Coronavirus Outbreak: American TV showrunners reveal how they're shooting intimate scenes during pandemic

The coronavirus outbreak in the US has led to TV shows taking to creative changes like mannequins, spousal stand-ins, and phone sex to project intimacy.

The New York Times July 21, 2020 16:59:09 IST
Coronavirus Outbreak: American TV showrunners reveal how they're shooting intimate scenes during pandemic

Of all the weird ways that COVID-19 has affected life in the US, one of the most bizarre is taking place on a soundstage in Los Angeles. That is where actors on the CBS soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful have been shooting intimate scenes with mannequins.

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“At first, we took out the love scenes, and the show was falling a little flat because we’re all about romance and family interactions,” said Bradley Bell, the executive producer of the CBS daytime drama. “One of the first ideas we had was to bring in mannequins for the intimate scenes and hospital scenes, and it’s working quite well — we’re shooting it from a great distance or in a way you can’t see the form is inanimate.”

How are the performers reacting to their lifeless co-stars? “We’ve had a lot of strange looks and questions like, do you really want to do this?” Bell said. “But everyone is game. They are getting their first latex kiss.”

Viewers will judge for themselves how realistic this appears as new episodes return. The Bold and the Beautiful was one of the first TV series to restart production after the coronavirus caused an industry-wide shutdown in mid-March. Since then, most TV creators have been meeting with their staffs in “Zoom Rooms,” penning plotlines and episodes, not knowing whether — and when — they will be able to safely capture them on camera.

COVID-19 has been particularly vexing for the writers of TV’s sexiest and most romantic series as they try to figure out how to portray physical intimacy — the scenes that draw in viewers and spark Twitter hashtags — while keeping their performers safe. So far, producers of shows like Riverdale, Dynasty, and The L Word: Generation Q are planning on a combination of safety protocols and narrative tricks. These include aggressive testing of cast and crew, quarantining, on-set medical professionals, camera wizardry, illusion, and innuendo-laden scripts with subtext reminiscent of 1970s TV. (It was an open secret, for example, that Mary Richards of The Mary Tyler Moore Show was sexually active, even though the series never addressed it.)

And yes, the occasional mannequin.

Riverdale, for example, shut down during the final moments of its characters’ senior year in high school — a prom was filmed; graduation was not. Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, the showrunner of The CW series, has plans to feature mannequins in the audience at graduation, but not in love scenes. In fact, it is likely the program’s performers will be showing a lot less skin.

Coronavirus Outbreak American TV showrunners reveal how theyre shooting intimate scenes during pandemic

A still from Riverdale

“There’s a weird retro 1950s vibe to Riverdale,” Aguirre-Sacasa said. “One of the things we sometimes do is suggest sex through coded language — I think we’ll almost lean into that melodrama and suggestive behavior.”

The series, like others, will also feature more “bottle episodes” — a term that describes an installment that dives deep into the story of one or two characters, often with a limited number of sets — in order to help manage the number of people present during filming. But do not expect to see Archie and Veronica practice social distancing.

“We’ve done mysterious diseases, so my hope is that Riverdale will be an escape from the real world, rather than a reflection,” Aguirre-Sacasa said. A previously planned five-six-year time jump in the plotline will also help skirt the coronavirus issue.

Legacies, a young adult drama about vampires and the vampire-adjacent, did not have a chance to film a long-anticipated romantic reunion between two of its main characters before production ceased. (To name them would spoil the show and inflame millions of fans.) That has been weighing on the mind of Julie Plec, an executive producer who is strategising how to deliver this payoff in a pandemic.

“Twenty episodes is a long time for nobody kissing, so we have to look at the logistics of how we could make it work, “ Plec said. “Maybe we can mount a separate intimacy unit that has its own quarantine and its own testing. Maybe we could just hire a crew that’s going to shoot our intimacy.”

This thinking is consistent with the suggestions in 'The Safe Way Forward,' a 36-page document crafted in tandem by four major Hollywood unions: SAG-AFTRA, the Directors Guild of America, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, and the Teamsters. Among its recommendations is a “zoned” approach to production that limits the number of actors and staff on sets where the use of personal protective equipment is not possible. The unions also call for capping workdays at 10 hours to allow for more cleaning time, and COVID-19 testing for all cast and crew that ranges from weekly to rapid (in which results are delivered in 1-12 hours) for actors performing intimate scenes.

