In case you were unaware, several days ago, the current extension of Hollywood’s COVID protocols expired. Those protocols were part of an agreement between producers and guilds that included testing and vaccination mandates, brought COVID compliance officials onto sets to establish “safety zones” (a reassuring concept in such generally parlous times), and much more.
They had been extended from last fall, and could well get extended again, though the recent Supreme Court rulings, prohibiting OSHA from imposing workplace vaccination mandates, cast rays of doubt on the entire “safety zone” concept, broadly speaking, even if it leaves private employers free to continue (theoretically) imposing them.
For example, let’s say you’re trying to steer clear of the current Omicron surge, and you’re on a set that observes safety protocols. But that soundstage is in a red state that prohibits employer mandates, whether for masks or vaccinations.
And you’ve had to go to a gear house in that red state, to pick up your light kit, and an unmasked employee who can’t afford to stay home is sneezing away, in the backroom, or perhaps even behind the counter. Well, so much for that safety zone, eh?
When we wrote about the then-looming Omicron threat last month, it was still unknown to what degree the latest variant (and perhaps not the last — after all, the more people the new version infects, the more opportunities it has to keep reinventing itself) would affect returning productions.
Hollywood got a bit of a break since the new bug’s arrival coincided with the town’s holiday hiatus, but now that production is slated to resume, the industry faces the same overarching question as schools: We’re back… but for how long?
In full confirmation of William Goldman’s most famous dictum about the town, two diametrically opposed headlines on the subject appeared on the same recent day — the Wall Street Journal declared that “HBO, Warner Bros. Boss Doesn’t See Omicron Disrupting Show Production,” while the LA Times simultaneously claimed “Omicron hinders Hollywood’s return to business.”
The very next day, production on Star Trek: Picard was paused, as “more than 50 members of the large production tested positive Monday, which was the first day of work after the Christmas break,” as the Reporter noted. Rumors promptly swirled that the next season of The Mandalorian was going to be delayed, too, but counter-rumors swirled back, and as of now, there’s no official confirmation of any delay.
But sometimes, a production can be beset with viral concerns, and the virus itself, and still put on a public happy face, while insistently sticking to a production schedule.
This was the case, not for any currently-streaming bounty hunters-in-space show, but rather, an upcoming Q1 blockbuster. At least, according to a tipster who wrote us after an earlier column:
“In November & December of 2020, and January of this year, I worked in the VFX department,” on said film, they said, which was done in Canada. “This was during the peak of the third wave of the pandemic and prior to any vaccines being available to the general public. As I was an office worker and did not visit the set, I, along with most of my colleagues, did not get tested for COVID on an ongoing basis. New hires were tested once at the beginning of their contracts, and that’s it. The scanning supervisor and the data wrangler were tested during the production, but only once a week. Both of these on-set workers visited the VFX offices daily.”
While Canada was not directly affected by the Supreme Court’s ruling, you can see a culture of expediency already at work here.
“COVID infections were kept very quiet, so I’m not sure how many occurred. However, I do know that at least one of the vendors who supplied the on-set scanning equipment did contract COVID… Fortunately, we were lucky, and there was no further transmission from that particular vector,” added our tipster.
After that earlier hiatus, “we were supposed to be tested again on our return, but it was later decided by an American producer that this was not necessary and all tests for office workers were canceled.”
Note: An American producer. Who, of course, would be let off the hook with the recent ruling.
Our tipster concludes that while “this cancellation probably represented a minor budgetary savings… I suggest the money was not the chief reason the testing was stopped. Instead, I suggest the testing after two weeks of Christmas holidays was canceled because there were no replacements for key staff if any of us did in fact test positive for COVID.”
The show, in other words, must go on! Even if you’re sick.
We hope to follow up on this story, as we await word from the producing end of the tale, but one year later, one wonders whether work will ever entirely go back to the way it was before.
Or whether it should.
For some, that might not be so bad. Or much of a change at all. And speaking of change, that brings me to Jockey, the horseracing drama starring Clifton Collins Jr., who has been earning the best reviews of his career for his soulful performance as aging rider Jackson Silva.
I recently had the chance to speak with Editor Parker Laramie about the film, which explores existential questions about aging, as Jackson is forced to both confront and accept the physical changes that afflict everyone over time.
In less fraught times, I would’ve asked more about the horseracing sequences Laramie stitched together, but for the purposes of this particular column, I was curious how the pandemic affected his work and if it forced him to adapt his creative process.
“My job doesn’t feel like it’s changed too much,” said Laramie. “Before COVID, I was working from home half the time already. I mostly work in documentary, on projects where the director will work closely with me towards the end of the edit, but most of it is done on my own. This was similar on Jockey, most of which was edited before March 2020. I spent the bulk of my time working on my own at home in LA in Premiere Pro while director Clint Bentley and producer Greg Kwedar were in Texas, though they did fly in for about a week so we could all work together, which was hugely productive. The film wouldn’t be the same without that face time.”
But then “once COVID kicked in, we cut over Zoom, which I’ve also done on other projects. I’m not sure how good the playback really is, but the directors I’ve been working with (Clint Bentley, Lucy Walker) seem to feel like it works well enough, and we get a lot done.”
As for the future, “my hope is that I’ll be working from home more often in the early stages of an edit, and only going to an edit bay on a specific schedule or towards the end of the project to work more closely. Or having the director come to my place, like I did on Jockey. Now that people are accustomed to this it seems like it would be much easier to approach things this way and save the commute time.”
But then he adds — perhaps wistfully (though harder to tell in our email exchange) — “I know this has been a common refrain lately, but Jockey is best seen in a theater. And not because it’s big and loud and visceral, but because it’s subtle and atmospheric, which, in a lot of ways, is the type of film that is more vulnerable to being watched at home.”
Perhaps. But with more and more people having fallen out of the habit of going to theaters at all — especially if they sense that those smaller, “subtle” films they’re intrigued by will be streaming soon enough — it remains to be seen whether public filmgoing spaces will be used for much else other than new superhero films.
Award shows, trade shows, the world of film exhibition, and increasingly, film (and TV) production, all keep shifting before our eyes, as does the larger world they exist in.
More on these busy tectonics soon…
Mark 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.”