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Lights, camera, action as filmmakers get back to set

By Heather Large | Features | Published:

It’s been a tough time for the film industry with Covid-19 bringing both big-budget and independent productions across the globe to a standstill.

Daniel Titley

As well delaying the release of blockbusters, such as the next James Bond movie No Time To Die, movie sets of all sizes have been completely shutdown as actors and crews have gone into quarantine.

And here in the Midlands the production of independent movies has also ground to a halt in order to keep everyone safe.

With some Hollywood sets such as the likes of Jurassic World: Dominion now reopening with social distancing and other safety measures in place, everyone is waiting with baited breath to see what lies ahead for the future,

Award-winning Black Country film maker Dave Hastings was in the middle of filming scenes for his Christmas anthology when he realised the crew and cast would need to stop work.

"We were acutely aware of the Covid-19 rumblings back in early February, and we were in the middle of another shoot for the upcoming anthology Christmas feature Advent. Of course, at this point the virus was seemingly isolated in Eastern territories but we were keeping our ears to the floor, making sure we were fully aware of what was happening in the background.

"Even when we came back to do pick ups, the cast and crew were more aware of Covid-19 at that point, and while everyone was apprehensive of this potential threat, the government was still assuring us all that everything was ok.

"But in the space of the following two weeks, myself and co-producer Kaush Patel were acknowledging the rumours of lockdowns here in the UK looming, especially since most of Europe had already begun that process weeks before.

"So, despite having one last day to do on those particular festive scenes, we made the decisions to postpone the shoot.

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Director Dave Hastings who is a film lecturer at Walsall College

"When we go back to finish these scenes, of course, is still up in the air, with government guidelines for resuming filming very hazy to say the least. Studios like Universal can afford to throw an extra $5 million to help the cast and crew of the new Jurassic World film become Covid-19 trained and tested over a few weeks, but little independent studios like ourselves, who have little to no budget at all, well we can't compete with that, and as much as we'd like to resume filming as soon as possible, we are not even attempting anything until we know that the health and safety of our cast/crew is 100 per cent guaranteed.

"It is for this reason that we made the decision a few weeks back to push the release of Advent back from December this year, through to November 2021. But while these are undoubtedly sad times for us all on the film, we were all agreed it was equally the right thing to do," explains the Walsall College film lecturer.

But it's not all been bad news as lockdown has given the crew time to dedicate to another of their ongoing projects - You Are My Sunshine, a love story set across two decades.

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"The time in quarantine has allowed us to continue working on the footage we have shot, not just for Advent, but also You Are My Sunshine, which is now being chopped together ahead of schedule. So despite the negatives of the situation, there are some positives in that it is helping us construct and shape what we have in the can already, as well as allowing us to make notes of future pick ups we still need.

"Scripts are being rewritten to accommodate and work around little scenes already shot for both films too, nothing too adventurous because what we have is already full of wonderful performances across the board, but just little tinkerings that help us strengthen the films even more for audiences.

"The time has also allowed me to begin scripting the next few projects we'll be working on. I rarely sleep, so you can imagine my sleep pattern is off the scales now, but I've found I've had time to breathe metaphorically, and start focusing on new characters, new genres, as well as new narrative challenges. Something I wouldn't have had as much time to do without being in quarantine," he tells Weekend.

Dave believes the future is still unclear for independent producers and it's not yet known what the legacy of Covid-19 will be.

"I know from a film making perspective, what with discussing hypothetical future plans and upcoming schedules and ideas, that there is a sense of wonder in the air around us all. As mentioned, the government's advice is very hazy, and doesn't really help a lot of indie film makers in a broad sense - insurance won't cover Covid-19 in some scenarios.

Actors and visual artist Dreph with his mural painted on the side wall of the Beales' house

"But there is definitely a sense that we'll be looking back on this time of our lives and making continual comparisons to how we used to work and the future. Because, this pandemic has definitely changed opinions on things and processes. With the films themselves, I guess it's meant we've had to spend a lot more time on them with the resources and materials already acquired.

"Will they have a distinctive style by their prospective final cuts though? Who knows. Audiences are usually kept in the shadows when it comes to the magic of filmmaking and how we do things, and just enjoy the ride provided in a final movie.

"But I think for filmmakers such as ourselves, the way forward will not be as colourful as the enchanted yellow brick road on a production level, but that's the beauty of filmmaking in some cases, you look at obstacles and flip them into something creative in whatever way you can.

"However, at the heart of these production decisions, the one thing that will never change, is that the safety of all cast and crew will always remain paramount," he says.

Daniel Titley is making a film about Dudley-born director James Whale who was behind films such as Frankenstein but the project had been put on hold due to the pandemic.

