Expert Advice from Epitome's Production Safety & Risk Management Specialists

THROUGH THE COVID LENS: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Reassessing “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” in the Age of Coronavirus

Photo Credit: Focus Features

As the 20th century gave way to the 21st something interesting happened to the subject of love in movies. Happily-Ever-After Rom-Coms gave way to meditations on loss, break-ups, and heartbreak. From “Once” to “Lost in Translation,” and “Her” to “Blue is the Warmest Color,” “Marriage Story,” “La La Land” and “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” this century’s films have taken a much more serious look at relationships.

One of the first of these new-style rom-coms – and still one of the best – was released eighteen years ago this month: Michel Gondry’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”

Written by Charlie Kaufman and starring Kate Winslet and a career-best Jim Carrey, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” follows two polar opposite people who erase each other from their memories after a breakup. What transpires is a beautiful meditation on love, loss, and the importance of heartbreak, forgiveness, and second chances.

Every relationship has beautiful moments as well as painful ones. But what if losing the pain meant you had to let go of the beauty too? Would you choose to savor all those wonderful moments with the one you love, if it meant you still had to live with the heartache? These are the questions at the heart of this beautiful, surprising classic.

“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” won numerous awards and garnered even more nominations. While it wasn’t a box office success when it came out, it has become a bona fide classic in the years since. It now ranks among the best films of this century.

As the two-year-anniversary of this pandemic approaches, who among us wouldn’t want to delete a few (or all) COVID-19 memories? So, it’s with a note of contemplation that we look through the COVID lens at “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”

To help us understand what this existential, rom-com classic can teach us about pandemic safety on set, we’ve broken things down into three parts:

  • Elements that are COVID-19 safe
  • Elements that are COVID-19 risks
  • The importance of imagination

Elements That Are COVID-19 Safe

There are several aspects to this film that already make it safe from a pandemic production perspective. Let’s look at two:

  • Small scenes
  • Isolated cast

Small Scenes

The smallness of the scenes in this movie do not strike you at first because the production design, editing, and storytelling combine to make each scene feel simultaneously big and intimate. But look closely, and you will see that nearly every single scene in this movie involves only our small main cast of characters.

This focus on small scene size begins with the script. Kaufman’s story isn’t set on a global stage, or even a city-sized one. This is a story set in the limitless yet compact world of the human mind. The number of people with access to this cerebral setting are few: the four members of the memory erasing company, and the exes; Joel, and Clementine.

At it’s absolute largest, the size of the cast in a single scene barely reaches double digits. Most often, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is comprised of two-, three-, and four-person scenes.

Small scenes mean safer sets. By keeping the scenes small, Gondry was able to establish a solid baseline of COVID-19 safety on set.

Isolated Cast

As the movie progresses – and the erasure becomes more complete – the cast size shrinks down to the essential characters in this love story: Joel and Clementine.

We’ve highlighted this phenomenon many times before, but safety starts with the story. The very nature of this movie’s story – the movement of its plot – creates a safer set.

During pre-production it is vital to work with the creative team to examine the script scene-by-scene, identify risks, and brainstorm safer solutions. One of the most common refrains we hear from our creative partnerships is: “Which characters are truly necessary?”

“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” has answered this question for us. There are very few scenes with any extraneous characters. Most often that means the scene involves only our two leads.

The story begins with a small cast. The film contains scenes with only essential characters. The plot isolates our leads. Each one of these steps increases safety.

Most of the risks in “Eternal Sunshine” come from the production itself.

Elements That Are COVID-19 Risks

Filmed on a budget of $20 million, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is classified as an independent film. Safety is the first thing to go out the window when shooting on a low budget. This film is no exception.

We want to highlight two production elements that increased risk on this film:

  • Inadequate planning
  • Dangerous decisions

Inadequate Planning

When we talked about “Before Sunrise” we talked about the importance of rehearsals. With our article on “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” we highlighted how a detailed script increases safety. “Eternal Sunshine” had neither.

Budgetary constraints meant there was no time for blocking-rehearsals and disagreements between Gondry and Kaufman led to rewrites while filming. These two elements dramatically increase the risk of a production, especially during a pandemic.

To make a scene as COVID-19 safe as possible, everyone must be on the same page. The cast, the crew, and the risk management team should know exactly what is going to happen. Who is going to stand where. When the scene will start and when it will end.

This information is critical to keeping cast and crew safe. On “Eternal Sunshine,” the cinematographer Ellen Kuras complained that he never knew where the actors would stop. Marks were almost never used, so the camera and lighting teams had to improvise to get the shots and make sure they were lit properly.

