Reopening Hollywood: Vet Producer, First Time Helmer Randall Emmett On Shuttering & Restarting ‘Midnight In The Switchgrass’
Editors’ Note: Deadline’s latest series, Reopening Hollywood, focuses on the incredibly complicated effort to get the industry back on its feet while ensuring the safety of everyone involved. Our goal is to examine numerous sides of the business and provide forum for leaders in Hollywood who have a vision for how production could safely restart in the era of coronavirus.
After producing more than 100 films over 23 years through his company Emmett/Furla, Randall Emmett was five days into directing Midnight in the Switchgrass with Megan Fox, Emile Hirsch, Lukas Haas and Bruce Willis when COVID-19 forced a shutdown in Puerto Rico. Emmett’s now making plans to be one of the first films back. He’s fully aware that if people get sick on his set, it will be a crushing blow to an industry desperate to rebound. That adds extra pressure for a first time director. This piece is culled from two interviews, the first done shortly after production shuttered.
DEADLINE: You want to be one of the first films to go back into production. What steps are you taking?
RANDALL EMMETT: Last time we spoke, it was about shutting down and getting the cast safely back to Los Angeles. We’ve been under quarantine now, for two months. As a first time director, this was really hard because I felt like I was hitting stride after the first week of shooting. I’ve stayed connected to the movie, on Zoom, and Skype with my DP, going through shot lists, in anticipation of coming back.
DEADLINE: Where are you on coming back?
EMMETT: We are preparing and hopeful that at the end of the month we’ll be able to travel back to Puerto Rico. We’re waiting for the governor to allow us to resume production. We need that first, and our local production partner, Pimienta, has been putting together protocols. We’re a 99% local-based crew; the only crew member who isn’t from Puerto Rico is our cinematographer. The actors have been calling me nonstop, eager to go to back to work, which is the sentiment around the industry. I’ve spoken to the unions, and they’re putting together protocols we plan to follow. We don’t know them yet, but based on how the world is operating today, we can make some assumptions. It feels like we’re going to be adding probably a dozen people to our set; health officials, people who specialize in making sure the set is sanitized. And we’re going to have to make sure there’s testing. We’re also talking about quarantining the entire crew in one specific hotel after testing.
DEADLINE: How badly was Puerto Rico hit?
EMMETT: Not like here, not as large as Los Angeles, and New York. The last I checked, it was 1900 cases and 12 deaths. Every death is tragic, but they’ve done better compared to other places. They’re working aggressively, to make sure their testing gets up to speed. To me, it feels like testing is everything and we need to be sure ours are accurate. We’ll do whatever it takes. I’m hoping the Screen Actors’ Guild, IATSE, Directors Guild, put out their protocols by the end of the month. I hope we can start back up shortly after. We expect there to be a financial impact on the budget, and if it’s a quarter of a million dollar hit, or $150,000, we’ll do it. I want us as an industry to go back to work. I want to be one of the first to go back to work, prove to our industry that we can operate safely, that we can do this with social distancing, and help find the way we’re going to have to abide by to make films in this new world we’re living in. I do believe this will add hours to every day. What was a standard 12 hour day, you’re probably looking at an extra two hours, minimum, for testing. You will only have limited amount of people in a workspace. The masks, gloves, all those other things, I think it’s definitely going to add time. We’re just going to have to factor that in as we budget and schedule movies going forward.
DEADLINE: When you shut down, did you make an insurance claim as hundreds of productions did? When you restart, will you be covered?
EMMETT: No…well, nobody knows the answer to that yet. Because we started our movie in March, COVID wasn’t covered, in terms of a shutdown, because it had already started. We’ll have to cover the start back. In terms of going back, I’ve spoken to our insurance company half a dozen times. When I see the landscape, and these are all assumptions, but I don’t believe we’re going to get coverage. We’ll have to figure out a financial contingency plan to handle all that. Whether it’s a government shutdown in the middle of your movie because an uptick in cases forces a lock down, I think we will have to figure this into the budgets of new movies going forward. We’re planning other movies beyond this one and we’re just going to have to increase the contingency, to protect the production. So that if we have to shut down, and fly everybody home, we can afford to come back, and the movie doesn’t collapse.
We’re having those conversations internally. We’re operating in a bit of vacuum, but I think we’ll come back strong. The appreciation of being on a set again…we’re desperate to get back to a place where artists can create. The unions are working hard on their protocols and as soon as we have them, hopefully by the end of this month, we’re ready to go back, fully following everything that is mandated.
