As Hollywood crawls toward some version of normalcy amid the coronavirus pandemic, we at Variety have been curious about how the day-to-day work of film and television production would resume. After an invitation from two indie film producers — Maurice Fadida and Eric B. Fleischman — to visit the set of “The Knocking,” I was able to observe the meticulous new protocols in action.
It’s a slog, the business of keeping people protected in a highly tactile and collaborative environment, especially for independent filmmakers. The producers estimated that safety measures cost as much as 10% of their production budget, and resulted in additional shooting days. Talent and artisans are also increasingly isolated, they told me, as the busy life of the film set has been replaced by video conferences and solitary meals in cars. Craft services is no longer a delicious group hang, but a single-serve food and drinks. The makeup trailer is a joyous gossip zone no more, but a tense exercise in masked precision. And more than the director or a visiting financier, the new sheriff on set is inarguably the COVID Compliance Officer, a role that will become crucial in the months and years ahead if cameras are to roll anywhere around the world.
However, a major takeaway from my time on the set of “The Knocking,” Fadida and Fleischman’s low-budget horror project from writer-directors Matt Leslie and Stephen Smith, was a fierce commitment to filmmaking in the most unpredictable circumstances. Here are some glimpses from life on a post-COVID film set.
Fadida and Flesichman are prolific producers of genre films through their respective companies, Kodiak Pictures and Defiant Studios. Though not as ubiquitous as Jason Blum, the pair have churned out sleeper hits like the Netflix-dominating “John Henry” and the SXSW 2020 selection “Witch Hunt.” As one of 15 feature film productions to come back online in Los Angeles in August, the producers found themselves learning on the fly with the rest of the industry. “The Knocking” is led by “Pitch Perfect” star Alexis Knapp and “Evil Dead” actor Shiloh Fernandez, and follows a cursed young woman whose significant others drop like flies.
Originally slated to shoot in April, the project etched out a 19-day principal photography schedule in August. Concerns over COVID-19 hampered the shoot before a single scene was filmed. Fadida said four different actors who had previously signed on for the film, some of whom had sat for costume fittings, dropped out last minute for fear of returning to work.
I went to the set with Michael Buckner, the chief photographer of Variety owner PMC, when the movie was in its final five days of shooting. We were run through the same health and safety carwash as the cast and crew, and were required to test negative for coronavirus no earlier than three days prior to arrival. Crew were tested once per work week, and talent once every three days. All parties signed “safer from home” agreements, as Fadida called it, to ensure best quarantine practices while off set.
We took rapid COVID tests at an urgent care facility in Hollywood ($125 a pop), where we lined up at 8 a.m. the day before our visit. All of us submitted to the invasive nasal swab test, which is not as painful as legend tells it, but does register as the longest 20 seconds of your life. After an emotionally exhausting clerical error, I learned I had tested negative.
“The Knocking” booked a location in Highland Park, a neighborhood in northeast Los Angeles, using one property for two scenes. A main house served as one character’s residence, and an attached Airbnb guest house doubled as another character’s apartment. At the corner of a residential street, I was greeted by the most important person on set, Loren Felix Kelly, who was hired as the production’s COVID compliance officer. Kelly completed four certifications to prepare for his role: two offered by IATSE Local 488 in guidelines for preventing exposure and a background in biological hazards; one from Health Education Services specifically for music video, commercial, film and television sets; and one from Johns Hopkins University in COVID-19 contact tracing.
I was immediately temperature checked and supervised as I washed my hands at a mobile sink.
“Back, front, between the fingers, between the backs of the fingers, finger tips, thumbs, wrists,” Kelly patiently instructed me. I was then told my cloth mask (from Heather Taylor Home, and adorable) was not up to standards. I was given a KN95 mask and observed breathing by Kelly. He was dissatisfied with the fit, and set me aside to be refitted by the on-set medic, who tightened the mask around my face.
After I was cleared to enter, Kelly reminded me of social distancing guidelines and offered a personal bottle of hand sanitizer. In the subsequent hours I spent on “The Knocking,” he never stopped moving, whether he was policing physical distancing, staggering who and what departments could access sets and trailers, patrolling common areas, or accounting for and releasing support staff.
“He’s the reason that we’ve become one of the safest productions in Los Angeles, per our SAG rep,” Fleischman said. The producer’s job in this new climate is a meditation in mind-numbing organization. Master safety protocol documents must be created for each individual production, and when shooting in Los Angeles, it must align with state, county, and actors union guidelines, as well as those dictated by and Center for Disease Control.
