A local film company raced against time to finish shooting a movie as government restrictions tightened limitations on how we gather due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the most normal of times, a working film shoot is an exercise in inspired compromise. Things go wrong? You fix them — hand me that duct tape and a popsicle stick. But what do you do when government on every level is recommending extreme caution and distance? Well, for starters: follow government regulations to the letter and, whenever possible, you stand apart.
Edmonton’s Andrew Scholotiuk is producer of the in-production film, Christmas Coronation, a privately funded feature-length rom-com. Named long before the pandemic started, it’s dark to note the word “corona” is hidden literally within its title.
“Every six hours it seemed there was an advancement, somehow,” Scholotiuk says over the phone. “Fortunately, film productions are equipped to move quickly and adapt to ever-changing situations. But this was unprecedented. We were scrambling quite quickly to figure out how do we best deal with it. There’s an old saying in entertainment, ‘the show must go on.’ But how do we do so ensuring that the crew, the cast, our families and the public are safe?”
Shutting down entirely, the stakes wouldn’t be a maybe, but immediate, says Scholotiuk. “Simply put, as independent producers, it would take us years to recover. It’d be financial ruin.”
The crew consulted Centers for Disease Control, Canada Heath and Alberta Heath Services. “We talked to other productions from across Canada as well as the states, getting their policies. And called upon the unions that support the productions to get their take,” explains the producer, “including ACTRA and Directors Guild of Canada.”
Besides shortening the shooting schedule, an increase in distancing and on-set sanitizer, steps included a daily health survey which cast and crew had to respond to before arriving on set — and just paring down crew numbers, period.
“A big thing we had to do was scale it back and work in separate segments. We’d have a team that would go out in advance, prep the location, and then have a core team that were filming there, just to reduce the number of bodies.
“We lost locations due to city closures,” says Scholotiuk, using Wee Book Inn on Whyte Avenue as a stand-in for the shuttered Old Strathcona Branch of the EPL. “Without a doubt this has been a huge disruption to the production in every single aspect, from art to hair and makeup to transportation to accommodations, when we had to relocate from the Metterra to the Varscona.”
Not everyone stayed aboard: “We had a policy where if someone was not feeling well or had a family situation or did not want to participate. Yeah, we supported a few people walking away.”
By Tuesday night, shooting with a skeleton cast and crew in McIntyre Park, Scholotiuk noted, “The latest regulations are the most challenging. We’ve got our last scene here, the pinnacle of the film — a Christmas celebration in a village that we built here off Whyte Avenue. The original production called for 150 extras to be on set.
“That was obviously no longer something we wanted to do. So we’ve gotten really clever, using our existing crew in different costumes and unique camera angles shot with a long lens to flatten distance between people.”
But this is a rom-com, right? Spoilers and all, but isn’t there be a kiss at the end?
“Our two lead actors who have been working together for the last three weeks are comfortable with that situation.”
Christmas Coronation is the eighth film Scholotiuk and director Dylan Pearce have made, including the Edmonton Film Prize runner-up 40 Below and Falling, which also won a Lumiere Award in L.A. for the stereoscopic action-romance.
“We’re at the tail end,” Scholotiuk said late Tuesday night, Christmas snow falling lightly on the film’s retracted climax. “But as an employer we’re really proud of keeping this production going.
“For a lot of the technicians involved this is their last job for an unforeseen amount of time.”
Christmas Coronation prop master Danielle French reached out to Postmedia on Thursday.
“My union, IATSE International, issued a directive on Sunday saying that all members needed to stop working immediately because of the health risks,” says French, who left the set but continued to work with the production by phone. “Our local shop steward said that this was only a cautionary measure, but I don’t see how it could be interpreted that way.”
However, French says filming did not wrap up by Wednesday, and that shooting will continue on Thursday and Friday. She agrees that the production has made efforts to keep crew numbers down, but that the set can’t possibly meet the requirements for social distancing. While not wanting to hurt her team, she feels that morally it’s wrong to keep working.
“I’m so torn on this,” she says. “I’ve put my heart and soul into the film, and I really love our team. It’s a fantastic crew, and leaving feels like ripping out pieces of my soul. But we’re in a state of emergency, and going forward is a risk not just to my own health, but also the rest of society.”
Scholotiuk is sympathetic to French’s concerns, but is adamant that the production has been diligent with health protocols. Acknowledging that the film is continuing on for two additional days, Scholotiuk feels that the directive allows for union members to continue on set if they so desire, with no penalty.
“None of this is happening without any communication,” he stresses. “We’ve had a few crew members bow out due to concerns, and I’ve reached out to them, but we absolutely understand if someone doesn’t feel comfortable with this.”
Damian Petti, international vice president of IATSE, is not happy with the continuing work on Christmas Coronation. Petti relays that a few crew members have left because of their unease with health precautions, and says that there have been reports of illness on set. He also feels that his directive is not being taken seriously.
“We’re in the third week of every show in North America being shut down, and when I have a conference call where people ask if anyone is shooting it always comes up that there’s one show in Edmonton that’s continuing on,” he says with some exasperation from his office in Calgary. “Look, I’m sympathetic to the economic losses. I’m dealing with 1000 members who are going through that. But at the end of the day, public health risk supersedes economics.”
With files from Tom Murray
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