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How to Shoot an Indie Film During a Pandemic

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Dan Mirvish

Big-budget studio features like “The Batman” or enormous Netflix series are able to self-insure against COVID and manage to shoot during the pandemic, even when cast or crew do test positive. But how are indies managing to cope with all the new union and various local safety protocols? Without liability protection, COVID insurance coverage or confident investors, it’s difficult to get a bond or secure bank financing. For any film in the $1 million-$10 million range, this can be an intractable situation right now. Ironically, movies made for well-under $1 million — the true microbudget indies — are having a little easier time of it. I know, because I just shot one.

Last spring, I started shooting my new film, “18½,” a ’70s-era Watergate thriller/dark comedy in Greenport, N.Y., which is on the far northeastern tip of Long Island. Our cast and crew were all staying at a remote 30-acre motel and cottage complex on the beach. Production was going smoothly until it came to a screeching halt in mid-March. We took our “pandemic pause” with about 80% of the film in the can, but still had four days left to shoot. Our amazing cast on-set included Willa Fitzgerald, John Magaro, Cathy Curtin and the legendary Vondie Curtis-Hall. They would have been joined by the likes of Richard Kind, Sullivan Jones and Lloyd Kaufman for our final days. Meanwhile, we had an impressive lineup of voice actors waiting in the wings for post-production to record the prominent 18½-minute tape in the movie, including Jon Cryer, Ted Raimi and Bruce Campbell as President Nixon.

For six months during lockdown, we worked on editing, voice-actor recording and got a head start on our original music score and soundtrack. In mid-September, we opened a window of opportunity to shoot our four remaining pickup days on location, with all our cast and crew available and unanimously eager to film. By then, the DGA, SAG-AFTRA and New York State all had protocols in place, and a few other shoots had already started.

But it wasn’t easy and definitely wasn’t cheap to shoot during the pandemic. Luckily, most of the cast and crew were based in New York — I was the only one coming in from California, so I packed up my sourdough starter and spent a 14-day quarantine locked in a cabin.

The guilds’ COVID rules require PCR lab-based testing for everyone on the cast and crew, once every 72 hours. The quickie 15-minute antigen tests don’t cut it, and this was at a time when normal test results in New York were taking upward of seven to 10 days. Between our budget and our remote location, an expensive Netflix-esque boutique lab or testing service wasn’t going to be feasible. Fortunately, we were able to work directly with Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan before we shot, as well as the local hospital in Greenport during the shoot, which both had their own in-house labs with 24-hour (or so) turnaround times. We had to bring actors out to our location via individual COVID-safe car services. We rigorously sanitized everyone’s rooms, catered individual meals, hired an on-set health safety supervisor and abided by strict social distancing and PPE requirements. Luckily for us, we’d already shot our kissing, dancing and fighting scenes (and like most small indies, never had any crowd scenes anyway), so unlike some productions, we didn’t have to do major rewrites or resort to using blow-up dolls or CGI extras.

As for COVID liability, the biggest and only protection was just to be as safety conscious and conscientious as possible: Don’t do anything stupid, and have contingency plans and built-in redundancy in case anyone did test positive. (Or, as was more likely the case, test results came back late and delayed the shoot by hours or days.)

For us, we planned that if our lead actors couldn’t come to set, we’d shoot those scenes as POVs and add voiceover remotely. If a supporting character dropped out, we’d give their lines to a different character, or recast using crew members already tested and on site. We also made sure that every single person on the crew had at least one backup in case we had to send them home or quarantine them until their tests came back. So, the
1st AC became our backup cinematographer; the 1st AD became my backup director; and I was the backup sound recordist and DIT. Thankfully we never had to act on these plans, but it did give us peace of mind knowing that the show would go on no matter what.

“COVID increased our budget about 20%,” says my writing-producing partner Daniel Moya, echoing what many other productions are finding. “There is no question that it is a serious budget consideration, on top of the challenges of shooting an indie ensemble period film on location. That said, we absolutely wouldn’t have shot if we didn’t feel we could pull it off without sacrificing anything safety-related.”

Most productions don’t have the same protocols for everyone on crew, breaking them into Zones A, B and C. But with a crew of barely 20 people, it made sense to test everyone. “Because of our unique set-up, everyone was Zone A. We stayed on location, so the motel itself became
a kind of set,” adds Moya. “As soon as you left your individual room, you were masking up.”

