It’s been about a month since production work all but ground to a halt. No one knows when they’re going back — but those who work on the sets have some clear ideas of what they’d want from their post-coronavirus work environments. In the absence of a vaccine, or targeted antiviral drugs, the hope is for rapid virus and antibody testing for everyone on set, perhaps even on a daily basis.
To better understand the specific challenges that stem from working on set, IndieWire spoke to more than a half-dozen people in jobs that include production designers, dental prosthetics, and prop masters as well as directors and producers. The issues are far ranging, but it’s clear that they all want enhanced and far-reaching safety tactics to become second nature for everyone.
“I think everybody has been on a show when half the crew gets sick at some point,” said art director and production designer Michael Levinson, whose credits include “Dead To Me.” “[That’s] one thing when it’s a cold or even the flu, but it’s a whole other thing when the mortality rate is much more significant. We certainly know about personal protection equipment throughout the industry, but I don’t think that’s all foolproof. Until there’s a reliable treatment and a way to know for myself if I’m going to come home and get my family sick, that’s a different thing.”
While contagion could be a concern for any worker, production faces a particular challenge that’s built into the job itself. Whether it’s a film, TV show, or commercial, it’s a complex assembly that requires dozens, if not hundreds, of people working together in a relatively confined space over a long period of time. Working in any kind of isolation is impossible.
“Even if you find the right 45 to 100 people [who are healthy or immune] to make your movie, you’re not all clear,” said veteran cinematographer Benjamin Kasulke, who recently made his directorial debut on “Banana Split.” “There’s still too many points of ingress — who’s making the food, who rented the grip gear that everybody needs to touch in the same five places, because that’s how grip gear works.”
The challenges are present even for people working in jobs that use infection control in normal circumstances, like Gary Archer, who designed dental prosthetics for Adam Sandler in “Uncut Gems” and Mike Myers in “Austin Powers.” As a rule, he’s obsessed with disinfectionat his dental lab that also makes dentures and other devices However, working in such intimate proximity to others’ mouths, and the breath that may contain virus-infected droplets, means he views containment through medical intervention as the only solution.
“This is the first time I can honestly say, in 30-plus years, that I’ve been at home for two weeks straight — with one exception when I had surgery in 2001,” he said.
Such gold standards could be a long way off. It’s believed that many carry the virus while being asymptomatic, but testing is largely restricted to those showing symptoms. Absent rapid, universal testing, some essential businesses that remain open are relying on temperature checks and distributing face masks, a plan Amazon has implemented for its shipping and Whole Foods units. A vaccine isn’t coming anytime soon: Johnson & Johnson doesn’t expect human trials for its own until September.
When production does resume, people widely expect behavior to change. “I think everyone will return to work with a heightened attention to cleanliness,” said Hanelle Culpepper, who directed three episodes of the recent “Star Trek: Picard,” via email. “I would continue the standards we put in place in response to COVID-19 before the shutdown — elbow bumps instead of hugs (which is very hard for me because I’m a hugger); wrapping food individually at craft services; providing hand sanitizer stations throughout the set, and emphasizing that anyone who feels sick should stay home without any negative repercussions.”
Art director and prop master David Bridson, whose credits include 2017’s “Kings,” said one solution could be drastically reducing the number of people on set to the key people from each department, leading even big shows to go “documentary style.”
“When we rent furniture from different prop houses to bring on the set, is everything going to have to go through some sort of cleaning or sterilizing?” he said. “Creating a safe workplace when you’re bringing so many things from the outside — people, materials, grip equipment, lighting equipment — all of that is going to have to go through some kind of checkpoint.”
DeMane Davis, co-helmer of Netflix’s “Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker,” points out that the impact of and our knowledge about the novel coronavirus changes on a daily basis, making it hard to say exactly what studios could do to make crews feel safe to return to work.
“We don’t know as much as we’re going to learn about COVID-19 itself and how it operates in order to contain it to a level where, ‘OK, I feel safe,'” she said. “I could feel really differently in a week or a month or two because this whole situation is evolving.”
Special effects coordinator Jeremy Hays, whose work includes the flamethrower scene in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” suggested productions should designate points of contact to manage the new working environment — similar to a sustainability supervisor — who can deal with hygiene issues. He also suggested that studios set up anonymous hotlines for those who fear that they appear overly cautious.
“Whatever eventually happens, I have faith that we will come up with something,” he said. “It’s an industry made up of problem solvers.”