Editors’ Note: With full acknowledgment of the big-picture implications of a pandemic that already has claimed thousands of lives, cratered global economies and closed international borders, Deadline’s Coping With COVID-19 Crisis series is a forum for those in the entertainment space grappling with myriad consequences of seeing a great industry screech to a halt. The hope is for an exchange of ideas and experiences, and suggestions on how businesses and individuals can best ride out a crisis that doesn’t look like it will abate any time soon. If you have a story, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Miriam Segal’s production company Good Films Collective (The Infiltrator, The Postcard Killings) had a juicy slate ready to go this year when COVID-19 derailed life as we know it. As the industry went dark around the world, Segal not only had to contend with the threat to her business and livelihood, but she and her 8-year-old son soon developed symptoms of the coronavirus. Although Segal classifies their symptoms as mild, she has been struggling with fever and fatigue for more than two weeks now, while tending to her son, making sure her staff’s health insurance is paid for, and fighting to keep her projects alive. The fact is, for independent filmmakers and business owners like Segal, there is often little to no financial cushion, and powering down when sick doesn’t feel like a viable option with others counting on you for their insurance and income.
Right now, Segal is battling to keep her upcoming film People of the Book on track. It was supposed to start shooting in July, and explores the true history of a 600-year-old Jewish book, the Sarajevo Haggadah, which is used at Passover. Production was planned in Malta, Bosnia and Turkey. “As the crisis deepens and timelines extend,” Segal says, “we now need to concentrate on protecting this amazing story.”
Speaking with Deadline from her home in Los Angeles, Segal described her personal experience with COVID-19.
When my son’s school closed, I thought, “Sh*t, this is really going to be serious, we should go back home to England and be with my family.” At that point England was still behind the U.S. in terms of closing everything down. So, I thought, I’ll be able to have meetings, and continue to work. Weirdly, since I moved to L.A., I’ve been making films around Europe, and the next three we have on our slate are all European films. I thought, Maybe I can keep working? But obviously, back then everyone was still learning what needed to happen day-by-day.
We went to stay at a hotel, because my Mum is 80. She’s actually incredibly well and healthy, but she’s also very clever and forward-thinking, and she had already put herself into voluntary isolation. At the hotel there were only about 10 guests, and after four days, there were less and less of us. Eventually they closed the hotel and moved us to another one, but that was going to close soon, too.
I realized the enormity of what was happening. Everything was closing, and very quickly, my son and I had nowhere to go in the UK. It was accelerating so fast. My brother couldn’t take us because my sister-in-law was sick. My sister was sick. My Mum couldn’t take us. There were no hotels I could go to. By this point, four days later, everything had gone crazy, and we knew that the whole world was going to lock down, and we didn’t know for how many weeks. The only thing to do was go back to L.A. where I have a home. But then I couldn’t get hold of any airlines to change my ticket back. I thought, you know what? I’m just going to go to Heathrow. And I’m not leaving until they change the tickets so we can get back.
I went to Terminal Three to Virgin/Delta, and the funny thing was, every single desk had someone sitting behind it, but no customers. It was like a film set before the extras arrived. I’d originally bought my ticket on CheapoAir.com and I thought, they’re never going to be able to help me here, but I gave the woman at customer services my passport and my green card and asked her to do what she could. There were two people next to me, young guys who were trying to get back to Africa and were being told no. The woman told me, if you go back today you’ll have to pay some ridiculous price for a ticket, but I can get you back tomorrow for nothing extra. I was so relieved, it was so lucky.
We went straight home and self-isolated, but two nights after we got back, Mason developed a fever of 100 degrees, and I felt just generally unwell. We were relatively OK, but after five days Mason still had this persistent fever, so the pediatrician told me to bring him in. She examined him, wearing all the protective gear, and she said, “He’s definitely got it. And you’ve got it. Go home. He should be fine.” I said, “Will you test him?” And she said, “No we can’t. We’re not allowed to test anyone unless they’ve shown critical symptoms.” It’s totally ridiculous. Only when you’re dying, will they tell you you’ve got the disease.
I started getting sicker, and I started getting the breathlessness thing. I’m not joking, I peeled a carrot for Mason one day, and I had to lie down for a few hours. It was hard. But I want to emphasize, I still consider my symptoms mild, and feel very lucky. I’ve watched Chris Cuomo every night and thought, How the hell is he stringing a sentence together with the fever he’s got? But it started to get worse and worse. I could always breathe, but it was hard. So, I phoned my friend Serena who is a cardiologist, who told me if it got any worse, she would come over and have my blood oxygen tested. She also told me to eat avocados and oranges, and take Tylenol. It’s something to do with the antioxidants, but apparently, those particular two foods help the inflammation in your lungs.
