I was 9 days away from finishing my film when COVID-19 hit. Inside our pandemic production

Melanie Ramos skates for the camera as filming resumes on "Simone."
Melanie Ramos skates for the camera as filming resumes on “Simone” in San Juan, Puerto Rico, directed by Betty Kaplan.
(Laura T. Magruder)
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Betty Kaplan was nine days away from wrapping her latest film when COVID-19 prompted closures in Puerto Rico in March, halting her production with no guarantees of when it could resume. Tears were shed. Someone passed around a bottle of vodka. The future of the movie was suddenly thrust into question, but Kaplan, the writer-director behind literary adaptations “Of Love and Shadows” and “Doña Bárbara,” was no stranger to perseverance.

She’d spent seven years fighting to get her fifth feature, “Simone,” made, navigating financing setbacks, false starts and, in 2019, her own cancer battle. Adapted from Eduardo Lalo’s award-winning novel of the same name, it had finally gone into production in San Juan, where Lalo’s tale of a university professor entangled with a mysterious admirer is set and where the New York-born, Caracas-raised Kaplan is now based.

That afternoon in March, on Day 13 of the shoot, she gathered her crew and cast, led by Esai Morales and “Tigertail” actress Kunjue Li, and delivered the news: The entire island was shutting down.

“There’s a line in the film the [protagonist] says: ‘We’re on a voyage to where there are no maps,’” Kaplan said from her home last month, where after finishing the film under COVID-19 guidelines she is now in post-production, working virtually with an L.A.-based editor. “That line has become where we all are.”

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In June, after a three-month hiatus, “Simone” became just the second U.S. production allowed to shoot amid the pandemic, the filmmakers say. With strict new health and safety processes in place, Kaplan and her crew finished their shoot and wrapped in July, without a single case of COVID-19.

“I don’t think I’ve ever made a film that’s had this much magic happen,” Kaplan said, “in more ways than one.”

Morales had long been attached to star as a writer and professor who enters into an intriguing relationship with an aspiring artist, played by Li, in the Santurce neighborhood of San Juan. Kaplan decided to film in reverse chronology, a choice that would prove fortuitous as it meant intimate character scenes had already been completed.

A COVID-19 warning sign on the set of "Simone" in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
A COVID-19 warning sign on the set of “Simone,” filmed in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
(Laura T. Magruder)

While waiting for the go-ahead to resume production, Kaplan worked virtually on an animated sequence for the film, rewrote and condensed the rest of the script and finished scripting an unrelated TV project. Producers immediately began reviewing potential COVID-19 precautions. Meanwhile, Li returned to Los Angeles, while Morales stayed in Puerto Rico.

By the time production resumed, the pandemic had exploded — and so had anti-Asian sentiment, spurred by President Trump’s use of terms like “Wuhan virus.” Li, who is from China and based in L.A., encountered this unexpected byproduct of the coronavirus on her return, which she says made her want to visibly show others that she was not the virus.

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“Because I’m Chinese, when I first was there ... people were like, ‘What’s it like in China?’” Li said. “When I went back, Esai said, ‘I was talking to my friends and said my costar is Chinese, and I had to defend you.’ When my costar has to defend my ethnicity because of the whole Trump, ‘Wuhan virus’ thing — it’s those things that are subtle and different. So I wanted to be more fearless, because I’m Chinese.”

To return to set, producers implemented new protocols per union and industry guidelines that made up an estimated 12% to 17.5% of the budget, according to the filmmakers. A doctor walked Kaplan and her department heads through the new precautions, and the filmmaker started a diary documenting the voyage.

After wrapping, Kaplan and her collaborators discussed their experiences as unexpected pioneers of filming in the age of coronavirus: protective gear and social distancing measures on set, testing and contact tracing for all, increased daily sanitizing measures, additional crew and, as a result, greater constraints on time and money.

Virus testing and other challenges are complicating efforts to resume production four months after the COVID-19 pandemic halted film and TV shoots.

With extra work required for COVID-19 protocols, 12-hour days suddenly became 10-hour days, “so every take means something,” said Li. “We can’t ask for another take for everything. You’re losing two hours a day, so essentially you’re losing 12 hours a week. You’re losing one shooting day per week, and for indie films, that’s huge.”

But Kaplan’s career in indie films prepared her for the new challenges. “I come from Latin America, shooting for no money,” she said. “This is a big film that we were scheduled to shoot in 20 days, and we shot in 22 days — and that’s very little time for the quality that we are aspiring to. So we had to make hard decisions, my [director of photography] and I, when we saw that the time was drowning us.”