What struck me were the little changes and nuances that made shooting in these circumstances so different. On a normal production, if you’re directing, you can and should have discreet, whispered conversations with actors between takes, and with your cinematographer, 1st AC or script supervisor even in the middle of a take. But between social-distancing rules, masks, face shields and ventilation fans running between takes, it’s impossible to whisper anything. You wind up shouting direction across the room to actors.

In the middle of takes, someone would shout “Boom in the shot!” or I’d yell at my DP, “Zoom in now!!” or from a disembodied voice halfway through a shot I’d hear, “Have we started rolling yet!?!” All the subtle, quiet nuances you normally have on-set to keep things running smoothly and without bruising egos are yelled out loud for everyone to hear. And because the face shields bounce sound waves from behind, I was constantly turning around wondering who was talking to me. It’s a complete recipe for paranoia and dysfunction on a set. The upside? I was able to find time enough during all our COVID-mandated breaks to bake individual sourdough buns and cinnamon rolls for the cast and crew.

We were far from the only small indie shooting this fall. Producer Avril Speaks (“Jinn”) had a similar “pandemic pause” on her new film. They shot in Oklahoma City last spring, and picked up part of the remainder of the film in September. “Indie filmmakers already know what it’s like to work with local communities to help find solutions to problems,” she says. “And because we have smaller crews and infrastructure, we’re able to be nimble and flexible when it comes to making the necessary adjustments for shooting in this COVID world.”

Her production wound up working closely with an Oklahoma State University lab for PCR testing for the cast and crew. “In order to keep our cast and crew safe, we’ve had to come up with clever ways to shoot actors out of certain scenes because we didn’t have the luxury of throwing money at the problem.”

In central Minnesota, the indie film “Paulie Go” similarly worked with local clinic Essentia Health on a shoot where the cast and crew stayed at a self-quarantined lakeside resort. Some productions are using mail-in PCR tests, which the guilds allow for all but the first COVID test of a shoot.

“18½” is the type of low-budget indie that raised its financing through a combination of private equity investors, donations and crowd-funding. Individuals around the world came together to finance the film based on the concept, my own track record and the level of cast and crew
we were getting along the way. Yes, famous actors were important to get the film financed, and ultimately to get it into festivals and secure distribution, but at this level, it doesn’t matter as much which famous actors we get: Indies like ours can set a start date and shoot the movie. Which also means even in non-COVID years, we don’t typically get cast insurance. (Of course, we get workers comp and production insurance, but it’s the basic kind with limited coverage that isn’t covering COVID.) Because the financing isn’t based on the pre-sales/bank/bond/cast insurance paradigm, that means the whole shoot doesn’t shut down if an actor drops out for COVID or any other reasons.

Bigger-budget indies are running into much different challenges. “The insurance companies are bleeding so hard, so they’re restricting coverage and charging a lot more than they ever did. It’s a terrible combination,” says New York-based Peter Marshall, managing director at DeWitt Stern/Risk Strategies, which brokers film insurance.

Marshall adds that even if your financing is entirely from equity sources, the insurance companies are requiring far more information about where that money’s actually coming from, and if it’ll still be there if you have to shut down. “They don’t want a show to fall apart and invent a reason for a claim.”
He adds that the real problem is for the $1 million-$5 million films. “Over $5 million, you’ve got more money to throw at safety and schedule. There’s not a whole lot of banks that want to lend on small movies now.”

Finding equity investors isn’t exactly easy now either. “The wealthy people have all left New York and L.A.!” exclaims veteran indie producer Isen Robbins (“Tesla”). “They’re all hiding out in compounds and enclaves.”

And even if you’ve got the money, it doesn’t mean you can get name actors to commit to filming. “They’re very uncomfortable to shoot right now. Everybody is ‘available,’ but agents don’t want to tie them up either,” adds Robbins. “It’s harder than ever to get actors to leave their house, and there are some actors who’ve just stopped working.”

It’s not easy or cheap to shoot during the pandemic. At least for us — and for many other indie filmmakers — we got our footage in the can, maintained creative integrity and everyone walked away safe and sound. Now I can relax and get back to the normal stresses of post-production, ongoing fundraising, festivals and distribution. The good news is if social distancing and quarantine have taught us anything this year, filmed entertainment is a unique and vital art form.

If we can keep making movies safely, then we should.

Director-producer-writer Dan Mirvish is the co-founder of the Slamdance Film Festival. His latest film is “18½.” He is also the author of “The Cheerful Subversive’s Guide to Independent Filmmaking” (Focal Press/Routledge).