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New Authority: The Film Set Job of the COVID-19 Compliance Supervisor

A COVID compliant set

The following article on film-set COVID-19 safety departments was originally published in Filmmaker‘s Fall, 2020 print issue. 

When Heather Drake-Bianchi landed her first job as a COVID-19 compliance supervisor, the New York–based set medic didn’t realize the gravity of the responsibility she’d been given.

“At first, I thought I was just going to be like a ’set medic plus,’ Drake-Bianchi said. “Then, on day one of the shoot, when we did the first morning safety briefing, one of the producers said, ’Just so everybody knows, whatever Heather says goes. She has the capacity to shut this entire shoot down.’”

Drake-Bianchi’s epiphany came in late July, shortly after filming was permitted to resume in New York after three months of COVID-driven shutdowns. California had also shuttered production in March, with permits again being issued earlier in the summer—June 12. Still, when FilmLA, the official film office of greater Los Angeles, issued its second quarter update, shooting in the region had dropped nearly 98 percent from the previous year, with a grand total of only three feature film days reported.

The California reopening coincided with the release of The Safe Way Forward, a collection of recommended shooting and set protocols issued by the DGA, SAG-AFTRA, IATSE and the Teamsters. The report didn’t mince words. “This is a truly dangerous, easily transmitted disease,” the document read. “A working film set provides an exceptional opportunity for virus spread.”

Many of the recommendations in The Safe Way Forward gained the force of contractual obligations on September 21st, when the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) signed on to the COVID-19 Return to Work agreement.

The newly ratified safeguards divide the set into a system of four zones based on proximity to unprotected actors. Personal protective equipment (PPE) is required, and testing is heavily emphasized. Zone A members—crew present when the cameras roll and the actors remove their masks to perform—must be tested a minimum of three times each week. The document lays out rules for sick leave and self-quarantine pay and offers safety precautions down to the granular level of individually wrapping all food at craft services.

The Return to Work agreement also establishes a new position to oversee the enforcement of these protocols—the COVID-19 compliance supervisor. The responsibilities of the job are vast. Compliance supervisors must coordinate testing, monitor the zone system, procure and distribute PPE and strategically place handwashing and sanitizing stations. Those are just the daily logistics. If there is a positive COVID test, the compliance supervisor leads the contact-tracing efforts, recommends who must quarantine and—should the situation escalate—decides whether production needs to be paused.

The role and who should fill it raise unsettled questions. It’s a job that requires a cross-disciplinary skill set—someone with enough medical knowledge to keep a cast and crew safe from an incredibly infectious virus, who at the same time understands the peculiarities of a workplace unlike any other.

“You need someone with experience in both,” said Drake-Bianchi. “You can’t just have a film-based person in that role with no health care experience. They may understand how production works but have no idea how managing an infectious pathogen works. When you get into those gray areas where nobody knows what to do, you have to know from experience what’s going to work and what isn’t.”

Sylvia Wildfire, whose company On Call Medic has been working sets and events in LA for 25 years, agreed. “There’re all these new COVID compliance classes you can take online, and you can be a certified COVID compliance officer in a matter of an hour or two. A production assistant yesterday can get hired as a COVID compliance officer today with no health and safety experience,” said Wildfire. “This is not a job you can learn in a two-hour online course. You have to know what you’re doing, and if a production is willing to hire somebody who doesn’t, then they’re gambling.”

Even for Drake-Bianchi, an experienced set medic who runs her own company (CineMedics CNY) and previously served as a paramedic in New York City, the abrupt escalation of authority was jarring. “Normally, the set medic isn’t exactly high up [on the food chain],” she said. “Suddenly I was a department head.”

But producer Jimmy Price said that during a recent feature he made with Drake-Bianchi on board, the crew certainly respected her expertise. “When I would talk to the shop steward about working overtime or taking a meal penalty,” said Price, “the shop steward told me the crew would say, ’OK, if it’s fine with [Heather].’” And if a producer tries to cut corners, Drake-Bianchi said the crew often stepped in before she had to. “I’ve had producers [who] are incredibly respectful and listen and know that they don’t know the answers to things. Then, I’ve also had producers [who] initially respect things, but then, about day three—it’s always day three, for some reason—I start to get pushback,” said Drake-Bianchi. “I understand why. They have a schedule and a budget they have to meet. But I often don’t have to say anything because the crew will. They have no tolerance for laziness or cutting corners.”

Sylvia Wildfire’s company has completed 39 post-COVID projects thus far—including one of the first features to return to work in Los Angeles. Not even two weeks after LA County allowed production to resume, Wildfire was on set serving as COVID compliance officer for Songbird, a Michael Bay–produced film set amid a pandemic. Production made it through the three-and-a-half–week schedule without any positive tests. Everyone in Zone A was required to wear masks and face shields, and cast and crew were tested three times a week.

But Wildfire didn’t stop there.

“Every cooler had tongs in it so that you didn’t have to put your hands in to get a drink. Then, the tongs were wiped off afterward,” she said. “We had a crew that would go in and sanitize the bathroom every single time somebody used it. It was overkill, but we didn’t know what we didn’t know.”

At that time, The Safe Way Forward protocols still only held the weight of recommendations—recommendations that added extra costs. Not just hard costs—the testing, PPE, cleaning supplies and sanitization stations—but the additional expenditure of the most valuable commodity on a set: time. Swabbing noses, performing temperature checks, staggering lunches—these all take extra time. And that’s ven without The Safe Way Forward’s recommendation to cut the standard shooting day from 12 hours to 10 hours, something safe-set advocates have pushed for decades.

