we filmed the Rich Hall sequence in West London. My enduring memory was seeing him dressed as the bat for the first time. I'd spent a lot of time designing the costume and it was beautifully realised by Rebecca Lockwood and Marc Ingham, but when Rich turned to me on camera with his rubber wings and his stupid little ears with his face squashed into the headpiece I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.
LBB> How did the hook up with BCI come about?
Chris> Colin's son Billy just reached out and sent them the film. He got a pretty immediate response from them saying how happy they were that this message had been given a bit of publicity. In their words: “The truth of why scapegoating wildlife is part of the problem not the solution of protecting people and the planet.” It was great to have them on board as validation to our effort.
LBB> What do you think about the way people have reacted to the film?
Chris> It's been received really well, people have been sharing it and they've really responded positively. As a script it stands alone as being funny, but the minute you add brilliant performers into the mix the reach becomes that much greater.