Filmmaking and Social Distancing: When “Going Viral” is a Good Thing

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

If you asked Theater Studies instructor Talya Klein in March how she and her students in “Acting for the Camera” were adjusting to remote learning, Klein would have admitted to a lofty goal. She hoped to have a feature film completed as a final project to an anomalous semester.

“We’ll see,” she said. “I don’t know what May will bring, where we’ll be, or what the film will look like—but we have to try.” While the Duke community finished spring semester from home and celebrated graduates by Marking the Moment, Klein’s students quietly met the goal they set in March and delivered the finished film: “Emergency Contacts.”

The 50-minute film is a nod to Arthur Schnitzler’s 19th century play “La Ronde,” which depicts successive encounters between pairs of characters from different levels of society. While Schnitzler’s play examines class ideology, “Emergency Contacts” employs a chain of conversations among 12 women to reveal life within a global pandemic—or two.  

Fade In

The pre-COVID class syllabus included a collaboration with students in the course “Narrative Features,” taught by Jim Haverkamp, lecturing fellow in Arts of the Moving Image. With the project placed on pause, Klein had to re-invent the game plan. As she checked in with friends and colleagues throughout the entertainment industry, she noticed many were still creating artistic content from home and realized there wasn’t a reason why her students couldn’t do the same. What she proposed was a final project: a collaborative film written, directed, and filmed by her students; edited by Haverkamp and Eric Barstow, multimedia director with the Franklin Humanities Institute; and scored by composer Adam Lindquist.

Zoom Class with Dana Berger
Dana Berger discussing video techniques via Zoom.

Klein brought in industry professionals to present virtual workshops covering techniques that would be needed throughout filming. Lovell Holder, a Los Angeles–based independent film producer, writer, and director, discussed how to write and shoot footage on a budget. Theater Studies alumna Dana Berger, whose recent television credits include “Elementary” and “Orange is the New Black,”  Zoomed in to explain video techniques, how the actresses could record themselves on a variety of devices, proper lighting techniques, and how to decide which footage to save—and to trash.

Klein gave her students few parameters, but loads of artistic freedom. The scenario she chose—it wasn’t safe to go outside—had to be addressed in some manner in each scene. She also guided the writing and editing process to keep the final product cohesive and consistent, but the students were responsible for the rest: character development, scripts, lighting, sound, costumes, props, and filming. Because of the story’s circular format, it was paramount that the entire class was committed to producing a final product. If just one person didn’t deliver, the chain would be broken and the project would be a wash. “They [the students] were given the resources,” Klein explained, “but the 12 of them really did all the heavy lifting.”

Lights, Camera, Action

Valerie and Bianca
Valerie Muensterman (left) and Bianca Umeakuana share the screen in "Emergency Contacts." 

Paired up based on time zones, each student had two scenes to film: one with the person appearing before them and one with the person appearing after. For example, Jessica Beering and Leila Milanfar had a scene together. Leila’s next scene was with Bianca Umeakuana. Bianca then had a scene with Valerie Muensterman, and so on. From iPhones and tablets to text messages and emails, everything was fair game for filming. They learned to film around the expected challenges that come with small spaces and stay-at-home orders, as well as unexpected ones that arise when family members prefer the volume of “Little House on the Prairie” just a smidge too loud.

Although each student had ownership of her character’s development, they came together to collaborate on the script. “The process felt like quilt-making,” explained Milanfar. “Each of us came to the table with a colorful fabric square—our scene—and the hard work was making sure the squares were all the same dimension, that the pattern flowed, and that the seams were tight. The final quilt—our movie—is a beautiful piece of teamwork! None of us could have succeeded unless we all put in our best effort.” 

As the class resumed in late March and discussions turned to the feature film, the entirety of the project understandably seemed daunting for some: writing scripts, scheduling time to film, collaborating with classmates in different states and time zones—while dealing with the day-to-day circumstances of a pandemic. For Holly Holder (B.A. Psychology; minor Theater Studies ’20), trepidation quickly turned to calm. “When all this started,” she explained, “I found it difficult to be motivated when it came to coursework. But the second we began acting, it was a relief to have an artistic project to pour myself into once again. It was really a comfort to have at least some semblance of normalcy.”   

Emergency Contacts poster

That’s a Wrap

In mid-May, the film premiered to an invited group of students, collaborators, friends, and family. A talkback followed, where the group reflected on the project, the processes, the end of the semester, and for some—graduation.

Leila Milanfar (B.A. Evolutionary Anthropology; minors Theater Studies and Chemistry ‘20) found working on the film to be therapeutic. Because she didn’t have a chance to say proper goodbyes when she left for Spring Break in March, the project helped to process her heartbreak and anxiety. “We achieved some awesome art this year, despite it all, and that was really comforting.” With a clear college path in the sciences, Milanfar, who is applying to medical school, chose to minor in Theater Studies because she believes storytelling is a huge part of the human experience. “I could go on for hours about how storytelling is important to being a doctor, but I’ll settle with saying this: In my opinion, there is only one way to truly learn the skill of empathy, and that is through theater—because theater teaches you to receive unique stories with gentle curiosity and minimal judgement.”

Klein is still amazed by the work her students accomplished under the circumstances and timeframe. “These women tapped effortlessly into different aspects of what life is like for so many experiencing the pandemic. They came together and supported each other—and they crossed the finish line together.” 

Cast: Jess Beering: Terri; Alexandra Hanzlick: Brooke; Paige Hetley: Grace; Holly Holder: Rachel; Tess Johnson: Becca; Leila Milanfar: Anya; Valerie Muensterman: Lori; Sophia Roth: Riley; Tenley Seidel: Sarah; Sibora Seranaj: Shiu; Samantha Streit: Ava; Bianca Umeakuana: Jennifer