How do you safely produce a short film during a pandemic? This team can show you.
This post was written by Nick Coppola.
We set out to shoot our horror / thriller short film Marlowe in May 2020. And like so many other projects, COVID-19 stopped our shooting schedules almost immediately.
But that wasn’t the end of our story.
If you look at our script, it was one of the most COVID friendly stories you can imagine. It is set on a remote beach, in a beach house, between a mother and a son, played by actors Allie McCulloch and her real son Townsend Fallica. As we took a step back to look at all of the elements, we found that we could absolutely master this challenge from any perspective without taking unnecessary risks.
We wanted to film Marlowe despite the pandemic. That’s how we did it.
This didn’t mean it would be easy. In order to film, we would have to test all actors and crew three times over a period of six days. This meant that we would need adequate accommodation, reliable on-site testing, and consistent transportation and test handling to ever be successful.
So I contacted every lab on the east coast near our location in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, as well as couriers and licensed nurses to run our PCR tests. It was a real crash course in pandemic manufacturing, not to mention the ultimate bandwidth stress test of my life. But after we gathered all the relevant data, eventually each piece of the puzzle came together – and it came to a point where we all knew. We actually wanted to film that.
Our goal was to finish filming in six days in October and test the entire cast and crew. But it wasn’t until the end of the third day of shooting that a crucial element in the logistics chain failed.
Our laboratory reported a positive test result. So I shut down all production while filming on the beach. And what made this experience even more painful was that the positive test result was actually a false positive, like a laboratory error.
But of course there is a new opportunity with every challenge.
After we closed I immediately started editing to see exactly what it would take to get our film completed. As it turned out, we had completed about 60% of the film. So we called everyone with the aim of organizing a second round of shooting with an extremely surgical shotlist, even more so than the first.
Although it was a laboratory error that brought us to a standstill the first time, we’d take even stricter security measures this time – but now with the added threat of hurricanes on the east coast as well as the growing curve of COVID-19 cases in America. The risk of crew members testing positive even before the first day of shooting was always there, either through infection or a laboratory error, and our child actor was seven and growing up very quickly, which was a real challenge for continuity.
All in all, we had a very limited window of time to complete the rest of our movie with a lot more challenges, less money, less time, and less crew. It was one of the most logistically complex operations we have ever faced, with a 0% failure rate and each element depending on the success of the next. But thanks to the absolutely incredible work of our co-producer Katie Sanderson, our AD team led by Dillon DiPietro, cinematographer Jared Freeman, actors Allie McCulloch and Townsend Fallica, and the rest of our incredibly talented and dedicated crew, we knew exactly what each had to do individual challenges that have been thrown in our way have to be dealt with and reconsidered.
We couldn’t have done it Marlowe without our great team. We couldn’t have done it without the support of the North Carolina community. From the film crew to the nursing staff, lodging, restaurants, transportation, and camera and lighting equipment from Illumination Dynamics in Charlotte, NC, and Lighthouse Films in Wilmington, NC – this has been a real collaboration across the state of North Carolina and we couldn’t be more proud .
We are honored to have worked with so many NC-based professionals from so many fields, and we can’t wait to see many more collaborations in a future post-pandemic.
Hair and make-up artist Madison McLain on the unique challenges of the shoot
When it is advised to stay two meters away from someone, being a makeup artist becomes a risky job. I never had the opportunity to work from home because my job involves being in close proximity to actors for long periods of time.
When the CDC started implementing security policies, I studied them as if it was my job … because it was my job. The makeup department has always been one of the most hygienic and germ-conscious departments on set, but more is at stake now. With Marlowe, it was a bit easier to only have a two-person cast. I kept every tool and makeup that I used on every actor in separate bags that I then took with me for touch-ups to make sure there was never any cross-contamination.
I think the biggest change in my job now is trying to protect myself and the customer. Marlowe was back on set one of my first times after having been out of work for almost a year. I was very nervous, but I knew I had to focus on being safe. This included wearing full PPE and being extremely thorough disinfecting and cleaning my hands, equipment, tools and work area.
Because of these extra precautions, makeup now takes longer to apply, but I’ve been fortunate to be with this crew who clearly had priority on getting things right.
Katie Sanderson (co-producer) on set dynamics
As a producer, my top priority will always be people. I am the voice of my crew. It’s my responsibility to make each day as smooth as possible so they can show up and get their job done. This requires extensive planning in advance and the ability to resolve unforeseen circumstances in real time on the day; This is a very daunting task when you are in the midst of a global pandemic.
We filmed Marlowe in Wilmington, North Carolina, which is just hours from my college town of Winston-Salem. Our crew consisted of old friends who got together and brought this movie to life. It was my job to make sure every single step was taken right so that our people were safe and we could be an example to the rest of the community. This was challenging, but absolutely necessary.
Our director, Andrew [Rose]He went through a very extensive process to get the film approved by the SAG. This included zoning our location, COVID testing, and a laboratory in Virginia that prioritized our results so we could stay on schedule. Without these decisive steps, we would not have made a film back then. When we got the green light and had a crew, we were all quarantined to make sure we could work together.
While there were hurdles, it was an incredibly rewarding opportunity to meet up with very close associates and friends after being isolated during the pandemic. There is a sense of authenticity in the film that could only have come from a team of incredibly hard working people who put everything on hold to make this film.
It really cost a village, but the most important thing is that our team can say they were taken care of. You were safe and had the opportunity to make art in a very scary and uncertain time. We can say we did it right and did something to be proud of. I learned so much from this movie and I will always remember it Marlowe.
Nick Coppola (Associate Producer) on teamwork
We want to believe that we made a significant impact at a time when everyone was unemployed and we were happy to provide jobs during difficult times. We also had a small economic impact in the Wrightsville Beach community with accommodations and local restaurants with our production. Making movies during a pandemic wasn’t for the faint of heart, but it proved possible.