Entertainment

A party scene while making ‘Expats’ led to a COVID outbreak

On a Thursday morning in Long Beach last month, the crew of Amazon Studios’ Expats crowded onto a yacht. They filmed a party scene that featured a child making his way through a forest of adults, followed by Margaret, the character of star Nicole Kidman.

A few days later, the production alerted those who had worked on location that three people on set had tested positive for COVID-19 and offered additional testing.

However, some crew members were unhappy with the way the cases were being communicated and raised concerns about whether quarantine protocols were being followed, according to interviews and emails verified by The Times.

“There was general panic on set,” said a crew member with knowledge of the matter who was not authorized to speak publicly. “It was a very, very tight set.”

Hollywood unions intervened. SAG-AFTRA prevented its members deemed to be close contacts, including minors, from filming, which resulted in the production ending early.

“A field representative from SAG-AFTRA discovered the issue during a set visit,” spokeswoman Pamela Greenwalt said in a statement. “Our enforcement team called an immediate meeting with show representatives and ensured production was fully compliant with return-to-work protocols.”

“Our top priority is always the health and safety of our employees, cast and crew,” said Tim Clawson, Amazon Studios’ head of Worldwide Production and Post, in a statement. “We have and will continue to follow procedures and notifications per Los Angeles County and Union guidelines for our productions.”

The show’s row, based on Janice YK Lee’s 2016 novel The Expatriates about wealthy Westerners in Hong Kong, underscores the delicate balancing act Hollywood faces as the industry continues to grapple with the fallout from the pandemic.

Studios and streaming companies are under pressure to cut costs and deliver hot new shows to retain subscribers, while producers are burdened with inflated budget costs and industry safety protocols that are slowing down filming. However, the threat of the health crisis remains as California has seen a surge in new cases.

“Crews are still very concerned,” said Patric Abaravich, business representative for IATSE Local 871, whose membership includes production coordinators and script directors. “People are just tired.”

As the pandemic has unfolded, so have Hollywood’s safety protocols, which the Motion Picture Assn says have had some success in containing movie set outbreaks.

Last month, the major entertainment industry unions agreed to extend their return-to-workplace agreement with an alliance of major Hollywood producers that includes Amazon, Apple and Walt Disney to July 15. The agreement eased requirements around masking, testing and social distancing.

However, some “Expats” cast and crew members, who declined to speak publicly for fear of reprisals, questioned whether the producers were following the rules after an outbreak on their set.

On Friday, May 13, the day after the yacht scene was shot, the production wrote to the cast and crew offering that anyone who had been on set that day or the day before be released, according to an email Weekend can be tested for COVID-19 reviewed by The Times.

That prompted some on set to ask if they had been exposed to anyone with the virus. In response to questions, some were told by the production that three people had tested positive and that their close contacts had been notified, according to emails verified by the Times. Two members of the cast and crew said they were upset that they were only told after asking. (OSHA regulations require crew to be notified of an outbreak within one business day. Union protocols require only close contacts to be alerted.)

“I felt it was irresponsible for people who might have been exposed to just not say anything,” said a crew member who was not authorized to speak publicly.

The entire cast and crew were informed Monday that three people had tested positive for COVID-19 (one was later ruled a false positive) and that all close contacts were advised to take precautions.

The matter caught the attention of SAG-AFTRA when a field worker visited the set on May 19 and raised concerns about whether producers were following the union’s protocols to quarantine those exposed to the virus. IATSE, which represents workers behind the scenes, also said in a statement that it was made aware of safety protocol concerns in May which it is working with other unions to resolve.

SAG-AFTRA and two other industry unions held an emergency safety meeting with producers and found the show’s actors were unable to safely perform their duties for 10 days during which they were required to wear their masks.

The show ended production early May 23.

“For that reason, the COVID safety protocols that we have jointly negotiated with the studios and our sister guilds and unions remain critical — in order for incidents to be addressed effectively,” the Directors Guild of America said in a statement.

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/business/story/2022-06-18/a-covid-outbreak-on-amazon-series-expats A party scene while making ‘Expats’ led to a COVID outbreak

Sarah Ridley

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