Varying levels of concern about production in NSW as other states look forward

With Greater Sydney facing another two weeks in lockdown, the growing COVID-19 threat has led to mixed reactions regarding productions in New South Wales as movements become more constricted.

More than 900 people have been infected in the state since the Bondi cluster was discovered last month.

The outbreak has led Victoria – which is due to begin a snap five-day lockdown of its own from midnight on Thursday – to close its border with NSW and ACT as of this week, with Queensland also extended border restrictions to all of Greater Sydney, including the Central Coast, Blue Mountains, Wollongong, and Shellharbour.

Meanwhile, Western Australia has reinstated border restrictions with Queensland and NSW, while South Australia has closed its border with NSW, the ACT, and some parts of Queensland. Tasmania remains closed to people from greater Sydney.

The rise of the Delta strain is another blow to films that have already had to navigate the unpredictable nature of the pandemic.

Among them is the latest installment of the Roache-Turner brothers’ Wyrmwood franchise, Wyrmwood: Apocalypse, which is being produced by the brothers’ Guerilla Films, in association with Bronte Pictures.

Having begun filming in the aftermath of Sydney’s previous outbreak in January, Bronte Pictures CEO Blake Northfield told IF they now faced the prospect of having the production bookended by COVID disruptions.

“We are currently in post-production, and the lockdown has had a significant effect on our ability to handle our ADR in-house as it’s not possible to fly actors in and out for their recording sessions,” he said.

“We were able to shoot through the Northern Beaches lockdown earlier this year, putting our cast and crew up in local accommodation so they were able to continue to work, though at a dear cost to us.”

Wyrmwood: Apocalypse

However, it is business as usual for other projects underway in Sydney.

Stan Original feature Transfusion is approaching the end of a six-week shoot, the majority of which will take place in lockdown.

Directed by Matt Nable, the film stars Sam Worthington as Ryan Logan, a former Special Forces operative who is battling to cope with life after the loss of his wife and is thrust into the criminal underworld to keep his only son from being taken from him.

Producer John Schwarz of Deeper Water Films told IF that despite having to recast one of the roles due to border restrictions, the lockdown had so far had minimal impact on the production.

“The only thing [the lockdown] has really changed is the visitors to set and any extraneous people,” he said.

“Usually there are stakeholders and various media that would do set visits but we haven’t had any of that.

“Our COVID plan and protocols meant we were already adhering to 1.5 metre distancing and everybody was already wearing masks all the time anyway, as well as getting temperature and COVID tests.”

Schwarz said while a stricter lockdown could potentially impede the production industry going forward, the NSW government has so far “sent the right message” with its response to the virus.

“I wouldn’t want to be making stuff in any other state at the moment because other states have a tendency to go straight into lockdown, whereas this government is about keeping essential workers working,” he said.

“I think they have definitely made the right decision and most of the other filmmakers I talk to say Sydney is way more appealing than any of the other cities because of that.”

The definition of an essential worker has been a point of contention within NSW through the outbreak.

Advice from NSW Health is that people can go to work to perform a duty they cannot do from home, or which cannot be postponed – and this applies to the screen production sector.

But the directive has since come under scrutiny from those outside the industry.

Last Friday, Broken Hill Mayor Darriea Turley wrote to the state government regarding the Stan and Peacock series Wolf Like Me, which is due to shoot in Western Sydney and regional NSW.

The letter requested that the government change the public health order to address what constitutes essential work, while expressing concern about the increased risk of exposure for her community.

IF understands that the crew for the series, which is being produced by Made Up Stories, arrived in the region this week after being delayed due to the outbreak in Sydney.

Cr Turley told IF that while the community always welcomed film crews, the health risks associated with travel from a hotspot also needed to be considered.

“Broken Hill has been considered the Hollywood of the outback for many years; we love a film crew coming,” she said.

“But last week as we have seen the escalation of the numbers with the Delta strain in Sydney, our community has become quite concerned and it makes sense that we just press pause and nobody moves.

“We have managed to house the RFDS TV series last year, so we know what can go ahead with COVID safety plans.

“Our concern is more for the Delta strain and the rising number of cases within the Sydney outbreak.”

Every production within NSW must have and be able to produce a COVID-Safe Plan, which Create NSW says is designed to make the disruptions to film production in the state are “as minimal as possible”.

A spokesman for Wolf Like Me has said that the series is “still in production” and “following very strict health and safety guidelines”.

Other states look to continue momentum

While the national focus remains on NSW and Victoria as they attempt to control their respective outbreaks, reported cases in the Northern Territory, Western Australia, and Queensland have also led to snap lockdowns in the past month.

But there is little sign of disruption from the state screen agencies, which are aiming to continue the momentum sparked by Australia’s strong handling of the pandemic’s early stages.

Screen Queensland CEO Kylie Munnich told IF the state’s three-day lockdown at the end of last month had done little to alter production schedules.

“Productions in Queensland have continued to run since they restarted in August 2020, with the support of Screen Queensland in liaison with Queensland Health, and with all productions following the appropriate public health directives,” she said.

“Production on Joe Exotic for Universal Studios Group has started on schedule at Screen Queensland Studios.

“Production also continues on feature film The Portable Door and The Wilds Season 2.”

Christoph Waltz and Sam Neill in ‘The Portable Door’

Shooting on the Gold Coast at Pinnacle Film Studios, Jeffrey Walker’s The Portable Door is being produced by Story Bridge Films’ Todd Fellman with the Jim Henson Company’s Lisa Henson and Blanca Lista.

Fellman told IF they had been “very fortunate” to continue with the production throughout the recent three-day lockdown.

“Having a detailed CovidSafe plan, dedicated Covid Safety team and regular communication with both Screen Queensland and the Queensland Government has been essential in allowing our production to anticipate and react quickly to a multitude of logistical challenges from border closures and location restrictions to disruptions of supply chains, as well as the implementation of enhanced safety protocols both on and offset,” he said.

“Also, we’ve been blessed with an amazing cast and crew, who have all been very supportive in complying with additional safety measures and appreciative our collective responsibility in maintaining a CovidSafe workplace.”

Elsewhere, Screen Australia reported last week that while it was aware of disruptions to production schedules right around the country due to the most recent COVID-19 outbreaks, it had not been notified by any Screen Australia-supported production that had to be shut down or be abandoned due to instances of COVID-19 on set, or recent border closures or lockdowns.

CEO Graeme Mason commended the industry for continuing to forge ahead, ensuring sets are COVID-safe for all cast and crew.

“The COVID-19 pandemic continues to present challenges for everyone around the country, including those in the film industry,” he said.

“Over the last 18 months, we have seen Australian creatives come together to face these challenges head-on. “