THROUGH THE COVID LENS: Parasite
Reassessing “Parasite” in the Age of Coronavirus
Two years ago this month, Bong Joon-ho’s masterpiece “Parasite” was honored as one of three recipients of the Grolsch People’s Choice Award at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). It became the first film ever to win both the Academy Award for Best International Film (formerly Best Foreign Film) and Best Picture. How would this film have changed if it were shot during a pandemic? What techniques from this film can today’s filmmakers use to increase on-set safety?
“Parasite” is the first non-English language film to take the top prize at the Oscars. It is only the third film in history to win both the Palm d’Or at Cannes and Best Picture and the first to do it in sixty-five years.
Starring a hall-of-fame cast of Korean actors – Song Kang-ho, Lee Sun-kyun, Cho Yeo-jeong, Choi Woo-shik, Park So-dam, Lee Jung-eun, and Jang Hye-jin – from an Oscar-winning screenplay by Bong Joon-Ho and Han Jin-won, “Parasite” tells the story of a poor family (the Kims) who infiltrate the lives of a wealthy family (the Parks) disguised as various assistants, teachers, and helpers. Obviously, this is a film where nothing is what it seems, and everyone has an angle.
Variety’s Jessica Kiang said, “Parasite is a tick fat with the bitter blood of class rage.” A.O. Scott of the New York Times said it “obliterates the tired distinctions between art films and popcorn movies.” “Parasite” is truly must-see entertainment and a stunning work of art that deserves every accolade it received.
Let’s take a closer look at this tour de force 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 the instant classic, “Parasite.” Let’s begin by looking at the ways this film is already safe.
Elements That Are COVID-19 Safe
Since the beginning of the pandemic, we here at Epitome Risk have been beating the drum on several aspects of COVID-19 safety that have remained constant throughout. Chief among them are:
These are three things that “Parasite” does exceptionally well. Let’s look at each of them and see what safety enhancements they brought to “Parasite.”
In the very first Through the COVID Lens we ever did (on the Copa oner from “Goodfellas”), we emphasize location control as a key factor in on-set safety. Here, Bong does Scorsese one better: the two main locations (both family’s houses) are custom designed and custom-built sets.
When shooting on a soundstage on a custom set, we can achieve ultimate location control. Not only can we control who comes and goes, we can control where the walls, floors, ceiling, windows, and doors are. In a pandemic production, this set flexibility can allow for maximal spacing between cast and crew.
Proper spacing is even easier when you have a small cast.
“Parasite” began life as a play. Bong Joon-ho first conceived of it as a theatre piece but quickly realized it was better suited for a movie. Despite that change, it retained the small cast and limited locations of a play. “Parasite” is basically a movie about two families. With only a few exceptions, the film involves only the members of those two small families.
In a pandemic environment, productions spend millions of dollars and loads of time to achieve the safety standards recommended by the CDC and outlined in The Safe Way Forward. When we look at all the work and money that goes into creating as safe a working environment as possible, we see a direct correlation between the number of people on set and the amount of work required to make that set safe. This is why limiting the cast when possible is so important. It not only makes things safer it also saves us time and money.
As we mentioned in our exploration of “The Bourne Ultimatum,” one of the most critical aspects of on-set safety – both in a pandemic and in normal times – is organization. It is imperative to know what shots you need and how you will achieve them, then communicate those elements to the cast and crew to ensure everyone is on the same page.
Bong Joon-ho is a meticulous storyboarder. Storyboarding – one form of pre-visualization – is more necessary during a pandemic than ever before. It is a tool that allows filmmakers to increase safety by keeping on-set personnel distanced until they are required to interact.
Storyboarding also shortens film shoots. Bong Joon-ho’s organization allowed him to shoot “Parasite” in only 77 days. A whole month shorter than the average length of principal photography (106 days). Production is the most dangerous phase of movie-making during a pandemic, far riskier than pre-production or post. It is therefore vital that we make our shoots as short as possible.
“Parasite” looks like it would be a pretty safe film to shoot during the pandemic. But it could still be safer.