As productions forge a way forward without a vaccine for the disease, set photos and Kaplan’s daily diary entries, edited for length and clarity, offer a glimpse at how filmmaking looks now:

“We all had our COVID-19 molecular tests, which were sent to the doc, who cleared us for takeoff,” Kaplan wrote the day before filming resumed. “It almost felt like going into space.”

Filming a scene of "Simone," with crew members wearing masks.
Stars Kunjue Li and Esai Morales, director Betty Kaplan and director of photography Sonnel Velazquez film a scene on Day 1 of the restart.
(Laura T. Magruder)

June 30, 2020 — DAY 1 OF THE RESTART

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The 60 people on the crew were separated into badged zones according to their roles on the film, with access limited to those authorized within each zone. Cast and crew members had their temperatures taken, and they filled out questionnaires for contact tracing. With a nightly curfew in place, the production had secured special clearance to film beyond the 10 p.m. cutoff. Kaplan’s diary described the new reality.

It was to be a beautiful day. We had beautiful scenes to shoot. And it was our first day out of the gate, and we were jumping for happiness, all COVID-19 free.

We listened carefully to the instructions from our head doctor, Dr. Ivan Irrizary. Had a safety meeting and are gearing up to go. Also added to our team is MJ Delgado, suggested by our completion bond as the health and safety production supervisor, an additional medic and a crew sanitizing everything…

It took the producers every ounce of their fibers and brain cells to get the approval from the unions, the government, the mayor of San Juan, the police and the night shooting waiver to film over the limit of the curfew. Kudos to them. And here we are masked — 6 feet distancing, hygiene stations for washing hands and alcohol sprays before using the water coolers.

On the set of "Simone," crew members are designated into zones with access strictly regulated.
On the set of “Simone,” crew members are designated into zones with access strictly regulated.
(Laura T. Magruder)

“Good morning. Did you have contact with anyone with COVID? Do you have a cough, etc.?” A gun to our head for our temperature, each one of us, 60 beings COVID-tested, temperature taken and signed in depending our zone A or B or C. Our transport is a big, old yellow school bus. Flashback to all our school days.

Today our bus takes us to a hill on San Jorge street between two churches to shoot the walking scenes through San Juan. We start shooting the opening of the film, with Esai Morales as the writer and Melanie Ramos as the little friend skateboarder, and a cloud bursts over us. We decide we will have to circle back on this scene, as we are running out of time to accomplish the big scene on the beach, leaving the color chalk words of “San Juan, San Juan” disappearing in the rain.

Our island has been declared in emergency due to a severe drought, and to our surprise, it rains all day, forcing us to shoot between raindrops. But my crew are amazing. They push through the rain… and we get our scene. However, we are not sure how it will match — dry surface and wet surfaces. However much pain the clouds and rain gave us, we were blessed with an amazing sunset.

The clapboard for a scene during filming of "Simone."
The crew films an interior scene featuring actors Esai Morales and Joanna Cassidy.
(Laura T. Magruder)

July 1, 2020 — DAY 2 OF THE RESTART

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With interactions among crew members reduced, Li dressed herself in her trailer and went through makeup with artists who wore masks and face shields. “It’s not that hard to adjust to,” Li said. “Everything is very protocoled. The only hard thing is the unknown. Everything is so up in the air. It’s more for people to coordinate.”

This was a day we were looking forward to: two actors in controlled sets, also the pivotal moment of the film. We had worked out all shots in our pre-production, pre-COVID tech scout, so we were confident we could make our day.

Our producer, Peter Rawley, had a brilliant idea [to fill a key role]: Joanna Cassidy, the girl with the serpent in “Blade Runner,” who had the courage and guts to come out here and was perfect. The [crafts] union rep of IATSE visited the set without our even knowing about it… approved and suggested changes, which were immediately put into effect.

Had to get another COVID-19 molecular test, as did the actors and others in my Zone A. Production brought nurses to the set, so it saved time.

We did a lovely scene in a doctor’s office, where the characters talk about love and writing, and amid the patients, a sax player plays a mournful tune.

Crew members discuss a scene during filming of "Simone."
Director Betty Kaplan, center, prepares with director of photography Sonnel Velazquez to match a scene partially shot months before.
(Laura T. Magruder)

July 2, 2020 — DAY 3 OF THE RESTART

On their last day in March, the filmmakers had raced to squeeze in Italian actress Caterina Murino’s half of a crucial scene before she returned to Europe. When production resumed, Kaplan and her crew had to match the previous footage.

This day was hard. All departments had to re-create a scene which we had started brilliantly three months ago and had to stop due to COVID-19 …

The crew who were there that day we had to shoot out Caterina Murino remember it as an out-of-body experience of sheer adrenaline and determination.

