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Director James Sunshine found a novel way to get around the challenges of shooting a movie in Los Angeles during the COVID-19 era.
Sunshine set his dark comedy thriller, Safer at Home: The Coronavirus Movie, during the pandemic to weave social distancing and quarantine orders into the storyline.
“Since the plot of the film is literally about the pandemic, we were able to naturally integrate paranoia and social distancing into the story itself,” the writer/director said of the surrealistic satire about a retired zookeeper, played by John Lehr, who is kidnapped by a crazed economist (Joseph Reitman) during the COVID-19 lockdown.
The zookeeper soon uncovers a grand mystery that connects every worldwide disaster. Together, he and the economist must then work to discover who is truly at fault.
Safer at Home, which also stars Kimberley Crossman, is among the first Los Angeles-shot features to get their cameras up and running after Hollywood’s coronavirus shutdown last March.
But unlike Malcolm & Marie, the secretly-shot Zendaya and John David Washington movie from Euphoria creator Sam Levinson, Sunshine shot Safer at Home in the open starting in August, and with the agreement of Hollywood unions and with workflows and security and safety protocols entirely revamped for the pandemic era.
“We came up with our own set of safety precautions, which included testing, quarantines, and sponsorship from a PPE company among other things. This was before the union “Safe Way Forward” guidelines were put out. After the unions put out their own rules, we worked together to hammer out the details and decide on something we were both happy with,” the director recalled about pre-production for the movie that wrapped in late September and is now in post-production.
The film’s producers, crew and cast were held to strict testing and safety requirements, including multiple COVID-19 tests for team members.
And while immediate, on-site coronavirus testing has become commonplace on film and TV sets as Hollywood production kicks into gear after the industry lockdown, the Safer at Home producers had to improvise to get early union approval.
“At the time that we began production, the unions were not accepting rapid testing. We were allowed only to do PCR tests, which usually took 1-3 days to get results back. Needless to say, this was a hassle to juggle, and oftentimes led to increased testing costs and delays in results,” Sunshine recounted.
“To be extra cautious we started testing our cast and crew three weeks prior to production, just to make sure that we would all be in the clear by the time we started,” he added.
And the movie’s producers ensured a mandatory quarantine away from the only two sets — a rented house and a studio in Burbank. Only cast and crew ever came on set, allowing the production to end with no cases of COVID-19 infection for anyone involved.
For Lehr and Reitman on set, maintaining social distancing was made easier by the movie being set during the pandemic. And the Safer at Home script eventually had both characters testing negative for COVID-19, which allowed the two leads to ease up on their distancing.
“Our health safety supervisor was always present to make sure that we were acting in a way that was safe and compliant with the rules,” Sunshine added about ensuring he and his cast remained in bounds when it came to health and safety protocols.
And the indie used no visual effects trickery to avoid close proximity on set between Lehr and Reitman, which made it all the more important that cast and crew followed safety rules to craft a story that naturally allowed social distancing in front of the cameras.
Safer at Home was also shot entirely live and in person, not on smartphones or video conferencing technology for social distancing.
“We did not shoot on Zoom or anything like that,” Sunshine insisted. And while Safer at Home is a coronavirus lockdown-themed movie, it should have a traditional look and feel for viewers, the director added.
“We tried to keep our production as close to a non-pandemic shooting style as possible. We wanted it to appear just like any other film, and I think we achieved really good results,” Sunshine said.
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