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As the entertainment industry was in the thick of figuring out how to make content during a pandemic, the creators behind three disparate television projects — HBO’s Coastal Elites, Netflix’s Social Distance and Freeform’s Love in the Time of Corona — took the challenge further: They figured out how to craft content about the pandemic, even as the world seemed to be in a constant state of change.
COVID-19 had set back plans to shoot a stage version of Coastal Elites, screenwriter Paul Rudnick’s collection of scathingly funny and poignant sociopolitical monologues. But HBO devised a plan to safely film — even with Rudnick, director Jay Roach and the A-list cast including Bette Midler, Dan Levy and Issa Rae being scattered across the country — through the lens of Zoom, which the creators found added a video-diary-like air of increased intimacy.
“Suddenly it seemed like it might be a good way to spend some time for our audience in the middle of the pandemic, because it was addressing so many things that everybody was trying to cope with,” says Roach. “We hoped it would be a different kind of group therapy in a way.”
Rudnick swiftly added an extra of-the-moment monologue delivered by a COVID-wing emergency room nurse and updated the others. “I could rewrite up to practically the last second and include what was happening in the world,” says Rudnick. “The actors were so responsive to that and so willing to give input and go along with every change. It’s very rare to be in that situation where there’s that immediacy.”
Says Roach, “Paul was tweaking things right through the Black Lives Matter protest, the George Floyd protest. Because we were filming and rehearsing as it was all happening, we could be nimble enough to address some of the other issues that were happening.” The director also found himself liberated from the countless distracting concerns of a traditional shoot. “It was just pure performance and pure storytelling with great writing and some of the very best actors on the planet.”
Love in the Time of Corona creator Joanna Johnson, who was already running the Zoom writers room for Good Trouble on Freeform, said the network saw her pandemic-inspired series as a means of experimenting with quarantine production protocols. “We were sort of the litmus test, like, ‘Well, let’s do this little production and see how it goes,’ ” Johnson says with a chuckle.
Determined to avoid the Zoom perspective, the show used remote-controlled equipment set up in the actors’ homes. The actors would briefly vacate their homes before a shoot, crewmembers would swiftly set up lights and camera positions, the homes would be COVID-cleaned, and a day or so later the shoot would commence.
“The show looks great, but we couldn’t be in there actually manning those cameras,” says Johnson. “I had to give notes to the actors through a walkie-talkie … It wasn’t an intimate experience of like, ‘Listen, can you do a little bit of this?’ It was like, ‘Hello, everyone — here’s the notes!’ “
Hilary Weisman Graham, creator of the Netflix anthology series Social Distance, says, “We hired a Zoom DJ — that’s what our producer called it. We needed someone to be able to give the director and the actors a [virtual] sidebar. Otherwise, the actor would have been getting notes in front of everybody who was on the Zoom.”
Production leaned heavily on the actors, who shot at home, handled their own wardrobe, hair and makeup needs, and even schlepped heavy equipment, says Weisman Graham. “We had sold it to them as like, ‘Oh, it’s going to be like the Blue Apron of production’ — that was my clever little way to pitch it,” she says with a laugh, “which is what I thought was true until the actors are like, ‘Umm, you just had me lug 40 boxes by myself up my steps. And they’re really heavy.’ It was no small feat.”
Actors quarantining in their own family/friend pods were employed on both Love in the Time of Corona and Social Distance; when the latter series’ final episode was conceived and executed deep in the production process in direct response to the Black Lives Matters protests, that swift pivot posed an interesting late-game challenge: finding an actor to play the employer of Asante Blackk’s character, with whom he shared scenes.
Weisman Graham decided to read Blackk’s father, Ayize Ma’at, a family therapist and social worker with public speaking experience. “It was the only nonactor that we were like, ‘OK, let’s take a chance,’ ” she reveals. “We were all crossing our fingers because we were days away from shooting … and we were like, ‘Oh, thank God — he’s great!’ I think it was a really special experience for those two to be able to go so deep into that conversation together.”
Throughout, the creators had to contend with the notion that perhaps viewers weren’t ready to find entertainment value in a fraught and frightening pandemic they were still navigating their way through. “There was certainly always a possibility that there’d be an overload factor,” says Rudnick. “But a lot of the response that I got was that people felt this was speaking to their concerns, and that they were looking for an outlet for all the anger and the desperation and the passion.”
Says Weisman Graham, “There were some people, when the series came out, that were like, ‘Too soon.’ Like, ‘How dare you talk about this?’ ” She felt that since the pandemic was constantly at the forefront of people’s lives — even one of the show’s writers lost their aunt to the virus during production — it was well worth exploring. “It always seemed like this is a time capsule. What we captured is the beginning stages of the pandemic, which was different from the later stages, where the conversation was a little different.”
Recalls Johnson, who admits to some initial trepidation regarding depicting pandemic life, “We were trying to do something that gave people a little hope. I still think it’s a snapshot of what many of us were doing at that time, which was hunkering down with their loved ones and rediscovering their relationships with each other.”
Adds Roach, “It was almost in defiance of the pressures we all face, and the reality of ‘Let’s still try to put on a show and be part of the conversation that we’re all talking about anyway.’ Maybe there’s something consoling and provoking at the same time. We knew it would be controversial to some extent, but that just means it’s more to talk about.”
This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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