Not every production was willing to shoulder the extra financial burden.

“It was frustrating because there was no one set of rules that everybody was following, and the difference between productions was stark,” said Wildfire. “I’ve seen low budgets that weren’t going to test anybody—just have them sign a waiver to work on set, knowing that nobody was tested. But people need to work, so some people are willing to do it.”

On the opposite coast, Drake-Bianchi was also navigating the early days of post-COVID production with a three-week project for Hulu. “On that first shoot, it was a position and not a department,” said Drake-Bianchi. “On the next project, I was like, ’I need a coordinator,and at least one dedicated PA,’ and even having that wasn’t enough.”

The original Safe Way Forward document envisioned a new health safety department led by the COVID compliance supervisor (then called the health safety supervisor) and including a health safety manager and staff, a hygiene crew and a security unit to monitor the entrances to the various zones.

The ratified Return to Work agreement is less specific about the size and composition of the department, stating only that the COVID compliance supervisor may make recommendations to production regarding the level of staffing.

Expanding her crew has been the point of most resistance from producers thus far, said Drake-Bianchi. “I really haven’t gotten a ton of pushback on testing,” she explained, “but what I have seen is productions expecting the COVID compliance officer to function solo, and that’s a recipe for disaster.”

Even a two-day reshoot with limited crew brings a multitude of new complications. Michele Lilley discovered that during her first gig as a health safety manager in early August. Lilley previously worked as a production coordinator and unit production manager and spent a decade in the Directors Guild of America. Then, she left the business in the early 2000s, moved to Vernazza, Italy, and opened an art gallery. Lilley returned to the States last year and was about to begin her second feature as a travel coordinator when COVID shut down the show.

When the opportunity arose to serve as health safety manager on a two-day feature reshoot in upstate New York, Lilley took it. The shoot’s COVID compliance officer was a registered nurse with limited set experience, so Lilley ended up managing many of the logistics. Even for the brief shoot, they were far from simple. The director and lead actress had to quarantine for 14 days after flying from LA to New York. All 41 members of the cast and crew had to be tested before the shoot began, then again on the first day of photography. After their interior location was dressed, a cleaning crew fogged the space and sealed it until shooting began.

“COVID permeates everything,” Lilley said. “Even on the tech scout, you now have to do risk assessments of locations. You have to think about, ’Where is Zone A going to be, and where is Zone B? What’s the directional flow of people through the set?’ If it’s an interior, now you’re thinking about, ’Does that air conditioning unit have a HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filter?’”

Working safely on a post-COVID set influences not only how things are shot, but what is shot. “You think about things differently. You think about that interior van shot where the cast and crew used to all jam in there,” said Lilley. “Now, maybe you shoot that on stage, instead, or maybe you change the location altogether. We have to be more creative now than ever.” Added Drake-Bianchi, “I have a project coming up that was going to have a scene where there was supposed to be a lot of extras, and they just ended up getting rid of it. They cut the whole scene.”

One of Wildfire’s current projects is taking a unique approach to keeping the crew safe—they’re shooting in a NBA-esque bubble. “Nobody was allowed into the bubble without three negative tests, and they quarantined in their homes between those tests,” said Wildfire. “Once they go into the bubble for the shoot, there’s no going out for the next six weeks. The entire cast and crew are staying in eight houses, and they’re being quarantined in those houses by department.”

No amount of precaution—not copious testing nor the fervent wiping down of cooler tongs—can guarantee a set will not see an incursion from COVID. No budget level is immune, either. Shooting on Warner Bros.’ The Batman, which originally paused in March, resumed on September 1st. Days later, it was temporarily paused again after a positive test.

“Having positive tests is an inevitability. You can’t approach it as, ’Oh, I hope we don’t get a positive.’ Sooner or later, it will happen, which is why you need to have layers of protection,” said Drake-Bianchi. “And you have to cater to the lowest common denominator. You have to be prepared for the times when people lie when they’re actually symptomatic; for the times when people don’t realize they have it because they’re asymptomatic; for the person [who] just doesn’t believe in COVID and says they’re not going to wear a mask. Those are the realities you might have to deal with.”

For those who don’t respect the rules, the Return to Work agreement grants the COVID compliance supervisor “the ability to effectively recommend discipline or termination for violations of COVID-19 health and safety protocols.” She said, “When people do their onboarding paperwork, it says, ’You agree to come forward if you’re sick. You agree to do testing. You agree to wear the mask. You agree to do the behavior that is required by the COVID compliance supervisor,’ which is me,” she said. “Any deviation from that behavior and you’ll be asked to leave the production. Even if people don’t care about the health side of things, they care about the money side of things.”

That said, Drake-Bianchi stressed the new role is not just about enforcing the rules with an intractable iron fist.

“I’m there to solve problems, not to throw policy at people, not to throw the book at people,” she said. “We maintain a standard that you can’t deviate from, but the goal is productivity and finding solutions, not saying ’No, you can’t do that’ without providing a solution. A production has to be fluid. You have to find alternative solutions to things.”

Even with the authority to pause production, the influence of the COVID compliance supervisor extends only so far. When the cast and crew go home at the end of each shooting day, the onus shifts to them.

“You really have to instill in the crew that it’s not just about you,” said Lilley. “It’s about your work mate and fellow crewmember. It’s about your family. It’s about the community that you’re working in. So, mask up. Wash your hands. Play by the rules. Because this is about protecting them, too.”

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