Early in this strange new reality, back when an end date still seemed to be in sight, many of us reached the same realization: Oh, there’s going to be art about this moment. Poems, paintings, music, literature and, once people figured out how to work safely with others, a deluge of films and television series. Would the work be any good? Maybe only some of it. But there is value to how art can document difficult situations as they unfold, capturing immediate emotions and, in some cases, novel forms of experimentation.
Some shows have been in remote production since the start. For instance, viewers are now accustomed to seeing Jimmy Fallon fumble around with an iPhone on his late-night talk show. But scripted television has only recently picked up production following widespread suspensions and delays, making it all the more surprising to see a finished product – made about and during the pandemic – on our screens.
“Love in the Time of Corona” is the first of several such shows, a four-part miniseries that takes on a “Love Actually” format by focusing on four slightly intertwined story lines playing out in separate households. Creator Joanna Johnson, known for Freeform’s “The Fosters” and its spinoff, “Good Trouble,” pitched the network in April after realizing how social distancing – for many, being cooped up with a select few but isolated from most – had changed even the most established of relationships.
“We wanted it to come out while it was relevant,” Johnson said. “We wanted to make something that felt relatable and uplifting, because we felt like a lot of people were craving things like that right now. Shows that you could watch and say, ‘There are some good things that have come out of being quarantined.’ Nothing good has come out of the coronavirus, but of having to slow down and reassess your relationships.”
The virus itself only makes a brief appearance in the series, which features actors working alongside their real-life quarantine partners. Leslie Odom Jr. and Nicolette Robinson, his wife and fellow executive producer, star as young parents whose attempts at a second child are upended by the traumatizing news of Ahmaud Arbery’s killing. L. Scott Caldwell plays Odom’s mother, on the cusp of celebrating her 50th anniversary with a husband suffering from dementia. Rainey Qualley and Tommy Dorfman appear as roommates navigating distanced dating and a potential attraction to one another. Married actors Rya Kihlstedt and Gil Bellows play a couple hiding their recent separation from a college-aged daughter.
After the series was greenlit in May, Johnson and her team, which included executive producers Christine Sacani and Robyn Meisinger, spent a month casting actors whose quarantine setups fit the story lines they had in mind and another two weeks actually writing the episodes. Drafting scripts with production plans in flux was the “most stressful part” of the process, Johnson said, noting that the writers had to plan around safety protocols that weren’t yet set in stone. (The June white paper created by an industry-wide task force was at least a start.)
Johnson spent much of the 15-day shoot in a van outside the actors’s homes, directing them with a walkie talkie while watching on wireless monitors. Union guidelines limited the size of her crew to around seven people, including Marco Fargnoli, the director of photography who set up cameras on dollies that the actors and production assistants – neighbors, a sister-in-law, anyone already within their quarantine circles – would wheel inside and operate. When necessary, only one crew member could enter each house at a time, provided the actors weren’t there. They set up lights and cables alone before wiping it all down.
Caldwell found the unusual setup refreshing, “like a hybrid reality show with a script.”
“The more artificial things we can remove from the art of acting, the better off we’re going to be,” she said. “That’s sometimes a crutch, when we can glance over at the director and see if they’re pleased with the take. . . . We didn’t have that, and it was the idea that she was watching us from a distance and kind of being the puppet master from a distance. I think it was helpful.”
It was a leap of faith to sign onto a project without reading a script, said Caldwell, who, like her castmates, helped shape her character’s path. In addition to the anniversary story line, Nanda was initially supposed to bond with a reclusive neighbor. Producers happened to ask if Caldwell knew anyone for the part the day after her godson, actor Catero Colbert, came over to pull weeds in her garden. He wound up playing her estranged son instead.
Bellows and Kihlstedt have worked together before and usually read each other’s scripts, Kihlstedt said. But “Love in the Time of Corona” provided them with an opportunity to work with their daughter, Ava Bellows, on her first professional acting job. It was “surreal” to film in their own home, Kihlstedt added. The intimacy of the project “felt like a small indie movie with such a giant heart.”
“Given the perfect world, if you could work with people you love all the time, there’s just nothing more fun,” she said. “You know each other so well that there’s an immediate trust and understanding. . . . [Normally] you meet someone on set and the next thing you know, you’re climbing into bed together.”
In addition to doing their own hair and makeup, the actors also handled props – many of which were their own belongings that Kihlstedt photographed and ran past the production designer ahead of time. Nobody came in to reset the dinner table between takes, she said. They wore clothes from their own closets, selected after multiple hours of fittings with costume designers over Zoom.
The project was a “great reminder” of all the work that goes into putting a show together.
“You really appreciate how much work every single crew member does,” Kihlstedt said. “In film and television, everybody is just a teeny little cog in the bigger picture. There is really no person that holds a bigger, more important wheel in all of it. It just depends on everybody doing their work.”