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“Should I Write the Virus into the Script?”: Alison Murray on Halting Production Amidst COVID-19

In April, as we began to put together the Summer, 2020 issue of Filmmaker, we asked directors, cinematographers, editors and other film workers to send us their thoughts on the quarantine and their own creative lives. The responses printed here were collected from April through mid-June — personal statements that speak variously to individual filmmaking practices, films halted mid-production, politics, art and life. Read all the responses here. — Editor

We were halfway through our eight-week shoot in Buenos Aires on my second fictional feature, The Vegas, when we were forced to halt production due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The shoot had been going extremely well, with incredible work being done by my Argentinean team—DP Rodrigo Pulpeiro, production designer Mariela Rípodas, my first AD Ana Berard. I remember thinking, “This is going far too well,” and visions of Lost in La Mancha (the documentary about Terry Gilliam’s failed first film production of Don Quixote) haunted me. 

My actors and dancers had spent months rehearsing to tell a story through the intimate dance of tango. Our lead male dancer, Juan Malizia, had a commitment to perform in the United States, and we had scheduled our shoot around his availability. He was due to arrive back in Argentina just a few days before our biggest scene—a dance show with a live tango orchestra and 100 extras—and then the news came that he would have to go into 14 days quarantine upon arrival in Buenos Aires. At that point, I did an overnight rewrite of the script, dividing one character into two, and we recast his role, which was heartbreaking for him and for me. The stress levels that week were off the meter—everyone hand-sanitizing, and the production office fielding calls from concerned cast members about filming the close contact dance scenes. We managed to shoot for another three days. We captured some beautiful dance sequences on our last day in which there was spontaneous applause from cast and crew after each take. Argentinean producer Pamela Livia Delgado made the announcement that production would be suspended five minutes after our last shot of the day: a close-up of lead actress Cristina Rosato’s feet. There were a lot of tears during the teardown, including mine.

Less than 48 hours later, I was on a flight to Canada where my mother had been looking after my kids. My husband Carlos arrived shortly before me from Munich—a COVID hot spot at the time—where he had been teaching tango. There was a tense moment where my mom had dropped the kids at a neighbor’s house so she could avoid close contact with Carlos and was waiting to see if the Canadian authorities would put Carlos into some kind of medicalized quarantine when he arrived at the airport. Things were in so much flux in March that no one really knew what was happening. Then, our long period of isolation began, home schooling the kids and all the things everyone is doing/not doing. We got a puppy. We planted a vegetable garden. For weeks, I alternated between terrible insomnia or vivid dreams in which we continued to shoot the movie. In retrospect, I think I had some mild PTSD. 

I am deeply concerned about how the hell we are going to remount the production, given that we still need to shoot our biggest scenes with large groups of people literally dancing cheek to cheek. Should I write the virus into the script and have everyone dancing with face masks on? That would be hideous. Or should we do those scenes as animation? Expensive. And not in keeping with the style of the movie. 

We are looking at January 2021 as a potential restart date, so that we get a chance to see what’s happening on other productions and for official protocols to be established and settled—we can’t risk changing rules that could shut us down again. It’s going to be tough. I already assume that myself and the Canadian actors will need to do quarantine upon arriving back into Argentina. 

I have been able to watch an assembly of everything we shot, which has been great for planning ahead, and we will be able to once again work with Juan Malizia when we get back to shooting. We have some more time to work on our music clearances—it’s complex to clear the rights for tangos composed in the 1930s. So, there are some small silver linings. I have a hard drive with all the rushes sitting on my desk, which I thought I would be avidly watching, but honestly, it’s still too painful. 

Alison Murray is a Canadian film, documentary and music video director. Her films include Mouth to Mouth, Train on the Brain and Caprichosos de San Telmo.

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