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‘Doing the Best We Can’: Filmmakers Justify the Risk of Shooting Movies During COVID

Some film productions can afford complex safety procedures or the luxury of waiting around. Many others can't. Here's how they're getting it done.

Cinematographer Benjamin Whatley and sound mixer Olaitan Agueh working on Liza Mandelup’s untitled documentary in New York.

On a hot July afternoon, a massive dance circle overtook the street in the Clinton Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn. Since April, the St. James Joy block party materializes three days a week promptly at 7 p.m. For an hour straight, speakers tremble from an adjacent brownstone and a diverse crowd converges to sweat and gyrate in close proximity. St. James Joy embodies inspiration and danger at once: Masks are widespread; social distancing, not so much.

This gathering was different from previous ones in one key fashion. A camera snaked through the crowd, craning above the scene as it tracked a man who spun right into the center of the circle. This was the latest production from Liza Mandelup, a documentary filmmaker whose debut “Jawline” premiered at Sundance 2019. Since last fall, Mandelup has been tracking three stories about people using beauty industry technology to change their lives. One of her subjects insisted they capture him at his new favorite pastime. Mandelup and a crew of three tracked his moves, masks in place, as the camera got close to the action. Maybe a little too close.

“I’m just happy to be shooting again,” Mandelup said during a break. She was working a trusted group of collaborators who were tested before and after every shoot. When the team resumed production this summer — the movie aims to wrap by next year — they settled on safety measures as a unit. These include masks all the time, shooting outdoors as much as possible, face shields optional but always on hand.

“We’re a small team, we’re just doing the best we can,” Mandelup said, but admitted the process had grown more complicated. “I like to get up in people’s space,” she said. “That’s a real challenge now.” Nearby, her focus puller took a few steps backward while gazing into a monitor and tumbled over a bush. The team chuckled as he spun around nearby revelers. “A lot of documentary filmmaking is that you can’t follow all the rules,” Mandelup said. “There’s already such a grey area.”    

For independent filmmakers in the middle of a pandemic, grey is the new black. It’s impossible for any production to eliminate all risk, but these shoots don’t have the resources that afford the slower processes and complex procedures of their studio counterparts. Safety measure are estimated to add 20 to 40 percent of a film’s budget.

Tyler Perry can afford to create a quarantine bubble using his private jet and his personal Atlanta studio. Sources say director Joel Coen is back on set with Denzel Washington to finish up his Scott Rudin production “Macbeth” from a Los Angeles soundstage. Marvel production “Shang-Chi” has restarted in Australia, Woody Harrelson finished Ruben Ostlund’s cruise ship comedy “Triangle of Sadness” in Sweden, Ryan Murphy completed Netflix musical “Prom,” Robert Eggers’ Nicole Kidman saga “The Northman” has a mid-August start date in Ireland, and Amazon’s billion-dollar “Lord of the Rings” series has gone back to action in New Zealand, where James Cameron has resumed production on his “Avatar” sequels. Projects at the other end of the spectrum, some of which exist because of the pandemic rather than in spite of it, can’t afford to wait.

One film that straddles the line between big-budget filmmaking and economical resources is “Malcolm and Marie,” a marriage drama starring John David Washington, Zendaya, and nobody else. Conceived and shot in secret over the summer, the director is “Euphoria” creator Sam Levinson who financed the film with his wife and producer Ashley Levinson, co-producer Kevin Turen, and its two-person cast.

The entire shoot took place under strict safety procedures and guild approvals inside a dramatic glass enclosure in Carmel, Calif. The producers declined to cite a budget, but “Malcolm and Marie” could afford to quarantine everyone, including a chef. They also worked with several doctors, who were not quarantined. “To be honest, with the current demand of COVID needs, it didn’t feel fair to take someone away from serving people that needed their care,” Ashley Levinson said.


Zendaya in “Euphoria”


Even with its starry names, “Malcolm and Marie” maintained a modest scale (much of the cost went to their decision to shoot on film) and a truncated crew. Higher-ranking production members absorbed the roles of production assistants, script supervisors, and first AD, none of whom were on set.

“It felt like we were going back to film school to learn how to make movies on a small level again,” Turen said. Ashley said it reminded her of the Sundance Institute’s labs. “It was this intimate, inspiring experience with people we trusted,” she said. Rehearsals often took place in a parking lot. “I think because we had just two actors in the entire project for us it gave us the flexibility to control the environment,” she said. “When you have a bigger ensemble cast, there are more parameters.”

