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'A lot of people lost their jobs overnight': Making an Irish film in the age of Covid-19

We talked to a filmmaker and Screen Ireland about getting back up and running.

WHEN THE FIRST coronavirus shutdown took place in March 2020, things changed instantly for people across the country.

For those working in the film industry, the shutdown meant that sets had to be closed immediately, and movies – which take years to get to the filming stage as it is – were put on hiatus.

The Irish film industry employs – directly and indirectly – almost 12,000 people and is estimated to be worth €692 million to the economy, so the impact of the shutdown was not a minor one. 

So as soon as the Covid-19 restrictions were put in place, Screen Ireland, the development agency for the Irish film industry, started the process of figuring out how to help those affected. Money was moved around and new funding received from the government’s Arts department.

A number of supports are now available for filmmakers. The Covid-19 production fund. for example, aims at partially offsetting additional production costs associated with implementing the new safety guidelines. 

The €5 million pilot performance and production support package is for the audio-visual sector to “de-risk costs” and enable independent Irish productions to return. Other supports include the cinema stimulus support fund, specific schemes to support screenwriters, a strategic slate development fund (enhanced from €1 million to up to €3 million overall) and a talent academy for supporting new talent.

Actors are also catered for through the actor’s showcase, which offers €2,500 grants towards producing a short film starring them. Screen Skills Ireland provided 81 free online courses. 

As the aim was for people to try and get back behind and in front of the camera as soon was allowed, strict guidelines for returning to production were published by Screen Producers Ireland. This is in addition to the government’s return to work safely protocol, and checklists published by the Health and Safety Authority.

‘The film was ambitious even before Covid’

Things began to open up again around the start of September. One film that was able to start shooting was Let The Wrong One In, a co-production between Tailored Films (The Lodgers) and Workshed Films (From the Dark), financed by Screen Ireland, MPI Media Group, and the BAI, in association with RTE.

Let The Wrong One In follows a young supermarket worker who discovers his older brother has turned into a vampire and must decide whether to help or slay his sibling. The cast includes Karl Rice and Eoin Duffy, as well as Anthony Head (Buffy The Vampire Slayer).

Filming took place in Ringsend, as well as the Bram Stoker Museum / Castle Dracula in Clontarf.

Ruth Treacy, a producer at Tailored Films, told that they were fully in pre-production and one week away from filming when the first lockdown happened.

“We could sense at the start of prep that things could be tricky, but everyone was in the same boat where they were focused about what was going to happen. We were trying to move forward as safely as we could – but protocols were changing all the time. We were aware if we shut down the shoot of our own volition before directed to, there was a potential issue regarding insurance. We had to continue until we got official word to shut down.

“We were relieved to get the official word to shut down.”

The vampire comedy requires “lots of close contact”, lots of extras and lots of stunts. “It was ambitious even before Covid,” said Treacy.

But she said that they mistakenly thought they’d be back up in going in June: “It soon became clear in June we shouldn’t be back until September.”

They were lucky that they were fully financed, said Treacy. They were able to cover costs for pre-production thanks to Screen Ireland initiatives, which would let them resume filming straight away when they could. They resumed filming in early September, and finished around Halloween. 

“During the shoot you were on tenterhooks the whole time – are we going to be shut down again? It was a huge relief when we realised we didn’t have to stand down. At that point we felt quite confident in Covid protocols. It was much more clear on how to keep crew and cast safe, whereas in March we were like headless chickens – no one knew what the gravity of the situation was.”

They felt safe and secure filming again, said Treacy. “It was a completely safe shoot. One thing I found when we restarted was the sense of teamwork and camaraderie from cast and crew was unbelievable. It was like nothing I’ve seen before.”

Another producer I’ve spoken to said the same thing – the atmosphere and dedication of crew at the moment is unbelievable.

They worked on their Covid-19 protocols well in advance of getting back to set. “We mapped it out, risk-assessed all locations, risk-assessed extras.” They put the crew in pods, as there wasn’t a budget to keep people in hotels. Wristband access was introduced at three different levels – green, red and orange – and crew members and cast are PCR tested regularly.

There were also two Covid officers on set, doing things like taking temperatures and marking down if people had symptoms, “but no one actually did” have symptoms. They also minimised as much as possible how many people would be on set – and had remote monitors so people could watch what was being filmed away from the set. 

The usual catering setup was changed to pre-packed hot food, which people ate outside or in their car.

Did all of this slow things down in any way? “It did in some respects slow things down, but not as much as we envisaged it would,” said Treacy. The director benefitted from the extra time off, and “walked onto set knowing what he needed, and was on fire”. This meant that the pace of filming was fast. 

“I’ve been pleasantly surprised about how successful filming under Covid protocols has been,” said Treacy, “I had a real sense of dread.” Lately she’s been working on a children’s show, and has found that things are easier “if you map out the plan really clearly and stick to the plan”. 