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Our supportive casting agent, Bonnie Wu, did a miracle of finding an actress who not only had similar hair to our Caterina Murino, but fit into her wardrobe.

We had only filmed one side of the 11-page sequence, so we had to film all the footage of the other sides, master, two shots and close-ups, and then do the scene prior to the party outside in the writer’s car. Our transport team had studied and gotten their authorization to disinfect cars. Our editor Luis Colina had sent the edited scene so we could all match, tone, texture, movements and wardrobe.

We shot the missing scene. Then moved on to do a small scene without actors.

Director Betty Kaplan gives her crew a pep talk during filming of "Simone."
Kaplan gives her crew a pep talk as they pick up an exterior scene that had previously been cut short because of rain.
(Laura T. Magruder)

July 5 — DAY 4 OF THE RESTART

Masks were required on set, though the actors could remove theirs to shoot. “Every four hours, we had to stop,” Kaplan said of increased protocols. “And we coordinated it so I would be blocking the actors while the camera crew was disinfecting the cameras.”

Call is 6 a.m. in the middle of the financial zone of San Juan. You could call it Puerto Rico’s Wall Street. We had wanted to do the scene in the middle of Muñoz Rivera, the main street running between all the iconic buildings, but could not get the permission. However, I had a little card up my sleeve: a side street with the most iconic view of all.

Hollywood unions and producers on Monday submitted safety guidelines for resuming filming after the coronavirus pandemic to the governors of California and New York.

The drone operator and pilot were as excited as all the crew… a naked man face down in the financial district to be seen from all high. Wardrobe is ready with towels, bathrobe and cups for the privates, as our actor, a body double for Esai Morales, and an actor in his own right, Ely Cay, will be naked face down in a spread eagle position on the pavement. Pavement has been watered down and disinfected.

Later, the sun drilling down on us, SAG rep has suggested a change in our watering holes: individual bottles instead of a cooler. We are all willing to learn.

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Esai Morales films a scene on the set of "Simone."
Esai Morales films a scene for “Simone” on location in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
(Laura T. Magruder)

I am moved by my crew’s bravery, precision and work. As I wait for preparations, my co-producer, Frances Lausell, informs me the much-fought-for location of the market in Rio Piedras has a likely infection and they are waiting for the tests. In the meantime, she would like me to switch out days. I have no problem, except the safety team now has disinfected the place again. Well, as Simon Bolivar says, when you do things twice, they come out twice as good. “O no hay mal que por bien no venga.”

At 8, we start a little action scene, which in Hollywood standards is nothing, but for us here on the island is something. We finish early and are able to move back to our original location to shoot the beginning of the film, which the rainstorm of the first day prevented us from doing.

A director friend lends us a GoPro camera to shoot my skateboarder crossing the colored chalk letters of “San Juan, San Juan,” which had been washed away on the first attempt.

We finished two hours early, and I call the crew together to tell them how much I appreciated their hard work and respect for the new protocol, and to warn them about the next day, where we all need to be precise, focused and careful to make a day that even pre-COVID would be challenging.

Good-natured as they are, I even got applause. Maybe it is my Venezuelan humor!

Actor Esai Morales, center, chats between scenes as the film shoots on location in San Juan.
Morales, center, chats between scenes as the film shoots on location in San Juan.
(Laura T. Magruder)

July 6, 2020 — DAY 5 OF THE RESTART

The toughest day of the shoot was to be at the historic Teatro Paradise, says Kaplan. “We had to lift the cameras up in a mechanical lift, because the stairwell doesn’t go all the way up to the projection room. Then there was the rain. But it was a very important location. It was the fine arts theater in Rio Piedras that older people remember, where they used to go see Visconti, Bertolucci, Truffaut — it was an iconic theater, which is completely destroyed at the moment.”

This is our most challenging day. It was an iconic scene in the remains of the old theater Paradise, where so many remember seeing the classics and the European films older generations so loved.

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Now what remained was a metallic structure of a roof, a projection room full of leaves, which our art department did wonders with but had to clean, disinfect, and the materials and cameras had to be lifted in by a scissor lift. The empty, dark remains of this old projection room were brought to life.

In an aside, I feel when a spirit is near me. I get goose bumps. All day shooting at the theater, I felt a spirit and was trying to figure out who was visiting and why. Later that day, my producer husband told me that my favorite composer, Ennio Morricone, had passed and that “Cinema Paradiso” was one of his favorites. So much magic has happened on this film… it is like it has a mind of its own.

Director Betty Kaplan receives an on-set COVID-19 test during filming of "Simone."
(Laura T. Magruder)

We are doing very well. Right on schedule.

