Issue 371
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INVASION: COLMORE ROW

We like to big up Birmingham as much as we can. Others, however, like to tear it down. Or even blow it up. We’re talking about Simon Cox, the West Midlands filmmaker whose alien creations invaded the centre of Brum in his micro-budget but mega-ambitious Sci-Fi film, Invasion: Planet Earth, in 2019. The film went on to gain fame (and a little infamy), cinema distribution and a place on Jeff Bezos’ space travel funding streaming platform.

Not content with creating “a British Sci-Fi Classic” as the London Screenwriters Festival called it, Simon’s now working on an entire trilogy. Starting with Of Infinite Worlds, he’s tempted to once again target Birmingham. We clearly needed to have a word.
Simon talks at a rate of knots, taking theatrical pauses for breath and to acknowledge he’s aware of his pace. He’s the best kind of film geek too; he doesn’t delve into discussions on frame rates or hairs in the gate, he just emits an endearing enthusiasm, even when talking about how much of a challenge it was to get his independent film project off the ground and that little bit closer to space.

“Two years of Crowdfunding,” he says, momentarily exhausted by the memory, “now, that was a slog! It was the people of Birmingham that really got behind me, though. One of the first things I did was shoot a crowd scene where the spaceships are attacking the city. We put a call out on social media looking for extras and before we knew it, we had nine hundred people involved. Can you imagine that? People were pouring out of the pubs, hearing all this screaming as people were running up and down the street. And there we were, getting them to sign disclaimers as they ran.”
A thousand people running and screaming around Victoria Square wasn’t enough of a spectacle for Simon so, like some of us wish we could during the German Market, he called the military in.

“We got two tanks, an armoured personnel carrier and a jeep with a mounted machine gun,” he says a little too calmly, “and we got 40 soldiers in too. I really wanted the tanks to 'fire' because I didn’t want to use CGI and people got worried pretty quickly,” he chuckles. “But by the time they got to the Floozie, I knew we could get the same effect with a flash. But even then, there was concern about the noise. Imagine if it broke all those windows? Boooom!”
Whilst the thought of hundreds of panes of glass shattering and showering down onto Colmore Row makes for an iconic image, the reality is that the flashes were tested extensively and that Simon had to knock on every door beforehand, just to let them know that it was only a pretend military takeover and not a Manchester coup. “I’m very proud of that. What an achievement.” It wasn’t just Colmore Row that took a pounding though. Town Hall was surrounded by alien spacecraft, Millennium Point got overrun by zombies and BMAG, well, BMAG just looked lush on screen, to be honest.
For someone who started flirting with filmmaking quite late in the day, these are achievements indeed. Positions as a former trainee chef, assistant manager of a shoe shop and a stagehand all lead to Simon landing a role as a runner for a company called Filmfare, where he honed his craft editing children’s shows such as Huxley Pig and, *checks notes* something called The Wombles. Even while also working as a wedding photographer, Simon continued to graft away behind-the-scenes as he edged ever closer to his dream of directing his own Sci-Fi films.

Simon owes at least a little bit of that dream to Film Birmingham, the Council’s film office who helped him out with logistics and locations. “I’m not saying that I got the same treatment as Spielberg,” he laughs, “but it felt pretty close. They were doing Ready Player One and Kingsman: The Golden Circle at more or less the same time as us and we came out of it pretty well.” 
It’s taken twenty-years to realise his dream of shooting Invasion: Planet Earth, and this Roy Castle-esque level of dedication has enamoured the film to Sci-Fan fans. Well, most of them. Trouble is, the big budget blockbusters we’re used to seeing on cinema screens cast a long shadow over independent filmmakers on a micro-budget, as Simon found out in the dreaded comments section. “It was a bit hurtful,” he says, underplaying it perhaps. “You put yourself out there and it’s like standing against the wall. People just start shooting. I had this vision of huge Star Wars-style special effects, but the money just wasn’t there. So, what do you do?” he asks.

“I learnt to do as much of it as I could by myself, and I got a few friends to help me with the rest. Some people just don’t understand how hard it is to do something like this. You try getting tanks into Birmingham,” he jokes.
Just a few hours after making Invasion: Planet Earth available on digital platforms, Simon found out that his film was trending, albeit, on The Pirate Bay. The film had even been translated for foreign audiences. “And then, these absolutely dreadful reviews came up,” he says, before breaking off. “People were really nasty, really laying into it. I was kind of annoyed at that. Are they pirating the film and then just slagging it off?” he asks.

