A party scene while making ‘Expats’ led to a COVID outbreak
On a Thursday morning in Long Beach last month, the crew of the Amazon Studios series “Expats” crowded onto a yacht. They were filming a party scene that had shots of a child pushing his way through a forest of adults, followed by star Nicole Kidman’s character, Margaret.
A few days later, the production alerted those who had worked at the location that three people on the set tested positive for COVID-19 and offered additional testing.
But some crew members were unhappy about the way the cases were communicated and raised concerns about whether quarantining protocols were being followed, according to interviews and emails reviewed by The Times.
“There was a general feeling of panic on set,” said a crew member with knowledge of the matter who was not authorized to speak publicly. “This was a very, very close-quarters set.”
Hollywood unions intervened. SAG-AFTRA blocked its members who were deemed close contacts, including minors, from filming, causing the production to wrap early.
“A SAG-AFTRA field representative discovered the issue on a set visit,” spokeswoman Pamela Greenwalt said in a statement. “Our enforcement team called an immediate meeting with show representatives and ensured the production was in full compliance with the Return to Work protocols.”
“Our top priority is always the health and safety of our employees, casts and crews,” Tim Clawson, Amazon Studios Head of Worldwide Production and Post, said in a statement. “We have and will continue to follow procedures and notifications in accordance with Los Angeles County and Union guidelines for our productions.”
The strife on the show, which is based on Janice Y.K. Lee’s 2016 novel “The Expatriates,” about affluent Westerners in Hong Kong, highlights the delicate balancing act facing Hollywood as the industry continues to deal with the fallout from the pandemic.
Studios and streaming companies are under pressure to cut costs and deliver hot new shows to keep subscribers, while producers are burdened with inflated budget costs and industry safety protocols that slow filming. But the threat of the health crisis remains, with California experiencing a spike in new cases.
“Crews are still highly concerned,” said Patric Abaravich, business representative for IATSE Local 871, whose members include production coordinators and script supervisors. “People are just tired.”
As the pandemic has evolved, so have Hollywood’s safety protocols, which have had some success in keeping outbreaks from film sets contained, according to data from the Motion Picture Assn.
Last month, the major entertainment industry unions agreed to extend until July 15 their return-to-work agreement with an alliance of major Hollywood producers that includes Amazon, Apple and Walt Disney. The agreement decreased requirements around masking, testing and social distancing.
However, some of the cast and crew on “Expats,” who declined to comment publicly for fear of reprisals, questioned whether producers were following the rules after an outbreak on their set.
On Friday, May 13, a day after filming the yacht scene, the production wrote to cast and crew offering that anyone who had been on set that day, or the day before, could test for COVID-19 that weekend, according to an email reviewed by The Times.
That prompted some on set to ask if they had been exposed to someone 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 reviewed by the Times. Two members of the cast and crew said they were annoyed that they were told only after asking. (OSHA rules require crew to be informed within one business day of an outbreak. Union protocols require only close contacts to be alerted.)
“To just not say anything to people that might have been exposed, I thought was irresponsible,” said one crew member who was not authorized to comment publicly.
The entire cast and crew were notified Monday that three people had tested positive for COVID-19 (one was later determined to be a false positive) and that all close contacts had been advised to take precautions.
The matter caught the attention of SAG-AFTRA when a field representative visited the set on May 19 and raised concerns about whether producers were following the union’s protocols for quarantining those had been exposed to the virus. IATSE, which represents behind-the-scenes workers, also said in a statement that it was made aware of safety protocol concerns in May, which it said it worked to resolve with other unions.
SAG-AFTRA and two other industry unions held an emergency safety meeting with producers and determined that actors on the series could not safely perform their duties for 10 days, during which they would have to wear their masks.
The show ended up wrapping production early on May 23.
“This is why the COVID safety protocols we have jointly negotiated with the studios and our sister Guilds and unions continue to be of critical importance — so that when incidents occur they can be effectively addressed,” the Directors Guild of America said in a statement.