Tyler Perry Talks "Camp Quarantine" and Challenges of Filming Amid a Pandemic

The Atlanta-based mogul opens up about how he was able to complete the first quarantine TV production in the U.S., the challenges he faced on set and the advice he'd give to others trying to start up again.

When it comes to getting Hollywood back to work, few industry leaders have been as proactive as Tyler Perry.

Back in May, when much of the country was still under stay-at-home orders, the Atlanta-based mogul announced that he planned to restart filming on two of his BET series, Sistas and The Oval, in July. Unlike other major studios who've pushed back their tentative start dates, Perry stuck with his — and now he's just wrapped the first season of production on a TV show in the U.S. during the pandemic.

That show was his ensemble dramedy Sistas, which kicked off filming on July 15, one day behind schedule due to delays getting tests back from the lab. Following the safety protocols he laid out in a 30-page document, and quarantined on his sprawling studio lot in Atlanta, the cast and crew managed to film all 22 episodes within 11 days, officially wrapping production a day ahead of schedule on July 25. (Perry often films entire seasons of shows within two and a half weeks' time.)

Now, with one quarantine production under his belt, he's getting ready to start his next show, political drama The Oval, tomorrow, July 30. Ahead of that, The Hollywood Reporter checked in with Perry to hear about what went right and what went wrong on the set of Sistas, how he dealt with positive tests and people falling ill ("Those moments were pretty scary," he says) and advice he has for other productions trying to get up and running. "I don't know how anybody in Hollywood is going to be able to shoot without daily testing or quarantine bubbles," adds Perry. "I just don't know how you do that."

You’ve been out in front when it comes to getting production going again. What made you want to lead that charge?

Clearly looking at my people, some of whom are former prisoners, some of whom have bought houses and cars and have kids in college. They were so proud walking up to me telling me how they've been able to change their lives and how their lives are better from working here. It's easy for me — I've been fortunate enough to be in a position that I could have sat this thing out until there's a vaccine next year or whenever. But thinking about them and their lives and what it takes for them to maintain their lives, I had to come up with the plan.

And that plan was, of course, "Camp Quarantine." When you relayed it all to cast and crew, were you met with any resistance? Did you have any elderly or immunocompromised folks who opted out?

I'll tell you, I've had a couple of reoccurring actors who just said that they couldn't do it because of their immune health. But I also have several people who I know are cancer survivors, they have preexisting conditions, and I really, really stressed to them in a meeting publicly with all the crew without [revealing] their names, "You know, it's OK to sit this one out. You can come back to work after this is over." I have someone who has stage four cancer who said, "It's my lifeline to just work. I just need to work." So hearing all those voices and letting them know that I was going to do everything I could to keep them safe, most of them came to work. And it's also understanding that we have had one crewmember that worked with us a lot, who was on another show at the beginning of COVID, who passed away. And that was Charles Gregory Ross.

You mentioned him in your initial letter to cast and crew, explaining the lengths you were planning to go to keep people safe. But for the folks who did opt out, did you just write them out of the season? Or did you actually recast the roles?

It's only one person for The Oval and she was much older. Just with her health, she was extremely concerned about it. I called her up to tell her that I completely understood, and that I look forward to working with her again in the future. I just rearranged some lines for another person to take the role. But I completely understand that, because you take on a risk coming to work in these situations. And in order to work, you have to acknowledge the risk.

I'm fairly certain you're the first to complete a season of production during the pandemic — at least in the U.S. What did you learn from the experience?

I got to know my crew — I've been working with most of these people for 10, 15 years — a lot better because I'm on my bus living in the camp right next door to all of them. We're all going in the evenings to the food trucks. We're going to have drinks at the alcohol truck. So I got to know them a lot better, but also I've learned just their level of commitment to doing it. It was very moving to me.

Were you on set more than you typically would have been?

No, I'm on set 12 to 14 hours a day anyway. We did 22 episodes in a little less than two weeks, so it's a lot of close contact. It's a lot of working together all the time.

What's a challenge that you didn't anticipate on set?

This may sound a little arrogant, but the truth is we literally sat and went through every scenario that we could, so there was nothing that caught us by surprise. I have Dr. Carlos Del Rio and Emory Hospital — they had the first Ebola patient. Dr. Sanjay Gupta and Dr. Colleen Kraft, they were on our team and they were helping us understand all of this before we started. So we went through everything as you see in that 30-page guideline.

I've read it. It's quite comprehensive.

It had to be because Black and brown people are the ones who are most affected in the death rate of this.

Production was pushed back a day on Sistas because the lab processing the COVID tests was delayed in getting results back to you. Do anticipate that problem in the future?

That was a surprise because we had been dealing with this same lab for a couple of months, and we always got our test results back within 12 to 24 hours. It just so happened that that day was the day that they had a spike and the tests at the lab were backed up. So what we did in that case is we now have two other labs that have the capacity to take our testing in and get it back to us within 24 to 48 hours — one in Georgia and one in L.A. So we have other options in case that happens again.