It is the first time in decades that the four groups have released joint protocols. “We’ll definitely see an increase in specially trained professionals on set,” says Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, the chief operating officer and general counsel of SAG-AFTRA.

He adds that intimacy coordinators — who became fixtures on many productions, in the wake of the #MeToo movement, to ensure the comfort and safety of actors — may also be trained in COVID-19 prevention techniques.

Of course, these problems are not just the province of teen shows. The L Word: Generation Q, Showtime’s revival of the groundbreaking series, premiered in December with a graphic one-minute, 20-second long sex scene. These types of moments that can only be depicted on premium services have become a hallmark of the program, which has presented a challenge to the showrunner Marja-Lewis Ryan, as she and her staff plan the second season.

Coronavirus Outbreak American TV showrunners reveal how theyre shooting intimate scenes during pandemic

A still from The L Word: Generation Q

“I try to write in two different phases,” Ryan said. “I write the dream first, and then somebody tells me ‘Your dreams can’t come true.’ Then I try to figure out: What is it about this dream that really matters to me? And I make adjustments from there. My independent film background is going to be really imperative, because in that world you hear ‘no’ all the time,” she said. “I do like puzzles, so maybe it’ll be OK.”

Ryan, like many of the other producers interviewed for this story, is considering limiting guest stars and background actors — it is going to be a tough time for anyone who makes a living as a television extra — and hiring cast members’ real-world partners. (The Bold and The Beautiful has already done this.) Multiple L Word stars are dating or married to people who “also happen to be very good actors,” Ryan said.

“Our joke is I’m going to have a lot of wigs, and I’m just going to be in every scene,” she added.

Wigs aside, TV showrunners are examining how some cinematic sleights of hand could give the illusion of intimacy. Avoiding romantic situations really is not possible on Netflix show You, which stars Penn Badgley as a hyperliterate, unhinged stalker with a mounting body count in constant pursuit of his “true love” — so far a different woman each season.

“Smoke and mirrors,” the You showrunner Sera Gamble said, “are basically the entire job description of making cinematic entertainment. Everything requires fakery.” (Gamble knows something about cinematic shenanigans — she also ran The Magicians.)

“You’ve definitely watched a scene where two people are speaking intimately, and not noticed that you’re looking over a stunt double’s shoulder, for example,” she continued. “This season, our particular job is to say, ‘Everybody think of 100 percent of everything you’ve ever done to make something look a certain way on camera, because we’re going to work our way through all of it.’”

The past offers lessons on how not to handle the filming of intimate scenes during an epidemic. The last time Hollywood confronted this issue was in the early 1980s, before many people fully understood how AIDS was spread.

One of those people was Rock Hudson, who had joined the cast of Dynasty in 1984 as a love interest for Linda Evans’ Krystle. After reading a script in which his character was supposed to passionately kiss Evans, he agonised over whether to tell the series producers and his co-star that he had AIDS, according to his autobiography Rock Hudson: His Story. Ultimately, he did not — instead he gargled lots of mouthwash, and performed the kiss with a closed mouth.

As Evans wrote in her own memoir, Recipes for Life: My Memories, her puzzlement about “why his kiss was so passionless” gave way to clarity “when the news broke that he had AIDS. In retrospect, it was incredibly touching how hard he tried to protect me.”

This piece of television lore has not come up in conversation among the actors of The CW's Dynasty revival, the showrunner Josh Reims said. Like its predecessor, the show, which was forced to end its third season without filming an eagerly awaited wedding, is known for its sexy, soapy antics. This has Reims and the other writers reaching for creative solutions.

Coronavirus Outbreak American TV showrunners reveal how theyre shooting intimate scenes during pandemic

A still from Dynasty

“Phone sex has certainly come up a lot,” Reims said, laughing. “I was looking through the first episode written before all this, and basically removed everything that said, ‘And then they kiss.’” “The joke among the writers,” he added, “is that we will watch two characters say they want to have sex and then cut to them saying, ‘That was some great sex.’”

Reims is hoping that when the show returns to the air next spring, COVID-19 — and the challenges of plotting and filming intimate scenes — will have subsided. Regardless, you will not see the Carringtons in face masks. “No one,” he said, “is watching Dynasty to be reminded of a pandemic.”

Henry Goldblatt c.2020 The New York Times Company

All images from Twitter.

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