THROUGH THE COVD LENS: Big Night
Reassessing “Big Night” in the Age of Coronavirus
Twenty-five years ago, “Big Night” premiered and quickly took its place among the best food movies of all time. Written by Stanley Tucci and Joseph Tropiano and directed by both Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci, “Big Night” tells the story of two Italian immigrant brothers’ struggle to find success in the restaurant business in the 1950s while remaining true to their culinary roots.
Shot in just 35 days in and around Keyport New Jersey, “Big Night” stars Tucci, Scott, Tony Shalhoub, Marc Anthony, Minnie Driver, Liev Schreiber, Ian Holm, Allison Janney, and Isabella Rossellini. On a budget of $4M, the film went on to gross $14M, earn rave reviews, and win several awards. But it’s biggest accomplishment is most likely its legacy.
“Big Night” was released in 1996. Around that same year, the then three-year-old Food Network offered television cooking shows to chefs Susan Feniger & Mary Sue Millikan, Mario Batali, Emeril Lagasse, and Bobby Flay. This was the beginning of the food craze that still grips America today and “Big Night” was an integral part of it.
Universally beloved in the restaurant industry, “Big Night” is endlessly quoted in both the dinning rooms and the kitchens of eating establishments from coast to coast. From “Spaghetti with risotto” and the “hot dog” scene to the downbeat yet heart-warming ending, “Big Night” remains a special movie that is still referenced today.
With Thanksgiving upon us once more, let’s look at one of the greatest meals ever served in a movie – the big night in “Big Night” – with an eye toward COVID-19 safety. To do so, we will break it down into three sections:
- Elements that are COVID-19 Safe
- Elements that are COVID-19 Risks
- Strategies to increase safety
This article is designed to help you better understand COVID-19 safety by illustrating how pandemic guidelines would have affected “Big Night.” Let’s begin by looking at the ways this film is already safe.
Elements That Are COVID-19 Safe
The entire movie builds to this one epic meal. The brothers’ entire business, their lives in America, and even their very identities are on the line as they cook a meal to end all meals for the Godot-like Louis Prima. When the promised, famous singer shows up, they will wow him and, with his endorsement, their fortunes will turn forever better. Or, at least that is how it is supposed to go.
When Tucci and Scott shot this scene in the New Jersey back in 1995, they were not thinking about COVID-19 safety. Yet, some aspects of the big meal in “Big Night” are relatively safe from a pandemic safety perspective.
We want to highlight two areas that will help keep any set safe from COVID-19:
- Cast size
- Location control
Let’s look at both of these and see how they can make things safer.
While there are quite a few people in this scene, they are all characters who have already been in the movie. A mix of regulars, friends, and guests, this huge set piece is populated by all the characters we have met throughout the film.
The point of the scene, of course, is that no one else shows up; especially (25-year-old spoiler alert) Louis Prima. This one, last big swing to save their lives, in fact, bankrupts them. But in a twist that every financially struggling restaurant (which is practically all of them) finds poetic and inspiring: the brothers give their friends, family, and regulars a meal they will never forget.
The very structure of the story and this particular scene limits the cast. The fewer the people on set, the safer the set is in a pandemic. By limiting the cast for the scene, the makers of “Big Night” have increased the scene’s safety.
This entire, amazing, scene takes place in one location: the brother’s restaurant, a.k.a. The Paradise. Location control is obvious by the way that the production completely changes the table layout of the restaurant for this final scene.
When a production shoots in a restaurant that is operational, they rent the space from the restaurant owner. In the majority of such cases, the general layout of the restaurant is not altered much at all. The more changes made, the more expensive the rental fees usually become.
In “Big Night,” this sleepy location is transformed into a epic culinary celebration, with a large table setting, dance floor, and music. By restricting the location to the restaurant and then controlling that location, the makers of “Big Night” have made their grand finale safer.
Elements That Are COVID-19 Risks
Eating indoors at restaurants is risky during this pandemic. In several places in America, indoor dining is still not allowed and in others vaccination cards are required to dine inside. Restaurants are risky places in part because they often lack upgraded ventilation systems and ample room for social distancing.