Although he admits that this floored him at the time, Simon takes it all in his stride. “I guess it’s easier to knock down than it is to build,” he says. 
Turns out these negative reviews ended up contributing to the film’s success, especially in Australia, where film fans rallied behind Simon as the underdog and even coerced him into filming a video where he responded to individual criticism from the online trolls. It’s also worth mentioning that this is the man who once got dragged over a bar for serving Oliver Reed a cold drink in a warm glass. Yes, that Ollie Reed. It’s safe to say that Simon can take a little criticism.
Regardless of the keyboard warriors’ lack of appreciation for low budget film making, Invasion: Planet Earth has managed to secure those ever-elusive distribution deals in the UK and across the pond, which is seeing the film becoming something of a cult attraction. Not only that, but its success has inspired Simon to push harder and set his sights higher. His lockdown project saw him dragging himself out of bed every day at 5am to hammer away at the script for the first instalment of his new trilogy; Of Infinite Worlds. Inspired by Disney+’s The Mandalorian, Simon's using virtual production techniques to realise his vision. To you and me, that‘s basically a huge wrap-around LED screen that the actors can do their thing in front of, while the background shows anything from an alien world, the depths of space or a packed-out Primark.
It's not all CGI, mind you. Of Infinite Worlds will also rely on using theatre staff to build actual sets to work around, as well as intricately detailed practical models replacing the computer-generated spaceships (created by Richard Dixon, the chap who used to design and build He-Man and Action Man figures, no less). With £250,000 needed to fund his new venture, Simon’s also learned more effective ways to finance. Having lost 10% of each donation through the seven campaigns he ran for Invasion: Planet Earth, he has instead released a line of exclusive backer-only merch to reduce the number of little hands that dip in whenever you use online platforms to crowdfund. As with Invasion, Simon’s planning on giving supporters the first refusal on roles as extras in the upcoming project and is still on the look-out for locations around the city, which can only mean more of both Brum and Brummies on the big screen.
You can support Simon and his new trilogy by buying a mug or t-shirt or, most impressively, by pledging to become an Associate Producer of the film (with your name in the credits to prove it). In fact, that’s got quite a nice ring to it: “What’ve you been up to, mate?” “Produced a movie, mate. You?”

Of Infinite Worlds starts shooting at the beginning of December.

ofinfiniteworlds.com 

HIGH VIS FEST: THIS WEEKEND


The free to attend and always painfully cool High Vis Fest arrives in Digbeth this weekend. The Saturday and Sunday two-dayer is a spray can-fuelled celebration of street art, graffiti, hip-hop dance and skating. Running from 12pm to 8pm both days, get yourself in and around the Custard Factory and Zellig buildings for live art demos and 'Hold Your Ground' dance battles. No, I don't know what they are either but I'm going to find out, while remaining completely still throughout. Over 40 artists have confirmed including Annatomix, the Brum paint genius responsible for a number of geometric foxes around the city, plus "that" David Bowie. If you need a sit down pint and some food and you're not necessarily in the market for Digbeth's increasingly madcap batting cage-meets-cocktail bar mash ups, maybe head to the brilliant The Ruin where owner Richard is somehow carving out a niche as a quiet pub! Having said that, it's their 4th birthday weekend so DJs will be on from 6pm. I'm hearing great things about his Sunday roasts, by the way. 

LEAVE YOUR PHEASANT AT THE DOOR


The rise and rise of Greenfield Crescent, part of Edgbaston Village, continues full throttle (Charlie's Angels 2) as the doors open on Lux Gallery & Photo Studio. The dual purpose arts space is the brainchild of photographer, curator and all round Brum good guy Owen de Visser, the man who created Birmingham Open Studios and ArtsBrum. The impeccably crisp space is filled with colour and eyegasm-inducing works of art, photography, pottery and more. "The style, vibrancy and youth of these artworks," says Owen "proves that art doesn't have to be stiff, boring and elitist. You won’t find any watercolours of pheasants here." He's right, I've looked. Instead expect bold works by children’s book illustrators, pioneers in digital imagery, and experts in ceramic form. Lux is also home to prints, greetings cards and jewellery. Situated behind the gallery is a professional family photo studio, taking bookings from October — the website prices seem very affordable. Lux will be running art classes and photography lessons soon, too. The gallery is also on the Birmingham Open Studios art trail (September 25 and 26). Follow them on Twitter, Instagram or that unholy book of faces. Sorry about using the word 'eyegasm' earlier 🤢

WIN ONE OF TWO HUNDRED FREE BEERS


Great Western Arcade cocktail bar, The Pineapple Club, are giving away 200 free beers as part of their first birthday celebrations. Since opening, the team have become known for some of the best mixes in the city and, more latterly, their splendid downstairs bottle shop. They can add one more beer to the selection, with the catchily entitled and bespoke made 'The Bottle Shop at the Great Western Arcade'. That's literally the name. It's a Pineapple IPA (see what they've done there?) made by a group of Brummies at the new Trinity Brew Co in Lichfield and bedecked with illustrations of all the shops, restaurants and weekly emails based within the arcade. To win yours you need to be one of the first 200 to subscribe to The Pineapple Club on the Untappd app (Apple or Android). This is a lot easier (and quicker) than it sounds and is completely free, like subscribing to a YouTube channel. Download the app (you may already have it) and search The Pineapple Club in the venues section. Once you've found them just hit the blue subscribe bar. Then, when you're next in town, take a wander down to the Pineapple Club and see if you're a winner. On the basis of previous giveaways, there's a very good chance you will be but, alas, you won't receive a notification. Good luck! 
Venue: George Smith Shellfish, Stall 127, Birmingham Indoor Food Market, B5 4RQ; Website 
Choice: Oysters (£1.50 each)  Chooser: Omar 

