Lights, Camera … COVID! The Perils of Shooting Amid a Pandemic
Illustration by Mattias Adolfsson

Lights, Camera … COVID! The Perils of Shooting Amid a Pandemic

As film and TV production resumes after the novel coronavirus lockdown, uncertainty about industrywide safety protocols has led to chaos, but insiders say Hollywood is quickly adapting to the new normal: "Everyone's trying to figure it out at the same time."

Whispers of horror stories are beginning to make their way around town. There's the film that told its cast and crew they couldn't leave the Motel 6 where they were staying, only to realize there that there was no restaurant on the property — a logistical "nightmare," according to one source. There's the studio feature shooting in Atlanta that gathered its cast and crew, only to realize at the last minute that the studio and the production facility had gotten their wires crossed. Each thought the other was handling COVID-19 testing, and neither "had their act together," says an insider. A desperate call to the head of a nearby production studio ensued, and that facility stepped in and processed hundreds of tests for a movie it had nothing to do with.

As Hollywood forges its way back into production in the midst of a pandemic, industry leaders say that embarrassing oversights like these are all but inevitable in a situation as complex and unprecedented as this — but that shouldn't deter efforts to get cameras rolling again. "Logistics for production shoots are complicated to begin with. Add the extra layer of all the safety protocols and testing that has to be figured out and, yes, you're going to have some of it fall through the cracks," says California film commissioner Colleen Bell. "None of this is easy — but frankly, I give the industry a lot of credit for adapting so quickly."

Indeed, after months of planning and schedule shifting, filming is starting to kick up in earnest. All the major studios are said to have projects in various stages of production, and it's beginning to add up: Los Angeles has seen a 40 percent increase in film permit requests from July to August. While the situation remains fluid, resting on the latest local government order or CDC update, what's become increasingly evident is that there's remarkably little consistency across productions, according to actors, directors, crewmembers and executives who've been on set in recent weeks. With the unions and AMPTP, the trade association that represents the major studios, not finalizing their return-to-work agreement until earlier this week, most producers have been relying on the COVID-19-related guidelines released in a June 1 white paper and later in the "Safe Way Forward" report, both drafted by members of multiple industry guilds. But insiders say that which of those practices are implemented and the extent to which they're enforced can differ significantly depending on the project. "It is, in that regard, the wild Wild West," says Pinewood Atlanta president Frank Patterson.

Much of the decision-making power has rested with each individual production and studio, which have received guild approvals on a case-by-case basis. "Everyone's trying to figure it out at the same time, which is both great and a little terrifying," says John Skidmore, head of production at Jax Media, who has been leading the company's efforts to get its wide-ranging TV projects — ABC's The Conners, TV Land's Younger and HBO Max's Haute Dog — up and running safely. "The plans are constantly evolving and none of us are doctors, so we're just using the best advice we all have." Of course, some variation among projects is natural — few would expect the set of an independently financed docuseries to run like that of a big-budget movie — but many argue that the industry could benefit from a bit more consensus.

A number of the inconsistencies have hinged on essential questions about protocol. For instance, how frequently should cast and crew be tested for COVID-19, and with what kind of test? How many sick days is a crewmember compensated for if they fall ill? How does a production determine who else on set needs to quarantine when someone tests positive? When is the infected individual cleared to return to set? How many positive tests can a production withstand before it should shut down? At least up until Monday, when a more industrywide agreement was finalized, you'd hear different answers, depending on whom you talked to, what project they were working on and which studio was footing the bill. Ideally the newly settled contract clears up some of the confusion on sets, but it will take time to determine the effectiveness of the new guidelines.

Those different approaches have been evident from the get-go. Some productions have required formal training sessions to ensure that everyone understands the new on-set protocols, while others simply email a PDF or PowerPoint or casually discuss the plan on Zoom. Netflix, which has developed a reputation within the below-the-line community for being one of the more prepared studios (its newly created Health, Safety and Cleaning group drafted its set of guidelines and enforces them on set), not only mandates at least one training course but requires that everyone headed to set pass a test on the relevant protocols beforehand. One source who was recently employed on a Netflix project after working on Songbird, the independent Michael Bay-produced thriller that was temporarily hit with a SAG-AFTRA stop-work order earlier this summer, describes the experiences as "night and day."

