As budding filmmakers, my class of film school graduates is utterly terrified to enter the real world. Not only because of the tricky environment of finding employment and a steady or not so steady- paycheck in an artistic field like film but now because we are forced to find work in an actively hostile job field caused by the coronavirus outbreak. Due to the pandemic, productions have halted, shows have been canceled, studios have been shut down, and everything in between is also being tampered with. No stone has been unturned by this virus. Our world is focused on eradicating COVID-19, and to the outsider, any job that isn’t trying to help the economy recover or in healthcare literally saving lives seems ludicrous.
But artists have to create art. Filmmakers are given the opportunity of their skillset and passion to create a platform to share a message and build community when they all seem to be stripped away.
Since 2005, Grey’s Anatomy, created by Shonda Rhimes, has constructed such a community. Fans from all over the world, creators of this multilayered show, and the ensemble cast are bound by the stories and characters that have been drawing us in for fifteen years, breaking our hearts and celebrating their joys with them. Rhimes’ empire was not about to crumble from COVID-19. In fact, according to co-executive producer Lynne E. Litt, “… it’s the biggest medical story of our lifetimes,” and could be fuel for an incredible future for the show. The show will address the virus because medically, it must! They wear masks on the operating floor already, right?
Likewise, Jay Roach’s new film Coastal Elites fully dove into the coronavirus in subject matter as well as form, where actors gave monologues into the camera completely alone, discussing the crazy circumstances 2020 has given us. The final ‘scene’ is a monologue performed by Kaitlyn Dever where she recounts her experience as a nurse in New York City where the virus was absolutely rampant in the early days of the pandemic. By addressing the terror and intense duty her character faces, we are given a face to these frontline heroes we have heard so much about.
New releases of Grey’s Anatomy and Coastal Elites indicate the future of filmmaking in their marriage of form and content based on coronavirus restrictions and subject matter, and furthermore show the world how necessary art is to heal, to build community, and to beat this damn thing.
As far as form goes, Grey’s Anatomy and Coastal Elites have very different methods in order to deal with the coronavirus and its ramifications on production, in addition, it’s a bit of an example of what the whole world is doing. Grey’s is a multimillion-dollar franchise, arguably at the height of its fame after running on ABC for fifteen years. Therefore, they have different measures, resources, and ideas on how to carry on. In March, production was forced to halt with four more episodes of the season to shoot. Now after a break, the cast and crew have decided to move forward with the how in the midst of the pandemic, learning how to finish the season and work around the COVID guidelines.
They are trying to keep the show alive and the same as it was before, even if that means cutting scenes in a crowded emergency room or masks between takes and on the crew. It means using different lenses to make actors look closer together than they actually are, and shorter shooting day requirements resulting in shorter scenes. The structure will inevitably affect the content of the show, but Rhimes and her crew have decided to work around the current climate to create some sort of normalcy and what they had before. Only the premiere of the first episode since the pandemic started will tell.
On the other hand, Coastal Elites have fully jumped into the form COVID regulations encourage, and play into the theme of isolation. Having a single actor onscreen is literally the definition of social distancing; in discussion about production, director Jay Roach and actor Sarah Paulson recounted how the crew delivered all the lighting and camera equipment for Paulson to set up herself in her home, while Roach and the script supervisors were on zoom watching her performance into the camera. Roach also described the experience as “rudimentary filmmaking” and going back to the simplest form of making movies-just an actor and a camera to record them. It makes for a fascinating piece and example of what production could look like in the future, to strip away all the extra things, and have it be purely focused on the actor and performance. No pressure Sarah. So unlike “Greys,” Coastal Elites addresses COVID’s structure as well as subject matter.
Obviously, it would seem a little odd if the storyline of a medical drama like Grey’s Anatomy did not center around the biggest medical emergency of our lifetimes. Another layer to this decision of focusing the content around COVID, though, is the obligation the writers felt towards the real frontline workers, the basis on which the show is based on.
Over the years, writers of Grey’s interview doctors and nurses to get as accurate of a depiction as possible. And now it is imperative we get these stories from the real people who experience the true terror of the coronavirus. Executive producer Krista Vernoff explained in a panel called “Quaranstreaming: Comfort TV That Keeps Us Going” put on by the Television Academy, “Every year, we have doctors come and tell us their stories, and usually they’re telling their funniest or craziest stories. This year, it has felt more like therapy… we’re the first people they’re talking to about these types of experiences they’re having. They are literally shaking and trying not to cry, they’re pale, and they’re talking about it as war — a war that they were not trained for”.
Over the years, we have watched characters experience all walks of life from military PTSD to miscarriages to divorce and the heartbreak of losing patients we connect with. Now they get the opportunity to tell potentially their most authentic and moving story yet, telling the struggle and pain the frontline workers have endured and making them heroes.
Likewise, Kaitlyn Dever’s character in Coastal Elites gives the most moving monologue about her experience as a COVID nurse. The other monologues were politically charged and angry, and frankly, snarky. But the final monologue witnessing the real pain and exhaustion this nurse was experiencing bonds all audiences together in empathy and awe. It is suddenly real why she is alone, why she stares into the camera, supposedly calling home and crying to her family about her experience. The content reflects the form here, gives it purpose, and elevates the emotion of the current situation. I hated the film, until that last monologue when it all gained purpose.
The relationship between the form and content of entertainment in the medical scope of COVID will define the era for us as audience members and future filmmakers. Either we address it, or carry on. Neither will be easy; the landscape of filmmaking looks like another planet than the one we are used to. However, we still need stories to get through it-we don’t know how long this thing will last and we cannot watch reruns forever. And eventually, we will need something new to reflect our current lives. Grey’s Anatomy and Coastal Elites are some of our firsts, and only time will tell how we move forward from here.
Aurthur, Kate. “How ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ Will Tackle COVID-19 Next Season: ‘We’ve Actually Reinvented the Wheel’ (EXCLUSIVE).” Variety, Variety, 12 Oct. 2020, variety.com/2020/tv/news/greys-anatomy-coronavirus-season-1234788445/.
Baldwin July 21, Kristen, and Kristen Baldwin. “Exclusive: ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ Will Tackle Coronavirus Pandemic in Season 17.” EW.com, 21 July 2020, ew.com/tv/greys-anatomy-season-17-coronavirus/.
Roach, Jay, director. Coastal Elites. HBO. 2020
Roach , Jay, and Sarah Paulson . “CTCS 467: Television Symposium, Mary McNamara.” Sept. 2020.
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