Filming During a Global Pandemic

Curtain Call’s co-founder, John Schwab, has recently begun filming in Prague, and reflects on one of the safest sets he has ever experienced.

I’m just wrapping up on the first of two blocks of shooting for a returning series and am sitting in the trailer feeling extremely grateful to just be working again. It’s made me reflect on the experience and I wanted to share my journey with the Curtain Call community.

It all started on my anniversary, the 16th of July.  I got an email from my agent just as UK lockdown restrictions had started to ease. It was for a self-tape for a third series of a popular show – a series regular. What struck me was that this would normally be a job that I would go into the office of a casting director in London and tape there. But things were still not fully open, so I enlisted the help of my son to help me.

I obviously did this straight away, because it was the first time since March that I had done any type of acting. I had done some voice overs for games, but no acting for screen, as it were.

So I gladly put these scenes down and sent them off and I had my fingers crossed because it was definitely a show that I wanted to do. In my experience, the ones you want are the ones you never get.  And the ones that you don’t ever expect to get and you think that’ll never happen?… Those are the ones that you do land.

It was more than a month later in August that I got another email saying that the casting directors would like me to get on a Zoom meeting to go through more direction, as it were. It would be the first time I had contact with the casting directors.  That Zoom call was to get the direction that I would have put into another self-tape. Once again, not going into the casting director’s office, using my iPhone and a couple of filler lights.

I had lost hope when I didn’t hear straight away about the role – the actor’s curse.  However, it was about another three weeks before I got a call from the agent saying that the offer came in. I was ecstatic! It would be the first time in a year that I’d be back in front of the camera after filming Queen’s Gambit in Berlin in 2019. This was so welcome and a return to somewhat of a normal acting job. But it quickly became apparent that this wouldn’t be a normal acting job because Europe was still in deep pandemic mode.

There was going to be no table read, for example – people wouldn’t get together for the read.  It would be a Zoom reading.  What was incredible is that this table read was going to have everybody on it. Including producers and designers and writers and people from all over the world – in Italy, in Berlin, in Prague, in Portugal, in Malta and all over the U.K.

As I was setting up to do this, I thought, “This is going to be the way that productions do this from now on.” If I was a producer, I would be having Zoom readings every time because it would save a lot of money. But what was also great about it was that you met everybody. I saw what everybody looked like and heard their voices. And seeing and hearing everyone would definitely come in handy…but more about that later.

Side note –  that Zoom reading felt right.  It felt okay to do it that way. It just felt like it fit and everyone accepted it.

In pre-production, communication was key.  It was evident how things were going to change when, at every step of the way, somebody from the production team was updating me as to how we were going to do costume fittings, how we were going to shoot, how we were going to travel.  I have never received so much communication from the AD’s on a production preparing me for every step of the process.

The costume fittings were held at Angels in north London. To be honest, it was a little weird. They led me into a room where, obviously, a mask had to be worn and hand sanitiser used regularly.  The wardrobe assistant wasn’t allowed to be in the room with me while I was trying things on. She could only come in and have a look…be distant, take a picture…then leave the room again. It felt really impersonal. Normally, you’d have a wardrobe assistant pulling, measuring, taping, doing everything they can to get just the right fit. We kept that to an absolute minimum. Usually there’s a hive of activity for a costume fitting like that.  That was the first indicator that it would be much different on production days.

A welcome view

Travelling was interesting. I had to get a “Permission to Travel” document – a letter from the Czech Republic Cultural Ministry to say that I was travelling for a valid reason. I had to show that at the airport whilst changing terminals in Amsterdam, then again at the border control at the Czech Republic airport. As excited as I was to get started, the travelling was actually a bit of an anxiety.

From the outset, the main aspect of this production is safety.  The first Covid test I took was the day after I arrived, and I would be told that I would be taking another one two days later.  I also had to isolate in the hotel for five days. I couldn’t go out and do anything. I was able to walk around for a bit of exercise, but there was no sightseeing. There was no killing time. Prague is in lockdown as well, and even more so than in London. There are no restaurants and pubs haven’t been open for a while. There is a nightly curfew at 9:00 p.m. I basically stayed in the hotel room and occupied my time with watching a bit of Netflix.

I travelled to the studio for a final wardrobe fitting and makeup test before starting in earnest.  Being at the studio was surreal because everyone was (rightly so) in a mask. You couldn’t see anyone’s face, you didn’t know what anyone looked like – you just saw their eyes. During that final fitting, people were a bit closer but it was super strict with Covid precautions in place – everyone in a mask but there were also gloves.

Barrandov Studio, Prague

Day one of shooting, we arrived at the unit base and, once again, everyone was in masks. I was sent for another Covid test, the third Covid test in five days. The production was taking this seriously, and rightly so.  A filmed production of Oslo which was also filming in Prague, had to be delayed by two weeks because two of their main actors tested positive for Covid – a sign of the times. As of the time of writing this, we were on day 22 of filming and nobody has yet tested positive.

I don’t think I was ready for the first day of filming. What unsettled me most is that I normally walk onto a set and meet the actors I’m playing with; I meet the AD’s, the technical heads, creative heads of departments, the director, the sound team, and everyone. I see people’s faces and just get a good judgement on how the crew works together, what kind of a set it’s going to be and what kind of a team it is.

But I hadn’t seen the faces of my co-actors in real life, only on a small computer screen weeks before. And when we rehearsed the first shot, it was all done with masks on. All the supporting artists were in masks. Once we had done the rehearsal, we were able to take our masks off and that was the first time I’d seen the faces of my cast mates in person. More importantly, I finally got to see the faces and the reactions of people that I was acting with.  

Masks were required in between takes

Generally, TV and film sets are quiet places where, in between takes, people whisper to each other. But you can’t whisper through a mask because you can’t read somebody’s lips. As a result, it’s really loud between takes. The 1st AD is constantly calling for quiet, but it’s understandable and tensions never rise…we’re just reminded politely to try and be as silent as possible.

I have to admit that I slipped back to feeling normal again after three days of filming. And as a result, started to get a little complacent with travelling to and from set, forgetting to don my mask as a matter of practice. I can’t count the number of times I forgot to put my mask on as I left my trailer and had to turn around to grab it. Our 2nd AD was incredibly patient and forgiving.

Everyone here is absolutely on high alert for Covid. It is without a doubt one of the safest environments in which I have ever worked. Again, the level of communication is astonishing. What this does fill me with is hope because this is a massive team. This is a big series and they’re doing everything they can to remain filming. If a production this size can do it, a smaller production can do it – there is every opportunity for people to stay safe and work.

And I’m absolutely grateful for the opportunity to get to work and practice my craft on an established, successful series. I know that there are going to be more opportunities to do so in the future before a vaccine is widely administered. So, there is hope out there, there is work out there. It is happening. We keep hearing the doom and gloom stories of things being forced to shut or closed. Of course, I recognise that work is not happening for everyone, and my heart goes out to the theatre industry, live events community, and all of the freelancers and suppliers that work in those industries and the audiences that attend those events. We’re not all back at work yet, but it is moving in the right direction.

I have to say that knowing that there are a bunch of people that are trying their best to create content, to create a bit of escapism. It fills me with hope, and I’m looking forward to taking what I’ve learnt from this and applying it on my next job – whenever, and whatever that is.

Back in the makeup chair

It will keep me awake, it will keep me alert and it will keep me on my toes. But that’s a great thing as an actor.

– John Schwab Curtain Call co-founder