The costs do add up however – with it being over €100,000 extra to pay for all the precautions and do PCR testing. “We did thankfully get covered. If we were on a very tight budget, if we had to incur that it would have massively compromised in making the film.” Screen Ireland also provided moral support and encouragement, said Treacy. 

“It’s really busy now and it looks like it’s going to continue to be busy,” said Treacy when we spoke in December about the year ahead. However, weeks after our conversation, the country went back into Level 5 – showing that the next 12 months might be as uncertain as the year that has passed. 

It’s clear that when films are able to be made, it requires a lot of extra work, but for many productions it is worth it. One issue that Treacy did bring up, however, is how covered productions are by insurance, if they have to close down for Covid-related reasons.

“I’m hopeful things will be busy next year,” said Treacy, looking ahead to 2021. “I hope that some of the respect and dedication we have seen from crews this year continues on next year.”

The film is now being edited remotely in Belfast, and they hope to release it at Halloween 2021. “Hopefully people will enjoy it, it’s a very silly, funny comedy. Hopefully audiences will want to see some escapism next year.”

“There have been positives from this whole experience,” said Treacy.

People are more conscious of health and safety. I know every production didn’t have the [experience] same as us, but ours was positive.

But like all those in the industry, her new year hope was for a 2021 that won’t be as blighted by the pandemic. 

Screen Ireland

Behind the scenes, when the lockdown was introduced on 12 March, Screen Ireland “moved pretty rapidly,” said Louise Ryan, its marketing and communications manager.

First, it moved towards repurposing funding to support writers, producers and directors affected by the changes. This was to ensure there was as much going on in development as possible, particularly as they didn’t know how long the lockdown would last. 

The next phase was a focus “on getting the industry back”, said Ryan, with a focus on things like safety guidelines and strict on-set protocols. “The industry has been incredibly innovative in making that happen and getting the industry back to work,” said Ryan. 

A “wide amount” of productions were able to get back, including the TV series Smother, being made by BBC and RTE and starring Seana Kerslake. This has been filming in Clare, after being temporarily delayed due to the pandemic. 

The film Wolf was back up and running too, and a micro-budget film called Barber, starring Aiden Gillen, was able to restart filming in Dublin. Bigger-budget productions like Valhalla have also been able to get back filming. “It’s really been incredible,” said Ryan.

Screen Ireland also helped to promote Irish video on demand options, like, which was given marketing support. In addition, film festivals were supported in moving online. There were lots of challenges, but Ryan praised people for their approach. 

Dr Annie Doona, chair of Screen Ireland, said that the announcement of the pandemic restrictions “was the start of a very busy time for the board”.

“It was a real shock for everybody,” said Doona. “There was financial concern for people.”

We wanted make sure productions did stop so we were in compliance with guidelines. We wanted to make sure everyone was safe.

The effect of the lockdown on professionals was immediate. “Artists, filmmakers. musicians… all the people associated with the industry, TV, animation… a lot of people lost their jobs overnight,” said Doona.

The board began meeting weekly to try and rearrange funding to help people. They also noted how film professionals “were dynamic and creative and started to do things” as their everyday careers disappeared, said Doona.

When it came to funding, the Department of Culture and Arts was “really supportive”.

Screen Ireland committed to giving out development money, so that people could start developing projects for when things opened back up again. It announced its 12-month programme of slate funding, and money for companies to create programmes. 

Doona felt that the impact was on film industry professionals’ livelihoods and wellbeing, “but also the nation’s wellbeing”. 

As films were able to get back up and running last September, Doona said it has “been challenging but people have absolutely been up for it, and everyone is focused on the health and safety for everyone involved in production”. 

“There are some delays, some productions chose not to startup again until next year [2021]. It will be busy next year. We will have a backlog of things that are to be made, and new productions that people have put in for.”

Doona noted that people turned to streaming services over the past nine months, and said that she is concerned about the impact of this on the industry. She has called for streaming services to contribute to the Irish film industry under an EU directive that would allow Ireland to pay a production levy or make a financial contribution. However, she did say she believes there is “room for both” live events and streaming.

Reflecting back on the year that was, does she think that the pandemic will have an influence on the type of content being made by Ireland’s creators in the future?

“My personal view is that probably not initially. I think initially people will not want to revisit this. But certainly people’s experiences during this period is very interesting material for tv or film or drama,” said Doona.

“I think we will see Covid-19 reappearing and how people dealt with it. And maybe the issues brought to the front around mental health, and maybe [we will see more exploration of themes around] domestic abuse.” 

As for the months ahead, she said that Screen Ireland is hearing “that people are absolutely champing at the bit to get back to production, making films”.

There is some great new stuff out but we want new Irish content.

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