Back in the before times, when residents roamed Greater Boston without masks or restrictions, locals were used to seeing parked production trucks, yellow signs designating filming locations, and, occasionally, a movie star shooting an outdoor scene or having dinner after a day on set.
Then, like most other things, those sightings stopped. Everything stopped.
Now, filming is back, as are the trucks and stars. But the process looks a lot different for everyone involved.
The film industry got a local green light to restart productions in July when Massachusetts entered Phase 3 of its reopening amid COVID-19. But it took a few months — and lots of conversations about safety — for many producers, casts, and crews to call action again.
As of October, there are a bunch of shows and movies in various stages of production around Massachusetts, a state known for its tax incentives for filmmaking. The productions have their own bible for safety and filming. They also have to adhere to any state and local COVID-19 rules, including quarantines for incoming visitors.
Projects underway in Massachusetts now include: “Kevin Can F*** Himself,” an AMC comedy that flips the script on the average sitcom wife who puts up with all of her husband’s antics. It stars recent “Schitt’s Creek” Emmy winner Annie Murphy. Rashida Jones is a producer. (Murphy has been spotted around Boston, including at Cheers.)
There’s also a pilot about Julia Child from HBO Max; it filmed in Harvard Square over the weekend. Deadline reported that the cast includes “Happy Valley” actress Sarah Lancashire as the chef and David Hyde Pierce as Paul Child.
Movies on the docket include Miramax’s sci-fi film “Mother/Android,” which, according to Deadline, stars Chlöe Grace Moretz and Algee Smith. Then there’s Screen Gems’ “Shrine,” helmed by Evan Spiliotopoulos and starring Jeffrey Dean Morgan. The project, about a journalist who finds what seem like miracles (but are something scarier) in a New England town, had to pause in March and just wrapped filming.
The most notable film project, though, is Netflix’s “Don’t Look Up,” which, according to Deadline, boasts a cast that includes Jennifer Lawrence, Leonardo DiCaprio, Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, Jonah Hill, Timothée Chalamet, and Ariana Grande. Adam McKay, of “The Big Short,” is directing. The comedy about astronomers doing a media tour as a meteorite hurtles toward Earth begins filming next month, according to SAG-AFTRA’s site.
For the most part, industry locals say all of this action is a welcome return. Most importantly, the jobs are back.
“The amount of production that’s coming back here is really strong,” said David Hartman, executive director of the Massachusetts Production Coalition. “You know, people are enthusiastic to get back to work. They’re cautious, but they’re here to get back to work.”
Chris O’Donnell, the business manager of ISTAE Local 481, which represents technicians and craftspeople in the industry, said 2019 was a banner year for its members. Prior to the COVID shutdown, he said, via e-mail, ″2020 was looking to be as good or better than 2019. But the industry is bouncing back now and people are returning to work."
Slate Casting’s business picked up in the summer, mostly for commercials. Julie Arvedon Knowlton, the company’s casting director, said her talent calls have been virtual for safety. Sometimes they’re hired to find pairs of actors — or people living in the same “pod” — who can be filmed together without having to quarantine first. There’s also a new need for voice actors for animated commercials, she said.
Brockton Mayor Robert F. Sullivan, whose city has hosted filming of “Kevin Can F*** Himself,” said the city has its own COVID-19 consultant working with producers to protect locals.
“Brockton welcomes the economic activity from these projects and has worked with producers to make sure Brocktonians have an opportunity to participate,” he said in an e-mail.
Those on the ground on film sets say they’re learning to work with the new rules and to trust them.
Abri, an actress working around Boston, admitted she was nervous, at first, about taking jobs.
“I was skeptical,” she said after a day at work in mid-October, “just because it’s such a mass pandemic. But at the same time, we were reassured. We have safety precaution classes, we have to watch videos before we even go to get COVID tested. [We learn] what we have to do as actors to keep each other safe, before we even go on set.”
Abri has been in three big projects since production started again. She declined to name them, but her IMDb page says she’s appearing in “Kevin Can F*** Himself” and “Mother/Android.” She said she’s been tested for COVID every other day, and that actors are often required to stay more than 6 feet from others while waiting near set. Many routines have changed. There’s no craft services table with snacks, she said.
“You’re not allowed to just go and take the food anymore,” Abri said. “They have to hand it to you and it has to be all packaged — food, gloves, masks. And then also you can’t just eat on set. Even when you’re off set, you have to go to designated places that are 12 feet-plus apart, and it has to be outside regardless.”
A member of Local 481, who declined to be named because of a non-disclosure agreement, said the success of these projects has relied on personal accountability. Each person on set has to be trusted to wash hands, wear gloves, and be honest when filling out forms about their health, and they have to call each other out if someone is not following a rule.
“It feels like you’re putting trust in your union family and your New England film community family,” the source said.
Sets are divided into zones, siloed from one another, the source said. If someone working in one zone tested positive, everyone from that zone would stay home, while the others could continue working.
The national SAG-AFTRA office said that the bible for production right now is the Return to Work agreement, a 60-page document that multiple industry unions, including the Teamsters signed off on in September. Reviewed by epidemiologists, it lays out rules for frequency of testing, how to run productions based on the size of a crew, and who is allowed to be in any particular room during filming.
Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, chief operating officer and general counsel of SAG-AFTRA, said there are also rules for when filming must pause. (“Jurassic World: Dominion” director Colin Trevorrow tweeted earlier this month that he’d paused filming because of a positive test.)
“When you really think about it, performers are kind of unique,” Crabtree-Ireland said. “I mean, there really isn’t another job in this country [right now], where you’re expected to go to work and work within 6 feet of someone for an extended period of time with no PPE on whatsoever.”
The Local 481 worker hopes the returning jobs sway legislators to support the film tax incentive. The program — which gives filmmakers a 25 percent production credit, a 25 percent payroll credit, and a sales tax exemption for projects, provided they meet minimums for spending money in the state — is set to expire at the end of 2022, but supporters are pushing to make those incentives permanent. Opponents say the state loses money on the credits.
On Wednesday, the Massachusetts Production Coalition released a commissioned report highlighting what one season of “Castle Rock” brought to the state in jobs and revenue for local businesses. The report said the show spent $42 million of its budget in the state “with a direct impact on the Massachusetts economy,” and “bought goods and services from vendors in more than 210 cities and towns.”
While the big production companies can afford insurance, pauses in production, and PPE, small projects with limited budgets are still figuring out how to make it work.
Triceptus Studios founder Crosby Tatum said that’s why much of his Boston company’s work has been post-production this year. Tatum makes narrative films, usually under $25,000, but his company has spent most of 2020 doing remote editing and similar services for industrial videos, commercials, and other projects that have already been filmed.
“We’ve been doing remote editing for years," he said. “There’s just an emphasis on it now because everyone is at home."
Crosby added that he’d had higher hopes for 2020, but now it’s a waiting game. “I mean, we were supposed to be shooting a movie and television pilot this year. ... We’ll just have to wait and see how everything turns out.”
Meredith Goldstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.