The production took pains to avoid acknowledging COVID-19 in the movie itself. “We didn’t want to make a film about a pandemic or anything like that,” Turen said. “It’s a film about a couple and we wanted to stay within that.” They were ready to stay on this path. “We’re inspired to get back to work,” Ashley said, “and keep doing it this way until there’s a vaccine.”

Floyd Russ, a Los Angeles-based filmmaker who directed his self-financed, microbudget debut last month, decided to fill a crucial medical role himself. He acquired 30 COVID tests from a set medic in Europe and administered them to the cast and crew of “Ayar” several times during the shoot. He also paid for an on-set COVID “officer” to keep tabs on safety procedures . Overall, he said, 10 percent of the budget went to COVID prevention measures.

“I went from waiting out the virus to seeing how to make a narrative feature for the first time,” said Russ, whose documentary short “Zion” premiered at Sundance 2018 before being acquired by Netflix. “Sometimes I wondered what we were doing. This is insane. And then I’d think, ‘Hey, nobody got sick today!’”

On the set of “Ayar”

Russ set “Ayar” during the pandemic and conceived of the story with a cast of newcomers. The drama follows a woman who abandons her child to pursue her dreams, only to find herself drawn back as the virus spreads. He tweaked the script based on locations he could find, including an abandoned taqueria and an empty dance hall. Actors mostly kept masks on during the shoot. “I’m not going to say it’s not a risk,” Russ said. “There’s so much fear now just when you see another person. That’s why this movie had to take place in the present day.”  While TV shows toy with Zoom-style solutions to shoot actors in their homes, “Ayar” created a narrative context to complement safety procedures.

New York director Onur Tukel pulled off a similar gamble with “Scenes From an Empty Church,” a dark comedy about two troubled priests looking for meaning in the middle of an unspecified virus. The movie stars Kevin Corrigan, Max Casella, and Thomas Jay Ryan, who wore masks and maintained distance for much of the production. The project secured an investor after the cast was in place and wrapped in mid-July.

“Scenes from an Empty Church”

Tukel, perhaps best known for his wacky 2016 satire “Catfight” starring Anne Heche and Sandra Oh, has made swift work of modern events before — 2016’s “The Misogynists” was the first movie about people grappling with the results of that year’s presidential election — and came up with the idea for his new movie after a friend asked him about shooting a short film at a church. Tukel passed on that, but circled back to the space when the pandemic hit. “We wanted to capture what we’re all going through,” Tukel said. “We were cautious, but it felt like — not to be overly dramatic — if we’re risking our lives to do this, let’s take it seriously and make it good.”

Tukel churns out low-budget movies on the regular, and he came out of this experience eager to do more. “All I wanted to do when the movie was finished is make another one, just like this,” he said. “That is how you make a film this year.” He added that Hollywood would benefit from adapting smaller productions’ flexibility rather than playing the waiting game or financing massive quarantine efforts.

“I’d love to see James Cameron make a movie with four people,” he said. “There are thousands of stories we can tell about the virus now. Let’s get everyone from Cameron to Spielberg who make $200 million movies to do something for $1 million in three locations. This may be a threat to the big-budget theatrics of blockbusters, but it’s also an opportunity to bring great stories to audiences.”

Of course, shooting during the pandemic is a moving target. Situations vary across the country and the planet; they can change overnight. While “Malcolm and Marie,” “Ayar,” and “Scenes from an Empty Church” shot in small locations following specific county guidelines, the documentary process behind Mandelup’s still-gestating project requires a more scattershot approach. The filmmaker planned to drive with her team from New York to Wisconsin to follow her subjects and, at some point, hoped to make it to London. She has adapted to the process of asking subjects to take tests, and avoids entering their homes. “If it’s no shoot or a shoot like this, I’ll do this,” she said.

Liza Mandelup shooting in New York

Producer Jay Van Hoy, who is securing the feature funds for the project from documentary production firm XTR, said the small scale allowed them to act fast. “The studios are in this position where they are going through an existential crisis because of how the business is shutting down all around them,” he said. “We have a crazy massive restructuring of the entire industry that has just been accelerated by this. When we saw that there was no real response from the industry, we were like, ‘Let’s try to solve our project.’”

At the block party, Mandelup’s subject made his way down the street and the crowd started to close in. Already clad in a black face mask, Mandelup pulled an N-95 out of her bag and secured the extra layer to her face. A few minutes later, the heat settled in, and the N-95 came off. She shrugged. “I make documentaries for a living. I’m constantly putting myself in situations I wouldn’t be in if I wasn’t making a film,” she said. “I wouldn’t be going to a dance party right now for my own enjoyment.”

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