SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “Social Distance,” streaming now on Netflix.
No shows in the time of coronavirus got a pass on pivoting from original production plans — not even Netflix’s “Social Distance,” a show that was born out of the pandemic itself and therefore anticipated some of the tougher elements right from the jump.
In May 2020, the stories for all eight episodes of Hilary Weisman Graham’s anthology series had been written and the show was days away from shooting when George Floyd was murdered. A few of the writers took part in a protest and Graham tells Variety that she came back realizing she had “a voice at this moment in time and I’m going to f—ing use it.” So she told her team she was scrapping the original finale episode to instead write a new one that responded to the moment.
The new episode, entitled “Pomp and Circumstance” and directed by Anya Adams, stars Asante Blackk as a young man so riled up by the murder he gets into an argument with his boss (Ayize Ma’at) over the most productive way to respond. It is the episode that is the most explicitly political — literally featuring two characters on opposite sides of a belief system and ultimately ending with Blackk’s character choosing his beliefs over his job but telling his boss, who is of a different generation, that he can rest because “it’s not your struggle anymore, it’s ours now.”
Once that story was broken, Graham and her writers went back through the previous seven scripts to build to this moment in the show the way in reality “we’ve been building to this moment for years, for the entire history of America,” she notes. This included tweaking Okieriete Onaodowan’s character in the premiere episode, “Delete All Future Events,” to be more of an activist so that they could “sprinkle in some pre-George Floyd Black Lives Matter conversations that would happen between two Black men,” she explains. “It wasn’t like, ‘Oh we’re changing the series to be only about race, but this is of course the other pandemic. We paid some attention to it [before] but clearly not enough and now we’re going to correct it.'”
That first episode actually required another necessary pivot for the production team: After they cast Mike Colter in the lead role, they noticed that his real-life home, in which he would have to shoot his scenes given the parameters of remote production, did not match the aesthetic of the home his character, a small businessman struggling to stay afloat, would have.
“It’s a multi-million dollar, fancy ass place. It’s not over the top, but it’s nice; Mike Colter is a successful actor,” Graham says of his house.
His scenes take place through a combination of video meeting apps, Facetime calls and social media, which didn’t necessitate wide shots. But instead of moving with Colter around his home, as some of the other episodes do with their performers, here production designer Ryan Berg took one room in Colter’s house and turned it into a studio apartment, which kept Colter in a more confined space.
Communicating over Zoom, members of the production team such as Berg and the episode directors were able to guide the actors on how to set up the spaces in their own homes in which they would shoot their scenes, but that proved easier for some than others.
In both “And We Could All Together/Go Out on the Ocean” and “Humane Animal Trap,” actors needed to transform residential spaces into medical ones. The former episode features Danielle Brooks as a frontline worker still showing up every day at the facility in which her patient (played by her real-life mother LaRita Brooks) resides. Not only did they need the hallway to look like one in a care facility, rather than a family home, but LaRita Brooks’ character needed complicated medical equipment that they actors had to manuever themselves. For the latter episode, Sunita Mani turned her New York City, open floor plan living room into a corner of a Georgia hospital.
“We sent hospital equipment, some sides for the walls; we asked her husband to dress up as an orderly and do a pass,” Graham says. “That kind of stuff really tickled us, and I think it was part of the fun of making the series. It was very down and dirty and it was fun to be challenged in that way.”
In those ways, remote production can seem like making a student film or other guerilla-style project. The casting of “Social Distance,” for example, required hiring people who were quarantining together to play opposite each other, even if they weren’t all professional actors.
“We knew there was a very small needle we were trying to thread,” Graham admits. “Our casting director, Jen Euston, would email us a few names, and we would be like, ‘OK this person seems right.’ So it was an offer-only process, pretty much. But we always feared that we weren’t going to find what we wanted, and there were a couple of tricky ones.”
Blackk’s role in “Pomp and Circumstance,” Graham shares, was originally written for an actor around the age of 25. But Graham says “not too many young adults that are successful actors are living with their parents or an older man who is roughly 20 or 30 years older. So we aged [the character] down a few years,” in order to hire Blackk and his real-life father, Ma’at.
