Hollywood production ground to a halt in March amid the fast escalating coronavirus pandemic. Gradually, the industry returned to production with big adjustments, including virtual writers rooms and table reads and strict COVID safety protocols on set. It has not been easy, prolific creator/showrunner Mike Schur told Rob Lowe on the actor’s Literally podcast.
“It’s really hard; we have been doing it on a couple of shows I’m working on,” said Schur, co-creator/executive producer of NBC’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Peacock’s upcoming Rutherford Falls and executive producer of Netflix’s upcoming animated series Q-Force. “There is no substitute for everybody being in a room and talking. First of all, if there is more than six people on the Zoom call, half of them are just looking at their phones, but also the whole creative process is, you are trapped in a room and there is a sense, to get out of this room by the end of the day we have to come up with good ideas. It gives it this kind of momentum and this urgency that, when you are sitting in your own home, everybody in a little box on a computer screen, it’s not the same thing.”
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Schur, creator of NBC’s The Good Place and co-creator of Parks & Recreation, is afraid that the current Covid-related changes in the business may be long-lasting.
“Amongst other things that we are worried about — the big things, the things that actually matter — when I think what we do for a living going forward, I start worry about just the future of entertainment because I don’t know what it looks like,” he said. “It’s hard to imagine being in a writers room, it’s hard to imagine being on a set, how do you shoot a scene with 200 extras ever, how do you go on location in someone’s house, who in their right mind will let us into their house to shoot a scene. It seems so crazy to imagine going back to the old ways that we did this. We will figure something out because we always do. Hollywood has a knack for ingenuity, and there is a long way to go with the other, more important issues before we get to that point but I’m very nervous to figure out how this works after this is all over.”
Producing TV shows during the pandemic has been adding hundreds of thousands of dollars to the cost of every episode. It has compounded the woes of media companies hit by the shutdown of movie theaters, amusement parks, cruises and other businesses. Schur is worried that the financial hit from the pandemic on the media giants could have an impact on production budgets going forward.
“The fear is one way or another the media companies that pay us are loosing billions dollars a month,” he said. “The shows we make are expensive, they are not little DYI shows, they cost millions of dollars an episode. It’s hard to imagine how do they pay for them on the other side of this. Are they going to cut the every staff in half, are they going to cut the every cast in half, are they going to say, sorry, this is the cap on what anyone can get paid, are they going to try to make camera crews not have assistants, are they going to try to say sorry, instead of two gaffers, you get one gaffer. One way or another, every aspect of the business itself and also the way the creative side of it is going to be different somehow, and I don’t know how that happens. I think we are a long way away from anything resembling normalcy but even when we get there, I don’t know how you account for all the things yo need to account for.”
During the lengthy conversation, Lowe and Schur discuss how the TV business adapted after 9/11 by sharing their experiences how the shows they worked on at the time, The West Wing and Saturday Night Live, respectively, reacted to the tragedy.
“The truth is, for normalcy to return everything has to return, everything we had before this has to come back. And one of these things is, we have to make movie and TV shows again, even if they stink,” Schur said.
“That’s our dumb role in all of this.”
The interview includes a number of anecdotes from Parks & Recreation, on which Lowe co-starred.
Schur revealed how he and fellow co-creator Greg Daniels had received a 13-episode on-air order for the show, with the pilot episode airing after the Super Bowl, paired with The Office. But they wanted SNL‘s Amy Poehler for the lead, and she was about to give birth around the time the pilot was scheduled to shoot. In order to get her for the show, Schur and Daniels, who worked together on The Office, voluntarily cut the order from 13 to 6 episodes for a premiere three months later.
“We just kept feeling that debuting after the Super Bowl is a short-term fix, getting Amy Poehler on the show is the long-term solution,” Schur said.
For more behind-the-scenes stories about SNL and Parks & Rec, you can listen to the interview here.