Elements That Are COVID-19 Risks
While most of the movie takes place at two locations, a few scenes don’t. Of those, two jump out at us: the party in the back yard (spoiler alert on that link) and all the scenes in the car. Since we covered large scenes when we looked at “It’s a Wonderful Life,” lets focus on the car scenes and how we can make them safer.
Shooting inside a car presents two major COVID-19 safety problems.
- Cramped space: Cars are tiny locations that require cast and crew to be very close to one another.
- Poor Circulation: Poor air circulation is one of the leading factors in the spread of COVID-19 and cars have terrible air circulation. Any attempt to increase airflow – open the windows, turn on the a/c – makes recording dialog nearly impossible.
Car scenes are often not necessary. We have seen productions move scenes from inside a moving car to standing outside a stationary vehicle without impacting the substance of the scene. So, in many cases, moving the scene is the safest option. That is not, however, the case here.
In “Parasite,” the car scenes signify wealth and clearly delineate each character’s place in society and the story. The car location is integral to the dynamics of the scenes, and it should, therefore, remain.
Let’s take a look at how we can make these car scenes safer.
Strategies to Increase Safety
To increase pandemic safety when shooting inside a car, we return to the very elements that made “Parasite” so safe in the first place:
- Location control
- Cast size
Location Control (in a Car)
We would advocate that a production shoot car scenes on a sound stage. Typically car scenes are shot with the character’s car on a trailer moving through real streets with real traffic and real backgrounds. In a pandemic, this is sub-optimal.
If we can put the car on a sound stage, we can maximize the distance between cast and crew members. We can also get cleaner air and better airflow. Lastly, shooting on a soundstage allows us to shoot the scene faster and get everyone back to safety sooner.
Cast Size (in a Car)
When shooting in a car, we shrink the set down to a few square feet. In such a small space, we must keep the cast size down as much as possible. In “Parasite,” the car scenes are between only two people: the driver and the passenger. This is almost as small a cast size as we can get. Almost…
When shooting in a car during a pandemic, we would highly recommend shooting each actor separately and minimizing the amount of time you spend in a two-shot. By isolating each actor, we can dial safety up a few more notches. To achieve this, we must be organized.
Organization (in a Car)
If we were tasked with shooting these cars scenes during this pandemic, we would highlight them during pre-production and help the creative team devise ways to make them safer. We’d incorporate the two guidelines above: shoot on a soundstage and keep the two shots to a minimum.
Our storyboards, then, would organize around ideas that achieve those goals. These might include:
- Virtual Sets: Virtual sets – sets composed of giant concave LED screens – offer a possible avenue for filmmakers to make car scenes look true-to-life while enjoying the safety of a soundstage.
- Glass Divider: Giving the Park’s vehicle a glass partition between the driver and the backseat passenger would further emphasize the dynamics of the story, accentuating the thin layer of separation the two families, and keep our cast members separated.
- Split Diopter Shot: A split diopter shot allows for two different focal lengths in the same shot. It distorts distance and creates a blurred line between the background and the foreground. By using this technique, we could create loads of distance between the driver and the passenger. It might require a specially built car, but this would be another way to further visualize the dynamics at play in these car scenes while increasing safety.
The car scenes in “Parasite” are vital to the story. By looking at the themes of the scenes, we can find ways to accentuate their meaning and maximize safety at the same time.
“Parasite” is both a timely and timeless film. It captures the inequality in much of the world today while dealing with the enduring themes of desire, justice, secrets, and family.
Because of Bong Joon-ho’s meticulous organization, the small cast size, and the custom-built locations, “Parasite” was already a rather safe film to shoot. Its wonderful car scenes provide some challenges that can be overcome by more of the same: location control, limiting cast size, and organization.
Those are three essential ingredients to any pandemic production. When used in conjunction with vaccinations, immunity tracking, proper PPE, and regular testing, we can focus our attention on telling a good story, knowing we’ve done everything we can to keep our sets safe.
Join us next month for the 25th Anniversary celebration of an indie classic when we look through the COVID lens at “Swingers.”
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.