SPOIL ALERT: Don’t read on if you haven’t yet watched “Social Distance,” now streaming on Netflix.
No show during the coronavirus era has managed to move past original production plans – not even to Netflix’s ‘Social Distance’, a show that grew out of the pandemic itself and therefore anticipated some of the more difficult from the jump.
As of May 2020, the stories for all eight episodes of Hilary Weisman Graham’s anthology series had been written and the series was days away from filming when George Floyd was assassinated. A few writers took part in a protest and Graham recounts Variety that she came back realizing that she had “a voice right now and I’m going to use it.” So she told her team that she was deleting the original final episode to write a new one that responded to the moment.
The new episode, titled “Pomp and Circumstance” and directed by Anya Adams, stars Asante Blackk as a young man so pissed off by the murder that he argues with his boss (Ayize Ma’at) in the most fashionable way. productive to respond. This is the episode that is most explicitly political – literally featuring two characters from opposite sides of a belief system and ultimately ending with Blackk’s character choosing his beliefs over his job but telling his boss, who is of a different generation, that he can rest. because “it’s not your fight anymore, it’s ours now.”
Once that story was broken up, Graham and his writers went back through the previous seven scripts to build at this point in the series how reality “we’ve been building at this point for years, for the whole story of America, ”she remarks. This included tweaking Okieriete Onaodowan’s character in the first episode, “Remove All Future Events,” to be more of an activist so they could “sprinkle in some pre-George Floyd Black Lives Matter conversations that would take place in between. black men, ”explains. “It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, we’re changing the show to just talk about race, but that’s of course the other pandemic. We paid attention [before] but clearly not enough and now we will correct it. ”
This first episode actually required another necessary pivot for the production team: after choosing Mike Colter in the lead role, they noticed that his real home, in which he would have to shoot his scenes given the production parameters at distance, did not. match the aesthetic of the house his character would have, a small businessman struggling to stay afloat.
“It’s a chic, multi-million dollar place. It’s not overdone, but it’s cool; Mike Colter is a successful actor, ”Graham says of his house.
His scenes take place through a combination of video conferencing, Facetime calling, and social media apps, which didn’t require wide shots. But instead of moving with Colter into his home, as some of the other episodes do with their performers, production designer Ryan Berg took a room from Colter’s house and turned it into a studio, which kept Colter in. a more confined space.
Communicating through Zoom, members of the production team such as Berg and the episode directors were able to guide the actors on how to arrange the spaces in their own homes in which they would shoot their scenes, but it turned out. turned out to be easier for some than for others.
In both “And We Could All Together / Go Out to the Ocean” and “Humane Animal Trap”, the actors had to transform residential spaces into medical spaces. The older episode stars Danielle Brooks as a frontline worker who still shows up every day at the facility where her patient resides (played by her real mother LaRita Brooks). Not only did they need the hallway to resemble that of a care facility, rather than a family home, but the character of LaRita Brooks needed complicated medical equipment that the actors had to handle on their own. For this latest episode, Sunita Mani transformed her open living room in New York City into a corner of a Georgia hospital.
“We sent hospital equipment, some sides for the walls; we asked her husband to dress up as a nurse and get a pass, ”Graham says. “Those kinds of things really tickled us, and I think that was part of the fun of making the show. It was very depressed and dirty and it was fun to be challenged that way.
This way the remote production can look like a student film or some other guerrilla-type project. Casting for “Social Distance,” for example, required hiring people who quarantined together to play face to face, even though not all of them were professional actors.
“We knew there was a very small needle that we were trying to thread,” Graham admits. “Our casting director, Jen Euston, would email us a few names, and we were like, ‘OK, this person is right.’ So it was an offer-only process. But we were always worried that we wouldn’t find what we wanted, and there were a few tricky ones.
Blackk’s role in “Pomp and Circumstance,” Graham shares, was originally written for an actor around 25 years old. But Graham says that “few young adults who are successful actors live with their parents or a man about 20 years older. or 30 years older. So we got old [the character] a few years ”, in order to hire Blackk and his real father Maat.
