When Jonathan Bennett — of “Mean Girls” and “Cake Wars” fame — got a call about starring in a TV movie called “Harvest of the Heart,” he was shopping. “I remember the moment the call came in, because I was at Costco buying groceries in safety goggles, an N95 mask, and gloves,” he said.
The call was from a casting director he had worked with before, offering him a part in a movie that was about to begin filming in Oklahoma — he had to ring her back after he got home and had sanitized his phone.
“I was surprised that a movie was starting this early,” Bennett said. “But my big concern was, what are the safety precautions going to be like?”
As production tentatively restarts in North America, that’s the question of the hour: Can it be done safely?
COVID-19 was beginning to hit Michigan hard in March when producer Danny Roth was wrapping up three projects in the state. Roth, the chief creative officer of Almost Never Films, and line producer, John Mehrer, needed to find a safe location to shoot “Harvest of the Heart,” a made-for-TV movie Roth was also directing. The company was making it on spec, meaning no studio was attached, for under $1 million.
They had already been circling the idea of shooting in Oklahoma, which has a tax credit. When it turned out that the state — which never implemented a stay-at-home order — seemed largely to escape the worst of the coronavirus spread, that sealed their decision. Roth and Mehrer traveled to Oklahoma in early April so they could do prep for “Harvest of the Heart.”
“We came to do our own self-quarantining,” Roth told Variety. “And just to get on the ground for our work.” Working closely with the Oklahoma Film and Music Office, they were able to do nearly everything virtually, including casting, hiring crew, and scouting locations — on top of getting the state’s 37% rebate.
“Harvest of the Heart” began its 16-day shoot on May 27 as one of the first — if not the first — live-action productions to begin filming in North America since the coronavirus pandemic brought film and television production to a sudden halt in mid-March. A representative for SAG-AFTRA confirmed that the movie — a romance starring Bennett and Alix Angelis, designed to sell to an outlet such as Hallmark Channel or Lifetime — was among the first domestic productions to be approved by the actors’ union. (“Harvest of the Heart” is using a non-union crew.)
Production on the project finished Monday. And, according to Roth and Mehrer, it successfully put into practice many of the safety protocols that have been discussed theoretically since back-to-work plans began floating around Hollywood early in the coronavirus-imposed shutdown. The cast and crew all tested negative before they were allowed to start work; their temperatures were taken each day as soon as they arrived to the set by a medic who was the designated COVID coordinator; and everyone was required to wear a mask, even the actors up until they began shooting scenes. No visitors were allowed unless they could prove they had tested negative that same day. And the COVID coordinator was in charge of making sure the set was sanitary before shooting each morning, and throughout the day. “Basically, anything that’s touched is sanitized,” Mehrer said.
The cast and crew of “Harvest of the Heart” also signed declarations that they would be careful during the length of the production, and wouldn’t break quarantine. “We have strict off-set protocols,” Mehrer said. “If things opened up, it would be really fun to go out and hit the clubs. But we made them sign papers saying that they wouldn’t be going to restaurants, they wouldn’t be going to areas with big gatherings. That they wouldn’t go to the gym.” (Walks were allowed.)
The out-of-state actors and crew lived in Airbnbs — none of them wanted to live in hotels, Roth said. “There’s still foot traffic in hotels, and there are still employees of the hotel that go back to their homes,” he said. “We have more control with an Airbnb.”
“I literally haven’t had contact with anyone except people we’re working with,” Bennett said.
When “Harvest of the Heart” was in prep, the entertainment industry white paper — the guidelines to start production — didn’t exist yet, nor did any official production guidelines. So SAG-AFTRA asked the producers to develop their own protocols for social distancing on set, how equipment would be stored, and who would do the job of being the COVID coordinator. To create their rules, Mehrer said he did research on the CDC and OSHA websites “following their infectious disease protocols.”
One thing in the project’s favor is that the production filmed primarily outside. The plot of “Harvest of the Heart” — written by Austin Highsmith, who also co-stars — is that a woman with a big job in the city (Angelis) goes back to the small town where she grew up in order to help her father sell his vineyard. Once home, she falls in love with a local guy (Bennett), and then faces a choice those familiar with such projects likely know well. “Ninety percent of our movie is outside in the vineyard,” Bennett said. “There’s so much space, and no one’s on top of each other.”
The movie also benefits from being chaste, with one kiss at the end (spoiler alert!). Though the actors do film close together, “Harvest of the Heart” contains no big love scenes. Roth even cut out a scene in which the characters shook hands.
After a PowerPoint presentation with the “higher-ups from the Screen Actors Guild that included their head of safety,” Mehrer said, “Harvest of the Heart” got the greenlight to go into production.
Even then, Roth said it wasn’t easy to find crew. “A lot of crew didn’t want to be the first ones back,” he said. “So we went through a long process. They want to work, but they’re nervous.”
In the end, they ended up with a crew of 22, though “we’re usually closer to about 30 or so with these small movies,” Mehrer said. The cast is 14 people, six of whom worked for only one or two days.
Being in Oklahoma made a huge difference as well, according to Roth. “I found it to be night and day from Michigan to Oklahoma when we traveled,” he said. “John and I were barely leaving the house at all. And food was in short supply. And certainly PPE was in short supply. When we got here, paper towels, toilet paper, hand cleaner — all that stuff was plentiful, plentiful here. Masks — I mean, masks are like candy at the checkout counter.”
Almost Never Films shoots plenty of TV movies — the company has thrived in the booming Christmas content market (“Winter Song” for Lifetime, “Christmas Camp” for Hallmark, “A Christmas Movie Christmas” for UPtv, with more to come) — but that’s not all it does. Recently, Almost Never produced the sci-fi movie “Breach,” which stars Bruce Willis, and was bought by Saban Films. Roth wonders, though, when the company’s bigger projects might be able to get off the ground. “If this was a $10 million movie with 85 to 90 staff, I still don’t know how those get done without a lot more time and money,” he said.
And insurance remains a stumbling block. The self-financed “Harvest of the Heart” was able to get insurance for everything except the possibility of someone getting coronavirus — a big exception. But even with that carve-out, at the time the producers were buying insurance through a broker, Mehrer said: “He only found one insurance company that was writing new business. And so it was a little bit more pricey.”
So there are still uncertainties. But Bennett said he ultimately took the job because when he told people in his circle about the possibility of the movie, his actor friends responded eagerly, saying, “Can you please tell me everything?”
“Obviously, I want to be careful about my own health, and the health of people around me,” he continued. “But we don’t have kids yet — like, I can go and do this by myself and see how it goes.”
“It’s a cool thing to be involved in,” he said. “We are the guinea pigs.”
Hair and makeup was available, Bennett said, but each actor had his and her own kits — and they were also offered the possibility of doing it themselves. Bennett talked to the stylist about her precautions, he said. “She completely sanitizes everything, keeps a mask and gloves on the entire time — and eyewear — and I feel completely safe.”
After wrapping production Monday, everyone involved will be tested again before going home. “We don’t want to send anybody home to get anybody else sick,” Roth said.
“I think everyone has been ready to safely get back to work,” he continued. “And this project is a baby step in that regard, and in that we were small in crew, small in cast — large in precautions.”
Bennett said it felt like the cast and crew had entered into a social contract in order to work. “You’re not just here showing up and being safe for you, you’re being safe for the team that you’re working with,” he said. “Of all the sets I’ve ever worked on, everyone just knows we’re all in this together. And there’s a sense of camaraderie and this definite sense of trust that you’re putting in the people around you.”
“It’s different,” Bennett added. “And it’s not normal. But it’s 100% possible.”