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Every writers’ room keeps confronting the same question: Can we do this scene and still protect our cast and crew?

Illustration by The Globe and Mail

Stick a mannequin head on a pole in front of a green screen. Have an actor mime kissing it. Get another actor to kiss it, in a matching shot, from another angle. Put the two together in post-production. Is this the future of screen kisses? That’s just one of a million questions that Canadian TV writers are grappling with as they modify their series for a COVID-19 world.

In the Canadian television business, generally, spring is writing season and summer is for shooting. Even though the pandemic has delayed filming until at least August, TV writers are still hard at work this month. In virtual writers’ rooms and home offices, they’re putting in full days so their scripts are ready to go whenever production resumes. The question is, are they writing for our social-distanced present, or a more hopeful future?

Television is a touchy business, in every sense of the word. Series are made by clusters of crew members who rub shoulders 12 hours a day. They’re performed by actors who are constantly touched, first off screen (hair, makeup, wardrobe) and then on, as they cram into jury boxes, ride in police cruisers, lean over bodies in operating rooms and tangle together in bed sheets. And they’re wildly expensive to shoot – even small modifications can run up prohibitive costs. COVID modifications will be huge. (More on that in a minute.)

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Though TV writers are grateful to have work, the pandemic is knocking major holes in their scripts. Maybe these teenagers shouldn’t kiss. We can’t shoot at that location anymore. Goodbye, crowd scenes. Can the director use lenses to make these characters appear closer than they are? I guess we’re hiring only Canadian actors. Don’t write cameos for people older than 60. And on and on.

Morwyn Brebner, the showrunner of Coroner (CBC), was working toward a third season when the industry shut down. She reconnected with her writing team via Zoom, but their first two scripts were already out of date and had to be scrapped.

“Our show is set in real-world Toronto, and we write about death, so we’ll have COVID-19 in it,” she said this week. “But the overloaded hospitals in New York and Italy – that’s not the story in Toronto. We’re trying to figure out what our story is. We’re trying to be nimble enough so when we do shoot, our writing will meet the world where it is. That’s hard, because we’re not fortune tellers.”

Coroner relies on consultants – real coroners, physicians and forensic anthropologists – but these days, information compounds too quickly to keep up. “We’ll be talking through a scene and someone will say, ‘Have you heard of COVID toes?’” Brebner says. “It’s a symptom, a blistering that looks like chilblains. The real world is so dramatic – how to express it truthfully is something we’re really grappling with.”

Adam Pettle, the showrunner of Nurses (Global), is also finessing how his characters confront the novel coronavirus. “We don’t know how this will end, so we’re not going to make something up,” he say. “I’m trying to introduce it with a light touch: There’s a virus in different country, and by episode 10 it’s arrived here. We want to write in a conscious and responsible way, but for that we need time and perspective. I walk my dog by St. Joe’s hospital every morning at seven, as they’re changing shifts. So I’m leaning into stories that have humour and hope, that celebrate the day-to-day heroism of nurses.”

But his is fundamentally a show about twentysomethings, Pettle continues, “so we can’t just write out intimacy. Our characters can’t live in a sexless, socially distanced world. I don’t think we can resume filming until two actors who’ve been tested, and who sign an agreement, can kiss.”

Sherry White is co-showrunner with Tassie Cameron of CBC's Lady Dicks.

Handout

In phone meetings about their buddy-cop dramedy Lady Dicks (CBC), whose first season was supposed to be shooting now, co-showrunners Tassie Cameron and Sherry White find themselves using the word “pivot” a lot. Their show is escapist, so the pandemic isn’t a major plot point (though they have written a moment where characters bump elbows). "Our biggest challenge will be the action scenes,” Cameron said in a joint Zoom interview with White. “But one of the themes of our show is the tension between realism and optimism. For me to be able to write, I have to stay optimistic that we’ll find a way.”

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Floyd Kane, the showrunner of Diggstown (CBC), is also hopeful. “Maybe I’m naïve, but I don’t see it as being a huge adjustment for our show,” he says. "Thematically, we were already looking at the cracks in the system. It’s about how our lawyer characters cope emotionally with not being able to do their jobs the way they’d want to.”

