How Julianne Moore, Don Cheadle, Rosie Perez and More Stars Captured Pandemic Life Through a Series of Short Films

Producers Celine Rattray and Trudie Styler weren’t in a unique position when COVID-19 hit. Like others who were working on film sets, they were left without a way to continue their job — at least in person.

So they got innovative. Rattray and Styler, whose combined producing credits include “The Kids Are All Right,” “American Honey” and “Still Alice,” enlisted some famous friends — including Julianne Moore, Don Cheadle, Rosie Perez, Justina Machado and Chris Cooper — to capture how much everyone’s lives had changed during darkest days of the pandemic. The final product is “With/In,” an anthology of 13 short films, some satire, some comical and some all-too-real about the confinement and isolation that resulted from lockdown. The made-at-home series premiered at this year’s Tribeca Festival.

Between April and July of 2020, the filmmaking team shipped equipment between different families (and aided them with at least seven hours of technical training) before giving them free rein to tell stories that felt authentic to their pandemic experiences. All of the shorts demonstrate what the producers refer to as a “uniform sense of raw, indie-centric looseness” and cover everything from sourdough starter kits and wine as therapy to more weighty issues like Black Lives Matter movement. Unlike some Zoom-centric productions that sprung up, Rattray and Styler didn’t want the shorts to be confined to computer screens. They encouraged the talent to get creative, strapping cameras to skateboard and using drones to document their surroundings.

“For the families, it was a wonderful diversion,” Styler says of the filmmaking process. “We were seeped in Trump and panic about the ever-changing data and information we were receiving about COVID-19. This was a wonderful way for people to funnel their creativity.”

How did you come up with the idea to capture COVID in this way?

Rattray: In March 2020, we were shooting a film called “Silent Night” and it was abruptly shut down by the pandemic. Before it was shut down, we were shooting in a tiny house in the U.K. in North London. We were 100 people, one on top of another, in the same room and breathing the same air and touching the same equipment. We went straight into lockdown. We started hearing about social distancing and keeping apart from each other, and my colleagues asked ourselves, “How do you ever make a movie again?” By very definition, when you’re making a film, you are one on top of another. We despaired about never getting to shoot a movie again.

After a few days we jumped into brainstorming mode. We really wanted to continue to tell stories. We started thinking about all of the talented households of people quarantining together. We started thinking about Emily Mortimer and Alessandro Nivola or about Chris Cooper and his wife Marianne Leone. We were thinking, maybe the talented people who live together could tell stories and film each other. Maybe that’s a way for storytelling to continue.

Was it difficult to get actors on board?

Rattray: We reached out to a few of them and were amazed by the number of people who were interested. The whole world was locked down at this stage and people were very despondent so they felt excited by the idea of a challenge and diving into something creative.

How did you decide who to reach out to?

Rattray: A few of them were actors we’d worked with before and actors we consider our friends. We did “The Kids All Right” with Julianne Moore. We’d always wanted to work with Rosie Perez, Chris Cooper. We were so impressed with every one of them. It was particularly hard with the people who were less technologically savvy. In the Alessandro Nivola and Emily Mortimer household, their son who was 16 at the time, directed and knew how to use the equipment incredibly easily. For anyone over the age of 30, it was a lot more challenging.

What kind of feedback did you get from the people involved? Was it difficult to make a short film under these circumstances?

Rattray: The feedback we got overall from the families was that it was incredibly hard. They couldn’t believe what they’d gotten themselves into. Working without a crew, just the technical aspect, was so difficult. Every one of the families said “We miss crews. We have so much more appreciation for crews.” The other emotion that we heard from so many people was that it was so satisfying to overcome the challenges and somehow manage to be creative even while the world was in lockdown and we had everything stripped away from us.

What were some of the obstacles in filming remotely?

Rattray: For most of the families, nobody had ever directed before. That in itself was a big challenge. Another challenge, if you think about a normal independent film, it has anything from 50 to 100 person crews supporting that efforts. In this case, the families were their own directors, DPs, sound, lighting, costume designers, production designers, script supervisors, first AD — every role was done by the families. That was incredibly intense. It was particularly intense for people who didn’t have a lot of people in their homes. There was benefits of households with four people because there were more people to pitch in. As opposed to Rosie Perez, who was alone in her home. She did every single job herself. She directed with Justina [Machado] over Zoom, but she was the sole person responsible for every single one of those job.

Were you concerned it would be too soon to relive the pandemic, or did you want to create a time-capsule of COVID life?

Styler: We don’t want it to be about coronavirus or the pandemic itself. We’d like it to be whatever human story emerges. In some cases, it was loosely based on the experiences people were having or a fictional idea of that moment in time. It’s interesting looking back at them. 2020 was such an intense year, the amount of things thrown our way were unprecedented. Watching it now feels like part of the oral history of 2020… the joys, the sadness, the discovery. I hope some of the shorts capture the humor and human connection that were born and the growth that people went through living through such an unusual life experience.

What do you want audiences to take away from watching these shorts?

Rattray:  One is to capture the intensity, fear, the confusion of everything we were going through as everything was changing so quickly. But also the optimism. So many of these stories have heart, humor, and human connection. The main takeaway for me is there’s no obstacles to creativity. We always overcome whatever hurdles are thrown our way.

Styler: My mom and dad used to have war stories to tell. They lived through the second world war as very young people. My grandparents had World War I stories. Growing up, they’d always say “It was the best of times and worst of times,” to quote Charles Dickens. I’d say “Mom, people were getting killed. How can you say it was the best of times?” And she said, “We felt so lucky that we came through and we are still alive.” Everybody looked out for each other. Everybody was under the same terrible fear that they wouldn’t make it. At the same time, the juxtaposition was living with a community of people who were prepared to share their food and step up. To have that gratitude at this time, people in the pandemic had some experience of learning who our true heroes are. We realized when we’re a community, we can do far more. We can be incredibly resourceful.

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