As Hollywood contemplates the risks and uncertainties around going back into production in the coming months after coronavirus-imposed shutdowns, strategies for scaled-back sets are beginning to emerge. Producers Brian Kavanaugh-Jones and Chris Ferguson — from the companies Automatik (“Honey Boy,” “Bad Education”) and Oddfellows (“Child’s Play”), respectively — have created a proposal titled “Isolation Based Production Plan,” which Variety has obtained.
They began working on it weeks ago, sending versions of the multi-page document to colleagues and industry friends asking for feedback about what in the plan would and would not work. It would be most directly applicable to lower-to-mid-budget movies, but elements of it could be used for other types of productions. The proposal — surely one of many being worked on at studios and production companies in the entertainment industry — sheds light on what types of precautions will need to be taken, and what sacrifices might have to be made for Hollywood to get back to work after the production shutdown that occurred en masse in mid-March.
Kavanaugh-Jones and Ferguson spoke with Variety reluctantly about the plan, because of the sensitivities around scaled-down sets, particularly with unions. They also expressed qualms about speaking out in the current environment, when the idea of going back to work has been politicized, becoming yet another toxic division in the United States. “I wouldn’t want to be misconstrued as advocating for the reopening of production,” Ferguson said. “We’re just building ideas around maybe what could happen when it feels like the right thing.”
They emphasized that their two companies have no timetables to get back into production, and said that the copy of the plan was the fourth or fifth draft of it. Ferguson called it “a living, breathing document.”
The document, as it stands, would require entire production teams to follow stringent rules to minimize the spread of the coronavirus. The entire cast and crew would be in a two-week quarantine before they would begin production, and would be tested. It’s not laid out in the plan, but Kavanaugh-Jones said he envisions treating the production like one in a “distant location,” where “a small crew takes over a hotel that has been aggressively cleaned, and they live there full-time completely quarantined.”
After they complete their quarantine, the proposal lays out that they will be divided into three pods: Pod 1 would be the on-set cast and crew, Pod 2 is base camp (makeup and hair, catering) and Pod 3 is set design/prep. Pod 1 would be a minimum of 17 people, plus the cast — including a director, cinematographer and one on-set producer. Any stunts or VFX supervisors would be additional members of the on-set crew. “I think what we tried to do was apply the indie model to this document,” Kavanaugh-Jones said.
He acknowledged that many actors, directors and other members of production would not want to do it. But others might: “I think there are going to be some people that say, ‘Yeah, I’m up for it. I’ll go self-isolate in a hotel room for 14 days, and have my food delivered by a specific delivery service and wipe everything down and be really aggressive about that, so that on day 15, I can go shoot something with my coworker-slash-castmate who’s done the same.”
In the proposal, costumes, props and sets would also be put in quarantine. Locations and sets would be dressed, and then sealed for three days (or whatever the most conservative estimate is) “to allow viruses on surfaces to die.”
Each pod would have a position called a “quarantine supervisor.” The document contains a job description: “They will each be responsible for supervising and enforcing quarantine and disinfecting protocols. They will also be regularly disinfecting and cleaning common surfaces throughout the day. The Quarantine Supervisor will also check in with each crew member in their pod and check their temperatures.”
The job of quarantine supervisor is, Kavanaugh-Jones said, a “made-up role.” They don’t expect doctors or nurses to take on those responsibilities: “Those folks need to be working at hospitals right now,” he said. Ideally, they said, quarantine supervisors would be unionized health-related specialists with extra training specific to COVID-19.
The production, according to this plan, would also have remote staff, such as the line producer, production manager, buyers and post-production staff (editor, composer, sound mixer).
The changes to production in this plan would be profound, and aesthetics would be affected as well. Hair and makeup, usually a department working on multiple actors at once, would be a single person working on one actor at a time — and not on set. “Makeup application tools & supplies will be purchased per cast member and used only on that individual cast member,” the plan states. “These supplies will be kept in individual cast bags. Cast will remove their own makeup to limit contact at the end of the day.”
Throughout the interview, Kavanaugh-Jones and Ferguson mentioned the types of movies that could be made under these strictures. “Could you go make ‘Avengers’ on this kind of production plan? No,” Kavanaugh-Jones said. “Could you go make ‘127 Hours’? Yes.” Ferguson added that a movie like “300,” Zack Snyder’s effects-heavy 2007 film, something that put “a lot more weight onto post production rather than physical production” could also be produced within these rules.
One dictate of the proposal is that “scripts must be developed and modified to minimize day players” because “there will be no day players” — which would be a huge change for the industry, if implemented widely. The iconic Australian soap opera “Neighbours,” produced by Fremantle Australia, is starting up again next week, without extras and day players. According to the Deadline report about “Neighbours,” the show will use “crew members already on set doubling as background performers,” inflaming several readers in the comments section, who cited SAG-AFTRA’s rules against such things. (SAG-AFTRA does not have jurisdiction over Australian productions. Without seeing this plan’s specifics, David P. White, national executive director, SAG-AFTRA, told Variety: “We have deep concerns about any premature effort to commence production without appropriate safety protocols in place. We will continue our collaboration with industry representatives to develop a responsible plan for a safe return to work, and will aggressively protect SAG-AFTRA’s jurisdiction.”)
Additionally, the plan’s proposed bare-bones crew will surely agitate IATSE, the union that represents below-the-line workers — nearly all of whom are out of work right now. But Ferguson and Kavanaugh-Jones emphasize they want to adhere to union rules, and the proposal has a provision to make sure that’s clear: “The production will have to budget for additional days of crew members who will not actually be called to work in order to comply with their jurisdiction’s regulations around minimum hire,” it reads. (IATSE did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)
Additionally, the plan proposes that “shoot days” will be limited to “10-hour days.” Ferguson said that aspect is crucial, because with long days “it’s just going to be impossible to not get sloppy.”
Yes, these things — the 10-hour days, paying crew members not to work — would cost more, Kavanaugh-Jones said: “Everything in that document, everything we’re thinking about is how to prioritize safety over everything else. And if that means that things are going to cost a little bit more or extend a little longer, we’ll just have to decide if that’s possible or not.” Productions in France, he added, have worked 9 1/2-hour days for years.
Whether insurance companies will take a chance on any productions is an open question, and whether financiers would still back a film insured except for a COVID-19 cutout is also a huge question mark. “So how much collective risk are we willing to take as a community?” Kavanaugh-Jones wondered. “That’s going to be the question over the next coming months.”
As for when production might begin again, every answer is imaginary. Whether it’s July, like the TV networks hope it can be, or August or September — no one knows. “Neighbours” starting up again, and film and television production resuming in Sweden and Denmark recently will certainly provide test cases — not cautionary tales, one hopes.
“There is going to be real change and upheaval through all of this, and people are going to have to get really creative and smart,” Kavanaugh-Jones said. “It’s so devastating for so many people. And ultimately that’s the goal of the document — to start the conversation about getting people back to work.”