Filming a restaurant scene in a pandemic is even riskier. We not only need to make room for the cast (the restaurant guests and staff) but also the movie’s crew. In addition to the spacing issues, shooting a restaurant scene basically requires that each “guest” be served repeatedly for hours on end.
The finale of “Big Night” involves over a dozen actors, even more crewmembers, and course-after-course of food. The actors are all seated shoulder-to-shoulder at one large table. The food is served by unmasked staff members. Multiple people repeatedly touch the same surfaces. Finally, the scene requires that the cast touch their faces and put things in their mouths. These are all red-flags for COVID-19.
As designed back in the mid-1990’s, this scene would likely be too risky to shoot during COVID-19 without some significant changes. Let’s look at how we might make this scene safer.
Strategies to Increase Safety
“Big Night” is a beloved, culinary classic. We do not want to change a thing about this wonderful, all-stops-pulled final meal. To make it safe to shoot in a pandemic, however, we will have to alter some strategic aspects of the scene.
Pandemic safety begins long before we get to set. We would be sure to sit down with the creative team during pre-production, highlight any scenes that create pandemic safety issues, and collaborate to establish solutions. At such a pre-production meeting, we would ask questions to get the creative team thinking about different ways to shoot this scene. For instance:
- Outdoor Dining: Would it be possible to find a restaurant location that has an outdoor seating area? By setting this scene outside, we would be able to greatly improve air circulation and minimize potential transmission.
- Limit Wide Shots: Could we limit the number of shots that require the entire cast? If we can strategically limit the large, group shots, we could increase the safety by allowing for more distancing on set.
- Regular Seating: Is it necessary to have everyone seated at one large table? By moving people back into normal table seating arrangements we would be able to increase distancing. We would also be able to group cast members together and shoot their scenes in isolation from the rest of the dinners in this scene.
- Eliminate All Non-essential Eating: How many times do we need to see someone actually eat the food? Can we imply eating by showing empty plates and platters? Cutting down the number of times actors need to put prop forks full of prop food into their real mouths will significantly increase the safety of the scene.
- Schedule It Last: Can we schedule this scene as the last scene of the shoot? By moving this risky scene to the end of production, we can mitigate the effects COVID-19 transmission could have on the entire shoot.
Each one of these tweaks to the scene brings with it an increase in pandemic safety. If we were able to do all of them together – film it outside, at the end of the production, with no non-essential eating, minimal wide shots, and regular table seating – we could considerably increase safety.
According to Stanley Tucci, the food in this movie didn’t taste good. In fact, the actors spit it out after each take. This is the “magic” of movies: something that looks so tasty could be inedible. The same can be true for safety; a scene filled with joy, love, and celebration can, in a pandemic, be nerve-wracking, risky, and problematic.
By paying close attention to each scene in our scripts and highlighting the troublesome ones as early as possible, we can devise safety strategies that can save lives. We must not forget that COVID-19 is still deadly – especially to the unvaccinated – and that our sets exist in the real world. Asymptomatic carriers can transmit the virus far outside the boundaries of our sets. So, in essence, by increasing safety on our sets we increase safety beyond them as well.
The grand finale in “Big Night” is a risky scene to shoot in a pandemic but not an impossible one. By moving it outside, limiting large shots, rearranging the seating plan, cutting down on the eating (which wasn’t tasty to begin with), and moving the scene to the end of the schedule, we can make this wonderful celebration of culinary mastery quite a bit safer.
From everyone here at Epitome Risk, have a safe and happy Thanksgiving.
Join us next month when we look through the COVID lens at the one film to rule them all as we celebrate the 20th anniversary of “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.”
Brian Smolensky is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy and a former Air Force Full Spectrum Threat Response Officer with over 15 years of experience in film and television production.
DISCLAIMER: This information should not be considered comprehensive and is not a substitute for hiring risk management professionals and personnel trained in COVID-19-specific procedures. Please consult with your insurance company, your investors, all applicable union reps, and health and safety professionals before starting production in a pandemic.