As some showrunners continue to grapple with the decision to write the coronavirus pandemic into their series, Joanna Johnson took a different approach: writing a new series about the pandemic.
Freeform’s Love in the Time of Corona is a four-episode miniseries about the struggles of connecting with other people in a time where safety mandates six feet of separation. Created by Johnson, who has worked with Freeform exec producing Good Trouble and The Fosters, the series takes place during the early days of L.A.’s stay-at-home orders, in April and May.
That’s when she began toying with the idea — Freeform ordered it straight to series May 7 a week after she pitched it — but she and her small room of writers couldn’t really work on the project in earnest until they cast it.
“You usually write your script and then you go out there and you can choose any actors you want. Well, we had to find actors that were quarantining together,” Johnson told The Hollywood Reporter. “So that process of casting, which takes time — I was having to pitch just the story to actors. I didn’t have a script because I couldn’t write it unless I knew who was going to be in it.” Once the show was cast, there were only a few weeks left to write. “That was stressful. So I got together a little mini writers’ room and we really wrote the scripts in two to three weeks. Our table read was in June, I think the 20th, and then we were shooting in July.”
Johnson pitched married actors Leslie Odom Jr. and Nicolette Robinson on the project in May, and they came on board as executive producers and stars shortly thereafter — but Johnson and her team initially pitched them a different storyline than the one that made the final cut.
Originally, Odom told THR, their characters were supposed to have just met online and were navigating the early days of a relationship. But the Hamilton star and his Broadway and TV veteran wife (The Affair) wanted to address stories that were a little closer to their own — debate over whether to have a second child, and directly addressing the Black Lives Matter protests that swept the country in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.
“We just started offering up stories and really helping them make room in this script for James and Sade, and really I’m very proud of the way this show was able to incorporate the movement that’s happening in the streets, the Black Lives Matter movement,” Odom said. “We just didn’t know how you could tell a story about COVID or corona or quarantine, about this time, without including the way that the protests in the streets have opened us as well. We’re wide open. We’re vulnerable. Our hearts are open. The conversations that we’re having, dialogues that we’re having in our relationships are in direct response to the movement in the streets. So we were happy they were able to include that as well in the show.”
While the BLM protests are not actually part of the series, since it takes place before they began in earnest, the issues they helped to push into the public consciousness are touched upon in Odom and Robinson’s storyline.
“The nature of what we do, I think maybe — I’m trying to couch it. I don’t think there’s couching it,” Odom said. “Our work is political. It’s political in nature in this country. So even if you’re making the choice to be a part of work that isn’t political, that is political. That is a political statement. The fact that you are keeping your mouth closed, the fact that you are silent on an issue, that is a political statement. So because of the way we roll, because of the way that our tribe rolls, our community rolls, we said if we’re going to be a part of something right now, it has to feel meaningful.”
Once the rest of the series was cast — Gil Bellows (Ally McBeal) and wife Rya Kihlstedt (One Mississippi) play a married couple hiding their split from their daughter (their IRL daughter, Sophie Bellows); Rainey Qualley and Tommy Dorfman play roommates who investigate a different dynamic in their relationship; and L. Scott Caldwell as a woman planning a party in honor of her 50th anniversary — filming began inside the actors’ homes, and even using the stars’ relatives as production staff.
Robinson’s uncle, an art school grad, served as their set decorator, and her therapist sister helped out for the week as their set PA. (She did such a good job that production called her the next week and offered her a job on a new production.)
“Our home was the set, and because we were still deep in the thick of quarantine at that time, there were very high restrictions on everything. We were all being incredibly cautious. So people weren’t allowed in our home. So we were set decorators, and we were wardrobe,” Robinson told THR.
Johnson directed all four episodes from a van outside each set (aka each actor’s home) using remote cameras, which was, for her, the least stressful part of the process despite the difficult logistics involved.
“The greatest pressure for me is always the writing, so I had such a good time shooting,” she said. “It felt very intimate, even though I was directing the actors on a walkie talkie and seeing that images remotely on a screen inside this van I was in. It was also really fun to be out of the house. Honestly. I was just like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m out.’ Even though I’m out sitting in a van, I’m out.”
While the system worked for Love in the Time of Corona, it’s not something that Johnson thinks is repeatable for larger productions. “I think it would be hard to shoot that many episodes in actors’ actual homes. And I don’t mean production-wise as much as I really mean story-wise,” she said. If the characters can’t leave their homes or interact with anyone else, things could get pretty boring pretty fast.
The thing that she does plan to repeat when Freeform’s Good Trouble eventually does go back into production in the coming months is the smaller footprint.
“I don’t want anybody not to have jobs, but you could get a lot done. And also using the remotely controlled cameras is really helpful when you can’t shoot everything you want,” she said. “We were limited in what we could do with the cameras, but I think that there’s something to be said for that. We’re going to definitely take all the lessons that we learned from this when we go back into production on Good Trouble, which is a much bigger show with a big cast. It’s an ensemble show where they all live together in the Coterie, so there’s going to be a lot of things we have to figure out in order to shoot safely.”
Her plans for Good Trouble are still up in the air, but “we’re working through the protocols and we’re coming up with a lot of things to do,” she confirmed. “We’re obviously going to test everybody constantly and we’re going to have to shoot it as safely as we can. People aren’t going to be able to be, like, swapping spit like normal on the show. But we also want to try to deliver a show that doesn’t look like, ‘Oh, they did this during COVID because look at how limited it is.’ We’re trying to still do a really ambitious show, which is also what we wanted to do on Love in the Time of Corona. We didn’t want to do a Zoom show; we wanted to do something ambitious. And so I think we’ll really continue to do that with Good Trouble.”
Love in the Time of Corona airs two half-hour installments over two nights, Aug. 22 and 23, at 8 p.m. on Freeform.