In the last year Hollywood has attempted to showcase the world of COVID-19 in several ways, from the big screen to the small, from the perspective of the highly famous to the average person. The question remains: Do audiences want to see their current times replicated so quickly for consumption? It’s a concern that creator Adam Brooks and producer Peter Saraf certainly had while making the pilot for their series “These Days.”
“These Days” tells the story of Mae (Marianne Rendon), a dancer in New York City embarking on an internet relationship of some kind with Will (William Jackson Harper). The pilot hopes to find a home at the upcoming Sundance Film Festival and flesh out Mae’s story.
Brooks and Saraf started thinking of a story at the time the stay-at-home orders went into effect, hoping to create a universal plot that would touch on the times we’re living in. But as Rendon, Brooks’ star, inspiration, and collaborator on “These Days” tells it, the show doesn’t necessarily want to be about living in the most current moment. “This is a work that’s a time capsule of exactly what was going on at the time,” she told IndieWire. The goal is that audiences years from now can watch it and get a glimpse at the ways different people processed living through history.
“I was a little nervous. Will anyone want to see this? Isn’t living it enough?” creator and screenwriter Brooks said. He deliberately avoided watching the other shows that had been released in the wake of quarantine: “I didn’t want to be confused, jealous, angry,” Brooks said. “I didn’t want them to clutter my mind.”
But, because those other shows had already been released, some networks turned away from “These Days,” convinced there was no longer any need for additional filmed insight. “A lot of networks that we might want to go to have already done COVID thing. And then there were a number of networks, we came to learn, that didn’t think they wanted one anyway,” Brooks said.
The pilot filmed at the height of the lockdowns in New York City, well before testing became ubiquitous and before production unions had created protocols on how to film. Brooks said he pulled talent from people he’d either previously worked with or at least knew socially. The goal wasn’t to do a Zoom-based series, but to create something that was cinematic. Saraf said large boxes of equipment were mailed to the actors for them to set up, and a special rig was designed, comprised of an iPhone filming the actors and a second iPhone allowing the actors to interact with each other and Brooks as director.
“I’m a bit of a Luddite,” Harper said. “Anything have to do with computers or uploading, it’s all just a disaster.” That being said, the actual filming set-up wasn’t the problem for Harper — it was uploading the completed footage to Brooks and the crew. “When it came to uploading stuff I was just cussing at my computer all night,” he said. And since the actors weren’t inhabiting the same space, they had to alter their techniques to find connection. “It was really weird to not be able to actually get the feeling of looking into his [Harper’s] eyes,” Rendon said. “For eyeline we’d be looking at the corner of our laptop. So his voice became such a comfort of contact.
The cast and crew believe Sundance will give them an opportunity to find a proper network home; that, and the remove of nearly a year from when COVID first started. For Brooks, the series goes beyond the coronavirus. The title, “These Days” can expand out to everything that has happened over the last year, from the pandemic, to the protests around Black Lives Matter, the election, and more. And since the series is, at its heart, a romance, there’s an added ability to go back to basics. “In a traditional romantic comedy how do you keep people apart? COVID does that quite naturally,” Brooks said.
“Adam has mapped out the rest of the season,” Saraf said. So the goal is to finish it out, although the question remains if the the cast and crew will stay distant or not? Because now there are filming protocols. there’s an opportunity for the show to return to a somewhat more conventional filmmaking landscape. “We would probably approach the production still in a slimmed-down way, but always knowing we’re pandemic proof,” Saraf said. “We can always fall back on this form of shooting that we came up with. We’re pretty pleased with where we are.”
“These Days” plays at Sundance starting January 28.