With the world struggling with every “how,” “when” and “should we” of resuming something resembling normal life during the coronavirus shutdown, some among us have used our unintended downtime to get things done. Take Portland cinematographer Dean Merrill. Since filmmaking work dried up with shocking abruptness in March of this year, thanks to COVID-19 (“We couldn’t even finish our day,” Merrill said of the last shoot he was working on), the freelance filmmaker has used his creativity, problem solving skills, and a not-insignificant amount of his own money to spearhead a statewide effort to create safety guidelines for the Maine film industry. 

You know, when there is a working Maine film industry again. 

The Maine COVID-19 Production Safety Forum Guidelines are a comprehensive, top-to-bottom set of what Merrill calls “best practices and recommendations for best safety practices on set.” A 23-page reexamination of essentially every task, department and way of doing things while making a movie, the guidelines (all laid out clearly and handsomely at the website worksafeme.com, which former web designer Merrill also made himself) are an eye-opener – not just for outsiders unaware of just how complicated, involved and interconnected the many facets of moviemaking are (“Film production is a circus, man,” jokes Merrill), but likely for professionals as well, all of whom are, like Merrill, coming to grips with the fact that the American workplace is not ever going to be the same.

Merrill repeatedly and conscientiously asserts that he’s not a medical, infectious disease or workplace safety expert. “It’s new to all of us,” Merrill said. “My specialty is cinematography, but this stemmed from a concern with friend, coworker and community safety.” To that end, Merrill enlisted dozens of his Maine film industry colleagues to brainstorm, starting with Maine producer Chuck Martin, whose Chuck Martin Productions Merrill cites as exemplary when it comes to worker treatment and safety. A two-hour Zoom call with some 50 Maine producers, sound design people and other pros led Merrill to pore over the so-called “white paper” guidelines from major studio and national film industries concerning COVID procedures, as well as the state and national CDC guidelines. 

And then he got to work. 

The resulting document is a sobering but productive set of proposed rules and practices touching on even the smallest details, since even sharing a pen at work is now a cause for concern. That’s anything posing serious infection risk, from food preparation (should your film be lucky enough to have craft services) to sterilizing the assistant directors’ walkie talkies, to keeping track of individual equipment – right down to the replacement walkie-talkie batteries.

In the more overarching sense, the guidelines provide solutions for such on-set realities as casting and production meetings, location scouting, staggered work and meal schedules, and the very important concept of cast and crew stress and mental health during a transitional period where every interaction is now subject to potentially life-saving scrutiny. Even the lonely work of screenwriting isn’t going to emerge unscathed for the foreseeable future, explained Merrill, suggesting that your screenplay’s crowd scenes are probably going to need a rework. Said Merrill of the groups efforts, “It’s about getting everybody on the same page, about protecting each other once work starts happening again.” 

Filmmaking is a collaborative process, especially on a small local indie film set, or among the below-the-line crew working on a bigger production from out of state. Merrill, who’s worked on everything from two-person commercial shoots to features, knows the ins and outs of that process as well as anyone. That’s why he and his collaborators stress that there’s no one set of rules that can apply to every production, with the guidelines’ introduction noting, “Each production is unique, and specific measures need to be established before it begins.” What all professionals should expect, however, says Merrill now that these Maine-specific guidelines are in place, is that “This is what a lot of our community is expecting for safety on set. On a very base level, if a document like this exists and everybody who’s reached out to mentions it, then everyone’s aware that there’s a baseline expectation.” 

As you read over the guidelines that Merrill and his hardworking film professionals have worked so hard to produce, it’s important to remember that every workplace has similar concerns. And workers – most of whom, like Merrill, aren’t protected by unions or other bodies – are working even harder than usual to keep themselves and you safe. So read, think, and wear a mask, people. As Merrill puts it, “We’re all in this together.” 

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.


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