Look, half a dozen oysters at 11am might not be everyone's cup of tea but when my office colleague, Omar, found out I'd never been to George Smith's Shellfish in the Bull Ring Markets — a Brummie right of passage that has somehow passed me by — he frog-marched me there. Like most humans, I've never eaten oysters before midday and, if I'm honest, never before an alcoholic drink. I couldn't, hand on heart, say I think they're great. Like Romeo about Juliet, but me about molluscs, I love the idea of loving them and, about once a year, I pay through the nose to find out I still don't. Wondering through the market, it's a gut-punch to see how few stalls remain in business. George Smith has been trading since (and this is mental) 1874! Now run by John who took over from his uncle, who took over from his great uncle, the eponymous George, John tells me there will be no fourth generation running this show. His kids aren't keen. John goes to town on shucking the ten oysters — I talked my pal down from 12, with a bastardised Peep Show quote ringing through my ears: 'Twelve oysters, Omar? Twelve? That's insane'. It occurs to me as John bangs and wriggles and wedges the shells open that someone must have been the first on Earth to do this. And the only thing that can possibly have been going through their head will have been 'when I finally pop this open, no matter what's inside, no matter how unappealing, I'm going slurp it all down.' A tray of unleavened ocean f*ckwhackery appears, glistening and languorous. I'm trying to be nonchalant but coming across as about as chalant as it’s possible to be. Condiment options include lemon, tabasco, vinegar (vinegar!) and not much more. I have my first oyster neat because, oh I don't know, climate change (?) and it's a hit. A silky thwallop of sea and cream, I reach for a non-existent glass of white burgundy to enrich it. An older gentleman in a simply perfect double-breasted jacket asks me for the vinegar before sloshing it all over his fresh pot of cockles and wandering off. A second diner, also alone, goes to work on a whole crab, trading in-jokes with John. This has been happening for decades, hasn't it? A century. More. And the curtain is finally falling, slowly but unstoppably, on George Smith's. I glug back two more oysters, by now playing with lemon and tabasco, chewing sometimes and allowing the sea-nonsense to envelop my gums, playing the opening chords of the French national anthem with my salt receptors. I'm a tourist in my own city, I'm having a ball. We order four prawns the size of racket balls, peel and devein them and slather, this time with sriracha. The meaty snap of the shellfish reigning complementary counterblows down on the slick oysters. And the price? About as quantum-minded as the very creation of the beasts we've banqueted, the entire thing comes in at £20. Twenty pounds to experience 147 years of Birmingham. Shellfish folklore dictates only eating oysters in months with the letter 'r' in — from September to April — to avoid watery sorts. Well, September is well underway, chums. Chop-chop.
The inaugural No Outsiders Family Festival in partnership with Birmingham Pride is on September 26, at the MAC, and it’s all free. An inclusive, LGBTQ+ festival of creative chaos for 3 to 11-year-old children and their grownups, attendees are encouraged to get dressed up and come as whoever they’d like to be. More

Four words for you: Sarehole Mill Pizza Pods.   

Maybe one of those things that gets thousands of followers then never happens, but if this Instagram account is to be believed, then one of those giant ball-pit bars is heading from Brum. Probs Digbeth. Looks like it's from the people behind 'Balls Deep' (stop sniggering) in Liverpool. 
On Sunday, September 26, Kings Heath will become Queens Heath to celebrate Pride. Local businesses will be rebranding for the day - ‘The Kingsway’ will become ‘The Queensway, ‘The Juke’ will be ‘The Duchess’ and ‘Grace & James’ will turn into ‘Will & Grace & James’. There'll be a mini Pride march, live music, face painting and more.
Studio Outlet is an online shop selling unique, experimental and affordable art. Brum-created and with many Brummies represented, it makes the process of buying art easy and transparent. Works from £30 to £950. Use the code ICHOOSEART to get 10% off.

Digbeth Dining Club will be in Shirley Park this Sunday 12pm to 7pm and the line-up reads like a who's who of the new wave of Brum street fooders. Show me
Don't have a pathological fear of fireworks? Bully for you. Tickets are now on sale for the annual Edgbaston whizzbangery, Nov 6. Details
Don't have a pathological fear of dancing in shopping centres? Bully for you. B-Side Hip-Hop Festival is at the Bullring Saturday. Free


Phonophobia: The fear of loud sounds (e.g. fireworks)
Chorophobia: The the fear of dancing (particularly in public)



 
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WORDS: Robb Sheppard (main story), Tom Cullen
PICS: Trish Holden, John Fox (both main story

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