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Crew death renews concerns over film set safety amid COVID-19

A photograph of John Nolan on the set of “The Paper Tigers,” a kung fu action-comedy feature film.
John Nolan on the set of “The Paper Tigers,” a martial arts action-comedy film. Nolan developed COVID-19 symptoms after working on a commercial shoot in July and died last week.
(Al’n Duong)

The death of a 51-year-old assistant director who lost a battle with COVID-19 last week after returning to work on a commercial shoot has heightened concerns about the safety of film sets.

John Nolan, a Texas-based assistant director, went into cardiac arrest and died Aug. 26 after weeks of battling the illness, according to public journal entries made by his family on the website CaringBridge.

Although it’s not known where or when Nolan contracted the disease, he developed symptoms of the virus after he worked on a commercial production in Austin, Texas, in mid-July and tested positive for COVID-19 on July 29. By Aug. 5, he was in intensive care at a Georgetown, Texas, hospital and placed on a ventilator, according to the Nolan family‘s account.

Carol Nolan, his wife, declined to be interviewed.

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The assistant director’s death has ignited debate on social media about the safety of returning to film sets, according to John Elmore, a 20-year veteran assistant director and colleague of Nolan’s. Some have raised concerns about the lack of testing on sets, while others defended the production.

Commercials, which tend to have smaller crews and shorter shoots than television or film productions, don’t require COVID-19 testing under local health orders or industry guidelines.

“Some people are afraid,” Elmore said, who worked on the 2002 “Spider-Man” blockbuster and television series “The Oath.” “They’re thinking of just getting out of the business completely. It’s important to know what happened and what still needs to be done for this industry to get back to work safely.”

The untimely death of a crew member highlights the conflicts faced by filmmakers and workers on sets as they resume production. While many in the industry want to return to filming, with thousands of jobs lost in the hiatus, they have to balance the risks of exposure to COVID-19 as sets are typically crowded locations. Producers, unions and health officials have been working together for months to create a series of safety protocols for sets.

“If any good can come from John’s passing, it would be for the production side of our industry to be more mindful this COVID thing is still out there waiting for us,” said Ben Ketai, a Los Angeles-based film and television director who worked with Nolan for several years on his TV show “StartUp” that first aired in 2016 on the streaming video service Crackle. “Film sets are busy, crowded places and it’s very easy to get into a comfortable rhythm and let your guard down. “

Commercials have driven Hollywood’s production restart in wake of pandemic, but some crews and unions say safety enforcement still falls short

Nolan had worked on television shows such as “L.A.‘s Finest” and the upcoming movie “The Paper Tigers.”

He was a second assistant director, with his son as a production assistant, on a six-day ad shoot for insurance company State Farm from July 9 to 16, according to Santa Monica-based production company Tool of North America.

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The company said it could not discuss the private medical information of employees but said that it tested crew members’ temperatures daily on the set, and no one failed the test. Tool also said it used a zoning system for social distancing, gave protective equipment to the crew and had a COVID-19 compliance assistant on set, as well as a medic and sanitation crew.

“John’s passing is tragic, and we extend our deepest condolences to his family,” said Matt Van Hoven, spokesperson for Tool of North America. “We take all available options regarding safety precautions very seriously.”

He added that it was continuing to work with the Assn. of Independent Commercial Producers, or AICP, L.A. County Department of Public Health and unions regarding health and safety measures. They “are rigorously following these and other state and federal guidelines,” he said.

Texas guidelines require temperature testing while L.A. County guidelines exempt short-duration films such as commercial shoots from testing.

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“We are saddened to learn of the passing of a crew member from Tool of North America,” State Farm spokesperson Gina Morss- Fischer said. “We send our deepest sympathy to the family. The small group of cast and crew followed state and CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] health and safety guidelines during the production.”

Tyler Perry was among the first major filmmakers to restart shooting amid the coronavirus outbreak. He followed rigorous health and safety measures at his Atlanta studio.

Some crew members have already flagged worries that commercials don’t require testing.

“It’s just a sad situation that the unions and the production companies on commercials are yet to come to an agreement on testing,” said Elmore, 63.

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The AICP, which has set COVID-19 safety guidelines for commercials producers and whose members are involved in making 85% of all commercials aired nationally, declined to comment.

Although some entertainment industry unions want testing on all productions, the AICP said testing (such as antibody testing and temperature-taking) are not reliable screening indicators and instead recommends questionnaires that crew members fill out about their symptoms.

The Directors Guild of America said it was looking into the matter.

“We were deeply saddened to learn of the tragic loss of John Nolan, who was a very well-respected member of the DGA community,” said Lily Bedrossian, DGA spokesperson. “We are working to learn more about the underlying facts of his passing. The health and safety of our members working in commercials are of the utmost importance, never more so than now.”


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