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


Reassessing “Scent of a Woman” in the Age of Coronavirus

Photo Credit: Universal Pictures

Twenty-eight years ago, during the holiday season of 1992, “Scent of a Woman arrived in theatres. Featuring Hollywood legend Al Pacino’s only Oscar-winning performance to date, “Scent of a Woman” is a Thanksgiving Classic. 

The film is a retelling of Dino Risi’s 1974 Italian film “Profumo di Donna,” which is itself an adaptation of Giovanni Arpino’s novel “Il buio e il miele” (Darkness and Honey). “Scent of a Woman” is arguably one of the greatest remakes of all time. Screenwriter Bo Goldman kept only the thinnest sketch of the original premise (youngster accompanies a blind, bitter, ex-officer on a journey) to create his masterpiece.

From the interview and the tango to the Ferrari and the hotel room showdown, “Scent of a Woman” is filled to the brim with quotable lines, insightful dialog, and unforgettable scenes. It’s most famous and memorable moment, however, is its barn-burning final speech:

In this article, we will take a closer look at that legendary scene with an eye toward COVID-19 safety. We will break it down into four categories:

  • Elements that are COVID-19 Safe
  • Elements that are COVID-19 Risks
  • Small tweaks that increase safety
  • Major changes that maximize safety

This article is designed to help you better understand COVID-19 safety by illustrating how pandemic guidelines could affect one of the most famous speeches in film history. Let’s look at “Scent of a Woman’s” but-he’s-not-a-snitch speech and see, first, what elements are already COVID-19 ready.

Elements That Are COVID-19 Safe

When director Martin Brest and company were filming this scene in 1991, no one was thinking about pandemic safety on set. And yet, there are several aspects of the scene that follow good COVID-19 safety procedures. Here we want to highlight three areas:

  • Main Cast Positioning
  • Location Selection
  • Sound Recording

Main Cast Positioning

One of the easiest ways to minimize exposure to COVID-19 is through thoughtful blocking and cast positioning. By decreasing the number of people in each scene and isolating our main cast from extras, we can more easily maintain a safe set.

It is important to note that this is something “Scent of a Woman” does throughout most of the film. It benefits from a story that is composed almost exclusively of two and three person scenes. If we were making this movie today, during the pandemic, this would allow us to build a bubble around our lead actors (Al Pacino and Chris O’Donnell), and maintain that bubble throughout nearly the entire production.

This is an excellent strategy for any pandemic production. It is a great idea to break-down your script with your creative team during pre-production and see where you can limit the number of people in a given scene.

Sometimes, however, you need a big finale, and “Scent of a Woman” has a spectacular one. While the scene features hundreds of extras, it calls for the main actors to be isolated on a stage that is far from the crowd.

The scene gets even more COVID-19 friendly by separating the actors on stage into groups and keeping each group distant from each other. When it comes to our two stars—Chris O’Donnell and Al Pacino—this positioning allows us to continue maintaining the bubble we built around them while simultaneously staging a large scene.  

If we had to shoot this scene during the coronavirus pandemic, we would be sure to keep the cast positioning the same as it was twenty-nine years ago.

We would also probably choose a similar location.

Location Selection

Shot at the Emma Willard School in Troy, New York, this scene takes place in about as safe an interior location as you can get. As we mentioned in our last Through the COVID Lens article on “The West Wing,” outdoors is almost always a better choice in this pandemic.

This scene, however, would not have worked outside. Outdoors, this scene would lose the seriousness it needs to properly establish the stakes. Outside, this scene would look like a graduation instead of a disciplinary hearing. And that would be all wrong.

So, if we must shoot indoors, a giant hall with super high ceilings is a pretty good option. This location allows for better ventilation and, therefore, fewer chances of spreading the virus. And as previously mentioned, its large stage allows for appropriate social distancing levels between cast members while accommodating crew and equipment without crowding the stage.

The production team most certainly had its pick of locations. It managed to choose one that would work pretty well for pandemic safety in 2020.

Sound Recording

One of the problems many of us are having while shooting in this pandemic is getting good sound. Social distancing protocols can sometimes make it challenging to capture clean audio.

A Safe Way Forward’s recommendations allow for crew members in the bubble to interact with the cast, but it is best to avoid unnecessary proximity when possible. Using longer boom mics is one solution, but this scene from “Scent of a Woman” illustrates another. What if you put a microphone in the scene?

Obviously, you need to have a scene that would realistically have a microphone in it. But, if you do have such a scene, be sure that mic is not merely a prop. Put a real microphone in the shot.

In this disciplinary hearing scene from “Scent of a Woman,” it makes sense that Headmaster Trask (James Rebhorn) would have a microphone at his podium. And George Willis Jr. (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and Charles Simms (Chris O’Donnell) also need microphones so the entire student body can hear them.

Undoubtedly, the production relied on more than just those mics. They likely had a combination of booms, lavs, and diegetic mics. Relying on multiple sources increases the chances of getting it right the first time. Having the luxury of being able to put the mics in the scene, however, is a safety multiplier in the COVID-19 era. 

If we had to film this scene in a pandemic, we would certainly rely heavily on the in-world audio devices.

“Scent of a Woman” does a lot of things right. For a twenty-eight-year-old movie, that’s pretty remarkable. They do not get out of here unscathed, though. Let’s take a look at some areas that are not quite so safe.

Elements That Are COVID-19 Risks

The meat of this scene is pretty safe. From the moment that Pacino sits down next to O’Donnell all the way until the verdict is read, this scene remains within most COVID-19 protocols.

There are two parts of this scene, however, that make us reach for our masks and hand sanitizer: the beginning and the end. Both have the exact same problems for the exact same reasons. They require main cast members to walk through a crowd.