That way when future productions come, they won't face the same problem?

Yes, and these labs were vetted by our hospitals and our doctors to make sure that they were actually reputable PCR tests. We're only doing the PCR tests.

That's the nasal swab one, yes?

You actually can do nasal or you can do it in the back of the tonsils. So the very first time you come in, we do the nasal, and then we do the tonsils from there on — all PCR though.

Did anyone ever test positive or feel sick during the shoot? And how did you handle it if they did?

We had a couple of concerns. We had four positives. Here's how it went: We had 160 people check in the first day, go to their rooms, get tested and wait for their results. Nobody was able to leave their rooms. We had two positives in that. So we had them escorted out and got the help that they needed. Then 200 people checked in [soon after] and we had two positive inside of the 200. We had them escorted out and got them the help that they needed. So we had four before anybody left their rooms, before anybody started work. Those rooms were kept closed and off limits to anybody until after we finished shooting.

That way others wouldn't get infected.

Yes, and then we had two people faint. One was nauseous and vomiting. This was right as we started and as we were waiting for the test results back. So we sequestered them because their symptoms were close to COVID in the sense of the nausea, the vomiting, the passing out. Those are the symptoms that they were expressing. They were both negative, but it was the heat and the mask. So they were having symptoms from heat exhaustion. So those moments were pretty scary, having people in the mask in Georgia heat and having symptoms similar to [COVID] — but they were all negative.

You provided private air travel for cast coming from outside Georgia. Were any of the individuals who tested positive on those flights and therefore a concern that they could have infected someone else?

No, in order to get on the plane, you had to be tested before you got on the plane. These are local people here in Atlanta. The cast had been tested for probably six weeks in a row before they even got to the plane test. So you had to be tested before you got on the plane, and then when you landed, you were tested again. So they had all these extreme tests before they were able to take their mask off and start working with each other on set. I was really comfortable with the cast. It was the crew that I was concerned with, and of the four people who tested positive, two were extras and two were crew.

You mentioned you are on set all the time. What precautions did you take for it to keep yourself healthy?

Listen, I have my full mask on. I look like I'm on another planet. And I'm making sure that everything is wiped down, hand sanitizer, all this other stuff. And when I'm talking to people, I'm keeping the distance unless it's an actor. But I'm telling you, my face shield and mask is very outer space.

Is the plan to still start shooting your next series, The Oval, tomorrow? Is there anything that you're going to change for that production?

Unfortunately I have two castmembers that have tested positive. They're reoccurring. So I'm trying to figure out, what do I do? Do I add two days of shooting to the end of the other shows that I'm working on to give them time to be negative? But they're asymptomatic. So I'm just waiting to see what the best way to do that is. But everything will flow just as Sistas did.

Had they already made the trip out to Atlanta?

One person is in North Carolina and the other person is in Atlanta, so they wouldn't be on a plane flying in. So we're just waiting. We need two negative tests before they can come back to work.

Is production on hold until they get those two negative tests?

For those people, yes.

So just for them, but you'll move forward with the rest of the cast in the meantime?

Yes, that's right.

How did you ultimately settle on a July start date? What were the factors that were driving you to get back to work by that time in particular?

Well, we were supposed to start in March and then the whole country shut down. So during that time, I was planning to get this going and get the housing ready and get everything set up and furnished. And once we got everything ready to go, the timeline was based on just the testing. As long as everybody was testing negative, I feel that felt like we could work it all out.

Do you think your safety protocols could work on a set that wasn’t quarantined? Or is the key to filming during this time sequestering cast and crew for the duration of the shoot?

Listen, I don't know how anybody in Hollywood is going to be able to shoot without daily testing or quarantine bubbles. I just don't know how you do that — having people and actors without masks in each other's spaces and faces without daily testing or a bubble. I just don't know.

What other advice do you have for productions trying to come back, having gone through it now?

We have a wealth of information and maybe I will do some sort of Zoom conference call for any producers who want to know about what happened during preproduction and who want to know about what happened during that bubble. I want to give all the information to this industry that I love to be able to help. Maybe you guys host it, I don't know — but anybody who wants it, I'm more than happy to walk them through it as I did the cast and crew and the unions and everybody else.

You largely stayed out of the uproar last year over Georgia’s fetal heartbeat bill, which was recently struck down. It seems there's some controversial legislation that pops up every few years in the state that draws ire from the industry. What did you think of Hollywood’s threats to leave Georgia if it passes those kinds of laws?

Time. Just time. Pace and time. Just wait it out. The court systems are — there's a long road, so I usually don't get ahead of it until I actually have all the information. So maybe one thing will pass here, but then they won't make it past the first round of court. So I take a wait-and-see approach. But listen, I've got bricks and mortar on the ground here. I can't just pack up and leave because there's something going on. The great thing about living in America is every four years, there's an election.