I was called to do my fourth COVID-19 molecular test — the swab up the nostril to the brain. I thought, because our doctor said I was clear till Thursday, that maybe, maybe I would be spared to next week. But no… I am Zone A and have to be tested three times a week.

My assistant [relays] orders from the co-producer to stop at midnight, an hour and a half before my normal finish time, because of COVID-19 wrap time. I think we finished at 12:15.

My co-producer allows us the extra time our extraordinary team need to finish our “martini” shot. Nothing like making your day! And we have made all of them.

Filmmaker Betty Kaplan directs actor Esai Morales on the set of "Simone."
Filmmaker Betty Kaplan directs actor Esai Morales on the set of “Simone.”
(Laura T. Magruder)

July 7, 2020 — DAY 6 OF THE RESTART

With time already short because of COVID-19 precautions, Kaplan often had to squeeze several locations into one shooting day, which would require disinfection before and after filming. After one location fell through on Day 6, novelist Eduardo Lalo suggested an alternate site that ended up working even better. “Magic happens,” Kaplan wrote. The same day, the production got its first COVID-19 scare when it was discovered that a crew member at base camp had possible off-set exposure to the virus.

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Not an easy day… but never thought impossible.

Our location manager worked miracles, as the safety manager was not going to allow us to work in this iconic Art Deco stairwell I wanted. He managed to control the site, disinfect it, speak to each of the 14 families living there to make a deal with the owners to allow us. My DP and I thought we needed only an hour, but the heat, the tight quarters proved very challenging indeed. We all joked, a paid sauna and weight loss… we left “sangre, sudor y lagrimas” on those steps. We left pounds of sweat.

My co-producer had to change water coolers, which she had installed to save the planet from plastic, to bottled individual bottles for the COVID protocol requests. It took us double the time, but we got our shots that were beautiful. I think this might be one of the most beautiful scenes in the film.

Next location is interesting. It speaks to the heart of this film that has a mind of its own.

Actor Esai Morales, background, and author Eduardo Lalo on the set of "Simone."
Actor Esai Morales, background, and author Eduardo Lalo, in a “Hitchcockian” cameo appearance, on the set of “Simone,” directed by Betty Kaplan.
(Laura T. Magruder)

We were going to do a bookstore across the way, but it had put up acrylic protections and would not bar their customers. In despair, I called the writer of the novel on which the film is based, Eduardo Lalo, to discuss possible bookstores and he told me that the bookstore where we had filmed the day before had opened a new venue. So I called our location manager and production designer and they went to see it and loved it. My DP and I dropped down to see it. Yes, it was far better than the one we had originally wanted to shoot in. Magic happens.

At dinner/lunch, my co-producer comes to see me. I had asked to have printed out the night waiver signed by the secretary of the governor for all the crew. With all the shooting on the mainland, my guys were worried if they pulled out their cellphone to show the waiver they might be shot. Although that has never happened here in Puerto Rico — caution. As we say in Spanish, “mujer precavida vale por dos.” A cautious woman is worth her weight in gold.

She also told me my base camp 2nd AD had been in contact with a COVID-positive person, so now our doctor quarantined her until the results came in. She can work from home, but since our UPM Colleen Comer was working with her, she had to be quarantined as well as the base camp PA. Later it was proved that she did not have COVID-19.

Onward. A storm breaks out and we fear we might not be able to shoot.

I am amazed at our team. They continue working, dismayed by nothing, and by the time the storm passes, we are ready to shoot once again.

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Kunjue Li and Esai Morales prepare to film a nighttime rain scene on the set of "Simone."
Kunjue Li and Esai Morales prepare to film a nighttime rain scene on the set of “Simone” in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
(Laura T. Magruder)

July 8, 2020 — DAY 7 OF THE RESTART

Kaplan filmed after curfew in the Rio Piedras neighborhood, where Lalo’s novel was set, and where the story’s protagonist, a professor at the University of Puerto Rico, lives.

Today was a day I was looking forward to — a scene with rain that I fought so hard to have through budget cuts and schedule cuts. Our crew call was 4:00. When we do night shoots, I can never sleep more than 4 or 5 hours.

Today is beautiful. Nothing doing tai chi on the beach in the hot sun and a quick dip in the sea can’t fix.

The entrance to the set, temperature and questionnaire. It took about 3 hours to set up the rain shot, but when finished, it worked.

The creativity of our special-effects man here, Rafi Perez, is brilliant. He invented a structure where he puts a contraption and tank on the ceiling of the car so you don’t have to create rain for a block.

I rehearsed actors in a beautiful old church which has been gutted, yet the remains of its altar and stained glass remain.

