When a TV series is shooting during a pandemic, it is more important than ever that the drama take place in front of the camera, and not behind it.
That dynamic is felt during the filming of the fourth season of the CBC legal drama Burden of Truth, which has been discreetly underway since the beginning of September, mostly in and around Selkirk, 35 kilometres north of Winnipeg.
In this season, hotshot lawyer Joanna Chang (Kristin Kreuk) and her partner Billy (Peter Mooney) must do battle when a mining company reopens a dormant mine outside Millwood, threatening a local woman’s home with certain destruction.
The show is proceeding with extraordinary measures, including sanitizing protocols and physical distancing, a difficult trick in the often messy realm of film production. It also means cutting back on unnecessary risks, including employing too many extras — or inviting press to the set. (The interviews for this story were conducted via email.)
Tensions notwithstanding, it feels like a relief to be back, says the show’s executive producer Kyle Irving, partner of the show’s Winnipeg-based production company Eagle Vision.
"It feels like moving from one phase of COVID life to another," Irving says, adding the last six months have been spent in reaction and planning mode.
"From the onset of the lockdown to now, we’ve been dancing, trying to figure out how to keep our business alive, our employees employed and our industry from failing," he says. "So being back on set is very different. There are so many important checks and protocols we must all follow in order to be safe and to protect our families and the community."
One of the new additions to the Burden of Truth family is Nicole Loewen, who sports a brand-new film credit designation: "COVID-19 supervisor."
Loewen is particularly suited to this new role, with one foot in the world of medicine and the other in arts.
"My background is in nursing," Loewen says. "However, I’m also an actor, writer and independent filmmaker."
After seeing the ACTRA Manitoba COVID-19 health and safety presentation, Loewen realized the newly created COVID-19 supervisor/officer role would be the perfect way to merge her training and professional interests.
Loewen supervises a team including two assistants and two cleaners to keep the set safe.
"My role involves assessing areas and implementing plans and suggestions with the goal of reducing the risk of transmission in pre-production and on set," she says. "The protocols and precautions are a focus for everyone involved in production and our team supports and maintains these safety measures."
Pre-production of the show began in late July, when it was necessary to bring the whole production up to speed on how to keep the set safe.
“From the onset of the lockdown to now, we’ve been dancing, trying to figure out how to keep our business alive, our employees employed and our industry from failing.” – Executive producer Kyle Irving
"In pre-production, it was our primary focus to prepare cast and crew for what changes will be implemented due to the new health and safety protocols," Loewen says. "I led Zoom meetings with all of the crew departments to go over their concerns and what changes there would be on set.
"It was mandatory for all cast and crew to watch the production’s COVID-19 protocol informational video and complete a test on the information presented before arriving on set," Loewen says. "As a result of the emphasis on preparedness for cast and crew, everyone was able to start on the same page and understanding.
"Our goal was to be overprepared and to overcommunicate before anyone returned for filming."
That advance preparation has prevented Loewen from having to act as a cop on set.
"The entire cast and crew are very focused on maintaining the protocols," Loewen says. "Everyone is aware of their importance. They work with us and are very professional."
She says there have been very few distancing or PPE reminders needed, and that her role has a strong supportive and educational focus. "It’s important that a safe and comfortable space is created so all can share concerns," she says, "whether it be related to how they are feeling symptom-wise, or how to best complete their tasks while maintaining social distancing and minimizing contact."
The new normal is costly, Irving acknowledges, estimating a bump in the budget of around five per cent in COVID preparedness, "but as we go through the season that number builds and will likely land closer to 10 per cent."
"Our studio partners at eOne and our broadcaster CBC have stepped up to cover the risk and additional costs related to working in a COVID-19 world and we are all grateful for that," Irving says. "They have supported the show for four seasons, the result of that has employed thousands of Manitobans and put tens of millions of dollars into the local economy."
Of course, it is one thing to keep a set running efficiently and cleanly. It is another to maintain a sense of the dramatic in front of the camera. Kristin Kreuk, who is both the series star and an executive producer, has to straddle those duties.
Before shooting began, she had to be tested for the novel coronavirus three times over the course of her move from Toronto.
"For those of us working on this show and coming from out of province, we were tested with a negative result before getting on the plane, and when we landed we were tested and quarantined until we got a second negative result," Kreuk says. A few days after arriving in the province and receiving a second negative result, cast members were tested a third time.
"The cast are the most exposed element of the set," Kreuk acknowledges. "That said, we still maintain as much distance from each other, and everyone else, as possible both on set and off.
“Cleaning, distancing, and PPE are not easy or natural for us while doing our work, but everyone has adjusted quickly. We all are aware that this is how we can keep each other and ourselves safe and ensure that we can continue working.” – Kristin Kreuk
"The crew wear masks, shields and eye protection whenever they are within four metres of us when we are on set without our PPE on, and all the props and sets we interact with are constantly sanitized."
Life on a film set has always consisted of a lot of hurry-up-and-wait as lighting, camera and sound are constantly adjusted for each shot. COVID-19 protocols have not added significantly to that reality, Kreuk says.
"Like anything new, it takes time to adjust to the protocols. We have actually picked up the pace of shooting by simplifying our scenes and having fewer background performers to allow for shorter work days, so that the crew and cast get more downtime so that they can stay well rested," she says.
"Cleaning, distancing, and PPE are not easy or natural for us while doing our work, but everyone has adjusted quickly," she says. "We all are aware that this is how we can keep each other and ourselves safe and ensure that we can continue working."
The fourth season of Burden of Truth is expected to wrap Nov. 20.
In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.