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‘Testing Is the Hardest Thing Right Now for Production’: How Three Producers Are Getting Back to Work

Producers working in California, Texas, and Vancouver reflect on the not-so-obvious challenges of creating film and TV during the pandemic.

Lab technician Thalia Rios withdraws a small amount of liquid from a COVID-19 swab sample for testing Friday, July 10, 2020, at the UT Health RGV Clinical Lab on the UTRGV campus in Edinburg, Texas.(Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald via AP)

The UT Health RGV Clinical Lab in Edinburg, Texas processes COVID-19 tests.

Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald via AP

James Ganiere’s indie feature “No More Goodbyes” was one of the first productions to wrap during the pandemic, and did so without infections. He said the 17-day shoot required a marathon of outside-the-box planning and obsessive attention to detail.

“Testing is the hardest thing right now for production,” said Ganiere, who wrapped production July 17. “They’re having problems where productions just can’t get access to tests.”

As infection numbers rise across the country, public testing sites struggle to provide results even within 10 days — a far cry from the 48-hour-max turnaround that SAG-AFTRA demands before giving productions the OK. “What happens in 10 days? You could have a pandemic happen on set,” Ganiere said.

Nearly two months after a SAG- and DGA-led coalition of unions and guilds released COVID-19 guidelines, Ganiere’s drama is among a small group of productions that offer test cases for the real-world realities of for getting back to work. Producers say the science-backed protocols are a welcome starting point, but unions still provide approvals on a case-by-case basis. And, like so much of the production process, figuring out how to make film and TV at this stage rests largely on the ingenuity of trailblazing producers.

Given the myriad logistical issues that come with this new reality, the industry still lacks overarching solutions. While SAG officials want to automate some of the process through online checklists, currently they hold pre-production meetings to review producers’ plans against union guidelines. For the most part, it accepts only nasopharyngeal swabs that test for the actual virus rather than antigen or mouth-swab virus tests.

Discussion of the test type producers intend to use is one of the most common points of contention. A SAG representative said most productions have been compliant, but there have been a few where the union had to assert its authority in order to ensure precautions were followed. SAG shut down two productions due to noncompliance.

“The big studios are definitely building a substantial infrastructure around the whole COVID-prevention area — testing included,” said Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, the union’s COO and general counsel. “With smaller productions, there is a burgeoning industry of people who can provide COVD-related services, making sure testing can be done on time and relatively cost effective.”

Joseph Reidy, an assistant director whose credits include “The Departed” and “Avengers: Endgame.” highlighted this divide during a July 29 virtual panel, “Reopening Film and TV Production in NYC,” hosted by the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers.

“Some of the majors and the networks are securing the ability to get tests — they’re getting it,” he said. “I don’t know about independents. They’re going to have to do some work, they have to talk to their brother and sister line producers and find out where to get it. It can be done … you need to get them privatized for your production to get tests available on set during your workday, getting the results back within a timely fashion. You have to have your own lab, you have to do all that kind of work.”

Speaking to IndieWire, Ganiere offered a look at the challenges faced by independents like his Rio Vista Universal banner. He said he’s thinking about leveraging his experience to create a playbook that could help others in the industry, or even starting a business to consult on some of the specifics.

Before production began on “No More Goodbyes,” which stars Eric Roberts (“Inherent Vice”), Ganiere sourced test kits from Europe and tasked one of his producers with finding a lab. They found one near their Brazos County, Texas locations that could quickly process the tests; Ganiere hired a nurse to administer them on set.

All production infrastructure decisions were designed to limit potential exposure. While Ganiere opted to hire mostly Texas-based crew, others (including him) arrived from other locations like California. Cast and crew totaled a lean 50, and they stayed at hotels during a production schedule that called for five days on, one day off. Everyone had to present a negative test result on the first day of production. All told, he said, COVD-related costs increased his budget by as much 30 percent.

As for keeping an eye on what was happening outside his production bubble, Ganiere said it wasn’t enough to read the news. Thanks to government contacts made on past productions, he learned that the rising number of Texas cases were largely attributed to young people in bars. That’s how he knew to make bars a no-go for his cast and crew, even before Gov. Greg Abbott shut them down at the end of June, he said.

With its small crews and locations outside major cities, nature documentary production has an advantage in the age of COVID-19. Often, these films require the talking-head interviews that take place in subjects’ homes, and MacGillivray Freeman Films president Shaun MacGillivray (“Into America’s Wild”) said that adds to the crucial need for trust.

“You’re trying to find a place, whether that’s outside, or you’re inside and you’re using two or three rooms — as far away from the subject as possible,” he said. “You make sure they can see you, whether it’s using a TV screen or they can see your face directly, [but] you create a barrier between you and them.”

MacGillivray said he’s also working on a film with a high-profile celebrity narrator that required SAG sign-off before the guidelines were issued. For the voiceover recording, protocols include keeping as much space between the actor and crew as possible and limiting the number of people in the studio. That meant some people who wanted to listen in had to do so remotely.

Things can become even more complicated when you cross international borders. Shawn Williamson, president of Vancouver’s Brightlight Pictures (“The Good Doctor”),  said he faced a unique challenge of educating his American colleagues about cross-border collaboration. While many people understand the US-Canadian border is closed, that’s true only for non-essential and leisure travel. Those with valid work permits — such as American actors working on Canadian productions — are still able to head north, provided they quarantine for two weeks.

“On the Canadian shows that don’t have large US studio attachment, we relied on WorkSafeBC [British Columbia’s equivalent of OSHA] to provide guidance,” he said. “On the studio shows, whether it’s Netflix, Disney, ABC, or Sony, they all have very, very detailed safety plans based largely off the white paper and guild guidelines. We incorporate those guidelines, incorporate the Canadian guidelines, then alter it specifically for the show.”

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