How Zendaya and John David Washington made a secret movie during the pandemic

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EXCLUSIVE: Even though there’s been a couple of notable film productions recently jockeying for the distinction of being the first in the US to go before the cameras following the COVID-19 shutdown, we can tell you first that a brand new Zendaya and John David Washington movie from “Euphoria” creator Sam Levinson, “Malcolm & Marie,” has been shooting quietly all along during the pandemic. It has already completed production — arguably the first to do so on the feature film side.

Filming for “Malcolm & Marie” took place between June 17-July 2 at the Caterpillar House, an environmentally conscious glass architectural marvel in Carmel, CA – all compliant with WGA, DGA and SAG-AFTRA approvals and COVID-19 safety protocols.

While the pic’s logline is largely under wraps, I hear the movie has some echoes of Netflix’s “Marriage Story,” while resonating a number of social themes that the world is experiencing right now.

How exactly did “Malcolm & Marie” spring so quickly into production?

On Monday, March 16, Levinson received the call from HBO that “Euphoria’s” Season 2 had to shut down. I understand that one night during quarantine, Zendaya phoned him and asked if he could write and direct a movie during quarantine. Within six days, Levinson had cracked “Malcolm & Marie.” When it came to thinking about who could spar with Zendaya, Levinson kept seeing and hearing in his head “BlacKkKlansman” Golden Globe nominee and “Tenet” star Washington.

Given the filmmaker and the cast’s focus to tell stories in a safe way during uncertain times, Levinson, his production partner and wife Ashley Levinson (producer of “Bombshell,” EP of “Green Knight,” co-EP of Queen & Slim), longtime producer Kevin Turen, Washington and Zendaya took it upon themselves to bankroll “Malcolm & Marie” during pre-production and production.

Before shooting, Sam Levinson was writing a script for New Regency when Yariv Milchan and Michael Schafer said they wanted to support the financing of “Malcolm & Marie” and donate their proceeds to charity. Both are EPs on the movie along with Aaron L. Gilbert, Will Greenfield, Washington, Zendaya and Scott Mescudi (aka Kid Cudi) the latter of whom is also an investor in “Malcolm & Marie.” Co-EPs are Katia Washington, Harrison Kreiss, Stuart Manashil and Kenneth Yu.

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Turen and Ashley Levinson worked with doctors, lawyers, WGA, DGA and SAG to meet the requirements necessary to go into production. They called a few of their creative collaborators such as “Euphoria” DP Marcell Rév to shoot, and production designer Michael Grasley.

The production employed a lean crew who wore multiple hats with everyone looking out for each other, i.e., co-EP Kreiss became the default for everything from tracking scripts, stocking craft services and standing in for lighting.

“Malcolm & Marie” found an ideal location in Feldman Architecture’s Caterpillar House. Not only was it legal to shoot on private property in Monterey County, but the Caterpillar House, on 33 acres of land, I hear, accentuated the emotion and choreography of Levinson’s screenplay while providing privacy for the production and distance from anyone outside the quarantine group.

The Caterpillar House is the first LEED Platinum Custom Home on California’s Central Coast and allowed the production to use very little A/C or heat, with the home’s glass doors providing fresh air.

Co-EP Katia Washington spearheaded all the health and safety protocols and created the guidelines that were presented to the production’s doctors, unions, crew and cast. After consulting with the unions and with the oversight of their doctor, a plan was hammered out. The entire team would take multiple COVID tests and head up to Monterey for a two-week quarantine before filming began.

For two weeks, cast and crew wore masks, social distanced had their own separate dwellings with individual HVAC units, took hikes, rehearsed in the parking lot, and ate in designated spots food prepared by a chef who had been quarantined with the group. No one was allowed to leave the property.

While the set crew and actors were quarantined, there was a separate pod that included the production designer, set dresser and grips who worked together to prep the house for production. I’m told that this group were held to a similar protocol; they were tested for COVID before working, wore protective gear, and stayed on a separate property to maintain the healthiest working environment possible. While in Carmel, there was another pod that oversaw the logistical and administrative duties. The production had runners who helped with shipping costumes, transporting film and assisting with other needs.