Other roles were even more complicated. Danielle Brooks’ character is a single mom to a 6-year-old, who she leaves home alone (watching her through nanny cameras) while she goes to work. The script called for her character’s scenes to be with her patient, while the child eventually goes to stay with her patient’s adult daughter. So the show needed to find two adult generations of women quarantining together in one home, and an adult-child combination in another. Marsha Stephanie Blake and her real-life daughter Rocco Luna were hired for those latter roles.
“We really, really lucked out,” Graham says of the cast “Social Distance” assembled.
Luna, Graham notes, had the right “energy and spirit” for the character, but this was her first-ever acting job. “We were asking her to do a lot. I think it was half-way into the second day she was like, ‘I’m never making a movie again!’ But mostly it was hard on her mom, Marsha Stephanie Blake, who was doing the work of acting and then also managing her kid.”
Similarly, Peter Scanavino and his real-life young son Leo Bai-Scanavino were cast in the episode entitled “You Gotta Ding-Dong Fling-Flong the Whole Narrative,” in which Scanavino’s character has to care for both his young son and his wife (Ali Ahn) as she quarantines alone in a bedroom in their house, having contracted COVID. Casting Ahn meant shooting her scenes in an entirely separate house, since she does not live with Scanavino, but Graham says that episode never had a moment of recovery or family embrace int he script. Rather, she wanted to leave the audience with “the feeling” that Ahn’s character would be OK.
“Social Distance” utilizes various forms of technology, including the aforementioned Facetime calls, social media and nanny cameras, in order to show its characters in their environments, but it also gets inside the characters’ heads at select moments, through the animated drawings of Bai-Scanavino’s character and even the VR Chat gaming system in the “everything is v depressing rn” episode.
Written by Anthony Natoli, that episode was inspired by how teenagers are able to go about their usual lives during the pandemic — because they are so used to communicating with their friends digitally — through social media, apps and texts, Graham says. “If you’re a nervous, insecure teenager — like many of them are — you [may] feel comfortable expressing your feelings through this avatar. It takes some bravery to admit you have a crush on someone, no matter what form you do it in, but it’s a form of protection,” she says.
While countless people around the world were learning to navigate Zoom during the pandemic, Graham and her production team learned how to use VR Chat. “It was a virtual shoot. We were all like, ‘We’re in the future!'” she laughs. “We truly went into VR Chat and we just had to record it. So we recorded the voices of our actors and then we had some of the VR Chat professionals — from the company who knew had to demo it — played our actors, so the avatars would lip sync along to the lines.”
Changing health and safety guidelines also required some adjustments on-set that resulted in shifting character relationship dynamics. In the “Zero Feet Away” episode, Max Jenkins and Brian Jordan Alvarez play a couple struggling with being stuck together 24/7. It starts with some bickering, turns into an attempt to open their relationship up and ends up with them realizing they don’t really want a threesome. The way the script was written was that Jenkins’ character would make out with the guy they brought over for the threesome (Peter Vack), and once that was decided — and all actors had negative COVID test results — it limited the intimacy that could be shown between Jenkins and Alvarez.
“[They] were eating frosting in the kitchen and I said to [director] Claire Scanlon, ‘It would be really cute if he handed him his spoon,” Graham says. “And she was like, ‘Hilary, remember, can’t do it.’ They couldn’t even share a spoon.”
Although each episode has a stand-alone story, unique characters and its own themes, the common thread Graham wanted to pull through all of them was “some sense of hope” but also a lot of unknown.
“What I realized was that we cannot give them too much closure. There’s just something too cutesy about it. I think it’s the reason most short films fail — they’re just like, ‘Everything’s wrapped up with a little bow at the end’ and it doesn’t feel real,” she says. “There’s not certainty. And that, to me, feels like it encapsulates what we’re all going through right now. Nobody knows when this is going to end, exactly how it will end, or what might happen in between now and then.”