I just wrote a scene in a screenplay where one character offered another a sip from their hip flask. I then had a visceral reaction: “Gross.” Who these days would ever casually share a drink with a stranger?
Which brings me to my current writing dilemma: to reference or not to reference the coronavirus? Other writers have told me not to mention it at all. People have been through enough. They’re exhausted. They’re already living it, why would they want to see it on their screens as well? The reason they need entertainment is to escape, not to re-play the nightly news.
There is no doubt that COVID-19 is changing the way we write films. I was recently asked to do a major rewrite of a commissioned script to take into account the fact that we may need to shoot it among coronavirus restrictions — for example, social distancing requirements essentially rule out crowd scenes.
As one studio executive has said, “We’re not going to be able to shoot it, so don’t write it.” This may be true for a very long time to come. If we want a script to be filmed, it’s up to the screenwriter to make sure that’s feasible (especially within the budget). That film was a Hallmark movie so there’s no such thing as a global pandemic in its fictional world… and I certainly couldn’t have the characters mention it.
How to Write a Hallmark Movie While the World Is Ending
Rule #1. Don’t mention the bushfires. Rule #2. Or the pandemic.
But what if you want to write a film that is closer to reality? I read with interest the news that long-running soap opera Neighbours has gone back into production with strict rules in place. As actors must be physically distanced from each other, there is no possibility of intimacy — they are relying on camera trickery and the audience’s imagination to fill in the gaps.
Which made me wonder whether it would be easier to just write a pandemic storyline to explain why characters are no longer sitting next to each other at the pub. Is it because they won’t know how to write themselves out of a pandemic storyline? Or because we don’t know how this story ends so any attempts to imitate reality may not age well and seem rather tasteless in retrospect?
I have been interested, too, in hearing novelists talk about a similar dilemma to what I’m experiencing with my screenplay. Scenes that would have seemed commonplace a few months ago are now fraught with problems — will they seem anachronistic to audiences or readers in a year’s time?
If characters go to a restaurant, should there be plenty of hand sanitiser and only 19 other patrons inside? Will this look odd when the movie is released? Or would it look stranger to have them attend a packed venue — will they feel the involuntary shudder I have now when I see people in movies standing shoulder to shoulder, without a care for all the germs flying between them?
This situation is so unusual in that it is something that every person in the world has experienced to some extent. When — if? — this is all over, no doubt we will still be talking about it for a long time to come as a collective and shared experience. There will be the “before” and the “after”. This is, of course, true of other major events but usually only in a single locale — a city or region ravaged by a natural disaster, for example.
So if my characters are supposed to be real people, shouldn’t it at least come up in conversation for them as well? Didn’t they have the same dumpster fire of 2020 that the rest of us had — and won’t they still be referring to it in a movie (or book) that comes out in 2021?
The current screenplay I’m working on is about a woman who goes to stay with her brother and his family who have moved off the grid and taken up a sustainable and self-sufficient lifestyle. When I started writing this film, the main character, being from the city, found this choice hard to fathom.
But after a global pandemic, the idea of escaping a city (that is a disease hotspot) and growing your own organic vegetables actually seems like the smartest thing you could possibly do. So while the screenplay is definitely not a “pandemic movie”, it doesn’t seem like COVID-19 is something that can just be ignored either.
Maybe I should just take the easy option and set the film in 2018.