When the coronavirus pandemic shut production down across the film industry back in March, OWN (Oprah Winfrey Network) had just resumed production on season five of “Queen Sugar.”
The network had finished shooting just one episode. During the shutdown, producer Ava DuVernay and her team including Paul Garnes, head of physical production for Array and executive producer on the show, met frequently to discuss the changing landscape. The existing scripts didn’t fit in a pandemic world that also included Black Lives Matter and an upcoming election.
When shooting resumed, DuVernay and Garnes had decided the Bordelon family would tackle the Black Lives Matter movement and coronavirus.
Garnes spoke with Variety about navigating the new season amid hurricanes and a pandemic.
How easy was it to come up with the decision to address coronavirus in this new season of “Queen Sugar?”
It was a pretty organic process. Like everyone else, we found ourselves in that awkward position on March 13 where we were going to have to shut down. I think we all hoped that it was going to be a temporary thing, but as it grew, it became apparent that it was a bigger deal than people first thought.
We started to ponder how to bring the show back. We had only shot one episode of season 5. Organically with Ava, the conversation was how to proceed with our old storyline when the world is changed around us. So much of the show is based on this real view of Southern Louisiana that it felt a natural fit to address it.
When we started talking through what our return to work plan and what that would look like and coming up with how to build the safest possible environment for the cast and crew, embracing that as a story point seemed to make the most sense.
With the constant COVID testing and on-set safety protocols, what is life like on the “Queen Sugar” set? Do you have a production bubble?
I don’t think that as an adult, I’ve said the word “bubble” as many times as I’ve said in the last six months.
The whole concept of a bubble is a great idea, but in practice, it’s very difficult. The industry started this concept of pods and how to group your crew.
We expanded it to include the cast. We podded the cast into family groups. What that allowed us to do was to pull some of the risk and exposure off of the cast members. We didn’t have the cast interact directly throughout the whole season, and that allowed us to protect them in their individual groups. We created a bubble around each pod of that cast.
Our cast goes into a hotel that we rented here in New Orleans, and they stay there for 14 days before they shoot. They’re tested all along the way just to make sure that they don’t develop symptoms of the virus. After 14 days and we feel pretty confident that they are free of any risk, we bring them to the set with a driver who has also been staying in the hotel.
What about table reads, how are you conducting those, are those done over Zoom? How has that changed?
Leading up to the restart, our story conversations were all over Zoom. Now, we’re back in production, we are block shooting the whole season. Our directors are here with us for the remainder of the season.
In addition to trying to keep everybody safe from COVID and being exposed, you’re in New Orleans, and you suddenly get hurricane warnings. Did anything happen to production?
This show typically is done filming by July. For our five seasons, that’s been our historical cycle, so we’re usually done at the beginning of hurricane season.
We’ve already had three near-misses with hurricanes since we’ve been back up. As you can imagine New Orleans has stormy weather year-round. We haven’t had to do any evacuations or anything.
In general, the show embraces Louisiana weather, we’ll typically shoot in rain, but with tropical storms or hurricanes, we wouldn’t be able to film. But it’s 2020 and we take nothing for granted.
With regards to shooting schedules, how have the new COVID protocols impacted a typical shooting day?
We have a whole new department and we have this COVID team, which includes logistics, and professionals that are embedded with us. They’re with us every day and it’s a new process where you have your temperature taken every day. Three times a week you have to go through a simple nose swab and wait for the results. So, it’s a new dynamic environment that everyone has embraced because I think they’re so happy to be back at work.
We work fewer hours in the day now. We’re shooting at about ten and a half hours a day versus a 12-hour day, so we lose a little productivity with that. We’ve been able to protect ourselves in the way that we’re shooting because we’re block shooting. We don’t do as much moving as we’d normally have done in a normal day. Pre- COVID we may have had six scenes, and of those six scenes, we would have been in three different locations.
Ethan Hutchison is still a young kid, and you’ve got all these precautions on-set. What is it like having a kid on set around this environment?
From a child’s point of view, it’s an adventure in some ways, and maybe they are better suited than we are. I think he really adapted well to it. And unlike the other actors, he brought his whole family. He has his mom, his dad, and little sister and they all came. For him, it was an extension of normal existence. We had a teacher on set. Perhaps the biggest difference is we would typically have done some scenes with other kids, but that’s one of the things that we creatively decided not to do and bring other kids into the mix.
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