When Setty Brosevelt started work, he had to stow his face mask stealthily behind a pile of potatoes.
The actor played a produce vendor in Adam Sandler’s forthcoming Netflix film Hustle — the first major film production to return to Philadelphia since the film industry, and the rest of the region, shuttered in March.
Even though the Philadelphia native spent one day on set, he quarantined with other cast and crew in a hotel for nine days prior to shooting. He was tested seven times during quarantine, and then again the morning of the shoot. He hid his PPE behind potatoes and in his pockets while the camera was rolling, while principal cast like Sandler and Queen Latifah were handed protective gear by assistants in between takes.
“You’re doing so many takes with your mask off, gloves off, and the goggles off,” Brosevelt said. “And then they yell ‘cut!’ and everything’s got to come back on real quick.”
Brosevelt was experiencing a new way of life for the film industry. The usual bustling atmosphere of movie sets has been replaced by a culture of rigid protocols that, if broken, could put cast and crew out of work indefinitely. Film workers must deal with the normal stresses of their craft, as well as adapt to an entirely new — and complicated — way of working.
“As a creative who’s used to used to flying by the seat of our pants, we have to stop and think about every single thing. It’s basically very emotionally draining,” said props master Susannah McCarthy.
This industrywide anxiety was put on display recently when a British tabloid recently leaked audio of Tom Cruise giving his crew a profanity-laced scolding on set of film Mission: Impossible 7 for breaking social-distancing protocols. The film, which Cruise stars in and produces, experienced delays in October when a dozen people on set tested positive for the virus.
Major productions returned to Philadelphia in the late summer and early fall — notably Hustle, the second season of M. Night Shyamalan’s Apple+ series Servant, and HBO’s forthcoming crime drama Mare of Easttown.
Entertainment unions and studios spent the summer drawing up extensive protocols for resuming production, according to Sharon Pinkenson, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Film Office. Protocols include daily temperature and symptom checks, a constant supply of PPE, regular coronavirus testing and sanitization measures, and new health and safety workers on set who made sure protocols were followed.
Although she is proud of the strict safety measures productions are taking — comparing the crews’ quarantine measures to the NBA’s COVID-19 bubble — Pinkenson also acknowledges the inevitable risk.
“I’m worried about everybody I see,” she said. “I mean, who isn’t?”
‘The choice was made for me’
For most Philadelphia-area film workers, going back to work was a necessity, not a choice.
“These movies being here until the rest of the entertainment industry picks up is a lifeline for a lot of Philadelphia stagehands, workers, and Teamsters,” said Kevin Beebe, a grip — the crew member primarily responsible handling the lighting and camera equipment — for Hustle and Mare of Easttown. Pre-pandemic, Beebe worked regularly at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.
“We’re in a situation where we had to go in, even with the possible risks that were presented,” he said. “You go from having one amount of income to your industry completely shutting down overnight, and the assistance runs out, and the choice was kind of made for me.”
Although nervous to get back to work at first, Beebe said he eventually felt safe. Beebe wore PPE and worked in pods of six to eight workers to minimize physical interaction and make potential contact tracing easier. He was tested three times a week.
Beebe said his biggest challenge was the increased structure and rigid timeline.
“Normally it’s ‘these are the shots that we have to get and we’re just going to go until we get these shots,’” he said. “But now because they’re trying to limit exposure, days that could have been 14-hour days, possibly 15-hour days — everything is in a 10-hour window.”
Not quite the NBA bubble, but close
Although Beebe lived at home while working on projects, other workers, especially those in close contact with actors, were put up in hotels or apartments.
For Lifetime’s Death Saved My Life, which recently completed filming around South Jersey, husband and wife producers Julie Insogna Jarrett and Seth Jarrett put their crew of around 60 people in a hotel during shooting. The crew was not barred from leaving the premises during off hours — for example, some activities like visiting a pharmacy were inevitable — but workers were expected to engage in purposeful isolation.
“We’re shooting indoors most of the movie, so we were in common spaces together,” Julie Jarrett said, “[Living in one hotel] just felt safer. You have so much riding on not getting shut down, and I don’t just mean financially, but creatively, everyone’s well-being. So while an extra expense, it just felt like the right thing to do.”
The Jarretts said that everyone on set was tested for the virus every 72 hours, and stressed that the crew’s cooperation with quarantine measures were key to the film’s success. Lifetime declined to disclose how much money was spent on the quarantine hotel and continuous testing.
“You have so much riding on not getting shut down, and I don’t just mean financially, but creatively...”
Prop dresser and special effects artist Damien Harrer quarantined in an apartment complex for two and half months while working on Servant.
Harrer said there were three staff classifications for Servant, all denoted by color-coded masks. The first group were allowed to be near actors; the second were support staff who could be in the general vicinity, but not directly near actors; and the third group were those who were not in the studio daily — like construction workers — and had little contact with others. Harrer said workers in the top two levels were put up in an apartment complex for the project, even if they were locals like himself.
Between almost every take, Harrer sanitized props that had been touched, be it coffee cups, wine glasses, or scalpels. He and his colleagues constantly carried Clorox wipes and soapy dish towels, worrying that even one slipup could lead to illness.
‘Walking through mud’
For McCarthy, who worked as prop master on the set of Mare of Easttown, the rigorous protocols took an emotional toll. While she felt that HBO did well to keep employees safe, rethinking how to perform a job she’d done for decades, coupled with the minutia of sanitization and protocols, was arduous. She describes each day like “walking through mud,” trying to get everything done and remember every protocol.
McCarthy found it difficult that she couldn’t be in constant communication with the director and actors. Instead of being on set every day, she often placed items in a “drop zone” on a table under a tent to be picked up and delivered to actors by another crew member.
“As a creative who’s used to used to flying by the seat of our pants, we have to stop and think about every single thing. It’s basically very emotionally draining.”
McCarthy is proud of the work she and her colleagues did — especially under the circumstances — and is grateful they stayed safe and healthy. But, like everyone in the business, she’s excited for when production can return to the way it was.
“We’re not first responders, we’re just schlubs trying to make a show. But it’s a big ask, it’s hard,” she said. “We just want to do our best every day, but our best in COVID shouldn’t look any differently creatively than if we weren’t in COVID. And that’s the highest bar to hit.”