All quiet on set: How do you make a TV drama in a crisis?

Shows from Fair City to Succession try to navigate new shooting rules after shutdown

Fair City filming before Covid-19 lockdown: Shooting a scene in the fictional Carrigstown - on the RTÉ campus. Photograph: Eric Luke

Fair City filming before Covid-19 lockdown: Shooting a scene in the fictional Carrigstown - on the RTÉ campus. Photograph: Eric Luke


Before coronavirus intervened, the next scenes the makers of Fair City were about to film involved 12 characters at a christening. “I don’t think we are going to be seeing that anytime soon. The writers have come up with a new storyline,” says executive producer Brigie de Courcy.

As soon as the RTÉ soap opera airs again, Covid-19 will be reflected on screen. Instead of crowds in McCoy’s pub, “we might find Ger sitting there playing darts on her own”, while there will be “shenanigans” between a new young couple forced to isolate together “far too early” in their relationship.

Masks will be spotted in Carrigstown, the soap’s fictional Dublin suburb, de Courcy says. “What soap does so well is normalise things.”

Alas, these haven’t been normal times. The protocols of Fair City’s production restart – the date unfixed at the time of our interview – include a one-way system on the set at the RTÉ campus, two cameras rather than the usual three and actors attempting their own make-up. “We are going to look slightly different than we looked before.”

What about cast and crew in the most clinically vulnerable categories, those aged over 70 for example? “We wouldn’t force anyone to come back at all,” says de Courcy. “It will be their decision.”

Soaps can write Covid into the script, but other dramas can’t do that

The dilemmas being weighed up by the soap, absent from RTÉ One since Easter Sunday, are replicated right across the screen industry. Officially, the Government has given the green light for film and television production to begin again from June 29th, in the third phase of the reopening plan, but few of the 24 productions that Screen Producers Ireland (SPI) estimates were stood down in mid-March will roll cameras that day.

Matt Damon has flown home for a reason: the film he was in Ireland to make, Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel, isn’t expected to shoot again until the autumn.

“I think we were all a bit surprised by June 29th. We all thought it would be a bit later,” says Clare Muffly, employee and industrial relations manager at SPI. Anomalies have sprung to mind. Dramas need hairdressers, for example, yet hairdressers aren’t permitted to open their salons until July 20th. Safety-wise, is doing hair on a film set so different than in a high-street salon?

The day before Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s St Patrick’s Day address, Vikings: Valhalla, the new Netflix series, then on the cusp of shooting at Ashford Studios in Co Wicklow, cancelled an open casting call in Dublin in which it was searching for extras with “weird and wonderful looks”. Now anything that requires hundreds of extras will likely have to wait until restrictions are lifted on large gatherings.

“Soaps can write Covid into the script, but other dramas can’t do that,” says Muffly.

Filming Normal People: The runaway lockdown television hit
Filming Normal People: A look behind the scenes of the runaway lockdown television hit.

French hours

SPI, in consultation with the industry and its guilds and unions, is drafting its guidance on the health and safety measures that will define best practices here. Internationally, similar documents now abound. One, from US entertainment company Lionsgate, divides cast and crew into three “pods”.

It advocates sealing sets for three days after they are dressed “to allow viruses on surfaces to die” and suggests that to avoid congestion in catering areas, productions might employ “French hours” – an industry term for when there is no official lunch break.

Beyond news and current affairs, the only television that has been made in Ireland in recent months has been pandemic-necessitated, “essential service” shows such as Home School Hub, Ireland On Call and Operation Transformation: Keeping Well Apart (hastily renamed from the original Operation Covid Nation).

Some producers have been able to complete post-production remotely throughout the lockdown, however. In March, Stephen McCormack, chief executive of Reflektor Media, was in New York for the final few days of filming on Fearless: Samantha Barry, a documentary about the Irish editor-in-chief of Glamour US, when the city shut down. He has since had Covid-19, which he suspects he contracted in New York. “When we landed here, [in Ireland] I didn’t leave the house for three weeks.”

Do people want to see travel shows? Yes, they do. In a way, they want the opposite of what you think

Luckily, they had enough material and were able to finish the documentary, which airs on RTÉ One on Monday night, using Evercast software – “like Zoom for editing”. Picking up where you left off will be much harder for scripted drama, he says, citing one Irish production that was halfway through its shoot when it had to stop. “That’s just a nightmare.”

The question McCormack is asking himself now is this: “What can I produce with small crews that heavily relies on the edit, and if someone gets sick, I can still get the production back up again?”

He admiringly mentions one recent edit-reliant lockdown commission, Channel 4’s Snoop Dogs, made by Belfast’s Stellify Media, in which Go-Pro cameras were attached to dogs who “turn pup-arazzi” on their celebrity owners.

