On a sun-dazzled morning in early July, the actor Leslie Odom Jr. readied himself for another take. At a marble-topped table in a Los Angeles bungalow, he pecked at a laptop, waiting for the actress playing his wife to enter. This was midway through a three-day shoot for “Love in the Time of Corona,” a Freeform limited series that premieres on Aug. 22.
A dramedy about couples who are navigating the pandemic, it joins HBO’s “Coastal Elites,” NBC’s “Connecting” and Netflix’s “Social Distance,” all of which are set amid the Covid-19 crisis and were shot with all the strictures, safety precautions and workarounds that such a crisis demands. The bungalow is Odom’s own — the laptop and table, too. Playing his wife is his actual wife and fellow executive producer, the actress Nicolette Robinson. The face-masked production assistant who sometimes entered the frame? His sister-in-law.
In early March, when U.S. infections first began to spike, film and TV production froze, and despite the push and pull of reopening, that freeze has largely stuck. But a handful of writers and producers refocused catastrophe as opportunity, pitching content that could be made remotely or with the use of a minimal and socially distanced crew. The resulting productions, which mix accidental auto-fiction with indie can-do-ism, will air in late summer and early fall.
“It’s been a thrill to figure out how to make things in the middle of this and feel a little more human again,” Martin Gero, a creator of “Connecting” said.
Pitch and windup
Back in March, a few days after Los Angeles suspended filming, the writer and producer Hilary Weisman Graham managed her pandemic anxiety by texting some of her former “Orange Is the New Black” colleagues. “I have a crazy idea,” she wrote. That idea: a remotely produced and shot anthology series. She quickly set up a pitch meeting, and Netflix greenlit eight episodes.
“They bought it in the Zoom,” Weisman Graham joked.
Most other creators described a similar trajectory, a hectic journey from terror to inspiration to pitch to series order to production. The scripts for “Coastal Elites,” a series of linked monologues originally intended as a filmed live event, are the only ones that precede the pandemic. When the live part — three nights at the Public Theater, in Manhattan — became impossible, the writer, Paul Rudnick, adapted the monologues for a new remote reality. (The 90-minute special, starring Dan Levy, Bette Midler, Issa Rae and others, debuts Sept. 12.)
As virtual writers’ rooms assembled, casting began, with a particular emphasis on friends, couples or families already living together. “We couldn’t have an open casting call,” Joanna Johnson, who created “Love in the Time of Corona,” said. “You’re calling agents and you’re saying, ‘Who do you have that are quarantining together?’”
Because actors would have to shoot in their own homes and yards, real estate was also a factor, though not an overwhelming one. “We have yet to not cast someone because they’re in, like, a very small one-bedroom apartment,” Gero said.
With a cast assembled, the writers began to design stories and then redesign them to accommodate actors’ input. Robinson and Odom, offered the roles of online daters, pushed for something closer to their own experience — as a married couple with a young daughter.
“We love the idea of making something about couples during this time, but us pretending to not know each other is not really what we’re after,” Odom said.
Stories also stretched to include current events, particularly the death of George Floyd and the ensuing Black Lives Matter protests. “There was no way I was going to create a show about this time and not include that,” Weisman Graham said.
World events evolved quickly, which introduced a particular challenge: Up-to-the-minute scripts became dated an hour later.
“You just have to surrender, because I think everyone is thinking: ‘Oh my God, what’s next? Will there be a tsunami? Will there be a hurricane? What else could happen?’” Rudnick said.
In June, SAG-AFTRA, the Teamsters and associated unions released “The Safe Way Forward,” a white paper suggesting how film and TV production might safely resume, emphasizing a need for frequent testing, protective equipment and limited contact. Each Covid-themed production negotiated with the unions, determining best practices and receiving approval for slimmed down crews.
Producers opted for a remote design process. Via webcam, costume designers shopped actors’ closets, then supplemented with online orders. Hair and makeup artists created looks remotely and prepared tutorials.
“I actually spent quarantine like a lot of people, in the same black sweatpants and black T-shirts, and that wasn’t quite as interesting for television,” Odom said.