Once cleared, production began with no more than 12 people on set at any given moment. Some of the precautions taken included temperature checks at the beginning and end of every day. Extra time was always allowed for the crew to sanitize the set and gear. No crew member could be in close contact with the actors without the proper personal protective equipment. Sets were pre-dressed well in advance to limit crews, and the director would check in on a video call in advance.

The cast and crew were shuttled in each day in large SUVs from the quarantine location, with cast in a separate car with the same driver to minimize exposure. Cast members would be in charge of handling their own costumes and mic-ing themselves. Actors would be held in a separate holding area while waiting on set, maintaining distance from the crew. As for food, it was always individually wrapped (no cafeteria style), with boxed water available, disposable plates and cutlery, and coffee served on set by one designated person in disposable cups.

Those curious how this nimble production pulled this off and followed thorough safety protocols can read through the detailed guidelines below. There are takeaways here for film and TV productions both big and small:

During Quarantine

• No more than one person in a room at any given time unless the additional person has previously been quarantined with the cast or crew member.

• There will be food prepared in the quarantine housing. Food will be delivered to your rooms. No outside food delivery will be permitted in the housing.

• There will be schedules given to cast and crew as to when common areas can be utilized.

• No physical contact at any time.

• Walking and riding bicycles is permitted at the ranch so long as no one comes in contact with another person or enters any business establishments.

• There will be a pantry in each room for each person to have individual snacks and drinks.

• Disposable plastic cups and utensils only.

• There will be designated exterior areas for each crew member to be outdoors and maintain safe social distance.

• Each cast and crew member will have their own bathrooms in their own hotel rooms.

• Shared laundry is ok as long as handles and knobs are wiped before and after use.

During the Shoot

• Do not touch your mask.

• Eliminate the use of paper document distribution.

• Avoid handshakes and other greetings that involve touching.

• Keep your nails short if at all possible.

• Use the provided tissues to open door handles at the shooting location.

• Shared bathrooms are ok, but please wipe the seat, doorknobs, and sink handles before and after each use.

• All cast and crew food will be prepared by quarantined chefs at the quarantine housing and will be delivered to the shooting location by a quarantined crew member.

General

• Instruct all crew on the proper way to put on, take off, and dispose of PPE (personal protective equipment).

• Place signage around set reminding people to maintain distancing, wash their hands frequently, sneeze into tissues or their elbows, wear face coverings etc.

• Include a hygiene and safety reminder in the morning safety meetings (over the walkie to avoid gathering the whole crew).

• If you feel sick, do not report to set.

• No set visits.

Testing

• Temperature checks to take place at the beginning and end of every day.

• Test the crew before quarantine begins and once it ends.

Personal Protection Equipment

• Masks, gloves, shoe covers, sanitizing wipes, tissues and face shields to be made available to crew and cast.

Hygiene on Set

• Identify a cleaning vendor locally to work with production.

• Sanitize frequently touched surfaces throughout the day.

• Do not share phones, walkies, or keys. Frequently sanitize these items.

• Place multiple no-touch hand sanitizing dispensers around the set.

• Frequent hand washing or sanitizing is required by all cast and crew.

Physical Distancing

• Everyone should maintain 6 feet apart at all times unless necessary.

• Avoid touching your face throughout the day.

• Limit specific areas of the set to essential crew.

• Designate areas for crew when not needed on set to maximize distancing efforts.

• Utilize walkie or cell phones for communication to avoid close contact with other departments.

Crew Levels

• No crew should be in close contact with actors without the proper PPE.

• Allow only one department on set at a time- maximum of 12 people total.

• Maintain physical distancing while on set as much as possible.

Production Offices

• Production office and accounting to work remotely.

• Production meetings to be held by Zoom or other video/telephone conference.

