EXCLUSIVE: Set in a dystopian reality in which an unstoppable force turns London’s streets into a deserted wilderness, it’s perhaps fitting for our times that War Of The Worlds will be the first UK television drama series to get cameras rolling in the pandemic era. Hollywood blockbusters Jurassic World and Mission Impossible are already shooting in Britain, but TV has been a little more cautious up until this point.
Fox Networks Group and Canal+’s contemporary reimagining of H.G Wells’ classic story is returning for an eight-part second season and, as previously revealed by Deadline, will go into production from next Monday in Newport, Wales. Studiocanal-backed Urban Myth Films had long aimed for a mid-July shoot and, thanks to some meticulous planning, it has not been blown off course by the pandemic.
Co-produced by AGC Television, War Of The Worlds has gained a loyal following after airing in 60 territories globally, including becoming a best-performer for U.S. cable network Epix and Fox’s highest-rated new show in eight years in the UK. It boasts a cast including Hereditary actor Gabriel Byrne and Downton Abbey’s Elizabeth McGovern, while since the show premiered, Daisy Edgar-Jones has gone from little-known newcomer to the viral star of Normal People.
Urban Myth director Johnny Capps said the reception for Season 1 meant he was “determined” to get the show back on the road from an early stage in the coronavirus outbreak, which shut down British drama production back in March. Urban Myth quickly recruited a “Covid coordinator” to embed safety procedures into every production process, while it also created a bible of protocols weaving together advice from other guidelines, including those produced by Bectu and the British Film Commission.
Urban Myth has also worked closely with the Welsh government, given the three-month shoot takes place at a studio facility in the city of Newport. Capps said that local authorities have been “absolutely extraordinary,” and sources have told Deadline that Urban Myth has worked with the government to set up a coronavirus testing regime for cast and crew. Capps declined to comment on this.
Having compiled a “very large document” of protocols for the Howard Overman-penned show, producers decided to put the planning into practice during what Capps described as a “Covid rehearsal” last Friday. Urban Myth gathered the entire crew and a group of extras to participate in the dry run and conducted a full day of filming.
“Everybody that’s going to work on the show, except the actors, came to our studio and we did an entire shooting day from the moment the crew arrived. We had extras as actors, we had a call sheet, we had scenes — we did a genuine shooting day,” Capps explained. “We went through every single procedure, and just put everything under the microscope. It was a very useful day because all the crew became aware of how things are going to change and what things will be the same. It rammed home to everyone that, even though we are still filming, there are new rules in play.”
All involved in the production must report for a temperature test the moment they arrive at the studio. If they do not have a fever, they are handed a wristband and pointed to an assistant director, to whom they provide their name and department. At this point, the individual is handed a color-coded armband, which determines what areas of the facility they can access. Blue armbands are reserved mostly for office workers and means they are not able to access the set. Those with red armbands can access the set, but not when the cast is present. Finally, green armband wearers are in a tightly protected bubble with the actors, meaning they can access the set while cameras are rolling.
Two-meter social distancing must be observed by all, regardless of what armbands people are wearing. There is an exception to this rule, however, which allows actors to get close to one another when it is “dramatically necessary,” according to Capps. Any such interactions will be closely observed by the first assistant director and the Covid coordinator, and it’s only possible because the cast and the green crew are quarantined and will be subject to regular testing. Deadline understands that they have already been tested twice — 14 and seven days prior to the shoot — and will be screened for a third time on Saturday before the clapper boards are cracked open. Positive tests mean two weeks of self-isolation.
“We will have a system in place which is a very robust screening for the cast, so the actors can feel very safe and we create a bubble in which they will be able to do their job without the fear of infection,” Capps said. He added that the only other time that social distancing rules are broken is when the cast goes through hair and makeup. Again, this is done in a highly controlled environment, and the time spent on these aesthetic necessities will be kept to an absolute minimum, meaning styles will be chosen that can hold in place during filming, and hair and makeup checks will be strictly limited.
Capps said that the rehearsal showed that “a lot of our planning worked.” They were pleased with the color-coded armbands, which meant “straight away, all of the crew have a clear visual thing” that dictates their movements at the studio. “It really gets people’s minds thinking,” Capps added. He accepted that there were obvious areas that could be “fine-tuned” to allow production to speed up — though he was bullish that the shoot will not be slowed down significantly.
This is counter to what many producers are predicting, and indeed experiencing, but Capps said that while coronavirus has added new procedures, it has also taken others away. This includes final checks on hair and makeup, and new ways of watching rushes, which means people do not huddle around one screen and can view footage on their phones. “We’ve got new things in place, which will speed up old things. The jury is out. It will be a little slower to begin with… but I think there’s a way of keeping our shooting schedule,” Capps said. He added that Urban Myth has had a “very honest conversation” with Fox and Canal+ about financing the shoot, including if it is forced to halt due to a coronavirus outbreak.
The producer, who has worked on other large scale programs including Merlin and Atlantis, acknowledged that the thematics of War Of The Worlds has made their life easier. “Fortunately, we are a show which is in a world where there aren’t that many people around. There are things that work for us creatively,” he explained. “War Of The Worlds is all about man’s humanity and what you do in an extreme crisis. That’s what I’ve found really interesting about the pandemic and the way people are behaving. Season 2 will touch even more nerves because of what we’ve been through as a country and as a world.”