While this person is careful to note that they didn't necessarily feel unsafe on the Songbird set, they say they watched as production loosened up on certain practices. "Some of the protocols went out the window because there isn't time in the day to get done what needs to get done in order to shoot a feature film in that many days," says the insider of the 19-day shoot. That meant having sets that were more crowded than they probably should have been, changing lighting after actors had already come to set, and failing to sanitize objects before other crewmembers touched them. "It's a slippery slope, because once certain protocols aren't taken seriously, it becomes, 'Well, I don't really have to be 6 feet away,' " says the source, who also felt that the designated COVID-19 monitor wasn't around as much as they should have been. "They were not monitoring. They were almost like a production assistant, where you're like, 'Hey, go get so-and-so another mask!' There was no one looking at me, saying, 'Stop what you're doing and put on a face shield.' And to me, that should have happened."

The film's producers, however, push back on this person's characterization of the set. "I personally didn't witness any of that," says Catchlight Studios' Jason Clark. "I feel like, as much as humanly possible, we ran a safe set." Fellow producer Jeanette Volturno adds that as one of the first films to get up and running, they always knew there'd be room for improvement. "When you're the first out, it's challenging because you're figuring out what works and what doesn't work and what needs to be adjusted," she says, noting that they spent 10 hours getting feedback from more than two dozen crewmembers after the shoot (their chief complaint, according to Clark, was that they could've used more help — but unfortunately a pared-down crew is a key tenet of filming during the pandemic).

It could be that some productions are setting out with unrealistic protocols, leaving them no choice but to adjust as they go. Dr. Oz, who returned to the studio for his talk show in recent weeks with his own set of guidelines, tells his team not to sweat the small stuff and to instead concentrate on the most important practices, like mask-wearing and social distancing. "Don't focus on the food and the boxes touching each other in the craft services cart. Focus on the fact that the air quality is what you expect it to be. Focus on whether you're being tested appropriately," he says.

Certainly, larger-scale productions with the backing of a major studio like Universal's Jurassic World: Dominion — which has been shooting at Pinewood Studios in the U.K. since July 6 — have more resources to devote to new safety measures. "When you get up and running, you realize that you need to go over and talk to that crew person and say, 'Buddy, put the mask up over your nose.' Or you find the three guys who are just 18 inches away from each other talking about what a great time they had last weekend, and you have to break it up," says the movie's producer Patrick Crowley. "We have people who are hired to do nothing but go, 'You need to get 2 meters away from him,' because you know that the success of the show and the likelihood of them continuing to have jobs in the industry is dependent on that." The film's cast and crew are not only staying in a nearby hotel bought out by the studio in an effort to maintain a quarantine bubble, they're also tested three times a week. To date, the production has processed a whopping 27,000 COVID-19 tests over the course of the shoot (the hotel staff is tested, too). At roughly $100 a pop, that's close to $3 million on testing alone. "Universal never blinked," says Crowley. "They said, 'You've got to do what you've got to do.' "

For many productions, testing has been one of the trickiest issues to nail down. A majority use the nasal swab PCR test, widely regarded as the "gold standard" of COVID-19 tests. But not everyone prefers it. Oz has opted to use a sputum culture test, which allows him to bypass the discomfort of the PCR test by coughing up phlegm and spitting in a cup. "Getting those nasal swabs in the hospital was torture for me," he says, noting that the sputum test "works really well" and can have a one-day turnaround time. Songbird, for its part, used a combination of PCR testing and rapid antigen testing, which can deliver results in 20 minutes. It's not just the type of testing that varies — it's the frequency, too. In Oz's case, prior to the new guidelines, the unions required him to test every three days, while CBS Studios mandated testing only twice a week. (The new studio and union agreement requires that performers like Oz test at least three times a week.)

There are also nuances to test results that productions are just beginning to grapple with. Of all the tests Jurassic World has processed, just under 10 came back positive. And oddly, a portion of the people who had a positive result tested negative the very next day, prompting concerns about false positives (they quarantined just the same). Of the more than 7,000 tests Pinewood Studios in Atlanta has processed in recent weeks, just under 3 percent were positive. Though not exactly false positives, some of that percentage has been made up of what Patterson calls "not useful positives." By having the labs run some of the same samples multiple times, they discovered that the processing methods were detecting trace amounts of the virus in some individuals, prompting a positive test when that person didn't actually have enough of the virus to be contagious. "That's not useful," says Patterson. "What I need to know is, 'Can this person spread this thing?' " Of course, he'd rather err on the side of caution — but now he's wondering whether they've sent people into quarantine who weren't actually at risk of infecting others.

