When Charles Gregory lost his battle with COVID-19 in early April, Tyler Perry took to social media to pay tribute to the Emmy-nominated hairstylist with whom he’d collaborated since 2006 on projects like “House of Payne” and “Madea Goes to Jail.” It’s why, in reopening Tyler Perry Studios and beginning production on his BET series “Sistas” on July 8, Perry says he and his team are taking the utmost precautions amid the coronavirus pandemic. “After losing a crew member, it hit home with all of us. It was a wake-up call,” Perry tells Variety.
Heightened safety and sanitation procedures in the middle of this health crisis seem like a massive job. What do you anticipate?
It’s an enormous undertaking and an enormous cost to the budget. And I just have to say that Scott Mills at BET and Bob Bakish [at ViacomCBS] were completely understanding of what that meant [financially]. But they also understand being the first to go back is one thing, but also being a company that has 90% African American workers — and we are the most affected by COVID-19 — it had to be done right. So just for them to step up speaks a great deal.
Your team will be testing the crew and cast before they come in (with cast tested before they get on the plane). And then again, once everyone comes to the studio and then four times during the shooting schedule/production. What other measures will you be incorporating?
We’ll still be wearing masks. We cut our crew size down drastically. What we do when we’re doing intimate scenes, it’s called a closed set, which means a bare minimum of people on set. So that is what we’ll be doing for every setup.
And in terms of some of those intimate scenes, there’s been a lot of questions about how you even write a scene where two people are handshaking or hugging or kissing. Do you see that going away during this period? Or do you have a plan for how to incorporate those moments?
I think it has to go away unless there’s adequate testing. And the testing that we’re using through Dr. Del Rio of Emory has a 98% accuracy rate. We wouldn’t just run in immediately and start shooting scenes where I’ve got four women in close contact with each other like [on] ’Sistas.’ It would be after our fourth day, when we test again, that we would get into some of those scenes.
It takes about four hours before they get results back and everyone is quarantined until they find out their results. Lay out the timeline for us in terms of the measures you guys are taking.
It’s really a military effort and no better place to do that than a former military base. People pull up in their cars to get the test, and then they park. All the cars will be wiped down inside, sanitized and parked in the parking lot. Then their bags will come on to a belt, where we will have them open them and show them how to clean their bags and all their other stuff before they go into the rooms. We’re giving packing instructions before they come — to come with minimal things and wipe everything down — and then [cleaning again] as they get there, just as an added measure of precaution that we’re not bringing the virus in. One of our stages will be our receiving area, where everything will come into and get sanitized before it goes into our quarantined area.
And then the cast and crew will go to their rooms, which are part of the infrastructure of Tyler Perry Studios, and once they get the test results back and they’ll be cleared to go on set?
Yes, the following day. But after the four hours, we’ll probably meet for meals. We’re doing our meals in our largest stage, which is the size of a football field, to have people completely spread out in different sections and different corners of the building, having different catering pods.
What have the discussions been like about production insurance?
A lot of that’s going to come down to the union guidelines. Every time we have insurance conversations, it’s like, “OK, we love the plan. We’re all in, but we want the union guidelines.”
You mentioned being a company that is 90% African American. What does it mean to you to get your employees back to work?
Some of my crew members have been with me for 15 years. And in that time, we’ve bought houses and put kids to college and I’ve seen their whole lives elevate, and I would hate to see that all crumble and fall apart because everybody is afraid to go to work. But finding a way to do it safely was really important to me.
Listen, I’m on set with them every day; I’m right in the trenches with them. So I’m not asking them to do anything that I’m not doing myself. It would be really easy for me to go to my house in Jackson Hole and sit until there’s a vaccine at the top of the year or into 2021. But what about all the people that work for me and their families and their kids and the bills that they have to pay?
After being the first to announce a start date, have other filmmakers or executives reached out to you — not only about your plan and trying to do something similar but also about using the facilities at Tyler Perry Studios?
I’ve had a few questions about what we’re doing and what the plan is, yes. And there have been some questions about coming in and shooting after we’re done. They just want to see that it can work. And this is what I love about my cast and crew — they’re all bullish on making this happen, and we’re all locking arms, virtually, to make this thing work.