Inside Hollywood’s Expensive and Exhausting Road to Making Movies During Coronavirus

Rebecca Rubin, Angelique Jackson and Jazz Tangcay
·9 min read

Every day at Pinewood Studios in London, where “Jurassic World: Dominion” just wrapped a months-long shoot that was upended by a world-altering pandemic, a voice booms over the PA system five hours into filming to remind cast and crew members to change their masks.

“It doesn’t happen all at once, it’s not like a factory,” Alexandra Derbyshire, an executive producer on the Universal Studios film, says with a laugh. “It’s just a reminder.”

The nudge to swap out facial coverings may be gentle, but it exemplifies just how seriously films are working to prevent their sets from becoming coronavirus hotspots. As the pandemic approaches the year mark, those who make movies are coming to terms with the fact that film sets big and small will look very different for the foreseeable future. Pfizer’s recent announcement that its coronavirus vaccine had promising results lifted hopes around the industry that business might eventually return to normal, but most doubt that it will be a silver bullet. Shooting movies has become more expensive and more time consuming, and that’s not likely to change.

And rising coronavirus cases also mean that despite the great strides film sets have made in cobbling together thorough safety protocols, the pandemic is a force that can’t be contained. That may result in another round of widespread shutdowns, which could soon halt filming in places like London and Georgia.

In any environment, blockbuster filmmaking is an extremely tedious and labor-intensive process that requires hundreds upon hundreds of hands: from actors, directors and extras to hair and makeup artists and catering staff. In other words, it’s the stuff of nightmares at a time when a deadly airborne virus is circulating. Derbyshire likened the post-pandemic set to “a glamorous war.” “Jurassic World: Dominion” was the first major production to resume filming after coronavirus forced film sets to shut down. And in many ways, the blockbuster franchise wrote the rulebook for pandemic productions, consisting of intense and scrupulous measures — like electronic temperature checks, routine swab tests, daily safety briefings and color-coded zones to organize cast and crew — that will likely become de rigueur for movie sets across the globe.

Masks and physical distancing are commonplace everywhere these days. But to protect against a flare-up, sets are divided into different “zones” to distance the crew accordingly. After each person arrives on set and goes through a temperature testing station, they are given wrist bands that correspond with the color zone they’re assigned to work that day. The “green zone,” at least on “Dominion,” houses key cast members, the director and producers and is able to operate like a normal film unit (or as normal as it can get during a pandemic) because they take the most extensive precautions. Anyone working in the green zone gets tested for coronavirus three times a week, a necessary practice that Derbyshire calls “phenomenally expensive.” Instead of crowding around monitors, everyone has their own iPad to individually monitor what’s happening on camera.

“Social distancing is the hardest part because the nature of filmmaking is so collaborative,” Derbyshire says. “It’s quite difficult to speak to someone at two meters.” So the production hired extra people on set responsible for keeping others at more than an arms-length. “That’s not a fun job,” she says. “It’s really annoying.”

Aside from coronavirus testing, perhaps the most necessary – and priciest – expense was renting out space for principal cast and crew members to limit their exposure to the outside world. Despite being holed up in one of London’s finest hotels for the shoot, Derbyshire celebrated the opportunity to finally sleep in her own bed after 19 long weeks in isolation.

Actress Vinessa Shaw, who recently completed filming on the independent thriller “We Need to Do Something,” predicts that “set bubbles are going to be the norm.” Of course, the average movie won’t require isolation accommodations as elaborate and costly as a major blockbuster.

“It’s great,” Shaw says, “because we shot this in 18 days. You can [still] manage your life.” For TV shows or mini-series, it could be more challenging because seasons are shot over a longer period of time. “People might not always be willing to go on lockdown or quarantine every time for longer periods of time. Ten days is manageable. But six or seven months is different.”

There’s no question that studios need to take drastic measures to make sure film sets remain coronavirus free. Yet that means there’s been at least one topic that’s a constant conversation (yes, even more than usual) during the pandemic: Money. Rigorous procedures, like routine testing, precise ventilation, additional signage and hygiene on set (sinks, sanitizer stations and face masks are always readily available) have sent price tags soaring. But for the most part, Hollywood hasn’t batted an eye.

