The show had to be significantly reworked after restaurants and productions shut down
“Family Style” was midway through filming its second season when the coronavirus pandemic shut down both its featured subject — restaurants — and production.
With several of the planned eight episodes of the Asian-centered food show half done and some not even filmed, producers from the Stage 13 and YOMYOMF joint production had to pivot amidst a time of uncertainty.
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Executive producer Philip Chung remembers exactly when they made the decision to shut production down in early March.
“I remember everyone on the crew all of a sudden getting the alert that Tom Hanks got coronavirus,” he told TheWrap. “That was the moment when it really home for a lot of people on the crew. We knew COVID was an issue; the NBA the night before announced they were canceling their season.”
“Obviously, we’re shooting an Asian food show and that was already an issue with some of the racism and anti-Asian sentiment,” he continued. “But it was that night that we had the call with everybody and thought about what can we do. It was funny at the time because we thought at the time we’d only shut down for 2 or 3 weeks. As time went on, it slowly began to sink in — this was not going to be 2 or 3 weeks. To the credit of everyone at Stage 13 and our sponsor Toyota, they were committed to finishing the show.”
Once that commitment was in place, Chung, executive producer Shari Scorca and their colleagues had to assess what to do next.
“We were able to take everything we shot before the shutdown and before the stay-at-home order and figure out a way to put it on screen,” Scorca said. “Then, we had to pivot as to how to fill out some of those episodes and not just stretch those to eight (episodes), but to make sure we had something that really spoke to COVID.”
The pandemic meant no more restaurant shoots, no more in-person gatherings of the cast (aka the Foodie Fam), or the guest talent, which included the likes of actors Ross Butler, Jimmy O. Yang and DC Comics legend Jim Lee.
“Part of the [show’s] idea is that you can create your own family, but these people don’t live together. We’re not going to spend the time or money to quarantine people for 14 days like a lot of shows are sequestering people in hotels,” Scorca explained.
“Even if a restaurant is open for outdoor dining, what it takes to shoot in COVID just wasn’t worthwhile and wouldn’t create the same experience,” she added. “So we worked together to figure out what we were missing, what part of Asia we did not get to — South Asia we weren’t able to shoot anything — so that was a no brainer.”
The final two episodes of the season were fully shot in homes: Episode 7 included a “Chopped”-style cooking competition, while Episode 8 was an Indian meal among friends/actors Parvesh Cheena (“Connecting”), Danny Pudi (“Community”), Sonal Shah (“Scrubs”) and Janina Gavankar (“The Morning Show”).
One of the reasons why “Family Style” was able to transition quickly to remote production was because the “Foodie Fam” was already used to filming themselves.
“People like Lana (McKissack) and Anthony (Ma) come from a YouTube background where you literally are doing everything: You’re in front of the camera; you’re shooting; you’re editing and all of that,” Chung explained. “We were very fortunate to have a group of people who already knew how to do a lot of it on their own.”
Scorca says Stage 13, which is part of Warner Bros. Television Group, sent the talent clamps for cameras and some additional lighting, but most was shot on cell phones. (“Phones are really good these days,” Scorca noted.)
Zoom conferencing was used to create the multi-cam grid for Episode 7’s cooking competition and 8’s group meal. Tech rehearsals guaranteed that lighting was good, and there were no clearance issues like a “Star Wars” poster hanging in someone’s home. Everything went really smoothly — no kitchen fires or greasy lenses — although Scorca recalled with a laugh that host Anthony Ma’s baby would keep creeping into shots during rehearsals.
The mood of the “at home” episodes — filmed well into the pandemic — proved different, as well.
“In some ways, it allowed [the talent] to open up more than had we shot in person,” Chung said of the season finale group meal. “By that point, we were months into the pandemic, so it wasn’t new, and they were feeling the lack of connection in their normal lives. To have this virtual dinner with people and friends who knew each other, it really just opened up these floodgates for them.
“One of my favorite moments was where Janina and Danny talked about losing their fathers and how food was something that connected that to the memory of their fathers,” Chung continued. “I don’t know if a moment like that would’ve come out if we had shot this under ‘normal’ circumstances.”
Shooting remotely also removed some of the distractions of working on a set or location with a larger crew.
“There’s no crew,” Scorca explained. “People are at their homes. Once they’ve established their shot and see where there framing is, they become comfortable. You’re always looking at yourself. [On set] the monitor is over there [to the side] especially if you’re a woman, you’re wondering, ‘Am I sitting right; am I fat?’ All of that went away.”
The other benefit of virtual gatherings was bringing in remote guests: Noted chef Dale Talde (“Top Chef”) was able to judge Episode 7’s cooking competition from New York, while Sonal Shah was able to join the Indian dinner from Illinois. And while the guests couldn’t share their food family style, the spirit of the show was still intact.
Being mindful of the ongoing pandemic, the cast and crew also started #stage13supports, a campaign launched to recognize Asian restaurants and small businesses during the pandemic. They returned to the restaurants before the shutdown and bought hundreds of dollars worth of food to give to charity or frontline workers.
“We wanted to figure out how to give back and do something meaningful that would tie back to our show. We wanted to support the restaurants that let us shoot there,” Scorca explained. “They still need support.”
As for the future, time will tell.
“At the end of the day — especially in Asian cultures — there’s nothing that is more fundamental than sharing that meal with family and friends. Whether it’s virtually or in person, it’s such a fundamental part of the culture that if we have to figure it out, we’ll figure out how to do that,” Chung said.
Scorca, who comes from an Italian and Latino background, added, “The appreciation for the culture, the understanding of each other, as long as we keep to the core of all of that, we can make the show anywhere and in any way.”