How to Produce a Short Film During a Pandemic

Christina Fowler, Madison McLain, Ashley HellerCredit: Adam Della Maggiora
How do you safely produce a short film during a pandemic? This team can show you.

This post was written by Nick Coppola and Andrew Rose.

We set out to make our horror/thriller short film Marlowe in May of 2020. And like so many other projects, COVID-19 halted our filming plans almost immediately.

But that was not the end of our story.

Looking at our script, it was one of the most COVID-friendly stories you could possibly imagine. It takes place on a secluded beach, in one beach house, between a mother and son, played by actors Allie McCulloch and her real-life-son Townsend Fallica. When we took a step back to see all the elements, we realized that from every perspective we could absolutely tackle this challenge without taking unnecessary risks.

We were going to film Marlowe despite the pandemic. Here's how we did it.

Andrew Rose, Townsend Fallica, Allie McCullochCredit: Adam Della Maggiora

Pandemic producing

This did not mean it would be easy. In order to film, we would need to test all cast and crew three times over a six-day period. This meant we would require adequate lodging, reliable on-site testing, as well as consistent transport and test-processing if we were ever going to succeed.

So I contacted every lab on the east coast nearby our filming location in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, as well as couriers and licensed nurse practitioners to administer our PCR tests. It was a real crash course in pandemic producing, not to mention the ultimate bandwidth stress test of my life. But after gathering all relevant data, eventually, every piece of the puzzle fell into place—and it came to a point where we all knew. We were actually going to film this.

We aimed to complete filming over six days in October, testing the cast and crew throughout. But it wasn’t until the end of the third day of filming that a crucial element in the logistic chain failed.

Our laboratory reported a positive test result. So right there while filming on the beach, I shut down the entire production. And what made this experience all the more painful was that the positive test result was in fact a false-positive, as in, a laboratory error.

Dillon DiPietro, Katie Sanderson, Andrew RoseCredit: Adam Della Maggiora

Andrew Rose on finishing strong

But of course, with every challenge, a new opportunity presents itself.

After we shut down, I immediately started editing to see precisely what was required to finish our film. As it turned out, we had about 60% of the film completed. So we called up everyone with the goal of organizing a second round of filming with an extremely surgical shotlist, even more so than the first shoot.

Despite it being a laboratory error that shut us down the first time, we would employ even stricter safety measures this time around—but now with the additional threat of hurricanes on the east coast as well as the growing curve of COVID-19 cases in America. The risk of crew members testing positive even before the first day of filming was always present, either from infection or a laboratory error, and our child actor was seven years old and growing up very fast, which would pose a real challenge to the continuity.

All in all, we had a very limited window in which to complete the remainder of our film with many more challenges, less money, less time, and less crew. It was one of the most logistically complex operations we’ve ever faced with a 0% margin of error, where every element depended on the success of the next. But thanks to the absolutely incredible work of our co-producer Katie Sanderson, our AD team headed by Dillon DiPietro, cinematographer Jared Freeman, actors Allie McCulloch and Townsend Fallica, along with the rest of our unbelievably talented and dedicated crew, we knew exactly what had to be done and out-thought every single challenge that was thrown our way.

We couldn’t have made Marlowe without our amazing team. We also couldn’t have done it without the support of the North Carolina community. From film crew to nurse staffing, lodging, restaurants, transportation as well as camera and lighting equipment from Illumination Dynamics in Charlotte, NC, and Lighthouse Films in Wilmington, NC—this was a true collaboration across the entire state of North Carolina, and we couldn’t be more proud.

We were honored to have worked with so many NC-based professionals from so many fields and we can’t wait for many more collaborations to come in a post-pandemic future.

Elizabeth ComptonCredit: Adam Della Maggiora

Hair and makeup artist Madison McLain on the shoot's unique challenges

When it’s recommended to stay six feet away from someone, being a makeup artist becomes a risky job. There was never a "work at home" option for me because my job entails being in very close proximity to actors for long periods of time.

As the CDC started to implement safety guidelines, I studied them like it was my job… because it was my job. The makeup department has always been one of the most sanitary and germ-conscious departments on set, but now the stakes are higher. With Marlowe, it was a bit easier having only a two-person cast. I kept every tool and item of makeup I used on each actor in separate bags, which I then also carried to set for touch-ups, making sure to never cross-contaminate.

I think the biggest shift in my job now is that I’m trying to protect myself as well as the client. Marlowe was one of my first times back on set after nearly a year of not working. I was very nervous but knew that I had to focus on being safe. That included wearing full PPE and being extremely thorough with sanitizing and cleaning my hands, my kit, my tools, and my work area.

Makeup application times take longer now, because of these added precautions, but I felt lucky to be with this crew, who clearly prioritized doing things the right way.

Andrew Rose, Townsend Fallica, Allie McCulloch, Mateo Davis, Jared Freeman, Katie SandersonCredit: Adam Della Maggiora

Katie Sanderson (co-producer) on set dynamics

As a producer, my biggest priority will always be people. I am the voice for my crew. It is my responsibility to make each day as seamless as possible so they can show up and do their jobs. This takes extensive planning in advance and the ability to solve unforeseen circumstances in real-time on the day; which is a very daunting task when you’re in the middle of a global pandemic.

We filmed Marlowe in Wilmington, North Carolina, which is just a few hours away from my college town of Winston-Salem. Our crew was made up of old friends that were able to come together and bring this film to life. It was my job to make sure every single step was taken the right way, so our people were safe and so we could set an example for the rest of the community. This was challenging but absolutely necessary.

Jared Freeman, Andrew RoseCredit: Adam Della Maggiora
Our director, Andrew [Rose], went through a very extensive process to get the film approved by SAG. This involved zoning blueprints of our location, COVID testing, and a lab in Virginia that prioritized our results so we could make our schedule happen. Without these pivotal steps, we wouldn’t have made a movie when we did. Once we were green-lit and had a crew, we all quarantined to make sure we were able to work together.

Though there were hurdles, it was an incredibly rewarding opportunity to be reunited with very close collaborators and friends after being isolated during the pandemic. There is a sense of realness in the film that could have only come from a team of incredibly hardworking people putting everything on hold to make this film.

It really did take a village, but the most important part is that our team can say they were taken care of. They were safe and given an opportunity to make art during a very scary and uncertain time. We are able to say that we did it the right way and made something that we can be proud of. I learned so much from this film and will always remember Marlowe.

Townsend Fallica and Allie McCullochCredit: Adam Della Maggiora

Nick Coppola (associate producer) on teamwork

We’d like to think we had a meaningful impact during a time where everyone was out of work and we were happy to provide jobs during challenging times. We also had a small economic impact in the Wrightsville beach community with lodging and local restaurants with our production. Making movies during a pandemic was not for the faint of heart, but it proved to be possible.     

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