By Madelaine Sarisky
Independent film producer Narineh Hacopian was planning to shoot scenes on a New York-to-California road trip — part of her new movie’s plot — with a typical crew and advance teams. But with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Hacopian had to make a tough decision.
“We had sort of envisioned it,” said Hacopian. “We’re just going to start from one end of the country, shoot in order from New York to California and have this traveling caravan and some advanced teams and shoot it like a real movie,” said Hacopian. “Of course, now it’s been reconceived and we’re not really going to travel all the way across the country.”
The producer decided to downsize her crew and shoot the film solely in Los Angeles, recreating road trip scenes on site.
Other producers and directors are making similar choices, striving to continue making movies and television shows despite the pandemic. Many are carrying on, with smaller crews, new COVID-19 protocols or both.
After a six-month hiatus and extensive unemployment, the Directors Guild of America, along with other Hollywood film unions, reached an agreement in September with major studios on how to re-open safely.
“The protocols pave the way for creative workers, who have been hard hit by the pandemic, to resume their crafts and livelihoods in workplaces redesigned around their health,” said the unions in a statement.
Most sets must now have COVID-19 compliance officers who ensure everyone is regularly tested, social distancing, wearing masks and recording their temperatures.
A new “zone” system separates people on set by duty and how much they have to interact with others. Each person is tested at a frequency based on what zone they are in, according to the DGA.
Accommodations in the COVID-19 era depend on the production itself. Sometimes, small script changes are made to comply with health regulations. At some production sites, cast and crew are frequently tested. And sometimes, innovation is required. At HBO, a pilot for The Rehearsal involving a bar scene with almost 50 people was shot as usual, except everyone was tested in advance, according to Tom Sherren, senior vice president of production at HBO.
The writers of HBO’s The Righteous Gemstones, however, reluctantly had to make some changes to the script to downsize the scenes involving extras.
“They still want to keep it,” said Sherren. “It’s still part of the story and part of who they are and part of the fabric of this series.”
To cope with these changes, producers at HBO and other production companies are pushing huge crowd scenes to later in the filming schedule, hoping there will be a vaccine, or are taking advantage of something called “crowd replication,” where extras are moved around a location. “In post-production, editors stitch scenes together to artificially make a crowd,” said Sherren.
If storylines allow, actors might sit farther away at a dinner table with a scene shot in a way that makes it appear they are sitting closer together.
Filming anything during the pandemic takes longer than usual, due to the time it takes to clean and sanitize sets and do check-ins when everyone arrives on set, which involve taking temperatures and filling out questionnaires that ask whether one has experienced COVID-19 symptoms or has been in close contact with anyone who has.
“We’re still telling the same stories,” says Mary Rohlich, executive producer of Atypical. “We’re just changing how we do it. And the hope is that it won’t feel that different when you’re watching it, but you may notice that there’s fewer backgrounds, people, or things like that.”
Filming inside private homes or public places has become a greater challenge than usual because some owners don’t want a lot of people crowding into a small space. This is especially true for location-based shows and commercials, such as HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, which, as a result, will be written to involve more studio filming next season, according to Sherren.
In some cases, producers have had to improvise if they couldn’t get permission to film at a particular location. Freelance producer Rebecca Rufer, along with her crew, had to recreate a farmer’s market for a branded content short series after struggling to get permission to film at the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market.
Some production companies have incorporated the pandemic into their shows or commercials or even created series that revolve around the pandemic. Many commercials, such as those for Domino’s Pizza and Wal-Mart, have had their actors wear masks. NBC picked up a comedy series, Connecting…, that was filmed entirely through video chat.
“I think it’s a cool opportunity,” said Rufer. “To see, what can we do within these parameters? In what ways can we be inventive?”
Sometimes, limits are an advantage.
“I think constraints can be helpful at times,” said Hacopian. “Because when you have all of the options available to you, it can actually be a little bit paralyzing and you don’t know what to do. But when your options are limited, then you know, it kind of distills down for you.”