The shows must go on: inside Netflix’s race to restart filming

Spectacles resting on her face mask, art assistant Marta Navarro looks up at the imposing Franco-era statue and fixes a missing blade to its sword hilt, which the hooded angel clasps to its chest like a cross. Nearby on the set of a reimagined Bank of Spain, prop master Miguel Fuster is touching up the matte gold paint of the foyer’s geometric floor, ready to be prowled by the red‑jumpsuited robbers of Netflix’s La casa de papel (Money Heist). It is a June morning in Madrid at the company’s 237,000 sq ft production hub, and the fifth season of Netflix’s most-watched non-English-language series is taking shape.

The show needs a couple more months of pre‑production work before filming starts. But, with a variety of Covid precautions in place, others are already shooting. The superhero caper El Vecino (The Neighbor) started rolling again in Madrid almost two weeks ago, having quarantined its international cast for a fortnight with nothing to eat but Netflix-arranged deliveries. Over in Barcelona, filming on the drug-trafficking drama Hache has resumed, minus two Italian actors who were written out of their remaining scenes to avoid dragging them back to Spain.

And on the Swedish set of Lisa Langseth’s romantic comedy Love & Anarchy, the directors last month even pulled off what would be near impossible in most of Covid-wracked Europe: a screen kiss (albeit with all the spontaneity of two weeks in actor quarantine). Touching lips are a true screen miracle these days. “There were so many brains around the world turning on this,” laughs Kelly Luegenbiehl, who oversees Netflix’s international productions.

Miguel Fuster, prop master on Spanish heist drama ’La casa de papel’ © Carlos Alba

Set by set, shot by shot, the global entertainment factory that is Netflix is reawakening from its pandemic slumber. Few big broadcasters or studios shut down faster than the streaming company after the risks of coronavirus became clear. Now, as the industry figures out how to operate in this strange new era, few can match its deep pockets and continent-spanning footprint to restart at scale. By the end of September, Netflix hopes to be back to near normal, with more than 20 dramas filming across Europe and the Middle East alone, including The Witcher, Sex Education and Sky Rojo (Red Sky) from Álex Pina, creator of La casa de papel. Most are supposed to be streaming on screens everywhere next year — that is, if all goes to plan.

For Netflix and the whole production industry — from big-budget Hollywood movies such as Mission: Impossible 7 to broadcasters churning out soap episodes — the pandemic has meant a root-and-branch rethink of how filming is done, actors dress and interact, and all those extra costs can be funded.

James Burstall, chief executive of Argonon, a London-based group of seven independent production companies, describes the lockdown as requiring “the most horrific open heart surgery on ourselves”. The resumption, meanwhile, poses its own peculiar challenges: once-routine crowd scenes and moments of intimacy, let alone complex stunts or fight scenes, all look like a daunting new frontier of risk. The creative integrity of projects conceived in less trying times is on the line.

Foreman Luis Lopez (above) at work on the set of a recreated Bank of Spain. ’La casa de papel’ will be in pre-production for a few more months before filming begins © Carlos Alba

This sector should, perhaps, be well placed to take the restrictions in its stride. Directors make their names by defying the constraints of physics and everyday life to turn out spectacular, otherworldly visions on screen. Even before the pandemic, Luegenbiehl described production as “a crazy wild beast” that never comes to heel but somehow produces magic.

Netflix’s special privilege is facing this production crunch with what appears to be a humming business model. The tech group epitomises the streaming revolution and has emerged as one of the winners of the lockdown economy. While rivals such as Disney bleed from cinema shutdowns and television broadcasters nurse wounds from the advertising slump, Netflix’s share price is up by a quarter since January. It doubled its subscriber growth targets in the first quarter and, before the year is out, it is expected to pass the 200 million subscriber mark.

Housebound customers have lapped up shows such as Tiger King, a docuseries that drew 64 million viewers and turned a gay, gun-wielding, mulleted zookeeper in Oklahoma into a celebrity on five continents. Shows such as La casa de papel have also been on a tear, seemingly regardless of language. Some 65 million households watched the fourth series when it launched in April, and the iconic red jumpsuits began to appear as far afield as Puerto Rican rap videos and Greek football terraces. “All of a sudden, borders [of culture] were erased, but then also this decades-long Hollywood dominance in English‑language content,” says Diego Ávalos, the Netflix executive overseeing Iberia. “They were no longer the only player in town.”