DEADLINE: Are you filming in an isolated location, or in the middle of a city?
EMMETT: It’s pretty remote, which favors us. We have a couple intimate scenes in a diner that we’ll have taken over, but the majority of the locations we have left are out of the way of downtown San Juan. We left our sets there, and we’re a very small cast. The bigger scenes we shot already. What’s left are scenes with two or three actors, at most. In that respect, we got lucky there…but I speak to these actors daily and I wish I had more answers. They say they’re ready to go. As soon as I tell them it’s safe, and obviously, their union tells them it’s safe.
We’re also lucky in that, if you went back to our last location, you would think we’re still shooting. We left base camp as is. The wardrobe trailer, the trucks, the sets, we were lucky enough that the places we were shooting, where we set dress, where we built sets, they’ve let us leave them there. The hotel that we set decorated was kind enough to say, don’t worry, we’re going to lock off these rooms and when you come back, you come back. The rest of the sets we built on another person’s property and they said, don’t worry about it, we’ll lock this off. Everything is just sitting there, waiting. But it will feel like a very different world, a very different way of working. That first week back, with all the new protocols to protect and keep everyone healthy, will be a very slow week. We have to be respectful of spatial distancing, and doing all the things that they’re going to tell us to do.
DEADLINE: How many people do you require on your set?
EMMETT: I was just having this conversation with our line producer. The protocols might tell us 60 people, and 10 people, maximum, at one time. We had 105 people on our crew. When we go back, we’re definitely going to be adding people for safety and health, maybe a dozen people to meet the protocols. That is what we’re preparing for. But if we have to reduce the crew, we’ve had that conversation. We don’t want to do that; we want to keep the crew completely intact, but if they say to us, the only way you can go back is with half the crew…we want to make movies, and we want to put people to work, and people want to go back to work. If they tell us the only way to go back to work safely, right now, is with half the crew, then we’re going to have to figure out how to do that.
The unions might tell us okay, you guys can go back, but you can’t have more than 10 people in the same room, with six-foot separation, which means we’ll have to set up each shot in waves. Bring the grips in, and then the electrics, and then the cameras. Whatever they tell us, we’re going to follow and respect, to make sure that everybody is safe.
DEADLINE: It makes sense if 25 people are milling around your actors, that could be a risk…
EMMETT: We have a game plan, but it will be trumped by what the unions tell us. When we’re on set, the actors will be quarantined on location, in a hotel, just like the crew will be quarantined. I think it’ll be minimal people in the room, on the set, when we’re actually filming. The camera operator, a DP, another camera operator, the director, and maybe a script supervisor. We’re talking about five people at most, and we’re also going to be spatially distanced. We’re all going to have masks on, and gloves on, which I know the unions are going to mandate, but we would do that anyway. That’s the only way that you can shoot a scene today. That protects the actors completely and protects everybody from one another.
DEADLINE: When will all this be formalized?
EMMETT: I pray it’s soon. We only need three or four days, after the unions release their protocols. If Puerto Rico announces film production can resume, we’ll start immediately. The five or six actors from here have self-quarantined for a long time. They will get on a private plane, fly there; and we will quarantine them, and myself, and the DP. We will go a week early, quarantine back at the hotel down in Puerto Rico. That’s what I’ve discussed with all of them. We would test upon arrival, and we would test the day before shooting, and assuming those tests were all negative, then we will begin shooting. Temperature checks, twice a day. There will be no going out during shooting. There will be no leaving. It’s got to be very strict. You can’t go anywhere. You can’t do anything but focus on that movie. We can’t go out to a restaurant. We’re going to have to just be grateful to be back. Everybody’s got to go from the hotel, to the set, back to the hotel. That’s what we’re creating for ourselves, so that there’s no exposure risk. I people don’t want to abide by the rules, then they just couldn’t work on the movie.
DEADLINE: They’ve got to eat. What becomes of craft services?
EMMETT: The meals will be boxed, like when you pick up food at a restaurant. Everything’s going to be individual, boxed, sanitized, somebody standing there with gloves, and mask, and takes away boxes. The world we remember three months ago is gone, and I think that’s going to be for a while, until people say it’s safe for us. Same with catering. No standing in a line with 40 people, trying to get your food. You’re going to be seated away from people. Every single thing on the movie will change, for safety’s sake. Every single department is going to change. We’re going to all have to abide by this, to protect one another, and that’s just going to be our responsibility. I’ve been on sets for 23 years, produced a hundred plus movies, and this is the first one I’ve ever directed. I know I will never forget this moment in my life. None of us will. Everyone has such good attitudes, they know what’s at stake, and how lucky we are to do this. The thirst to go back to work is a thousand times what it used to be.