At the same time, production designers, directors of photography and prop supervisors arranged Zoom tours of each home and apartment, noting not only layout but also the whereabouts of each wall outlet and circuit breaker. Actors auditioned various rooms, furniture and knickknacks. Some props were ordered online — most of them arrived with enough time to guarantee safe surfaces — while others were sanitized and left on various doorsteps. No craft services trucks were deployed, but if actors needed food for certain scenes, meals and groceries were delivered, too.
For “Social Distance,” a production designer with imagination somehow transformed an actor’s multimillion dollar ultramodern home into a scruffy studio apartment. (“You couldn’t shoot a scene in that kitchen because it was a fantasy kitchen,” Weisman Graham said.) Another apartment became a nurse’s station.
While actors are normally excused from preproduction, the performers in these projects became their own location scouts, design assistants, wardrobe supervisors, hair and makeup professionals and camera crew. “It was cool to see that they were totally willing and excited to go back to their roots and dig into a performance and lug a tripod up their stairs,” Weisman Graham said.
‘I’m a submarine commander’
“Connecting” arranged for contactless filming. “The entire process is designed so that literally no one needs to leave their home,” Gero said. Each actor received a mini-filmmaking kit — several iPhones, grip stands, tripods, sound equipment — and then underwent a mini-film school to figure out how to use them.
The other shows embraced a hybrid model, with crew nearby — sometimes in a van just outside, which gave the shoot the feel of a surveillance operation — or briefly inside, or in a backyard, though never in the same space at the same time as the actors.
“It was very, very strict,” Weisman Graham said. She had originally planned to shoot a scene in an otherwise empty restaurant and another inside an actor’s car. Netflix decided not to take the risk.
“Love in the Time of Corona” delayed filming so that all cast and crew could undergo Covid-19 tests. “Coastal Elites” had an on-site manager trained in virus protocol and shrunk its crew down to about five people. (Usually other household members — Bette Midler’s husband, Kaitlyn Dever’s father — assisted, too.)
“I’m used to working on big sets with hundreds of people,” said Jay Roach, who directed “Coastal Elites.” This limited footprint meant fewer cameras and fewer angles.
“It was kind of moviemaking distilled,” said Rudnick, who watched the shoots over Zoom. “I’ve read articles about that sort of robot surgery that you do remotely, where you could have a surgeon able to direct an appendectomy thousands of miles away with great precision.” The shoot felt like that, he said.
He couldn’t look away from the remote filming: “Like I’m a submarine commander looking through a periscope.”
Because the directors worked remotely, they couldn’t employ typical techniques like taking an actor aside for a private chat. “You don’t get to whisper in their ear because there’s probably everybody in our team plus the Korean hackers and the Russians listening in,” Roach joked. But workarounds emerged, like Zoom breakout rooms. “Social Distance” hired a Zoom D.J. to create and manage virtual green rooms. Other shows used phone calls and text messages.
Would it feel strange to play a character while stuck in your own house, usually in your own clothes, surrounded by your own stuff? Remotely, I observed a few “Love in the Time of Corona” shoots, and the actors seemed mostly to enjoy themselves.
“We got to be in our home, playing make believe, so it was actually kind of cool,” Robinson said.
They definitely didn’t seem to mind pitching in on the production side. During that July shoot, Odom looked almost ecstatic as he held a clapperboard and prepared to call the next scene. “My dream job!” he said.
When I spoke to these showrunners, in late July, three of their projects had completed production and “Connecting,” the fully remote one, was to begin soon. Now, in August, even as the virus has rebounded in many areas, Los Angeles County among them, more and more shows are announcing that they will soon resume production, however limited. Some will even bring performers out of their homes. Which means that these four series already serve as time capsules, both of the early months of a fraught cultural moment and of the limited, disinfectant-wiped means of production that the moment and the various entertainment unions allowed.
Will viewers hit play? That depends on what people want from television — engaging escapism or a way to reflect on the present and the recent past. These are small shows, with limited casts, locations and camera work. They can’t offer much in the way of visual interest, and they face an audience already likely exhausted from the Covid-19 news cycle.
Then again, they don’t include characters who shake hands with strangers or board a plane without face coverings or enter a movie theater casually or behave in the thousands of ways that suddenly seem so jarring, which might come as a relief. They show struggles and situations similar to what many of us have already experienced, though likely with better dialogue.
I joked with Gero that his show could read as catharsis or as a half-hour post-traumatic flashback.
“Well, obviously we’re hoping for cathartic,” he said.