Docuseries ‘Tiger King’ © Netflix
Historical drama ‘The Crown’ © Netflix

But to keep drawing international subscribers (more than half its paying customers and most of its subscriber growth is outside the US), Netflix has to maintain a steady flow of catchy original fare for markets as different as Saudi Arabia, Denmark and Brazil. This year, it increased its budget for original content by 50 per cent. With almost 300 shows commissioned and in various stages of production, according to Ampere Analysis, its pipeline is double that of rival services such as Disney+ or Amazon Prime (backed by a $17bn content budget in 2020).

But like a shark swimming, it must keep moving to survive. And it has to do it with shows made all over the world. That’s a huge challenge, even before the intervention of a deadly global pandemic. “At first it will be strange — we have no choice but to adapt,” says Cristina López Ferraz of Vancouver Media, the producers of La casa de papel. “The show must go on.”

It was a weekend in March when most of Netflix’s original productions in Europe went dark. Luegenbiehl recalls trying to escape for an hour, only to be interrupted mid-workout by her French team; decisions could not wait. “It’s 9pm on a Saturday night at the gym and I’m there deciding what to do with our French production slate,” she sighs, speaking from a whitewashed room in her Amsterdam home. The stop order soon went out to shows such as The Witcher, a fantasy drama filming at the UK’s Arborfield Studios. By Monday, one of its cast — the bristled Game of Thrones veteran Kristofer Hivju — had tested positive on his return home to Norway.

Fantasy drama ‘The Witcher’ © Netflix

Luegenbiehl compares the following weeks to an “around the world in 80 days” experience for her team as they looked at different countries’ ways of handling film-making in a pandemic. Just as there is no single template of demands for filming a documentary, romantic comedy or stunt-packed action film, every country was developing its own rule book for life under Covid bit-by-bit. “There wasn’t any consistency out there and there wasn’t really a road map,” she says.

They did have some luck though. Remote and small, Iceland became a rare haven for production in April and a test bed for safe techniques. While filming the apocalyptic Netflix series Katla, director Baltasar Kormákur developed a colour-coded system of arm bands and zones — since studied by his peers around the world — to bring keep-your-distance order to a bustling set. But just as important as Kormákur’s ingenuity was a quirk of fate: his production office was next to a medical company. Every cast and crew member could be tested before shooting and retested where necessary.

Before their sets fell silent, some valuable Netflix shows such as The Crown managed to shoot just enough material to go into post-production with only a few compromises on scenes. And since the lockdown hit, some in the industry have found workarounds. Documentary makers filmed from doorsteps, or distributed cameras to homes. Burstall describes how Argonon’s House Hunters International spin-off filmed drone sequences “with a director in New York and a crew in Melbourne in Australia”. The BBC also shot a remake of Alan Bennett’s classic Talking Heads in April, but needless to say there are limits to the market for monologue drama.

Movies and high-end scripted shows, the stuff of Netflix and other big Hollywood studios, pose a challenge of a different order. The more expensive the cast, the more crowded the scenes, the more jet-setting the international shoots planned, the bigger the headache facing producers. The countermeasures can range from the mundane (round-the-clock cleaning, temperature tests, more Winnebagos for cast members to have plastic-wrapped, solitary lunches) to the seemingly ridiculous (expensive virus-killer robots firing out UV rays). Luegenbiehl says Netflix is considering hiring entire hotels “for extended periods” so everyone “can be in one place and one location”.

Kelly Luegenbiehl oversees international productions at Netflix © Netflix

“The way we are looking at this is that we should start small and build up,” says Ben Holt, Netflix’s UK director of physical production. “I know the soaps are going back and they are socially distancing but that doesn’t work with high-end series. Looking at big crowd scenes, big stunt scenes, all of these require very methodical thought and planning.”

Door-stopper filming protocols have been developed by various trade bodies around the world. Britain’s version recommends avoiding crowd scenes where extras are “face to face”. Cast members, meanwhile, are encouraged where possible to do their own hair and make-up. In practice, regular testing may be essential for the main cast. “Wearing PPE all the time doesn’t quite work unless you are filming a medical drama,” Holt says, with a deadpan delivery.

