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“Someday in the not too distant future Tom Cruise will go to space. He will bring a film crew with him. He will bring a director and actors. They will shoot a film. Now space, as we know, is an airless vacuum where nothing can live. A hostile void where a suit breach or airlock malfunction can kill, where even the simplest tasks must be done methodically, deliberately. Astronauts train for years to prepare. They drill protocols and procedures into their heads. They know that surviving in space will require their full concentration.
Now imagine doing all that AND making a movie.”
That’s how creator Noah Hawley began his letter to the cast and crew of Fargo, which will begin rolling out Sept. 27. The note had been sent earlier this summer, as the fourth installment of his Emmy-winning FX series was preparing to go back into production for its final two episodes smack in the middle of a pandemic. Hawley, who as showrunner would not be joining them on site in Chicago, was urging everyone to make sure they were as safe when they weren’t on set as they would be on.
The note went on, explaining how Chicago was space in this analogy, and that any mistakes that occurred there could be life or death. “It’s not just, can we protect you while you’re on set?” Hawley added. “It’s can you protect us when you go home at night? Can you promise that for three weeks, you are going to follow the rules and what go about your life without touching down so that we can finish this thing that we all want to finish because Tom Cruise isn’t here to save us. We have to save ourselves.”
By resuming when it did, Fargo became one of the first major U.S. productions to be back in production during the novel coronavirus pandemic; and as such, it served as a guinea pig of sorts for both the network and the industry at large. The actors — many of them coming from locations outside the U.S. — and the crew flew to Chicago in early August and quarantined for two weeks before production began. By that point, they’d already been through virtual training sessions and had a working protocol document 40 pages long.
“We’re doing everything we can,” Hawley told THR mid-shoot, suggesting having only a short window of time to complete the series was working in their favor. “Otherwise, given the size of the crew, etc,” he said, “it’s not necessarily a matter of if, but when.” (Per Hawley, the production had two full A units going simultaneously, which allowed the episodes to be completed as quickly as they were.)
For star Chris Rock, it was a relief to be back in a role he’s called “the best he’s ever had,” even if the laundry list of protocols was at times dizzying. As he tells it, they would get tested every other day and masks would be kept on at all times when they weren’t acting – and if ever they forgot, there were mask monitors there to remind them. Production followed the now common zone system, too, where the Fargo set was divided into specific zones that corresponded to the level of protection they require.
“So, if you’re in Zone A, you can kind of be sure that everyone’s been tested the same time as you. But as you go into other zones, less people have been tested. Zone A, everyone’s been tested. Zone C, at your own risk. You know what I mean?” the actor jokes, before adding more seriously: “Nobody from Zone B is allowed to be on Zone A and even if they are, they not allowed to be near the actors. It’s a lot of protocol.”
Rock suggests that his time on stand-up stages and on Broadway in 2011’s The Motherfucker with the Hat prepared him mentally for the latest challenge. “You do a play, well, you’re used to people coughing, you’re used to people sitting late, you’re used to a phone going off,” he says. “There are all these weird distractions that can happen in a play and you can’t let that bother you. When you’re acting, the most important person is the person in front of you, so you kind of have to drown all that stuff out.”
He’d be lying if he said it wasn’t at least a little scary, of course, particularly as Rock found himself worrying about his scene partners. “You got an intimate scene with somebody — and I don’t even mean sex, I mean just an argument,” says Rock, “and you’re yelling back and forth and you’re like, ‘Okay, I hope this motherfucker don’t have COVID.’”
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