• Anyone doing drop offs and pick-ups from set should not have contact with on-set crew.

• Utilize docu-sign when possible for necessary signatures.

Locations

• We’ll need no-touch covered trash bins around set.

• Designated trash bins for disposing of PPE.

• Director/DP should only scout a location wearing PPE, and without the home owner there.

• Designate a space for contactless pick-ups/drop offs.

• Designate spaces for each department to help keep groups small on set.

Accommodations

• House crew together after quarantine period to minimize outside exposure.

• House crew a short distance from primary shooting location to minimize the need for public transport. No ubers, use private cars.

• Do not leave the accommodation premises during the quarantine and shoot.

Transportation

• Cast and crew will be shuttled each day in Large SUV’s from quarantine location.

• Limit the number of crew and cast in each car, depending on the car size and keeping to one department at a time.

• Designate a cast car with the same driver to minimize cast exposure

• Disinfect door handles, sink taps and high touch surfaces often.

Schedules

• Allow for extra time throughout the day for sanitizing.

• Consider a shorter shooting day to reduce crew exposure and give extra time for cleaning.

• Consider planning for continuous shoot days to achieve shorter schedules.

• Contingency plans to shift the schedule in the event a cast or crew member becomes sick.

• Extensive shot listing and communication of said lists should take place prior to shoot to best organize each days’ needs.

Catering & Craft Service

• Use disposable plates, food containers, cups and cutlery.

• Individually wrap meals- no cafeteria style.

• Limit the number of people picking up food and eating in once place.

• Designate areas for crew to keep the groups small and have adequate spacing.

• Only those trained in food safety to be in food prep areas.

• Chef who is safety trained to deliver breakfast and lunch to crew members.

• Boxed water, or automated water dispensers on set.

• Coffee to be served on set by one designated individual in throw away cups.

• Limit the use of communal coolers, instead have per- department coolers.

• Frequent disinfection of surfaces, sinks, and other cooking tools

Bathrooms

• Post signage to remind everyone to wash their hands for 20 seconds.

• Consider sliding doors, or propping the entry door to avoid touching doorknobs where possible and appropriate.

Equipment

• Encourage crew members to disinfect gear whenever they have downtime.

• Coordinate with equipment vendors on best sterilization methods that won’t damage equipment.

• Coordinate contactless pickup/drop off of equipment from vendors.

• Sterilize dead walkie batteries before returning them to department specific charging stations.

• Utilize hand sanitizer often when using shared equipment.

Costumes

• Cast members will be handling their own costumes.

Cast

• Designated holding areas for cast while waiting to be on set. Keep distancing between cast members and crew

Props

• Sanitize all props before giving them to actors.

• Wear masks while handling props.

• Show and tell for the director to take place via video call or with photos.

• Designate a place to leave props for actors on set to minimize person-to-person contact.

• No other department should handle any props.

• Disinfect door handles, sink taps and high touch surfaces often.

Set Dressing

• Pre-dress sets as far in advance as possible to limit crew.

• Show and tell for the director to take place via video call or with photos.

Camera

• Use remote focus whenever possible.

• Maintain distance from actors whenever possible.

• Limit the passing of equipment (lenses etc) between members of the camera and grip teams.

• Sanitize any headsets needed for communication. Replace or sanitize the mic covers daily.

Sound

• Cast will mic themselves.

• Mics should be sanitized at night and in the morning before shooting begins.

• If contact with an actor is unavoidable, utilize appropriate PPE.

Grip & Electric

• Pre-light and pre-rig sets to limit the number of crew working at once • Sanitize cables and stands at wrap and throughout the day.

• Wash hands after adjusting lights, flags and cables throughout the day.

• Where possible limit the number of crew touching equipment.

Zendaya is repped by CAA, Monster Talent Management and Skrzyniarz & Mallean; John David Washington is repped by WME and Hansen, Jacobson; Sam Levinson is repped by WME and Novo.

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