It has not been an easy process for this cast and crew, the producers told me. I was personally corrected or interrupted by Kelly several times, for standing and talking too close, or invading areas that had a maximum capacity of people. This vigilance has occasionally led to bruised feelings from talent and crew, who have felt reprimanded. Kelly himself has struggled with being labeled a bad cop in his efforts to keep everyone safe. By the time of my visit, producers said, there was a respectful but silent rhythm to the workflow.
“The first week of this shoot was very difficult for everyone, for every department. You’re walking on eggshells,” Fadida said. Kelly, for his part, did the job in literal stride.
“You need a baseline of anxiety to do this job well,” Kelly said from a distance, barreling by.
The shooting crew and various departments gathered before filming began to run down the shots of the day. Kelly updated the team on safety conditions (it was over 100 degrees in Highland Park, and the crew needed to be wary of cactuses lining the street in addition to the viral pandemic that has seized the globe). Writer-directors Leslie and Smith arrived and thanked the crew for their fortitude. The art department supervisor reminded everyone to communicate their needs, to avoid unnecessary touching and handling of props and furniture. The medic did his brief.
In a separate conversation with Leslie and Smith (who wrote the Sundance selection “Summer of ‘84”), they said they’re shooting less coverage of scenes overall to get through their day, which means fewer options in the edit bay. Conversations about staging and performance that would usually take place in dressing rooms or huddled next to camera now largely occur over Zoom before shooting. The crew got to work building the shot.
On this day, the directors were shooting a living room scene with a practical scare (meaning someone jumps out and goes,“boo!”). A year ago, the set would be crammed with numerous departments working in harmony. Instead, artisans are only permitted to enter the space in protective gear and layer their work on top of others. It’s a revolving door of patience, sanitation, and watching clocks whirl.
Leslie and Smith blocked the space for their actors. Art moved in and built the atmosphere around it. Then lighting. Then the cast, with the merest hint of a makeup touch up before they shot a take. For the duration, a mint-green airflow machine mandated for health and safety with tubes like tentacles whirred in the corner, ala “The Nutty Professor.” While the set was indoors, the directors were at least 300 feet away in the front yard, watching takes on two mobile monitors. The grand tradition of a “video village,” where script supervisors and producers can catch the action, has been disbanded. In its place, a jumbo transmitter beamed a live feed of the camera to 10 different devices. Dailies are viewed via the encrypted app Frame.io. This highly collaborative art form has been decentralized, including the social components.
“It’s definitely an adjustment, but it beats sitting on the couch,” Ser’Darius Blain, a supporting star, told me as I lingered on the steps of his makeup trailer. “You don’t realize how much you miss this, but the whole process has left me a bit isolated.”
His makeup artist, Amber Murray, said sanitation and prep work added to her load-in time by about an hour, and being in the makeup department, she has a riskier gig.
“At the end of the day, it’s a very intimate job and contact is inevitable, but we’ve all got to work eventually,” Murray said.
Doug Jones, who famously portrayed the amphibian man in Guillermo Del Toro’s “The Shape of Water,” plays a mysterious but pivotal role in “The Knocking.” When asked how filming is different under these circumstances, Jones said, “There is a lack of closeness, but there is constant communication.”
Tosha Williams, head of key craft services, said the ritual around the communal snackbin has changed. Talent and crew are no longer free to browse and touch snacks and drinks, as she now serves everyone individually. For top talent, she’ll prepare coffee and wrap it in plastic before sending it in a cardboard carrier to a trailer.
“I put signs up to remind people to sanitize their hands, to not touch food. It’s hard because this is the opposite of how we’re used to using craft service,” she said. Fadida said the new process isn’t so bad, given “we all have an extra 30 seconds to reconsider the Oreos.”
Costume designer Jeresa Featherstone was one of the few department heads with the luxury of prior training, as she also works on the soap opera “The Bold and the Beautiful,” which was one fo the first TV productions to resume shooting after national shutdowns in March.
“We’re prepared. I’m here every morning spraying everything down. We’re using a ton of plastic, but we’re keeping everybody safe. The COVID officer is a relief, because he keeps everyone aware,” Featherstone said.
Buckner and I packed up and left, having spent about three hours on set. As non-essentials to the creative process, we were perhaps highest on the COVID compliance officer’s “please leave” list. Minutes after I sped off, Fadida texted that I’d just missed a second surprise inspection from SAG-AFTRA, which “The Knocking” would once again pass.
Loading into my car, a production assistant assigned to monitor street noise asked me, “Is this your first COVID set?” I said yes. Like Featherstone, he’d also recently worked on another shoot in recent weeks, a short that was filmed at one of L.A’.s colleges.
“It won’t be your last,” he said. He’s laughing, but he’s not kidding.
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