Along with each of the most exciting television shows of the last year comes a whole process of how their creators adapted to the pandemic. At the Variety FYC Fest Sponsored by HBO, several writers, directors and producers told Variety deputy TV editor Mike Schneider how they got around the unique barriers created by COVID-19.
“Station Eleven” has gotten much attention for the way its plot, based on Emily St. John’s 2014 novel of the same name, mimics the real-life events of the pandemic.
“I did the first episode and the third episode in December of 2019,” said director and executive producer Hiro Murai. “We’d just vaguely started hearing rumblings of Corona. Meanwhile, we were shooting massive hospital scenes with 300 extras with prosthetic goop running down their face. We were doing something that we thought was novel, but it just kept getting mirrored via the news. By the time we finished, it was getting closer and closer to us, and then the actual shutdown didn’t happen until we were in editing. So while we were editing, we were kind of getting fact-checked live on, ‘What would actually happen in these scenarios?’”
“Succession” was about to start production on its third season when the pandemic began, causing an indefinite hiatus. While that was primarily a major setback, a few benefits did emerge as a result of the stretched timeline.
“If there was any kind of silver lining from a production point of view, it meant that when we went to Italy to shoot — this sounds kind of parasitic, but — we were able to access locations that we probably would not have been able to otherwise,” said director and executive producer Mark Mylod. “So there was a score there, I suppose.”
For a newer show like “Hacks,” the experience of making the show was almost inseparable from the pandemic.
“We actually wrote the entire season during COVID, and shot the whole thing and posted the whole thing during COVID,” said creator, writer, director and executive producer Lucia Aniello. “Part of me of course wonders, ‘What [about] the show would be different if we didn’t have COVID?’ And I obviously don’t really know the answer. But I think there’s something that’s taken away from the ability to emote or express yourself, with actors especially. But even just the crew in general, dealing with masks. We’re shooting Season 2 right now. We don’t have shields, which we had last season. Last season we did two masks and a shield, and it truly felt like ‘Space Odyssey’ or something. But we also all pushed ourselves to make sure it didn’t feel like a COVID show when we were shooting Season 1 and writing it.”
For the staff of “Insecure,” COVID made it hard to get closure, as the show is now airing its fifth and final season.
“We had mostly the same writing [team] from Season 1 with the exception of four people, so we were really looking forward to being in person and having this last sort of go-round, saying goodbye and having that time,” said writer, director and executive producer Prentice Penny. “We really didn’t see each other until Emmy night. It was tough being away, because we really were like a family. Props to everybody on ‘Hacks,’ to be trying to figure this out and never [having] met. That’s such a feat. I don’t even know how you guys did that. We on ‘Insecure’ just all felt like we were all in the same boat, everybody’s paddling in the same direction. So for that, I was very grateful.”
The team behind “Scenes From a Marriage,” which shot in November 2020, found that the pandemic almost contributed to the emotions they were going for.
“‘Scenes from a Marriage” is one of the most COVID-friendly productions you could think of,” said writer, director and executive producer Hagai Levi. “Only two actors, not a huge crew, and in a way, I have to say that [the pandemic] contributed a little bit to the intensity and to the claustrophobic feeling that we were in anyway. We shot outside of New York. We were alone there, on a small stage. Only me and two actors. We could see each other’s faces. The other 100 people [on set], I never saw their faces for five months. At the moment of wrap, I asked everyone to come near me and take off his or her mask. And that was an unbelievable moment.”
On “Mare of Easttown,” location was a primary concern of COVID-era shooting.
“[There were] places that we had to shoot in — we just had to, because that’s where Mare lived, or whatever — that we had to all of a sudden ask people, ‘Can we come into your house with 200 people?’ There were lots of logistical challenges,” director and executive producer Craig Zobel said. “It was like you started to pull the thread and it got longer and longer and longer as you realize what we were gonna have to do in order to achieve it. But it felt good to be trying, and knowing that we were gonna be able to keep working even during this scenario.”
Watch the full conversation above.