The director and former film and television student believes the global pandemic could inspire film content of the future.

"I think we,as creatives, interpret it in the same manner as we have always done in the arts amidst a global event, be it wars, social upheavals or a pandemic in this case.

"The work produced tends to reflect that major difficult time in real history which tends to release creative energies through various works, from literature to film and television which best capture the emotional struggle of that time, not necessarily as it happened to the letter, but certainly harking back to the effects of it on people.

"Certainly, films from the 20th century, which may seem to parallel our own current situation were very much inspired by the Spanish flu pandemic.

Coronation Street back filming after lockdown

"Films like Soylent Green (1973) which, might today, serve a cautionary tale for our own approaches to social situations amidst a global pandemic, can certainly be re-analysed as it seems to foreshadow our own situation.

"I don't doubt a sleuth of obvious "pandemic" scenarios are on the horizon. It is a great opportunity to be a writer; to absorb these real reactions to the pandemic and come up with new bold brilliant ideas which might or might not have anything to do with the pandemic, itself, but will have spawned a completely innovative idea. Ultimately, I think you'll see changes in movies as we watch them in their collective sense 20 years from now, from their subject matters to the number of actors and crew used.

"It might lead to more minimal acting crews which might lead to more intimate-driven stories and lead to some truly interesting dialogues and home truths by some emerging new filmmakers. I dare say the social attitudes now will challenge the writer to overcome typical scenarios and prevail. As has always been with movies, the possibilities are endless and the future is bright," he tells Weekend.

When it comes to film production, he too believes there will be notable differences within the industry at all levels going forward.

"Although the pandemic will only halt studios for a time until work eventually starts up again, I think there will be new changes within the industry and independent circuits, as well regarding longer pace time in planning up to shooting, in order to get a broader sense on the health and social climate of certain geographical filming locations, especially if some of these places become regimented in their social distancing practices,which will lapse in the fullness of time as it gradually becomes safer.

"I think crews will be totally narrowed down to necessary numbers, and members will probably not overstay-their-welcome, so to speak, once their task is completed. Movies should be able to operate in a very well-mannered way given their need for control on a shoot; environments can be fully controlled and crew shepherded, safely, as they tend to be anyway," explains Daniel, who lives in Sedgley.

But it's not just the film industry that's fallen foul of coronavirus. Television shows that have graced our small screens for years haven't been immune to the pandemic either.

Coronation Street back filming after lockdown

The unthinkable happened when EastEnders went off the air, ending a 35-year unbroken run, after running out of new episodes while production was on hold. While episodes of Coronation Street and Emmerdale had to be rationed to make them last during lockdown.

Filming has now resumed on all three soaps but major changes to both how they produced and their storylines have been made.

Corrie bosses have described how they are keeping to strict social distancing measures, which has seen on-screen kisses and traditional explosive stunts banned.

They crew are also using camera tricks such as focal distancing and foreshortening to make it look like married couples are closer than they are and create a bit of intimacy.

Producer Iain MacLeod said romance will be expressed in a different way, with on-screen couples sharing longing looks and expressing their interest verbally.

Some familiar faces have also been missing as cast and crew over the age of 70, or with an underlying health condition, have been kept at home during the early stages.

At the moment Covid-19 has not arrived on Coronation Street but the soap has no plans to ignore and the first references to the health crisis being made in an episode scheduled to air on July 24.

Emmerdale has also incorporated the pandemic into its storyline with the cast and crew back to work to film six special lockdown episodes showing how various characters have been coping in isolation.

Emmerdale has brought cast and crew back to work to film six special lockdown episodes. These two or three-hander episodes will show how various characters have been coping in isolation.

Over in Albert Square, characters in EastEnders, which resumed filming at the end of June, will also be seen getting to grips with a new way of life.

But Piers Wenger, controller of drama commissioning at the BBC, has said that the soap won't dwell on the real-life situation too much.

In Australia, production is resuming on long-running soap opera Neighbours with the cast social distancing on set and special camera angles to make characters appear closer together.

But some popular shows are remain on hold such as the third series of hit Channel 4 comedy Derry Girls, which has seen its filming schedule halted due to the pandemic, along with the 10th series of Call The Midwife, along with its Christmas specials

The highly-anticipated return of the cast of Friends for a one-off special episode was also postponed, with producers waiting until the unscripted show could be filmed in a traditional way in front of a live audience, rather than remotely with stars under quarantine.

There is no doubt that the pandemic has had a seismic effect on the film and TV industry and only time will tell what the long-term impact pf of it will be, especially for independent producers, but there are, at least, some small signs of a comeback.

Heather Large

By Heather Large
Special projects reporter - @HeatherL_star

Senior reporter and part of the Express & Star special projects team specialising in education and human interest features.

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