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Union Roundup: Nature Bats Last as COVID Gets the Final Say in Showbiz


The Tender Bar
The Tender Bar image via Amazon Studios

Nature bats last.

It’s not every day we get to use a storied phrase from the environmental movement — one that has been a guiding philosophy, a mordant warning, a bumper sticker, and more — as the header for a column about below-the-line work in the glittery/gritty corridors of showbiz.

But more and more, we’re seeing reality consistently outstrip any human ability to accurately plan for it, despite the longstanding view of many atop the Hollywood food chain — whether at studios, running streamers, etc. — that “l’etat c’est moi.” (“And I have the development deal to prove it!”)

In other words, it was always assumed that reality would comport to a human insistence that the world was built for us, rather than the more glaringly obvious realization that we are simply part of it.

And so, the arrival of Omicron. While a more rapidly-spreading variant of the current plague was entirely to be expected, the additional speed with which COVID has co-opted the phrase “shock and awe” is still something to behold.

While NFL games are being moved, NBA games downsized, NHL games and Broadway shows canceled, some of the alternate realities supported by Hollywood (and those in Washington, despite two-and-counting Senators also testing positive just since we embarked on this column) would seem to have the backing of a significant chunk of the citizenry. To wit, this excerpt from a recent Vanity Fair post on the new Spider-Man’s robust box office:

Tom Holland in Spider-Man: No Way Home (Sony Pictures)

“With great power comes great responsibility, and releasing a Spider-Man picture to an eager audience near the holidays is certainly an act of power. But as COVID’s omicron variant races through the nation, is it responsible? Spider-Man: No Way Home didn’t just ‘do well by pandemic standards’ this weekend. It swung away with a haul that would make any Marvel or DC superhero cheer, though perhaps not any immunologists.”

And whether it would have done as well in a week, or whether any movie that isn’t a core MCU tentpole can do well with new restrictions (or at a minimum, resumed wariness) in the surging months ahead, all remains to be seen. Whither the new Matrix, for example?

Ad campaigns for new releases now usually carry the velvet-glove bludgeon informing viewers this or that film is ONLY IN THEATERS, but that wasn’t enough, evidently, to save a “sure bet”  like West Side Story, or even the intriguing Nightmare Alley remake.

But, Spider-Man aside, who will be going to theaters in January or February, at this point, with the new variant’s exponential increase?

And more locally, who will be going to the slew of tentatively-planned-to-be-live award shows? Or to NAB in March? (The continued viability of the trade show model, in this brave new world, is an entirely separate discussion on its own. Stay tuned…)

Restaurants, bars, gyms, amusement parks, et al, will also be grappling with these “it ain’t over ‘til it’s over” aspects, as will folks who actually make the fare that theaters hope to run (as well as everything else streamed while hunkering at home).

The Tender Bar
The Tender Bar image via Amazon Studios

Martin Ruhe, ASC, has been collaborating with increasingly-active director George Clooney for a few years running now, since first teaming up for the series adaptation of Catch-22. Currently, they have the 70’s-set memoir The Tender Bar running on Amazon.

In discussing how he shot the film — the province of other articles here, and elsewhere — Ruhe also discussed the effects of COVID, including a shift to Boston (to double for the film’s Long Island setting), reduced crew sizes, etc.

But for the Germany-based Ruhe, there was also the matter of simply getting to work: “It was very difficult to get a visa for the States — I needed one stating it was of national interest. When I went to the embassy in Berlin, I was the only one coming in.”

And while Ruhe got that visa, he still “had to quarantine for five days. My family couldn’t come. That was a complication; it makes everything very lonely.”

He told us that he’d planned to head to London in the new year to start prepping Clooney’s next feature, the rowing-themed period drama The Boys in the Boat.

But will anybody be flying to London in a month to prep anything? (Heck, will Boris Johnson still even be in Downing Street?)

The Lost Daughter
The Lost Daughter image via Netflix

In another virtual foray onto the continent, we also Zoomed with Hélène Louvart AFC, who shot Netflix’s The Lost Daughter for debut director Maggie Gyllenhaal.  And while the conversation also mostly focused on aspects of production, camera, lighting and glass choices, etc, it also made a foray — as they all do — into pandemic aspects (starting with a change of planned shooting locale, from the Jersey Shore to a somewhat-safer-at-the-time Greek island).

Louvart made the simply Zen observation that “I would prefer to do everything without COVID – it’s really bad,” but noted there were also some forced changes in working methodologies that she’ll probably keep, like splitting the crew so that one is lighting the next setup in advance, while the reduced group on set shoots the current scene.

“Perhaps now, we’ve learned not to be too much of a crowd” when working, she says. “And this was good. It’s more quiet. I will say that COVID made a change [but] I will never say ‘thanks to COVID.’”

No, but perhaps in reminding us that nature, in fact, bats last, we can pay more attention to changing our swings, batting stances, and everything else, in the intervening innings. To stretch the off-season metaphor.

Meanwhile, much light to you on this Winter Solstice and beyond, and I’ll see you again in this space in the new year.

MLWIncrediHeadMark London Williams is a BTL alum who currently covers Hollywood, its contents and discontents, in his recurring “Across the Pond” dispatch for British Cinematographer magazine, contributes to other showbiz and production-minded sites, and musters out the occasional zombie, pandemic-themed, or demon-tinged book and script, causing an increased blurring in terms of what still feels like “fiction.”

Mark London Williams’ Union Roundup column will appear every Tuesday. You can reach him to give him tips and feedback at [email protected]. He can also be found on Twitter @TricksterInk. Mark’s past columns can be found here and here.

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