<p>John David Washington and Zendaya during a moment of levity on the set of the relationship drama Malcolm & Marie. </p>

John David Washington and Zendaya during a moment of levity on the set of the relationship drama Malcolm & Marie.
Courtesy of NETFLIX

"I Was So Desperate to Work": John David Washington on Making 'Malcolm & Marie' Amid the Pandemic

Zendaya was also restless and ready to get back in front of the camera. How her wish to keep the 'Euphoria' crew paid sparked a collaboration based on director Sam Levinson's own marital gaffe.

Back in September 2018, when Sam Levinson forgot to thank Ashley Levinson at the Los Angeles premiere of his feature film Assassination Nation, he felt terrible. Not only is she his wife, but she also was a producer on the black-comedy thriller. When the Euphoria showrunner took his seat, he apologized profusely. She told him not to worry, and grabbed his hand reassuringly.

Levinson's marital slip-up would become the springboard for Malcolm & Marie, one of the first movies shot during the pandemic. Its two sole stars — Zendaya and John David Washington — play a couple whose relationship is tested as they argue over the course of an entire night, in a marathon fight sparked by Washington's character's own speech omission. The black-and-white movie, shot in Carmel, California, over 14 days in late June and July, tested the bounds of how lean a production can be when required — only 12 people could be on set at any one time — and helped establish COVID-19 protocols for Hollywood by working with epidemiologists in tandem with the major guilds. The tiny $2.5 million-budgeted movie would later sell for a hefty $30 million to Netflix, which released the film on its platform Feb. 5.

It was Zendaya — the former Disney child star who recently became the youngest actress in history, at age 24, to win the primetime Emmy for her performance as a troubled teenager on HBO's Euphoria — who suggested making a movie after the second season of the acclaimed series was called off just before shooting was to begin in mid-March. By May, the actress found herself sleeping until mid-afternoon to avoid having to map out the day.

"I was in such a weird place. I was already struggling with 'Who is Zendaya without her work?' I get everything from acting. It's my social life. It's my hobby. It's my fun thing to do. It's my challenge," Zendaya says. "I asked Sam if there was a world in which we could shoot something in my house or somewhere else. There was no intention other than to allow us to all be creative together, and to get our crew from Euphoria paid."

Levinson and Zendaya kicked around a number of ideas, from a psychological horror film set in her L.A. home to a one-character drama. Then it came to him: Play out the imbalances in a relationship in real time over one night. Malcolm's failure to thank Marie at the premiere of his movie — a fictionalized chronicle of her journey as a teenage addict — is the inciting incident that infuriates her. (The ensuing argument also includes Malcolm's diatribe against critics — which kicked up a fuss on film Twitter for being heavy-handed.)

Levinson began writing. At the end of the first day, he called Zendaya and read her 10 pages. She liked the idea of playing an adult for the first time. "I still play a teenager on television, so I get it. People forget I am grown," she says. On the second day, he told Zendaya he kept hearing one voice in his head as he wrote Malcolm: Washington. The Levinsons had worked on Assassination Nation with producer Katia Washington, the actor's younger sister, and got his number. Levinson told Zendaya he was going to cold-call the BlacKkKlansman actor. "I asked Sam, 'Do you really think he would do it?' " says Zendaya. "I was so nervous."

It was an immediate yes. "Everything had come to a halt and I was so desperate to work. When this came about, I felt like it was a godsend," says Washington, who was waiting hopefully for his next film, Christopher Nolan's Tenet, to open in theaters. "It felt a bit like this might be the last thing I would do."

Levinson used the pages he had as sway. Says Washington, "Sam just started reading me the dialogue between Malcolm and Marie. They were beautiful words, but at the same time it was very disturbing hearing the confrontations Sam was describing. I started getting anxious and nervous because I didn't hear any stage direction — it was all dialogue." Levinson said, "Not yet" to the actor's request to see a script. "And then he hung up," adds Washington. "Even with just those 10 pages, I knew I had to be part of it. It was something I desperately needed artistically."

Levinson also asked Washington if he'd like to invest in Malcolm & Marie. He wasn't joking. Zendaya and the filmmakers had already opened up their checkbooks, as had others involved with the movie, and were adamant that the entire crew participate in any profits once the movie was sold. Nearly everyone who worked on the film is part of the Euphoria family, or was part of Assassination Nation, including producers Ashley Levinson and Kevin Turen, cinematographer Marcell Rév, editor Julio Perez IV, co-executive producer Katia Washington and co-producer Harrison Kreiss (the latter two were the unofficial COVID-19 coordinators).

Levinson wrote 60 pages in 10 days, but the third act wasn't completed by the time the cast and crew, along with two chefs from the Bay Area, arrived at the 500-acre Carmel Valley Ranch to quarantine for 14 days (the luxury resort was otherwise shut to guests). Everyone was tested before they arrived and then several times during the quarantine. And everyone agreed not to go anywhere. "We abided by the strictest of protocols so that we could share them with our community. It was so important to us to help, if we could, to share a path forward, because so many people we cared about faced a disruption in income," says Ashley Levinson, who conducted Zoom calls with epidemiologists and doctors before coming up with a pod system, in which each department quarantined and worked separately in shifts. Once production began, she kept the guilds informed. "More challenging was keeping people hydrated because of masks, and keeping water bottles separated."

The quarantine period also gave Levinson, the two actors and Rév a chance to workshop the script and complete the third act. They used a sprawling conference room appropriately nicknamed the Think Tank, or gathered in the parking lot. "It was incredibly helpful," says Rév.

Carmel was chosen because it was the only jurisdiction in California where no permit was needed to shoot on private property. Production designer Michael Grasley dispatched a location scout to find a house for sale that might be available to rent, to no avail. Finally, working with an architecture firm, he came upon architect Jonathan Feldman's famous Caterpillar House, a modern-day reimagining of a midcentury home built on the Santa Lucia Preserve. (The owner decamped to a guest house elsewhere on the property.)

The COVID-19 protocols meant that Grasley and his production and art pod worked only during the day, and never interacted with the 22-person core crew that shot from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. On set, Sam Levinson and Rév went without a script supervisor or a first assistant director, while Zendaya and Washington were in charge of their own makeup and wardrobe.

The Caterpillar House, encased in wall-to-wall windows, became a third character. Grasley made some adjustments, including removing a giant headboard in the master bedroom. "All we had were the actors and the location. We wanted open architecture so that you are shooting up against the surroundings. The house also had little hallways, so that was another aspect we could use to create tension," says Rév. "Shooting the movie on film also made it more cinematic." (Many critics have compared the look and lighting of Malcolm & Marie, not to mention its overall themes, to Mike Nichols' 1966 feature Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?)

At his L.A. home, Perez edited remotely with a special bay set up in his apartment. He and Levinson spoke before each day of shooting to review how things were cutting together. When Malcolm & Marie was closer to being locked, Levinson and Perez were tested and wore protective gear so that they could work together and refine the cut. Says Zendaya, "We had all these limits because of the pandemic — but it was also limitless, because we didn't have a studio or anyone else that we had to answer to."

This story first appeared in the Feb. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.