Case Study: Midnight in the Switchgrass – Director Randall Emmett on his experience filming during the pandemic

November 6, 2020

The Puerto Rican governor declared a state of emergency, so Emmett – who has produced more than 100 features including The Irishman and Silence – immediately flew the cast back to Los Angeles and sent the local crew home. He began daily calls with the Hollywood unions and guilds to discuss protocols. “That became our mission – how do we get back to work, what’s it going to cost, how are we going to keep everybody safe?”

When guidelines began to emerge, Emmett brought the production – sold by Highland Film Group – back to Puerto Rico in July, ready to implement a strict set of protocols. He checked the entire cast and crew into the same hotel to keep them safe.

It was to be in vain. Two members of the production had previously tested positive for Covid-19 in California, and, despite testing negative prior to flying to the Caribbean island, they tested positive again on arrival. It turned out to be a false positive, but Emmett was not prepared to take risks and shut down the production for a second time, without shooting a single day.

“The first time I was devastated,” he recalls. “The second time I was optimistic and excited and then, of course, heartbroken. I felt at that point, with cases spiking around the world, the safest things was to try to mount it in California.”

With cast intact and a mostly new Californian crew, Emmett and his producer partners found a 200-acre ranch in Santa Barbara to act as base for the rest of the shoot. They prepped in August and shot in September with union-compliant protocols that included Covid-19 supervisors, regular testing, zoning and masks. “It looked like outer space – everybody’s got shields and face masks and gloves, and you’re keeping distance,” he says. “It’s still making the movie but it was a little different to what I was used to.”

While Emmett estimates Covid-19 protocols have brought “substantial” additions to

the budget – the consensus among the production community is that it can be up to 20% – it is better than the alternative. “If you don’t follow union guidelines, they will shut you down.”

By Jeremy Key