Most showrunners are grateful for this extra time to think, to complete a full season of scripts before cameras roll, which normally would be an impossible luxury. “It’s how I’m used to working as a playwright,” Pettle says. “The quiet creativity, the dreaming time – it’s a way of writing that doesn’t usually exist in TV.”

Some find Zoom meetings enervating and limit them to two-hour blocks; others say they’re more efficient – less idle chatter. Some are embracing new technology, such as shared virtual whiteboards and index cards. Brebner, by contrast, is arcing out episodes on her twins’ blackboard in sidewalk chalk, and then emailing photos to her story coordinator. But every writers’ room keeps confronting the same question: Can we do this scene and still protect our cast and crew?

“We’re a workplace drama, so a character can show up at someone’s office door and they’re still six feet away,” Kane says. “We’re looking at Human Rights commission cases, which take place in large meeting rooms, without juries. We can move our witness box so it’s farther away from the judge’s bench. We can block-shoot the actors who play the judges – just have them on set alone.” He pauses. “It’s just a television show. If someone ended up dying because of it? That’s something I can’t even begin to process.”

Every writer spends a chunk of her workday trading information about the latest safety guidelines – from Belgium and Australia, where some shoots have resumed; from Los Angeles, where Mayor Eric Garcetti is amassing data from working groups; and from the British Film Commission, whose suggestions run to 30 pages, with input from industry bigwigs including Netflix, Disney and HBO.

Likely scenarios include dedicated coronavirus-safety departments; preshoot training for all cast and crew; rigorous temperature checks; and frequent disinfection of equipment. Crews may split into pods, with set construction, set dressing and lighting happening at separate times (rather than all at once, which is more efficient but too risky now). Actors may do their hair, makeup and wardrobe under remote supervision. Meals will be prepackaged and extra drivers will be hired to ferry people separately. Every Canadian series operates within razor-thin margins at the best of times, and these measures, though necessary, will slow efficiency and raise costs.

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One Canadian-born showrunner, Greg Spottiswood, has already written a COVID-19 episode – and shot it under shelter-at-home restrictions. The L.A. set of his series, All Rise (CBS/CTV), shut down in mid-March and he was back home in Toronto. But one of All Rise’s consultants, Gil Garcetti, a former district attorney of Los Angeles, was keeping him abreast of legal issues exacerbated by the pandemic: Could arraignments be done via Zoom? What happens to the right to a speedy trial? “Suddenly I realized there was a real episode here,” Spottiswood said.

He and Greg Nelson, his co-executive-producer, banged out a script in a week, a snapshot of April, 2020: There are Zoom consultations, virtual yoga classes, FaceTime cocktails, and beautiful, sad drone shots of empty L.A. streets. While they were writing, a tech company determined the strongest WiFi zones in the actors’ houses; the production designer made suggestions for furniture and art placement; the costume designer virtually shopped the actors’ closets; and the cinematographer sent ring lights for their laptops and phones.

Lady Dicks co-showrunner Tassie Cameron says action scenes will pose the greatest challenge for shooting in the pandemic era.

The shoot took six days, post-production was completed on May 3, and the episode aired the next night. “There was a true esprit de corps,” Spottiswood says. “Everyone was all-in. It was a relief and a gift to be able to work and tell a story.”

Telling their story – that’s what these showrunners keep holding onto. Despite the daunting practical challenges, despite this weird time-out-of-time, they’re digging deep, determined to make television that means something.

When Cameron and White hit a snag in their scripts, they used that pause to do a personality quiz. The revelations it sparked went straight into their characters, “and made it clearer why they need each other,” Cameron says.

“The way Tassie and I share in constant rolling existential crises, that’s the genesis of our show,” White says. “This time is a further extension of that. It’s all leaking into our writing.”

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Brebner, too, is “really trying to feel this moment,” she says. “It’s a moment full of false normalcy and ambient grief. But it’s not all morose. Everyone in our writers’ room is an essential version of themselves right now. People are cutting to the chase. You’re really there, in your little squares, to figure stuff out.”

“We know obstacle is at the heart of drama,” Spottiswood sums up. “Now we have a whole new set of obstacles to deal with. So we’ll make story out of it.”

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