It’s no secret that television and film production faced wildly unprecedented challenges over the past year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with shows and movies delayed or halted in the middle of shooting, some never to resume again. But what is interesting to see when the creative teams behind these projects get together is how this communal, challenging experience was tackled by them in very different ways — and yet they all can empathize with each other’s plights.
“We were kind of fractured in the way of shooting it out of order like that, and then further fractured by the fact that the pandemic happened and then all of a sudden, everyone had like months away from the project where they weren’t kind of engaged in it,” HBO’s “Mare of Easttown” director Craig Zobel said during TheWrap’s Emmy Contenders Showcase panel with directors of fellow HBO and HBO Max titles. “We shot maybe 30% of the show and then the quarantine started. And so it very much felt like we were like coming back to do Season 2.”
Moderated by awards editor Steve Pond, TheWrap’s Emmy Screening Series panel featured Zobel, as well as directors Kamilah Forbes of HBO’s “Between the World and Me,” Jay Roach of HBO’s “Coastal Elites,” Bartlett Sher of HBO’s “Oslo,” and Peter Hoar of HBO Max’s “It’s a Sin.”
“Number one is that we had to shoot everyone, just as a couple other projects here, we had to shoot everyone in their own homes and in their own spaces,” Forbes said of adapting the stage version of “Between the World and Me” into an on-camera project. “So theater, which is very much a communal act where you can see many bodies on stage in a theatrical production, in this, it was very much more sort of a solitary and internal journey that we are traveling on. Because of that, we relied heavily on archival and animation to help tell the story, further tell the story. I was really interested in the idea of the poetic language that Ta-Nehisi Coates uses throughout the book. And what film allowed is the juxtaposition to the poeticism in his words. We found a visual, poetic language throughout making this film, and that was really exciting. And I think that’s one of the biggest differences within the theatrical version.”
“Oslo” director Sher similarly was up against the challenge of turning a play into a film.
“Yeah, it’s a weird story. My daughter’s best friend in second grade was the daughter of two Norwegian negotiators who happened to do the Oslo Accords,” Sher said. “And so I met them watching soccer matches and hearing stories about Middle East peace. And I thought, this is pretty interesting. So introducing the playwright, it went from there. And then in 2016, we produced it in a small theater at Lincoln Center and moved upstairs. And it was only last year, maybe last April, that we finally decided we were going to actually be able to maybe make the film and then sort of forwarded the harrowing waters of COVID film it last fall. And it’s my first film, so I’m honored to be here. And it was quite a journey.”
While Sher was on the long journey with “Oslo” from the start, Hoar came into the HBO Max limited series “It’s a Sin” so close to filming that he barely had enough time to prep before they began.
“I wish I could say I’ve been in development with it for years, but I was very much thrown into the deep end,” Hoar said. “I’ve known the team for a while, never worked with them, but I’ve known Phil [Collinson], the producer, and Russell [T. Davies] for about 10 years. And they found themselves in a situation where they needed a director pretty fast and I knew them. And Russell had said, he basically wanted a director like me to do it. And basically, the stars aligned. It’s easy to say that now. Here I am in this incredible company and I go like, yeah, of course, it’s going to be me. But it really did come at the last minute. And all of my colleagues here will know that, basically, it’s supposed to be 10 weeks prep, and I only got six. So it was certainly hitting the ground running, but with such an incredible team. And Russell, at the top, you know, you couldn’t ask for more, really.”
While Roach came into his project, the Paul Rudnick-written quarantine satire, “Coastal Elites,” in the early stages, it transformed into its final iteration as the pandemic shaped the narrative in real-time.
“We were pretty nervous about, especially Bette Midler, we just didn’t want to get Bette Midler sick,” Roach said of the special, which Rudnick originally conceived as a play. “And so we locked in early on on this idea that we had to not have crew in the room while they were filming. And it seemed challenging. But on the other hand, I began to embrace just the idea of a pure performance piece that there wouldn’t be any opportunity to do anything normal that I was used to doing in my other films.”
He continued: “And that it would just be about the actors engaging with an audience, much like they would have had to do doing these monologues on stage in the Public Theater. And somehow, daring them to be that good and to hold everybody’s attention for that long. And that, to me, became the sort of most audacious thing about it. And with Paul’s good writing and these incredible actors, I thought it might be possible to make it compelling. Each story, to me, was so moving and so, for me at least, cathartic and therapeutic, because I was losing my mind and I knew almost everybody else was. And maybe if we all could watch other people talk in a much more creative and eloquent way than we could about how insane things were getting, that it might somehow be both enjoyable and, as I say, kind of cathartic.”
Watch TheWrap’s full Emmy Contenders panel with the directors via the video above.