DEADLINE: Lot of pressure to add to directing for the first time. Why did you want to direct?
EMMETT: I love directors, I love actors, the creative process, but you become so inundated with the business part of making movies because you have to support a company. You are realizing other peoples’ vision. I was kind of dying, creatively. I’m good at putting movies together in tough economies and shifting markets and I’ve always been able to raise the financing and be a relentless producer for a director. But I was felt on autopilot and I told my partner George Furla when the right script came along, I wanted to direct. While it might be the worst experience of my career and I’ll never do it again, I wanted to challenge myself and become uncomfortable again. We found the Midnight in the Switchgrass script by Alan Horsnail and I fell in love with it and said, this is it. I consulted with all these directors I’d worked with, Michael Polish, Antoine Fuqua, Pete Berg. I did a table read with Emile Hirsch and a bunch of actors, and halfway through I wrote on the back of the script, I’m doing this movie no matter what, I am not backing out. I asked Emile, would he do this as a favor to me after all the movies we’ve done together and he said sure, he loved the role and the script. I made his deal. I called Bruce Willis and he was generous enough to do it and support me after 18 movies together. I had my kids’ support, my fiancé and my partner. Everybody was behind me, and this culminated in March 9 being our day one in Puerto Rico. And we only got through five days before we left.
DEADLINE: How far did you get?
EMMETT: We did about 20 pages. The cast was amazing. I knew going in as a first time director you have to make sure you have the best actress, and Megan Fox was that. She and Lukas Haas and Emile were crushing it.
DEADLINE: When did you know you had to shut down?
EMMETT: We finished day five at 4 AM Friday. Things were shutting down in LA. We were locked in and wondered, were people just taking precautions? We knew Italy and China were catastrophic. We were in a place called Dorado and San Juan, downtown. We were pretty isolated and [coronavirus] wasn’t that big a thing in Puerto Rico, other than one case where a guy got off a cruise ship with it. Saturday, people are asking, are we going to be okay? The beaches were open in Puerto Rico, the restaurants, the bars were open. There was no feeling of any of what we’ve been facing here at home and around the world. And then Sunday, everything changed when the Governor declared a State of Emergency and a mandatory curfew at 9 p.m.
That was our first real day off, and we’re watching the news and my fiancé kept saying to me, you guys are a week behind, but we’re living in this now, and it’s serious. So then I become a producer again and it’s, do we continue? The actors said they wanted to continue, if I felt it was safe and we were allowed to. I was going to have to have a conversation with the crew, though I suspected that night it was over.
DEADLINE: When did you know for sure?
EMMETT: Many of the crew had already started to quarantine themselves. A lot of different crew members were speaking in Spanish about their hope to continue. One crew member raised his hand, and said, I want to keep going, but I just have to move out of my house because I’ve got my grandmother who’s 90 and I can’t risk her getting sick. I will go rent a place down the street because that’s how much this means to me. Hearing this, I remembered that a lot of the crew there live with older relatives. And right then, I knew it was over, and that it wasn’t a time to be selfish. That drove it home.
The local producer asked me to speak, and I was in tears. I realized all of us, producers, writers, actors, grips, electrics, PAs, every single department head, we’d quickly become like family, trying to create this movie. And here was this guy who wanted so badly to continue that he would do anything, just as I would have done to keep directing. But it was becoming like a ghost town there; the beaches closed, the hotel was closing the whole city was shutting down. There was no version where we could continue. I told them we were going home but I promised all of them we’d be back.
I arranged to get the actors home. Bruce Willis was getting on a plane and I got to him before it took off. We headed to the airport and Lukas, Emile, all of us were looking at each other, like what just happened? Here, I was worried about getting the shots, staying on schedule on a small budget movie. That was the stress. And now it was, will our friends and family survive this virus? Is the world coming to an end? For the hour to the airport and the seven and a half hour flight home, we were in disbelief. My heart bleeds a lot more for the people dying of this virus, for the people still getting sick, but we were only really learning all this at that moment, because we were locked into making the movie. In the bigger scheme of things, our movie was not important. But at that moment, in my own selfish way I was heartbroken about having to stop. When we parted, I promised we would be back as soon as we could do it. I still believe that.