I call it the virus of 1000 symptoms. Because it’s like you go through every stage of what you could possibly ever feel when you have a cold or a flu. Right now, I’m in the cold and sore throat section. But this is day 17, so I’m hopefully on the mend. I am so much better off than 99% of people who get this. My sister-in-law couldn’t move for three weeks, she was so ill. But then my sister got through it in five days, although she still can’t taste or smell anything. But we come from very strong stock. My grandmother died at 103.
Obviously, with work, as the weeks have gone by, I’ve been more concerned about our film People of the Book, because we may end up falling off the production schedule. I was on the phone to Malta a week ago to confirm that we were still very much at the front of the queue for our shoot. So, I suppose it just depends on what happens now.
We were preparing two other films this year and into the beginning of next year. One is called Mother Russia, which is about the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was assassinated. She was the journalist who made the war in Chechnya known, and she’s an amazing woman. It’s an extraordinary story about freedom of the press and independence and the importance of truth instead of fake news. Then we’re doing an adaptation of The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster, which has been beautifully adapted and made to feel very “of the moment,” because it’s about female emancipation.
It depends how long this situation goes on for, but from a project perspective, it’s okay. From a company perspective, it’s a disaster. It’s an absolute disaster financially, and we are in dire trouble. No one’s been laid off, but we’re very small, we’re only seven people. And if Trump’s supposed bailout plan actually doesn’t trickle down to the people at some point soon, then that’s not going to be great, because independent companies survive on production, and we have very, very little cashflow.
I have the best CPA in the business, and we had all our applications done for small business aid and loans really fast. All the different things you can apply for, even the $10,000 aid you’re supposed to receive in three days for small businesses, we applied for it. But when I spoke to the bank yesterday they were like, “We are inundated. We have hundreds and hundreds of applications, and we don’t even have the correct mandate. We’re not even sure how we’re supposed to do it. This could take weeks.” They don’t even know, they can’t even say. We tick every box as to why we should get the small business help. It’s not for me, it’s to pay my payroll, office rent, and only a part of it.
Luckily, my landlord’s been amazing. People have been amazing. But the problem is, it’s like a domino effect. Everyone’s hurting. So, if I can’t get any cash in, I can’t pay my staff, and my staff can’t pay their rent. I pay all their medical insurance, so they don’t contribute at all, I pay it off the top. And the one thing I want to make sure of is we’re paying their medical insurance. I pay nearly $8000 in medical insurance a month. Just paying that, and trying to give them enough money to buy food, is a real struggle. And as I say, we started talking to the bank and the Small Business Administration three-and-a-half weeks ago, but we are still weeks behind seeing any money. What Trump is saying is such rubbish. The guy is irresponsible. I have no time for Boris Johnson, but my heart goes out to him. He tried, and now he’s in intensive care.
I think what Netflix is doing is amazing. I have a friend who’s a big production designer on a big Netflix series, and he posted quite early on a thank you to Netflix for making sure that all below-the-line staff were kept on salary. That is a big thing. But then you read what’s happening with Channel Four, because their advertising revenue is down so dramatically, they’re under real threat. As an independent company, you look at these big corporations and you think, they’ll be fine. But of course, it depends on who that company is and how they’re financed.
When this first started, I used to wake up every morning thinking, This isn’t really happening, I’ve dreamt this. I got depressed in a way I’ve never been depressed before, because I’m a doer. I’m someone who goes out and does things. If there’s a crisis in production, I sort it. If my actor gets ill, I sort it. I can’t sort this. I don’t know what to do. My financial partner in London said to me, “I’m worried about you. You’ve lost your mojo, and if you lose your mojo, the company’s just going to collapse. You’ve got to get it back. You’ve got to get used to this, the new normal.” And he was right.
Fortunately, Mason is almost back to normal now. One night, he had minor difficulty breathing so I took him to the pediatrician again. Then he finally got tested, because he’d had a fever for 12 days at that point and he had some congestion in his chest. Here’s the irony: He tested negative. They think it’s a negative positive test, because he’d had it for so long that he’d have to now have the antibody test to know for sure. I rang my doctor and asked to be tested myself. His assistant said, “Look, you cannot get tested. There are just no tests.” They said, “There may be a test available that we can get to your home. We’re trying to see if we can join the program.” But it’s between $150 and $200.
Anyway, it’s so obvious I have it. I’m not going to waste my doctor’s time pursuing it, and people much sicker than me need their help. We’ll get antibody tested as soon as we can so we can give blood. But for now, we just are keeping safe and keeping well and Mason is much better now.