‘We Are the Guinea Pigs’: Hollywood Restarts Its Blockbuster Machine

Like most actors, Bryce Dallas Howard is used to showing up on film sets knowing what lines she’s supposed to say, when she’s supposed to say them and, often, not much more.

Things are very different on “Jurassic World: Dominion,” one of the first major Hollywood studio films to restart production since the coronavirus pandemic led to a global shutdown in March. Before agreeing to return to Pinewood Studios outside London, Ms. Howard and other members of the cast grilled producers and executives from the studio behind the movie, Universal, through a series of Zoom calls and emails about what precautions were being taken.

Ms. Howard now knows everything from how to attach her microphone before filming — she does it herself outside, with help from her dresser, as a boom operator wearing a mask and a shield instructs them — to the person who makes her bed at the luxury hotel Universal has rented out for 20 weeks for the cast and crew.

“Until now, actors were not really included in prep,” Ms. Howard said in a phone interview, referring to the moviemaking process as “a need-to-know-business.” “But in order to get any of us on a plane, we had to thoroughly understand the protocols, who was involved and hear second and third opinions. We are the guinea pigs who are going to take the leap.”

Hollywood has been unable to restart production on its own soundstages in California because of surging infections in the state, plodding negotiations with unions over protocols and the time it takes to get test results. So big movie studios, under pressure to get their production assembly lines running again, have focused on overseas shooting. The “Avatar” sequels are filming again in New Zealand. Sony Pictures has “Uncharted,” its adaptation of a popular video game, going in Berlin.

Leading the way is Universal, with “Jurassic World” and a 107-page safety manual that details everything from the infrared temperature scanners the cast and crew encounter upon arrival to the vacuum-sealed meals provided by masked workers standing behind plastic partitions in the takeout-only cafeteria. Its safety protocols are serving as a model for other studios, showing Marvel, for instance, how to resume shooting “Shang-Chi” two weeks ago in Australia.

Roughly 750 people are involved in the $200 million production of “Jurassic World,” which restarted on July 6, and the set would normally be a hive of activity.

But Universal has divided the production into two categories. The larger one is made up of the departments that don’t need access to the set during filming, like construction and props. The more exclusive category, called the Green Zone, includes the director, the cast and only essential crew, like camera operators and the sound department.

The result, Ms. Howard said, is comparable to a “closed set,” which in pre-pandemic times was typically used for physically intimate scenes.

Those working inside the Green Zone receive Covid-19 tests three times a week, and the sets are fogged with an antiviral mist before each use. The chairs that the actors sit in between takes are surrounded by orange cones to remind people to remain socially distant. When there is more lag time during a day, the cast can retire to a special Green Zone “living room,” complete with couches, blankets, lamps and plants. There are numerous sinks, and each time someone leaves or enters the Green Zone, he or she must wash hands.

The aim is to keep everyone healthy — and thinking less about coronavirus and more about roaming the earth with dinosaurs.

“We are able for this little moment to be in the world that we’re creating and leave the rest of the world behind,” the director, Colin Trevorrow, said in a phone interview.

“Jurassic World: Dominion,” scheduled for release next July, is more than just the sixth installment in a franchise that has collected close to $2 billion at the global box office. It is a chance for Hollywood to see if it can move past the many industry woes the pandemic has laid bare — from closed movie theaters to an audience that has become increasingly comfortable watching premium films from the couch.

Hollywood studios have kept the profits coming in recent years by focusing on potential blockbusters based on known intellectual property, largely because such films power so many ancillary businesses and are almost guaranteed to draw people to the movie theater. “Jurassic World” is a perfect example. It is a merchandising machine, and NBCUniversal is counting on it to bring life to its struggling theme parks; a tie-in “Velocicoaster” is under construction at Universal Orlando Resort in Florida.

Donna Langley, the head of Universal’s Filmed Entertainment Group, called the return to production “symbolic for the industry.”

“If a production of this magnitude can successfully manage through the uncertainties of filming amid a pandemic, and keep people working and the production pipeline moving, there is a light at the end of the tunnel for film shoots of all sizes to create safe and sustainable environments,” said Ms. Langley, who also leads Los Angeles County’s economic task force centered on getting Hollywood back up and running.

Cases are still too high in Los Angeles County — and the number of available tests and labs to process them too low — for large productions to move ahead. A movie starring Ben Affleck was five weeks from beginning production there when the virus shut it down. The producers thought about Austin, Texas, before cases rose there.

Now, the producer, Mark Gill, is looking to London. “It is virtually impossible to shoot anywhere in the U.S. right now,” he said.

Universal chose to move forward with “Jurassic World” because, despite being a major action-adventure film, it required few real locations, a minimum of extras and only a relatively small cast. The film had also begun production in England shortly before the pandemic shut things down, making it easier to get it up and running again.

Trying to create a safe environment included procuring some 18,000 Covid tests and 150 hand sanitizer stations. The costs associated with the safety protocols total roughly $9 million and include the expenses from renting out an entire hotel, people involved with the production said.

The studio got testing guidance from Your Doctor, a private medical conglomerate in London. One general practitioner works with the production full time, along with four nurses in temperature-taking stations at the set’s entrance. There are also a handful of on-set medics.

The cast is tested every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Crew members who don’t interact with the cast as frequently and can wear protective equipment at all times are tested less often.

Renting out the hotel for the duration of the shoot — a move that Mr. Trevorrow called a “bananas idea” — was also key.

“For Laura Dern, Sam Neill, Jeff Goldblum and all our actors, they were very cautious,” he said. “But knowing that we would all be safe together is what really moved the needle. If they hadn’t been willing to come, nothing could have happened.”

Those involved with the production were each quarantined for 14 days upon arrival. After that, they were free to roam the hotel. Masks are optional, and no social distancing is required. (Every hotel staff member is tested three times a week.) People eat breakfast together, have access to the gym (and a virtual trainer) and the pool, and play Frisbee on the hotel lawn every Sunday. Some of the cast traveled with their makeup and hair people. Mr. Goldblum took his wife, two toddlers and two nannies.

“We rehearse on Sundays after Frisbee, every scene that we’re going to shoot that week,” said Mr. Trevorrow, who wrote the script with Emily Carmichael. “We work dialogue together. All of those questions that usually come up on set — ‘Why would my character say this?’ — all of that is addressed before.

One complication involved Chris Pratt, one of the film’s stars, whose wife, Katherine Schwarzenegger, was about to give birth. Universal worked with the British government and the British Film Institute to secure a quarantine exemption that deemed entertainment workers essential, meaning they could fly into the country and go straight to work.

Mr. Pratt was with the production for three weeks at Pinewood, then flew home to be with his wife for their baby’s birth, and will return to England at the beginning of September. The production will then move to Malta, the Mediterranean island, for eight days before returning to Pinewood for seven more weeks. Once Mr. Pratt arrives on Malta, he will be tested three times in five days before he is cleared to rejoin the production.

Four crew members in Britain have tested positive for the coronavirus since early July. Two had yet to be on the set. They were quarantined for two weeks, and after three negative tests were permitted to return to work. The other two were similarly isolated, as was everyone they had been in contact with. No one has become seriously ill, the studio said. (Of the crew members who were sent to Malta in advance, four tested positive. They have been put into isolation.)

“After being on set, all of us actors hope that these protocols stay in place,” Ms. Howard said. “Because they are improvements. Nothing feels like a redundancy, nothing feels annoying. It is in a sense a safety reckoning that still feels like a good idea in a post-Covid-vaccine world.”

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