Broadcasters will be in the market for “aspirational, uplifting programming” from September, McCormack is hearing. He has had a chat with one about travel. “Do people want to see travel shows? Yes, they do. In a way, they want the opposite of what you think.”

Gloomy reprises of isolation experiences will be relatively easy to film, but audiences might not fancy watching them in 2021.

In the meantime, Irish channels are set to enter an era of “peak repeat”. While cash-strapped RTÉ had little left in the unaired cupboard last summer, at least viewers could flock to Virgin Media Television for Love Island. This summer, there is no Love Island, with ITV Studios somehow declining to take up Twitter users’ advice that the show rebrand to the virus-conscious Glove Island.

And when Fair City does make a comeback, masks and all, it is likely to stick with the emergency quota of two episodes a week, rather than the usual four, at least for a while, de Courcy says, “to build up a buffer”.

The likes of Netflix, with its giant content pipeline, should be able to make up for lost time. But elsewhere the near-global pause on production has delayed the shooting of some of the most-loved, keenly awaited dramas, from the sixth season of BBC’s Line of Duty (filmed in Belfast) to the third outing of HBO’s Succession and a fourth run for Amazon’s jewel, The Marvellous Mrs Maisel. New shows may also be less plentiful: the traditional springtime pilot season in the US has been another pandemic casualty.

“It will be a very different fall schedule, as the Americans say,” McCormack says. But in the land of linear television, there is still “an awareness that these slots have to be filled”, he adds. “Broadcasters don’t want to be showing repeats.”

Even if producers can secure commissions and settle on a safe, yet viable template for working, there’s another problem.

“The biggie for everyone is insurance,” says Aoife O’Sullivan, producer at Subotica. The Dublin production company should have been filming a new project this summer in the west of Ireland. “We don’t know when we can start that now because we don’t know if we can take the risk.”

Subotica had been two weeks into a 14-week Dublin shoot on a Swedish-Irish thriller in March and hopes to resume in August. An insurance company has accepted liability for the forced shutdown, which is “90 per cent of the challenge”, but with no insurer offering cover for Covid-19 interruptions from now on, the industry is desperately hoping the Government here will copy the French, step in and underwrite the risk.

Some films and TV dramas that were in development or pre-production may simply no longer happen. “It’s very scary for people who have projects in the pipeline and no way of knowing when they can do them,” says O’Sullivan. Subotica’s thriller, a co-production with Sweden’s Mopar, just about made the cut.

“Our bond company told me if it had been a week or two later, the paperwork might not have been signed and we might not have been up and running.”

The irony of these hurdles is that demand for home entertainment has never been higher. The runaway lockdown television hit has been Normal People, Element Pictures’ 12-part adaptation of the Sally Rooney novel for the BBC and Hulu, later acquired by RTÉ. It made it over the line by finishing off its post-production in awkwardly remote conditions.

“We had a transmission date and broadcasters were waiting for it,” says Paula Heffernan, head of production at Element. It has been “a strange one” for the team not to be able to celebrate its success in person together, and yet there is a sense that lockdown has allowed the series to be discovered by more people, giving it an extended life.

Slow limp

Element has two other projects in what has sometimes been “a slow limp” of remote post-production. Channel 5 drama The Drowning, to which it was lending its production services, was three weeks away from wrap when production ground to a halt across Ireland, and there is no definitive date for a return, while Heffernan is also considering afresh the practicalities of making other Element titles now in development.

“We want to maintain the quality of what we are producing, but keep everyone safe at the same time,” she says. It is a creative business. “You don’t want to feel like you are heading into a factory or a hospital.”

The first productions that pick up will be “quite local and won’t involve a lot of travel”, she thinks, while McCormack predicts that “the A-list [actors] will disappear and stay close to Hollywood for a while”, in case they have to quarantine somewhere less pleasant than Dalkey. Cast logistics will be the most acute for the interrupted productions, notes O’Sullivan. “We can replace crew, but we can’t replace cast unless we lose the two weeks that we have [already] shot.”

Among those whose stars may rise will be actors who live in the same household and can be cast as a pair or a group, as otherwise social distancing puts the kibosh on any stories that depend on physical contact.

One of Element’s next projects is an adaptation of Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, which revolves around a Trinity student’s affair with an older man. “We don’t want to betray the material. We want to be able to portray those scenes,” says Heffernan.

Producers must decide if they will be in a position to film intimate moments at the end of a shooting schedule, or if it will be better to just cut them.

“If there’s a fleeting kiss and it’s not integral the story, there could be a possibility of removing it,” she says, while over on Fair City, de Courcy promises “a lot of long, lingering looks”.

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