Estimated Covid precautions will add 10 to 30 per cent to budget costs, say two producers. But in practice, by far the biggest obstacle is insurance. Few independent film-makers can afford the risk of another shutdown, or a lead actor falling ill. Yet finding cover is all but impossible. John McVay of Pact, the UK trade body for independent producers, says Netflix is so “hungry for content” it can afford to absorb the risk. “If you are a small drama producer in Glasgow or Cardiff, you cannot insure yourself, no way,” he says.

Drug-trafficking drama ‘Hache’ © Netflix
Teen drama ‘Sex Education’ © Netflix

Netflix has lent a helping hand, establishing a $150m hardship fund for creative industries, while also hoovering up some movies robbed of their cinema outlet. It represents not just the balance of financial power in show business, but potentially of creative risk too. “For a long time, cinema was the risk-taker and television was much more by the numbers,” says James Swarbrick, chief executive of Hindsight Media, which has financed independent movies such as The King’s Speech. “Now there are some really edgy creative things on television, while cinema, because it has to, has become a little bit generic. There is a danger that that trend really accelerates.”

Jamie Campbell knows he is one of the fortunate ones. As the executive producer of Sex Education, a hit show following the fumbling teen travails of Otis (Asa Butterfield) and his sex therapist mother (Gillian Anderson), Campbell’s company Eleven Films is on an almost nonstop treadmill of Netflix work. Even as the second season of the cringeworthy yet uplifting drama was being filmed, creator Laurie Nunn’s team was busy writing series three. The question now: can filming start in September without compromises that dull the show’s feel-good spirit?

“It is a big production, it takes place over multiple locations, it has a lot of cast and crew, and famously it involves sex scenes,” says Campbell, as he pulls at the collar of his brown hoodie while speaking from the kitchen of his north London home. “When lockdown began, it was difficult to conceive conditions, or conditions similar to it, where we could shoot. And that is true for high-end drama in general.”

The gamble they are taking is to plan for what might be, rather than what is. “There is a temptation in the industry to look at the world today and work out if you can shoot today and, of course, the answer is you can’t,” Campbell says. “We’re not drawing up a protocol that reflects today, but conditions in three or four months’ time, in order to make it credible that we will be shooting.” Testing needs to be readily available, in other words, as well as some relaxing of social-distancing rules.

Jamie Campbell is executive producer of Netflix’s hit feel-good comedy-drama ‘Sex Education’ © Charlie Bibby

Most of the show is filmed in Wales, along the Wye Valley and Vale of Usk, including in a spacious old university campus in Caerleon (which was converted into a Bafta-winning set). More sets are likely to be built there to minimise brushes with the public at location shoots. Filming is also being scheduled with exteriors coming early — Welsh sunshine is as fleeting as it is glorious — and intimacy scenes moved further down the shoot, when more regular testing should be possible.

Above all, the aim is to leave the script untouched by Covid. “It sounds stubborn but we haven’t changed the scripts,” says Campbell. “We don’t want to change the scripts. We are trying to create a different energy and atmosphere in this show and, in some ways, we want to bring positivity and optimism that is hard to come by in the real world at the moment.”

Campbell’s commissioner at Netflix is Anne Mensah, a popular veteran of UK television who oversaw Top Boy for the streamer and the award-winning Chernobyl series when she was at Sky. With a chuckle, she admits to “meddling with lots of people right now” as they try to adapt projects to address Covid risks. But she casts it as no more than behind-the-scenes tradecraft.

Netflix commissioner Anne Mensah is working with producers to adapt projects to address Covid risks © Netflix

“Our basic principle is that we only move forward when the creatives are happy. My hope is that you would never be able to notice any of the changes that we make,” she says. “At the point where there is a crowd replication scene, and you say, ‘Oooh, I can spot that person there, there and there’, we will definitely be failing.”

British soaps such as ITV’s Coronation Street have started working the pandemic into storylines; one undisclosed Netflix show in Europe is thinking of doing the same. Asked how she imagines Covid will appear in future scripts and dramas, Mensah pauses for thought: “I hope it will be subtle and not painted with a fat brush.”

Even since lockdown, she has commissioned a few “fully, fully awesome things”, but none make a reference to Covid. She thinks it is just too soon for scripted drama to capture the moment. With a laugh and a swing of the arm she says: “We would almost certainly get it wrong.”

Alex Barker is the FT’s global media editor

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