Brave New World: The Advent of Scripted Coronavirus TV

Almost six months into widespread lockdowns, scripted productions filmed under COVID-19 restrictions are about to air.
Issa Rae
Issa Rae in "Coastal Elites"

Of the first shows created amid the pandemic in May, the emphasis was on reality series. For many showrunners working during the crisis, it was easy to mail a subject an iPhone and a few other pertinent items and talk them through the nature of production via Zoom.

Scripted series, however, were slower to openly discuss their plans. Back in March, just as stay-at-home orders were being enacted, several studios refused to discuss how they were handling production, but series were quickly shut down, schedules reconfigured, and some series moved to later air dates.  The waters are still murky, but the conversation with showrunners and screenwriters now is a lot different, and viewers are about to see the first wave of scripted shows produced during the coronavirus.

In January, director Jay Roach was on the awards circuit with his feature film “Bombshell” and by March he was working in a Zoom writers room on his next feature, the Kent State biopic “67 Shots.” He was five weeks away from shooting on the infamous campus. “We were going to shoot it this summer and we couldn’t because it shut down,” he told IndieWire. But as Roach found himself working with his writers via chat he was also seeing what it could do in terms of creating a narrative. “We attended some Zoom weddings and reunions,” he said, and it caused him to think about doing a project.

The end result is the HBO special presentation “Coastal Elites,” a series of five monologues discussing the current political climate through the lens of people in quarantine, which will air on Sept. 12. The project initially started out as a live event at the Public Theatre in New York, but after the pandemic took hold Roach and writer Paul Rudnick decided to transition it to a filmed performance. Roach was surprised that in filming the special presentation it, ironically, took on the air of live theater. “Because I’m not shooting any coverage, I’m just shooting through one camera and it’s all about performance it’s much more like directing theater,” he said. He was astounded to see the heightened, surreal reality that his actors, including Dan Levy, Sarah Paulson, and Kaitlyn Dever were able to give.

In terms of the logistics of filming, that small, intimate quality made for a set that seemed somewhat familiar to Roach. While the actors all worked out of their own homes with a very small crew and Roach directing through Zoom, “I felt there was a focus. The actors could hear me clearly…and we were engaged,” he said. If anything, the lack of a large crew and sets allowed for less distractions and downtime.

LOVE IN THE TIME OF CORONA - This four-part romantic comedy series is a funny and hopeful look at the search for love, sex and connection during this time of social distancing. Freeform's highly anticipated limited series "Love in the Time of Corona" will premiere as a special two-night limited event, beginning SATURDAY, AUG. 22, at 8 p.m. EST/PST and continuing SUNDAY, AUG. 23, at 8 p.m. EST/PST. (Freeform)LESLIE ODOM JR.
Leslie Odom, Jr. in “Love in the Time of Corona”Freeform

Creator Joanna Johnson and DP Marco Fargnoli had a similar situation while making their Freeform series “Love in the Time of Corona,” a “Love Actually”-esque series about people quarantining in Los Angeles that debuts on August 22. Unlike Roach, Johnson didn’t necessarily want to make a series where people talked to Zoom. Instead, she wanted to find a method to doing the standard series filming within the confines of a pandemic. So that didn’t just involve giving the real actors’ houses a COVID-19 cleaning and limiting crew; they also put in cameras throughout the houses they were using.

On top of that, Johnson said she also wrote her script in the moment. Where other series are greenlit with a script completed, necessity became the mother in invention. Johnson said she initially had a series of scenarios written — such as two sisters quarantining together, a couple, etc. But because they would be entering actors’ houses they had to work with people who were available and living together. “We had to find out who was quarantining and then we backed our stories into those,” she said.

She says the actors who ended up saying yes to the show did so knowing there was no script and, in the case of the show’s plotline involving actor Leslie Odom, Jr. and his real-life wife Nicolette Robinson, the story was created around them. “I had an entirely different story in mind [for them] that was written,” she said, and with just a week left before shooting the couple asked if the plot could be changed to reflect their own issues they’d experienced in quarantine. “I liked making it closer to their own experience,” Johnson said.

In talking to the likes of Roach, Johnson, and Farngoli it’s apparent that much has changed in Hollywood in just five short months for those creating new shows. But not every project has transitioned smoothly. Back in June, IndieWire spoke with Silas Howard, one of the directors for the Apple TV+ series “Dickinson.”

Howard was ready to be part of the first wave of creators to return to work. For him, it’s an opportunity to “build community to help each other deal with this loss,” he said. When we talked back in June, Howard was in a “holding pattern,” initially set to fly to Louisiana in April to film an episode of a premium cable series. He’s still in that holding pattern — but one that’s tempered with optimism.

For Howard, he wasn’t necessarily worried about himself getting sick. It was more a question of ethics. “I just could not get behind bringing a production with people from California and [wonder] who has been exposed,” he said. But that didn’t end up happening and Howard now said he’s far more optimistic  than he was back in June. Two months ago Howard was concerned about how scripts would be changed to allow for social distancing. “For people who sold a show pre-COVID are they able to deliver that show or something in the vicinity of that, as opposed to something that’s completely compromised?” he said.

Hailee Steinfeld in “Dickinson”Photo Courtesy of Apple

Howard said he’s been part of several conversations, both with the unions themselves as well as the crews associated with the series’ he’s working on, and the tone is far more hopeful. In a recent discussion Howard explained that everyone has a plan, both with regards to testing on-site and what happens if someone gets sick. Both Howard and Roach have praised the appearance of specific COVID managers on-set to maintain protocol, as well as masks and constant sanitizing, to help directors keep others safe.

Roach, who hopes to get his Kent State project filmed sometime next summer, said  he’s grateful the guilds and unions are committed to rules that are science-focused, first and foremost. Fargnoli says it’s all about learning a new routine. “I was surprised and happy to realize that [once] we got into a routine we could work safely,” he said. “We’ve always been shooting in dangerous situations.”

And as production slowly starts to resume the question evolves: How have current events inspired the new generation of scripts coming out? Mitch Lusas, Head of Product, and Scot Lawrie, Co-Founder, respectively, of the script networking site Coverfly have certainly been noticing a change — both in submissions and in content.

Coverfly sells itself as taking the schmoozing out of selling a script, and in the wake of the pandemic it’s been a central hub for production companies to gain access to scripts in the era of social distancing. The pair say registration to the site has gone up 150% since the pandemic started, with an uptick in scripts being submitted by BIPOC writers.

But if you’re interested in working with Coverfly — or really writing a script in general — the pair have one handy tip: don’t write about the pandemic. “We’ve talked with the industry and [they’re] saying, ‘Enough of these pandemic scripts,” Lusas said. That being said, Lusas doesn’t want to discourage writers. Many have transitioned to not just writing for television as opposed to film — possibly due to the lack of new features being released — but also diving into the world of sci-fi and fantasy, two genres that lend themselves well to coded takes on a pandemic, if not a literal one. It’s a brave new world, indeed.

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