A masked Joanna Johnson on location under Covid-19 guidelines

September 04, 2020
In The Mix

Inspired Within Four Walls

Lockdown leads to love stories — and savvy safety solutions.

Paula Chin

Joanna Johnson hadn't been sheltering in place for long when she got the idea for a show about love under lockdown.

"There were so many stories in the news about people making grand gestures and profound acts of kindness," recalls Johnson, a creator–executive producer–director of the Freeform series Good Trouble. "Even when you try to isolate people, we want connection."

The result is Love in the Time of Corona, a four- part romantic comedy — filmed using remote technologies in the actors' homes — about the quest for love, sex and connection during quarantine. It debuted August 22 on Freeform.

"I didn't want to do a show about the pandemic, but about relationships and how the disease is affecting the dynamics between people," she explains.

Once Johnson got the green light, there was a mad scramble to get things up and running. "We wanted to do it while it was still fresh and relevant," says Johnson, who executive-produces along with Christine Sacani.

The scripts were completed in just two weeks, but when the crew dived into production, they found themselves on unfamiliar ground. "This was before the health and safety guidelines were issued, so we had to anticipate what the rules would be."

It was clear, though, that they would have to cast actors who were socially distancing together. One story, about an estranged couple who reluctantly decide to quarantine together when their daughter returns home from college, "meant we had to find actors with a child who's also an actor," says Johnson, who found the perfect combo in Gil Bellows (Patriot), his wife, Rya Kihlstedt (Dexter, Charmed), and their daughter, Ava Bellows.

Another casting coup: Hamilton's Leslie Odom Jr. and his wife, Nicolette Robinson, as a career-driven couple forced to reexamine their priorities when the pandemic traps them under one roof. (The actors are also executive producers.)

"All of the actors were excited," Johnson says. "They had specific ideas on the stories they wanted to tell and tried to craft them around their own experiences."

Safety protocols helped put the cast at ease. "We dropped off the equipment, let it sit for a few days, and then sanitized it before bringing it into their homes," Johnson says. "Only one crew member at a time was allowed inside, and when they were, the actors would leave the room."

Meanwhile, Johnson observed from a safe distance. "I'm outside or in a van, always six feet apart from everyone else, directing remotely. We can zoom in and out and do some panning and tilting, but when the camera needs to be moved, the actors are doing the moving."

So, what's it like running a show in the time of Covid? "I'm happy to get out of the house and see the words on the page coming alive," Johnson says. "It's been hard, but what we do in this business — besides the creative part — is problem solving. We have new problems, but this is in our wheelhouse."

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 9, 2020

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