Other roles were even more complicated. Danielle Brooks’ character is a single mother of a 6-year-old girl, whom she leaves home alone (watching her through the nanny’s cameras) while she goes to work. The script called for his character’s scenes to be with his patient, while the child ends up staying with his patient’s adult daughter. So the show had to find two adult generations of women in quarantine in one house and an adult-child combination in another. Marsha Stephanie Blake and her real-life daughter Rocco Luna have been hired for the latter roles.
“We were really, really lucky,” Graham says of the assembled “Social Distance” cast.
Luna, Graham notes, had the right “energy and spirit” for the character, but this was her very first acting job. “We were asking him to do a lot. I think it was halfway through the second day she was like, ‘I’ll never do a movie again! But it was mostly hard on her mother, Marsha Stephanie Blake, who was doing the acting job and also managing her child.
Likewise, Peter Scanavino and his young son Leo Bai-Scanavino were cast in the episode titled “You Gotta Ding-Dong Fling-Flong the Whole Narrative”, in which the character of Scanavino must take care of both his young son and his wife. (Ali Ahn) as she quarantines herself in a room in their home on her own, after contracting COVID. Casting Ahn meant shooting her scenes in an entirely separate house, since she doesn’t live with Scanavino, but Graham says this episode never had a moment of recuperation or family embrace in the script. Instead, she wanted to leave the audience with “a feeling” that Ahn’s character would be okay.
“Social Distance” uses various forms of technology, including the aforementioned Facetime calls, social media, and nanny cameras, in order to show off its characters in their environments, but it also penetrates characters’ heads at times, through the cartoons of The character of Bai-Scanavino and even the VR Chat game system in the episode “everything is v depressing rn”.
Written by Anthony Natoli, this episode was inspired by how teens can lead their usual lives during the pandemic – because they’re so used to communicating with their friends digitally – via social media, apps, and texts, Graham said. “If you are a nervous and insecure teenager – as many of them are – you [may] feel comfortable expressing your feelings through this avatar. It takes courage to admit that you have a crush on someone, whatever form you do it, but it’s a form of protection, ”she says.
As countless people around the world learned to navigate Zoom during the pandemic, Graham and his production team learned to use VR Chat. “It was a virtual shoot. We were all like, “We are in the future!” She said laughing. “We really got into VR Chat and we just had to save it. So we recorded the voices of our actors, and then some of the VR Chat professionals – from the company that knew the demo was needed – would play our actors, so the avatars would sync up following the lines.
Changing health and safety guidelines also required adjustments on set, which resulted in a change in the dynamics of character relationships. In the episode “Zero Feet Away,” Max Jenkins and Brian Jordan Alvarez play a couple who struggle to stay stuck 24/7. It starts with quarrels, turns into an attempt to open up their relationship, and eventually realizes that they don’t really want a threesome. The way the script was written was that Jenkins’ character would get along with the guy they brought in for the trio (Peter Vack), and once that was decided – and all the cast had results of COVID test negative – this limited the privacy that could be shown between Jenkins and Alvarez.
“[They] were eating icing in the kitchen and I said to [director] Claire Scanlon, “It would be really cute if he handed her his spoon,” Graham said. “And she was like, ‘Hilary, remember I can’t do this.’ They couldn’t even share a spoon.
While each episode has an independent story, unique characters, and its own themes, the common thread Graham wanted to draw through all of them was “a certain sense of hope” but also a lot of the unknown.
“What I realized is we can’t give them too much closure. There is just something so cute about it. I think that’s why most shorts fail – they’re like, ‘It’s all wrapped up in a little arc at the end’ and that doesn’t feel real, ‘she says. “There is no certainty. And that, to me, feels like it sums up what we’re all going through right now. No one knows when it’s going to end, exactly how it will end, or what might happen between now and then.
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