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Plots taking place solely within Zoom, movies shot in one solitary location and love scenes with actors’ real-life partners stepping in as doubles — the film industry has cranked up creativity levels to keep making movies amid COVID social distancing and lockdown restrictions.
Among those who have turned to unorthodox measures is Phil Gorn, potentially making history in the process. According to the filmmaker, his Coronavirus-themed romantic comedy #MyCorona — shot at the end May and now on offer at the AFM via his WonderPhil Entertainment banner — is the first full-length feature film to be entirely directed remotely.
“I’ve checked and as far as I know it is,” says Gorn, who oversaw the eight-day shoot from his home office in San Francisco.
Gorn had been on pre-production on The Picture of Daria Gray, a modern interpretation of Oscar Wilde’s gothic novel. But that project had to be postponed once stay-at-home measures were put into place.
So he and his producer Kirk Zeller quickly came up with the idea for #MyCorona, set during the onset of the pandemic and telling the story of two warring neighbors in an LA apartment block suddenly drawn together by the lack of traffic noise from outside.
With a budget very much towards the micro end of the market, help was at hand: Zeller had an empty apartment building that they could use.
But there was an issue: it was located in the small town of Ravenna, Nebraska and Gorn couldn’t travel 1,500 miles to be there.
“So I directed it from right here in San Francisco, six days shooting in Nebraska and two days at the end in LA,” he says. Using two monitors — one for FaceTime and the other for Google Meet — Gorn received the live feed from two cameramen in the Nebraskan apartment, with his team having gathered around iPads before each scene to receive instructions.
“I gave everyone a lot of leeway,” says Gorn. “Working remotely makes you collaborate more. As a director I’ve always tried to be more democratic and less dictatorial, but this really forced me to push the democratic experiment.”
Thankfully, the story of #MyCorona was written to lend itself to the new challenge, the first few days of shooting only featuring the two main actors. And the smaller scale of the production — essentially one without multiple department heads — ensured there weren’t too many voices getting involved.
“We had a pretty tiny crew, no makeup, no wardrobe… everyone was responsible for themselves,” says Gorn, who would simply give his actors notes via the iPad or, if it was something a more major, call them directly.
The small team also meant on-set Coranavirus requirements were easier to achieve, with the crew masked up at all times and everyone having signed COVID conduct clauses. And this was the same for the actors, despite the film’s central theme.
“It’s interesting to shoot a romantic comedy when nobody’s touching and everyone’s six feet apart, but we made it work,” says Gorn, who claims #MyCorona features one solitary embrace, right at the end.
Despite the restrictions — one of which was small-town Nebraska’s less-than-stellar internet connection — the director says the remote working experience actually came with some distinct advantages.
“Usually on set you’ve got people coming at you non-stop, you can’t get five minutes of silence and even if you have an assistant director to fend off some of the questions it’s still kinda relentless,” he says.
“But with this, after we’ve rehearsed a scene or something, I could just turn the computer off, focus on what I needed to, and be like, when you’re ready, call me back.”
With #MyCorona one of just a small number of COVID-themed films shot during the crisis and now complete, Gorn doesn’t think the topic should turn buyers off.
“That’s why I made it a romantic comedy,” he says. “We do address issues, but I think if I’d made a serious, heavy-hitting drama about people dying and everybody being out of work… I don’t know if anyone wants that right now. But with a romantic comedy — making your points but keeping it light — I think everyone would want to see it.”
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