Sundance 2021: ‘These Days’ Director on Filming in Lockdown
Sundance 2021 is virtual this year, and in a further sign of the times, its lineup includes films that tackle questions surrounding the pandemic. “These Days” is an indie series about a thirty-something professional dancer played by Marianne Rendon. Lonely and yearning for connection, she navigates the online dating scene while self-isolating in her New York apartment. We spoke with writer-director Adam Brooks about this timely and personal series on life and love during COVID-19, how he re-imagined the production process, and why he says this felt like making his first film again.
Shivan: What is the setting and premise of “These Days?”
Adam: “These Days” is a story that takes place in the first months of COVID life. As I like to say, in this batshit crazy new abnormal. And it centers around a character named Mae who is a dancer who lives in New York City and she’s self-isolating in her apartment. It’s a kind of severe isolation because she’s mourning the loss of somebody close to her, not from COVID, but in her life. And she decides to, in a need to kind of connect, to try the world of online dating. It starts off in a kind of disastrous way, but then she meets this guy, Will, who’s played by William Jackson Harper. And her world starts to change and shift.
Shivan: How does her world start to shift during self-isolation and how will this play out in the series?
Adam: In COVID life, there seems to be for everyone a sense of loss for the life that they used to have that is now slipping away. But also it’s an opportunity to look in the mirror and think about what your life was and what you might want it to be. And I think a lot of people have been doing that sort of examining their choices. Then that was also amplified by the protests and Black Lives Matter and what was happening in the cities. And so a lot of things that were not necessarily being thought of all the time by most people had to be confronted.
So she’s beginning to confront things that are personal to her about moving on from the past, but over the course of the story, she will also be confronting bigger issues. At the spine of the series is this relationship that she has with Will. So that will have a lot of ups and downs. And Will himself plays a journalist whose career is on the way, but he’s feeling maybe a little ambivalent about the kind of stories he’s writing at a moment when so much is going on. And he’s a black man and a journalist and hoping to protect his career, but he’s dealing with changes that are going on that are bigger than his career, and he’s starting this relationship. So those are all the things that are at play.
Shivan: In the pilot, Will tells Mae, who’s not convinced about cheering for healthcare providers, about why it’s in fact important. He says it’s a reminder that “we’re together in our aloneness and fear.” Is this a throughline in the series?
Adam: It’s one of my favorite lines in the pilot. Part of it is because of the way he does it, he does it with a kind of tenderness. I think that’s a throughline, but I think the real throughline is that they’re talking about stuff that they don’t agree about. What I didn’t want the show to be was a kind of cliche of COVID life, but try to get to something in between all those things: the reality of how we are wrestling with how to proceed, but how we think about all this stuff, how we behave, how we take care of ourselves and our family but also being responsible to a bigger idea in the community. And so that scene is an example of how she processes that. Her back is up about it, but by the end of the episode, something has shifted. And in that there’s catharsis. And in a way, a lot of the show is about how Mae goes out into the world bit by bit again, and that’s a physical thing, but it’s also an idea about identity and being open to living. And I think as we’ll learn about her for many reasons, she’s shut down.
Shivan: This was a remote production. What were some of the challenges that you dealt with and how did you overcome them?
Adam: We were spread out all over the place. The biggest challenge was trying to make something that got past the screens, the screen-ness of it all. Something that was cinematic and visual storytelling that connected you to the characters, what they were going through, and the humor and emotions of it. We had to figure out some very basic things like what we were shooting with. The actors had to shoot everything themselves. They were doing their own sound. They were doing their own camera. So we decided that an iPhone was something that they all knew how to be with anyway. We wanted to keep that part of it as simple as possible and still get the most quality we could.
We came up with a system where we had two iPhones that were fixed next to each other. One was the recording iPhone. The other one was on Zoom. So they’d see the screen and that way they could see the other actor in the scene and also communicate with me and with the DP. That was one level. The other thing was how to shoot it so that you would forget that we were shooting remotely. So that you would just get into the storytelling and there were some trial and error, but I feel like we got to that. I think it’s a really good-looking show and one that connects to the narrative, to the characters when you’re watching it.
Shivan: There were moments while watching the pilot where I wondered: “Did the cast members really film this themselves?”
Adam: For instance, Marianne plays Mae. She took care of over three-quarters of her shots, but there were a couple of shots that it was impossible, which were very important. So her boyfriend helped us on those days and did an amazing job. Whereas Will was living with his girlfriend and she was there a lot of the time to help set-up things. So with different actors, it was different. But Marianne did the great majority of the stuff herself and she has the biggest part.
Shivan: How would you describe the collaborative process? And in what ways was the production process re-imagined?
Adam: It was a very small group of people. So let’s say that you were in the group. We would say, “Okay, this is your apartment. Take us around on a little tour.” And we’d decide where we should shoot the scene, where it looked great, where the light was coming in, what might be problematic. And if we felt like there wasn’t something that was right for the character, we’d order you something, and it would be shipped to you. Marianne didn’t have a heating vent in her apartment. So we bought one at Home Depot and sent it to her and taped it to the wall. It felt very much like do-it-yourself, almost like film school or making a first film. And once we embraced that, it was fun. The challenge of the limitations became a game, something exciting to figure out.
In terms of the actors, we would rehearse on Zoom. We would go through the script and talk about it. And after a while, it felt very intimate. If the actor was struggling, I would say, “Okay, let’s stop for a second.” And I would call them on their cell phone so that we’d have another way of speaking. So they didn’t feel self-conscious. We tried very hard to protect their energy so that if we spent half an hour setting up, they’d have some time to get back into being actors again. We’d set up the shot and I’d say, “Take 10 minutes and just get centered on what’s ahead, because now we’re going to shoot.” We figured out along the way how to protect the process and the actors.
Shivan: You said that this process felt like making a first film again. How so?
Adam: It wasn’t super professional and we didn’t have a big crew. We couldn’t do tracking shots or light it. And like when you make a first film, everything is about how you take whatever the limited things you have on hand and still make something cinematic, still have a vision. So when you look at the first films of, let’s say the French new wave, you see this energy that gets over all the limitations of budget and location. And often those films have an enormous impact because they’re just bursting with their own ideas and energy. And that’s how I felt this was. There were no easy answers and because of that, there was something wonderfully exciting and creative about the process.
Shivan: In the production process, was there a moment when you thought: “I should’ve been doing it like this all along?” What are some of the creative learnings you’ll take with you moving forward?
Adam: There was a kind of freedom in doing it independently without a producer, without a studio or a network, doing it very quickly, doing it as a small team effort. It went back to all the things that you fall in love with when you first start making things. And there’s liberation in that. You have your team and that’s who you rely on.
Shivan: What advice do you have for our community of creatives on how to continue telling stories during this time? In what new ways should they be thinking about the production process?
Adam: At first I was weary about doing this and then I really got into the idea. Then, like at any point, you use the resources you have to find out a way to tell your story. You have to be really committed to being inventive, using your imagination, and working as a team to come up with those ideas and not be daunted because you can’t make something the way you usually do. We were able to invent something that worked for us to tell a story in a fresh way.
Shivan: Is there anything you’d like to add about the series?
Adam: It’s funny, sweet, sad, and emotional. And when people see it, they usually come away saying, “I didn’t think I’d want to see it, but there was something true about it to what we’re going through.” And that’s what I feel most proud of and I hope that people give it a chance and are able to engage in that way. It gives something back.
“These Days” is playing under Sundance’s Indie Series section. You can watch the pilot episode on-demand here.