Canada Restarts Holiday Film Production With Quarantine Pods, Masks and Santa Hats: "It's a Risk"

Marita Grabiak
Christmas on Wheels

Christmas TV movies are among the first productions to shoot locally with scaled-back sets and social distancing to end a four-month industry shutdown.

After months of dark studios, there's Christmas lights at the end of the Canadian industry's shutdown tunnel.

American TV director Marita Grabiak had to quarantine for 14 days after crossing a closed U.S.-Canadian border in order to return to work on the TV movie Christmas on Wheels shooting in Ottawa. "It was a fairly sad day on March 16 when I was last here, and after (Prime Minister Justin) Trudeau gave his speech that led to shutting down our production," she tells The Hollywood Reporter.

In March, Grabiak and her producers abruptly stopped work on Ice Hotel Holiday, the sequel to Hallmark's 2019 TV movie Winter Castle, to allow American cast and creative to swiftly return to the U.S. for shelter. "The movie meant a lot to me as I had done the original," the frequent holiday movie director adds.

So when the script for Christmas on Wheels came her way, Grabiak pushed for the project to be shot in Ottawa. In order to do so, props like candy canes, red ribbons and Santa hats were now complemented on set with compulsory masks, gloves and quarantine pods.

Pandemic-era production amid strict safety and hygiene protocols has proven to be tricky. Grabiak's first assistant is charged with ensuring dedicated pods for the cast, director and craft teams separately enter and exit the set safely.

"I have noticed that within a few days we fell into a routine that felt comfortable, if not seamless," Grabiak says. "Given a strong and adaptable crew, as I have here in Ottawa, in combination with actors who know what their intentions are when they walk onto set, because of our advance rehearsals, we simply have been working quite well under these conditions." Principal photography for Christmas on Wheels continues through to July 24.

Meanwhile, it's beginning to look like Christmas elsewhere in the Canadian production sector, as Vancouver-based Studio BRB, Service Street Pictures and LA-based Principle Productions as part of a BRB Pictures collaboration just completed shooting in British Columbia on Christmas Forgiveness, with Lucie Guest directing and Stephanie Bennett, Lina Renna, Emma Oliver and Marco Grazzini starring.

"I can't tell you my relief that we got through a three-week shoot with no one getting sick. Safety has been on our minds 24/7," executive producer Jenni Baynham tells THR. She adds that in order to keep a minimum number of cast and crew on set, a no visitor policy was key. She also says open communication on how safety measures, including the use of masks and other protective medical gear, was imperative. 

"Even when the unions do their spot-checks, they report to our COVID safety tent, have their temperature taken, and if they want to speak to any of their members, we bring them out for a socially distant conversation outside," Baynham explains.

Further north in the British Columbia interior near Kamloops, the cameras are also rolling on the Discovery factual series Mud Mountain. The series is centered on two brothers, Craig and Brent Lebeau, battling sibling rivalry and steep, muddy mountains to survive as forest loggers. Mark Miller, president of Vancouver-based Thunderbird Entertainment, said the series, expected to create around 300 jobs, is a spin-off of other Discovery shows like Highway Thru Hell and Heavy Rescue: 401.

His company is used to protecting cast and crew against workplace dangers. "We introduced masks and gloves immediately. And we try to give everyone a vehicle so crews can travel to locations in their own cars," Miller explains. Earlier, a crew member that was part of a three-person team pod on another Thunderbird factual series did get infected with the novel coronavirus.

Miller says his company provided the pod team with full accommodation and meals for two weeks to allow the crew members to safely quarantine. The goal was to let everyone in the company know they wouldn't be penalized if they fell ill with COVID-19 and would be compensated for all days of work missed.

"We've had an open discussion about the risks. If people don't want to work, we understand. If they want to work, we tell them about the precautions we're taking," Miller adds.

Meanwhile, U.S. producers that in better times routinely commuted between Los Angeles, Vancouver or Toronto face a slower return to film and TV production in Canada as they navigate a closed U.S.- Canadian border and strict quarantine orders amid the pandemic.

Shawn Williamson, president of Brightlight Pictures and producer of ABC's The Good Doctor, has a full crew in Vancouver prepping the American medical drama for a restart in production in a few weeks, with a 60-page safety plan in hand and a nurse hired on as a full-time COVID advisor. Until then, Brightlight is at work on a couple Canadian TV movies shooting locally, including Lifetime's Practice to Deceive.

"The protocols (for Canadian shows) are less complicated than sorting out the large U.S. studio protocols, which largely need to work internationally. And the Hallmark movies and Canadian content shows will meet the work-safe requirements for whatever jurisidiction they're in," Williamson explains.

He adds that thus far there is no way for Americans to get round the 14-day self-isolation required of them when they cross the border into Canada, although some of The Good Doctor cast and crew are opting to drive up to Vancouver rather than risk an airplane flight.

Of course, Hollywood talent weary of flying to Canada is good news for Canadian talent, which suddenly is more in demand for cross-border shoots. With adversity comes opportunity, says Toronto-based Randy Thomas, a lead actor on Christmas on Wheels, alongside American actress Tiya Sircar.

"I am very grateful that Marita (Grabiak) and the Lifetime Network for inviting me to audition via self-tape and cast me in this role. I am going to make the most of this opportunity," he tells THR.

North American producers preparing for the new norm amid the pandemic are getting their heads around an increasingly touchless workplace on Canadian film sets. Alex Bailey, co-founder of Montreal-based Crew sync, has digitized many production steps like time sheets, contracts, production reports and protocol tracking for temperature checks and PPE needs that in the past would have been completed by hand or required physical interactions.

"Crew sync allows teams to focus on the data they are receiving on contactless sets, instead of organizing stacks of paper in a COVID world. That's peace of mind for producers, talent, cast and background, while ensuring the collection of required paperwork," Bailey explains.

But for all the costly measures taken to mitigate COVID-19-related risks on Canadian film sets, getting insurance companies to cover losses incurred by companies forced to shut down or cancel shoots due to a coronavirus infection remains an insurmountable obstacle, at least for now.

"It's impossible to get insurance in a traditional way right now. All insurers are excluding COVID, and using more broad language to exclude communicable diseases," Jonathan Bronfman, president of Toronto-based film financier Jobro Productions, tells THR. Bronfman has an untitled indie feature set to start principal photography at the end of August, with the private equity fund financing the picture also taking on the COVID-19 risk.

He adds other Canadian feature films are in the pipeline for fall 2020 shoots, when Bronfman is hoping COVID-19 insurance coverage will become available. Mud Mountain executive producer Miller says his series started pre-production before insurance companies introduced COVID-19 exclusions, so his factual series is covered. The same holds true for Brightlight Pictures' TV movies currently shooting.

The insurance premiums for Christmas Forgiveness were higher, adds exec producer Baynham, but that was due more to protect against delays in receiving production financing in the event of a coronavirus outbreak. "If someone got sick, we wouldn't be claiming against the insurance, unless it was a private lawsuit for negligence if it was deemed the company wasn't adhering to workplace policies," she explains.

A COVID-19 infection, as with any other workplace sickness, would be covered by British Columbia's public health care system. But back in Ottawa, Christmas on Wheels is without a safety net. "There is no insurance. That doesn't exist. It's a risk," Grabiak says.