“[Universal] hasn’t questioned any of it,” says Derbyshire, who called the financial undertaking “extraordinary” and estimates the extra expenses are in the millions. “Dominion,” which is a larger-scale production than most films, had approximately 90 additional sinks, 200 hand sanitizer stations and completed an estimated 50,000 swab tests throughout the shoot. “It’s an enormous investment.”

But not all productions are fortunate enough to be backed by one of the largest film studios in Hollywood. For the upcoming movie “Rift,” producer Kevin G. Lee estimates he had to allocate 10% to 15% of the budget to coronavirus-related expenses. “Every production needs to consider just how much you’re going to have to prepare for it,” he warns.

Lee and the film’s team of producers — Tammie Renee, Kendrick Foxx and Ty Donaldson of TLK Filmworks — assembled a 70-person crew to film their feature in Atlanta. The team had planned to shoot an entirely different project, but had to scrap their original blueprint once they failed to get production insurance to cover pandemics. They had already booked locations, so they reverse engineered the process to craft an entirely new movie, titled “Rift,” that utilized the spaces they had previously secured. That was when the real work began.

The movie was shot at warp speeds, with just five days on set. To pull off a safe production, the team had to foot the bill for three rounds of testing (each test costs $150 per person), HEPA-filtered ventilation for the set, and hotel stays for the main cast and crew in order to create a pseudo-bubble. All that was accomplished on a budget under $300,000.

“We were very fortunate in our planning and in our crew to be able to accomplish this, but I don’t know how many people can continue to do that, especially at this price point,” Foxx says. He offers that unions should consider subsidizing costs. “If not, you are going to slam into either hitting a brick wall with the lack of content or having people taking chances and not being as safe.”

That particular problem may be long-lasting, Foxx predicts. “In Georgia, being a right to work state, I’m seeing a lot of my producer friends are doing a lot of non-union projects — they still do their COVID tests but they’re not required to test us frequently,” he said. “Right now, I think everybody’s still trying to get their sea legs and understand this new world that we’re in, and really have to embrace that this is where we are. We can’t fantasize and romanticize about yesterday. Those days are gone.”

Operating under strict conditions does have some positives. “Jurassic World’s” Derbyshire says the level of organization needed results in more precise filmmaking and less on-the-fly decisions. Take supporting actors, for example. In pre-pandemic times, if more background actors are needed, the crew would need to find 10 to 20 people on a day’s notice. Now, people are required to produce three negative tests before arriving at Pinewood Studios. That takes at least an extra week’s worth of planning.

And even with heightened precautions, there have been some high-profile setbacks. Netflix had to briefly shut down “The Harder They Fall,” Robert Pattinson’s positive coronavirus test meant “The Batman” temporarily halted production, and Olivia Wilde’s “Don’t Worry Darling” paused filming after crew members contracted the virus.

With about three weeks left of material to shoot, “Jurassic World: Dominion” had to cease filming after a string of positive coronavirus cases on set. “When you have a positive case, immediately that person and anyone surrounding them has to be taken out of the mix,” Derbyshire said.

“Somebody central tested positive, so part of our film had to stop,” said Derbyshire, who was not permitted to say who on set tested positive. “The person didn’t have symptoms and immediately tested negative, but that doesn’t change our protocol. You have to err on the side of caution. There’s a risk there.”

Director Sean King O’Grady faced a similar fate on his new film “We Need to Do Something.” As the owner of Atlas Industries, a Michigan-based film and television company, he was at an advantage considering he owned a soundstage. But despite laborious measures, including an on-set health safety adviser, O’Grady received word that a crew member tested positive for the virus just two days into shooting, demonstrating the complications of even the most well-executed plans amid a pandemic.

“The reality is that people live with other people,” he says. “They’ve got kids in school, spouses who have jobs and they’re exposed to the outside world.”

As a small production, he notes, money was tight. “We can’t afford to get shut down and start again and get shut down and start again. We decided to create a true bubble and we moved all the cast and crew into the hotel,” he says. After quarantining for a week, cast and crew members needed three negative tests before they were allowed to restart production.

“Making movies in 2020 is not for the faint of heart,” O’Grady says. “But it’s possible.”

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