At the beginning, Pacino’s Slade arrives late and must be escorted to the stage by the limo driver Manny (Gene Canfield). This requires that both members of the cast walk down the aisle through the audience. This is not an ideal situation; it would be safer to find another path to the stage. But the ending is far more problematic from a pandemic perspective.

The safety issues with the ending begin when the verdict is read. As soon as Mrs. Hunsaker (June Squibb) finishes reading the disciplinary committee’s decision, the audience erupts into a boisterous standing ovation.

Loud, enthusiastic exclamations are just as good at spreading the virus as coughing. Exclaiming while indoors and unmasked is highly problematic. Having a crowd of hundreds do precisely that, all at the same time, is simply not something we would ever recommend doing during this pandemic. 

Things go from very unsafe to dangerous when our lead actors then walk through this cheering crowd, coming in contact multiple times with the audience members. This is exactly the type of moment we should do everything we can to prevent.

Watching it now is like watching the beginning of an outbreak. There are a few adjustments we can make that would increase the safety of this powerful scene.

Small Tweaks That Increase Safety

Minor tweaks to the blocking at both the beginning and the end of this scene will dramatically affect the scene’s safety while having little effect on its power.

These small adjustments can help make this scene safer to film during a pandemic:

  1. Don’t have Pacino walk through the audience at the beginning. There are several ways to do this. Perhaps a shot from Slade’s POV, not revealing Pacino until the actor is on stage. Or using insert shots of the cane and footsteps down the aisle to suggest Slade’s entrance without exposing Pacino to the mass of people. Murmurs from the audience could flow toward the stage. Or use a combination. These simple adjustments keep our lead actor out of the COVID-19 transmission zone.
  2. Ensure proper ventilation systems are in place.
  3. Shoot the cheering crowd separately from your main actors. This would allow us to remove our lead actors from the location during this germ-spreading event.
  4. Cut the walk through the crowd at the end. We could go from the cheering crowd and close-ups of our lead actors to the exterior for the final moments of the film.
  5. Have our three pranksters—Harry (Nicholas Sadler), Jimmy (Matt Smith), and Trent (Todd Louiso)—standing in the back of the room instead of among the crowd. This would allow these members of our main cast to be socially distant from the background actors.
  6. Schedule this scene as late in your shooting schedule as possible to minimize the potential of an outbreak.

Without drastically changing the scene, we can still increase set safety. Keeping our main actors out of transmission zones, checking the ventilation, eliminating actor-to-background interactions, and moving the scene to the end of the schedule are all possible solutions.

Major Changes That Maximize Safety

Changing this scene in any significant way is a ridiculous suggestion. This scene is one of the most famous speeches in film history. It helped to win Al Pacino an Oscar for best actor. We’re just brainstorming ways to make it safer if we had to film it during this pandemic.

As always, we must consider the worst-case scenarios when assessing risk on a production. With COVID-19, that worst case is death. What if Al Pacino got COVID-19 during this scene and died? Or Chris O’Donnell? Or Phillip Seymour Hoffman?

As we mentioned earlier, the majority of the scene is safe as is. A meeting of the disciplinary committee with all the main cast members in the room, Colonel Slade showing up dramatically late, a rousing speech that brings down the house. All this must be included to preserve the power in this ending.

If we were filming “Scent of a Woman” today—with an eye toward COVID-19 safety—we would take a closer look at this scene during pre-production. Then offer some suggestions to the creative team to find the safest way to shoot it.

To maximize safety, we must do something about that crowd. Looking through the COVID lens, can we find ways to maintain this scene’s power without having our main actors and that crowd breathing the same air?

For example:

  • Could we shoot the master from the back of the room only? From here, we would only see the backs of the heads of the audience. With that view, we could have all the extras wearing masks. This would dramatically increase the safety of the set.
  • Could we shoot the audience separately from the action on the stage? If we shot-out the leads and then sent them home, we could shoot all the audience reaction shots without the actors in the room.
  • Would it be possible to shoot the audience first, put that footage on LED screens, and then film our main actors on a virtual set with the footage behind them?
  • Could we decrease the audience’s size so that only a small portion of the student body is present and broadcast the hearing on a campus-wide video feed?
  • Might we be able to bring back the subterfuge from the beginning of the film and even reintroduce the sneaky use of the PA system? Maybe the hearing is private, only attended by the accused, the headmaster, the three pranksters, and the committee. Perhaps one of the pranksters surreptitiously broadcasts the hearing over the PA system?

Any one of these suggestions—or a combination of them—would maintain the climactic speech’s excitement while significantly increasing on-set safety.  This is one reason we highly recommend on-boarding COVID-19 risk managers during the pre-production process, so these suggestions and decisions can be made early. It will save your production money and time, not to mention lives.

Final Thoughts

It has been twenty-eight years since “Scent of a Woman” first hit theaters. Since then, it has lived a long life on cable, streaming, and actor audition monologues. Despite being born in another century, it manages to be a relatively safe film from a pandemic perspective.

“Scent is a Woman” is a story that revolves around two people. The screenplay contains mostly two- and three-character scenes, making this an easy film to adapt to our current production safety standards.

This Thanksgiving finds many of us isolated due to COVID-19. In many ways, “Scent of a Woman” is a perfect choice for a Thanksgiving film this year. It is about finding a path through the darkness and learning that helping others can bring meaning to our lives. May that be our story this holiday season.

From everyone here at Epitome, we hope you have a safe and Happy Thanksgiving. Join us again in December when we will look through the COVID lens at an unimpeachable Holiday classic: “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

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.