These Days attempts to do just that. Filmed in early 2020, the show portrays young, disillusioned characters stuck at home trying to forge new connections.
There's something a bit nostalgic about the show, which reminds us of the early ennui and aimlessness at the start of the pandemic, and the nightly cheers that went up for healthcare workers, and the struggles of figuring out this new way of life. What does reality now look like for a dancer in a small New York apartment? How can you find love and maintain relationships in this mess?
The episodic is an official selection of the Indie Series Program at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
As part of its programming, Sundance held a Q&A session with actor Marianne Rendón, writer/director Adam Brooks, actor William Jackson Harper, and producer Peter Saraf. They share practical advice for planning and staging remote creativity—because, unfortunately, most of us are still waiting and sheltering. And waiting and sheltering.
Enjoy the takeaways.
How do you work with actors on a remote production?
Early in the conversation, it was pointed out that Brooks has never even "met" Harper, one of the series' lead actors. How can you decide someone is right for a role without that face-to-face experience? The creators said it was all about trust.
What about the actual shoot?
"We settled on this system," Brooks said. "Everyone got a package with microphones and minimal lighting things [and] two iPhones. One was an iPhone 11 Pro that filmed the actors, and the other was an iPhone 11 that acted as a Zoom screen so they could see each other, and see me, and see Toby [Datum, DP]. And we could communicate."
The process was highly collaborative and characters grew out of prompts and exploration.
"It was really at the height of being inside," said Rendón. "So it was really exciting for me, for someone who is very physical—I was so stir crazy—to do things with my dog or set the camera up. A lot of it was from my own daily life."
Harper agreed the situation was unique and called for more work on his side, although he thankfully had some help.
"For me, my girlfriend Ali was the one-person crew here at the house," he said, "and handled everything and allowed me to stay in the zone as much as I could."
Harper said as an actor, you "need to feel free and you need to feel safe," so creating that environment even over Zoom allowed him to bring strong work to the project.
Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Embracing the freedom
On a small, independent production limited to home locations, no studios or networks were involved, and Brooks called that "enormously freeing."
For example, if they needed reshoots or new scenes, the actors didn't have to go anywhere.
"There was this playfulness of, I could call up Will and Marianne and say, 'Hey, guys, do you have an hour and a half tomorrow at 2 o'clock? I really just want to do one more thing with this,'" he said. "And we'd do it. It was like making films as a teenager or at film school. There was a do-it-yourself quality and yet we brought all their experience to it."
Saraf, who works in TV and film, pointed out the timeliness of their project made outside of the network system.
"It was very liberating, it was very fun," Saraf said. "It was kind of, like Adam was saying, it was like going back to early in your career where you're making everything up as you go along. Figuring it out."
William Jackson Harper in 'These Days' by Adam Brooks, an official selection of the Indie Series Program at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Where does the story go from here?
These Days is of course a pandemic production. But it's also a show with a baked-in premise that would be flexible and responsive to whatever is going on currently.
Brooks envisions a six-episode season, with each episode covering a month. As things change in the world, the characters and story can change along with it. So are they deciding when to venture outside? Will they try to get vaccinated?
Because of this, the writers didn't limit themselves to always being stuck inside. They created strong characters who can grow alongside current events.
This is something other filmmakers should keep in mind—don't write yourself into a corner using an idea that doesn't have legs. Remember in episodic that you need to carry a story over a longer period, and remember to keep your writing focused on characters, not just a premise.