Ellen Lister

No kissing and Covid robots: inside the socially distant film set

No kissing and Covid robots: inside the socially distant film set
Tom Cruise and Hayley Atwell on the set of Mission Impossible: Libra (Getty)
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How do you enjoy a socially distanced kiss on screen? Come to that, how do you film a socially distanced murder? And, between takes, can robots carry out COVID testing? These are just some of the perplexing issues that actors, writers and directors on film and TV sets have been grappling with of late. 

Hollywood productions, and their stars, haven’t been immune to the on-set stresses, an increasingly surreal side-effect of the pandemic. Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence have been pictured wearing full plastic face visors on set in Boston for the forthcoming Netflix comedy Don’t Look Up. Tom Cruise, who is currently finishing up Mission: Impossible 7, recently ripped into two crew members at Warner Bros’ Leavesden Studios in Hertfordshire, after he saw they were breaching social distancing rules: 'I don’t ever want to see it again, ever!” he shouted. “If I see you do it again you’re ******** gone'. 

Cruise pulls no punches, but he has a point. Production on Mission: Impossible 7 has been closed down and restarted several times since filming first started in Venice in February 2020, with multiple cast and crew testing positive for Coronavirus along the way. The Batman – another mega movie shooting in the UK – was halted almost as soon as it had got back on its feet in September 2020, after its leading man, Robert Pattinson, tested positive with COVID-19. Meanwhile Equity, the actors’ union, is now reporting that older actors are being quietly dropped from films as producers are simply unwilling to add to the risk. 

The starting and stopping, as well as the new protocols and safety measures, have had huge impacts on production budgets, which are said to have increased by ten to 20 per cent. Indeed, the entire set ecosystem has changed. Social distancing of two metres, face masks, disinfection of props and small actor bubbles or 'cohorts' are now commonplace. Many productions have a designated 'COVID Supervisor', which must be the least cool film credit you can get. Rapid testing has also been put in place, occurring up to three times a week on some sets. 

'My sinuses could do with a break, and I’d never had a nosebleed before all this', says one fatigued cameraman who has worked on several films in the past year. Executive producer Alexandra Derbyshire, who just wrapped filming on Universal Studios’ Jurassic World: Dominion, at Pinewood Studios, told Variety Magazine that the extra Covid-related costs ran into the 'millions'. 

Cruise knows this only too well, having personally stumped up $700,000 to hire a ship to keep the cast and crew safe and avoid further travel delays whilst filming in Norway. According to one report, Cruise has now procured two state-of-the-art robots to patrol the set and administer on-the-spot testing to misbehaving crew. 'It’s like the terminator, only not as violent', a source on the film set said. 

What’s true for Hollywood is also true for our homegrown film and TV, not least the hugely popular soaps. Emmerdale actress Olivia Bromley was looking forward to adding 'murderer' to the CV of her troubled character Dawn Taylor (heroin addict, prostitute) when the first lockdown hit in March 2020. 'Under the circumstances the writer, Chris Gill, had to reframe the whole murder', says Bromley. 'We’d had a physical fight planned. It was meant to be several scenes of struggle. I mean, how do you do that in a COVID safe way?'. 

The script was quickly rewritten to remove all the physical aspects of the killing, whilst amplifying the psychological elements. Dawn was pressured to take a heroin overdose, from a safe two metre distance (naturally), before finally cracking and shooting a police officer with his own gun. 'That was a really interesting rewrite', says Bromley, 'but for the actors, we have to play the intensity of that without coming close to each other at all.' 

Dare I ask, is anyone enjoying themselves? The creative process, the banter on set and the early morning chats in hair and makeup – is what makes sets hum. Is filming still any fun? 'Yeah! We’re Still having a laugh and cracking jokes – just more remotely!' says film and TV actor Charles Venn, who is now in his sixth year of playing clinical nurse Jacob Masters in Casualty. Venn has found the COVID protocols on set challenging, but 'actors are always adapting', he says. 'It does make it harder to act though. It’s a new obstacle, particularly for intimate scenes.' 

Ah yes, those 'intimate scenes'. Venn describes a scene to me where he walks past his on-screen lover, Connie Beauchamp (played by Amanda Mealing) in a corridor. Normally they would kiss, he explains, but now the actors can’t do that. 'I thought, do you know what, this scene doesn’t feel right. So instead I say "what, no kiss!" and she replies - suggestively - "later”'. 

I worry that all our future shows are going to be as proper as a Jane Austen novel. Film guidance on 'Intimacy in the Time of COVID-19' released by Directors UK suggested directors find inspiration in classic films such as It Happened One Night (1934) and Casablanca (1943) – romances devoid of any on-screen sex. I wonder how much all of these rules (and the robots) will impact the finished product. Will these shows be any good? Venn is keeping the faith: 'That’s our job. To ensure that the audience are fully immersed in the experience'. Plus, there are still more tricks in the bag. One option mooted on Casualty is actors bringing in their real-life partners (provided they are part of the same household) for any on-screen smooch. The partners will then get edited out in post-production, and the actors spliced together. 'I thought my wife would be nervous to go on set', says Venn, 'but she’s excited… so now I’m like, yeah, let’s do it babe!'.

Written byEllen Lister

Ellen Lister is a former actress who works in the film & TV industry

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