To protect against an outbreak, sets are now often divided into specific "zones" that correspond to the level of protection they require, depending on their proximity to the mask-less actors. Many refer to them as the A, B and C zones, though Netflix calls them the red, yellow and green zones. (Some find the streamer's terminology more intuitive and contend that the rest of the industry should adopt it.) Once each person has their temperature taken and fills out a daily health questionnaire that asks questions such as, "Are you feeling sick?" and, "Have you been around anyone who has tested positive for the virus?" they're given a badge that corresponds to the zones they're cleared to be in. The A/red zone is the strictest area on set because it's wherever the mask-less actors are, so the greatest amount of personal protective equipment is required. The B/yellow zone is the middle ground that still mandates protection — just slightly less of it. Someone with a B/yellow badge cannot go into the stricter A/red zone, but a person with an A/red badge can move freely within both zones. As a general rule across all zones, close contact between two individuals should not exceed 15 minutes. "The consensus is to treat everyone as if they have it, because that's the safest thing to do," says one crewmember. "It's really emphasized that you want to act like everybody has COVID."

Meanwhile, everyone is allowed in the C/green zone. It often houses craft services and permits people to remove their face coverings to eat prepackaged, individually wrapped meals. Because masks can be "relaxed," everyone has to stay 6 feet apart at all times, and tables and chairs are spread out accordingly. Once masks are off, though, it can be difficult to remember to put them back on. KJ Smith, the star of Sistas — the first of four Tyler Perry shows that shot this summer during his "Camp Quarantine" — says she had to train herself to put her mask back on after eating or getting her makeup done. "When we were rehearsing and in the beginning stages, it was very hard, honestly. It was like I had to constantly remind myself or remind others, or others had to constantly remind me," she says, noting that adapting to the new normal involved a steep learning curve. "There were moments where we just didn't know the proper protocol and all of us had to really learn how to adjust."

Short-term productions like Sistas have served as some of the best guinea pigs. (In keeping with the timetable for most Perry shows, the dramedy shot its entire season in less than two weeks.) Two of Netflix's earliest productions in the States to resume work were a pair of films — Adam Sandler's Hubie Halloween and Ryan Murphy's The Prom — that barely had any shooting left on the schedule. FX's Fargo, which recently returned to film in Chicago, had only two episodes remaining. It's also why it has been easier for unscripted projects — often smaller and more nimble than narrative shows — to get cameras rolling again. HBO Max's upcoming dog-grooming competition series Haute Dog filmed its 12-episode season in July without a single positive test (even though the virus caseload was surging in Los Angeles at the time). Many of the earlier productions enlisted the help of medical consulting companies that handled everything from testing to contact tracing to on-set compliance. Haute Dog, for its part, worked with Axiom Medical, a company that earlier in the year had helped chicken giant Tyson Foods reopen its factories before segueing to Hollywood to jump-start NBC's The Voice (it has since moved on to TBS' Wipeout).

The more contained the production is, the less the studio has to worry about facing the complex (and costly) cascade of events set in motion if cast or crew become infected, as Robert Pattinson did on Warner Bros.' The Batman. It's also why those in charge stress the importance of being responsible when you're not on set. Ahead of Fargo's return to production in August, showrunner Noah Hawley sent cast and crew an email emphasizing just that. "Noah said, 'We pretty much feel like when you're at work, you're covered. Now we're asking you to be responsible for when you're not at work and you're going to be coming back into our community,' " producer Warren Littlefield said recently. And on Jurassic, Crowley says that maintaining the bubble over many weeks has ended up being a "source of pride" for people. Still, the longer productions go on, positive tests are all but inevitable — and beyond the fact that infected individuals aren't allowed on set, there aren't many universal answers when it comes to what a positive test result means for the production at large. The next step is contact tracing, which sets out to determine who the sick person may have infected — but that can play out differently depending on the project. Some productions have been using a "6-15-48" rule, which means that if someone else was within 6 feet of the infected person for more than 15 minutes within 48 hours of the positive test result, that person must also quarantine. Others, like the indie film Red 48, a thriller starring Tyrese Gibson and John Malkovich that just shot in the Tri-State area, have used a variation of the rule, expanding it to 96 hours.