The ever-changing script was also subject to lots of on-set improvisations. The improv, however, didn’t come from Carrey. Gondry refused to let the comic legend deviate from his lines in the hopes of keeping his performance grounded. But the rest of the cast was free to take scenes wherever they felt at the time.

Gondry would also roll film without telling his actors and keep rolling after cut. The director says both were done to keep the cast on their toes and capture some “realistic” moments. This is the very definition, however, of everyone not being on the same page.

We are sympathetic to the trials of shooting on a budget. We understand how hard it is to compete with films whose budgets are one hundred times larger. But our decades of risk management experience have taught us that safety and frugality are not mutually exclusive. All that’s required to pair them successfully is proper priorities, good planning, and a professional team who can guide you toward safety.

Dangerous Decisions

We would be remiss if we didn’t also highlight a major safety violation on set, one that led the union boss to admonish the director on set in front of the cast and crew. Gondry wanted the crew to move a piece of the set into the rising tide to capture a shot. The crew refused due to the obvious risks involved in subjecting a set to the random destructive power of the ocean and the fact that the crew felt there were not proper safety procedures in place for such a dangerous set of circumstances.

Well, Gondry moved the set anyway. While there weren’t any reported injuries during this risky shot, it is certainly not for lack of trying.

Behavior like this – playing games with the cast, manipulating performance, risking safety for shot ideas, improvising, and constant script changes – is a recipe for injury (or worse) on a film set. The annals of independent film are rife with tragedies on productions with exactly these traits.

A movie is not worth risking someone’s life for. In a pandemic, that risk lurks around every corner. With solid planning, a locked script, and clear communication, sets – even pandemic sets – can be far less risky.

The Importance of Imagination

To increase pandemic safety on this production, we would lean into the imaginative storytelling already on display.

The shots in this film are intricately staged and grounded. At least at first. The farther into the procedure we go, the more fanciful things become. Who can forget the amazing scene of Jim Carrey in a childhood memory? Or that heartbreaking final memory in the crumbling seaside mansion?

Imaginative settings have the potential to increase safety because they aren’t beholden to normal reality. In fact, the more imaginative we can make things – the more un-tethered from reality – the more safety mechanisms we can incorporate into the shot, the scene, and the story.

“Eternal Sunshine” does this beautifully at times. Because memories are being erased, cast members and extras continue to disappear each time we revisit a memory. Where the bookstore scenes began as populated locations, they end with only two people in them: our lead couple.

During the planning process, we would collaborate with the creative team and ask some key questions that could help identify areas for increased safety. Examples might include:

  • Can we incorporate masks? The production plans to erase the faces of certain characters in scenes, perhaps we can work masks into those moments to keep the unmasked actors safe.
  • Can we use b-roll for the larger scenes? If we can shoot the larger scenes without the main actors on set, we could keep our leads safer, longer. It would also make the disappearance of those large groups more jarring when our main characters are in that location, and everyone is gone.
  • Can we incorporate a little more CGI? This film does a great job of using practical, in-camera effects to capture many of its dream-like shots. But, along with COVID-19 these past eighteen years have also brought a massive increase in the abilities of CGI. If we can push some of the more imaginative shots to post-production, we could make the on-set environment much safer.

When we on-board risk managers during pre-production, we can make principal photography – already the riskiest part of any pandemic project – much safer. Experienced risk managers can keep your production safer without compromising the creative team’s vision.

Final Thoughts

“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” has become a rom-com classic over the last eighteen years because of its ingenious script, imaginative direction, and fantastic performances.

If we had to film this today, during the COVID-19 pandemic, we would keep much of what the movie already possesses: small scenes, an isolated cast, and imaginative storytelling.

To increase safety, we would help the creative team establish good production planning practices and communicate those plans clearly to the cast and crew. We would also assist the production in prioritizing safety without compromising the final product, lean into the imagination of it all, and find ways to incorporate more COVID-19 safety procedures into each scene.

“Eternal Sunshine” shows us that we can’t have the sun without the shadow. And as we crest into the third year of this pandemic, we think that message resonates now more than ever. How much sweeter will our lives be once this is over? How much brighter already are those pre-pandemic days before masking, vaccinations, and ever-present anxiety?

Like a well-lit shot, it’s shadow that brings depth and makes the important things stand out. Join us later this month when we celebrate St. Paddy’s Day by looking through the COVID lens at the massive, land-run scene from “Far and Away.”

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.