Kunjue and Esai are a poem in the rain! Esai dances like Fred Astaire.

Walkthrough with team of the action scene for tomorrow. Love action scenes!!

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A crew wets down the set of "Simone," directed by Betty Kaplan.
The street is wet down before filming using non-potable water, according to Kaplan. A special waiver allows production to film until the early hours of the morning.
(Laura T. Magruder)

July 9, 2020 — DAY 8 OF THE RESTART

New COVID precautions for DP Velazquez and his department included disinfecting cameras every four hours, reducing playback monitors on set and limiting the number of people in physical contact with the camera equipment. “The only ones allowed to touch it were the operators and the assistants giving us support,” said Velazquez. “We didn’t let the grips pick up the camera, because that was another person in the chain.”

Although the pace of filming was slower, the experience was “very good,” said Velazquez. “It gave me confidence that we could work with the COVID protocols and be safe, and here I am. Nobody got sick. That’s the best thing about it.”

This is a long setup day for a near-crash on a rainy day. I could not get rain, had to settle for a wet-down.

This is one of the scenes covered under the waiver given to us by the governor, as we need to shoot way past the 10 o’clock curfew. Crew call 3:30. Shoot at 8:00.

Esai Morales performs a scene on "Simone."
Esai Morales performs a scene in a rig, designed by effects artist Rafi Perez and dubbed the “Lazy Suzy,” in which his character’s car skids on the road.
(Laura T. Magruder)

An intersection in Rio Piedras, the University Town, is closed off for us. With the university closed, Rio Piedras is a ghost town, so with our two state policemen we could control the streets.

Once again, we are blessed. The patch of pavement in the intersection where the skid is to happen was a little rough when we had done our pre-COVID tech scout. Miraculously, when we returned post-COVID lockdown, that piece of pavement had been repaved, which made it easier to do the skid. Magic happens.

During the set-up, two nurses are in a van. One by one, the A Team went in for another COVID-19 swab, as did I.

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Director of photography Sonnel Velazquez on the set of "Simone."
(Laura T. Magruder)

We got everything we needed. Very exciting. Esai was prepared by the stunt drivers and performed his skid with skill and safety.

A grand ending to a hard, yet fruitful, week.

I slept for 10 hours, relieved to know the most difficult is behind us.

Director Betty Kaplan, bullhorn in hand, addresses her crew on the last day of filming.
Kaplan, bullhorn in hand, addresses her crew on the last day of filming.
(Laura T. Magruder)

July 12, 2020 — DAY 9 OF THE RESTART

After wrapping “Simone,” Kaplan and her crew toasted. “We all got some cold beer and celebrated, because we were thrilled — we had our hearts in our mouths for nine days.

“Every day was full of a mine-filled schedule, because there were so many variables, so many people. We were blessed, is the word I can use. We finished ... and no one got sick.”

Today’s location is one we thought we might not be able to film. Our location manager, Jose Hilera, did miracles, just like our health and safety production supervisor, Maria Jose Delgado.

The Rio Piedras market was officially closed on Sunday yet open for us, the best option. It was disinfected. The art department went in to do their magic.

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That morning, I was picked up by an office PA. She took a route to Rio Piedras which I would not have taken. And we crossed the Moscoso Bridge, which miraculously had all its flags up and flowing, a rare event and unseen in the last three months. A spectacle I had always wanted to film.

Upon my arrival at set, and after the safety protocol, I told my team we needed to be focused and fast so we could get the shot on the bridge. This we did.

I also did a little bit of Live TV [technique] to unite two shots, which would be edited together yet filmed [with one set-up]. Fun and a creative solution to cutting time.

The sun rises as Betty Kaplan films a scene at Playa el Escambron in Puerto Rico.
The sun rises as Kaplan films a scene at Playa el Escambron in Puerto Rico.
(Laura T. Magruder)

Then outdoors to a scene of the arrival of the little family that will not be. Art department just didn’t have the time or resources to bring it alive. We managed to get the flags on the flag post, and I suddenly thought — pigeons, my friends from my tai chi classes in my neighborhood park. I asked my prop set man, Danny, to start feeding them where the hero car arrives…

That he did, and the shot worked.

I got my bridge shot, and we all gathered in the open-air basketball court that served as our lunch base to have a humble toast with cold beer to wrap the film.

We were all thrilled and relieved. My producer spoke, I spoke, we laughed, applauded and drank a toast.

We had climbed such a steep mountain and had summited the highest peak of the COVID-19 challenge.

From director’s chairs to executive suites to movie theater seats, no element of Hollywood will be untouched as society movies forward from the pandemic. We asked people all around the industry what the future might look like.

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