Isolation periods also vary from project to project. Some say the people the infected individuals came in contact with need to quarantine for only five or so days and can return to work once they then produce a negative test (the case on The Dr. Oz Show). Others have been more conservative and require isolating for a full 14 days, even if they test negative. This is the rule on Jurassic World because it's what studio owner Comcast mandates. "It can be a nightmare. All of a sudden you have four people who aren't able to go to work and you have to figure out a workaround," says Crowley. "But if we don't stick by the rule, we don't have any uniform way of assuring accountability." As for the person who is infected, some say they're cleared to come back to work only once they're able to produce two negative tests after a full 14-day quarantine. Others are taking their cue from newer CDC guidelines that say an individual who tests positive can return to work in only 10 days' time, as long as they show an improvement in symptoms and haven't had a fever within 24 hours.

But at what point does a production need to shut down? Insiders say it's not so clear-cut. "There's still no real concept yet of what a cluster is and what actually requires a shutdown," gripes one crewmember. For Red 48, it would take only one positive test. For The Dr. Oz Show, it's more like three. On other productions, particularly larger ones, it can be even more. "There's no magic number," says Jurassic's Crowley. "It has to do with what the impact on the show would be." Sources note that it's heavily contingent on the size of the project, too. "We were pretty much in one location throughout the whole movie, so if one person got sick, they probably would have been in contact with more people than, say, a larger production that's much more spread out," says Red 48 director Jon Keeyes.

That it took the unions and the AMPTP three months to hammer out details of their return-to-work plan only served to exacerbate the lack of consensus across the industry. Sources say the toughest aspects to negotiate were the type and frequency of testing, personal protective gear costs, quarantine pay and sick day compensation. Several insiders emphasize the importance of paid sick leave, as such policies have varied from set to set (it's now mandated for COVID-related illness in the new guidelines). With only a portion of productions up and running, many crewmembers, long out of work and in need of a paycheck, wouldn't want to miss out on a gig in such a competitive environment. "You have to create an incentive system for people to tell you the truth," says Oz. "If I dock you because you're sick, that's not good."

Productions are also looking for creative ways to keep cast and crew safer, such as increasingly opting for outdoor filming locations over indoor ones. FilmLA found in its most recent report that more than half of the filming activity took place outdoors in lieu of soundstage production — about double the usual percentage. "We've heard from studios and independent producers that they would like to do outdoor if possible because they realize it's safer right now," says FilmLA president Paul Audley. But in places like Los Angeles that have been suffering through heat waves recently, it can be extremely uncomfortable for crew to wear all of their PPE in 90-degree weather. On the set of Perry's Sistas in Atlanta, two people became sick during the shoot with what they thought might have been COVID-19 but turned out to be heat exhaustion. A source says some crewmembers are now taking to wearing battery-powered cooling vests to keep from overheating.

While some insiders express concerns about how little uniformity there's been across productions, several others say they've felt safer on set than they do in other public places. Sistas star Smith recalls arriving at Perry's sprawling studio campus to find staffers in hazmat suits doling out welcome baskets stuffed full of PPE, hand sanitizer and antibacterial spray. "That was the moment I realized, 'I'm in the safest place on earth right here, right now,' " she says. Many are quick to point out that sets have more rigorous protocols in place than most stores and restaurants, few of which require testing before letting customers inside. "People have to actually abide by the rules or they can't get on set, as opposed to the grocery store, where someone lowers their mask to look at something or gets close to you in an aisle," says Skidmore.

For those who don't abide by the rules, swift action is taken in most cases. A crewmember was recently said to have been dismissed from ABC's The Goldbergs for not wearing their mask properly in zone A. A source says they were warned for not wearing a mask and were later caught wearing one below their nose. After refusing to comply with the zone guidelines, they were sent home. Netflix is also said to have let certain crewmembers go for their unwillingness to follow the protocols. And on Jurassic World in London, they're enacting a very British warning system to ensure compliance: a yellow card for a warning and a red card for a more serious talking-to and possible termination. But insiders say the vast majority of folks are compliant. "Most people are working hard to do the right thing," says first assistant director Neil Lewis. "We're all just trying to keep working during this time."

Sure, some might occasionally find themselves without a plan at a Motel 6 or having to phone a friend for COVID-19 tests, but it won't stop Hollywood from moving full speed ahead. "It's going to be a bumpy road. There's zero chance we're going to get this perfectly," says Oz. "But the show will go on."

Lesley Goldberg contributed to this report.

This story first appeared in the Sept. 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.