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


Reassessing “Swingers” in the Age of Coronavirus

Photo Credit: MIRAMAX

On October 18th, 1996,  the indie-classic “Swingers” was released. In the twenty-five years since it has become one of the most quotable movies of all time. “Swingers” launched the careers of Vince Vaughn, John Favreau, Ron Livingston, Heather Graham, and director Doug Liman.

Filmed in just 18 days on a budget of only $200,000, “Swingers” went on to gross over $4 million dollars at the box office. It gained a word-of-mouth buzz that led to long-running success on the home video market and helped to springboard the late-90’s swing-dance craze.  

Written in two weeks by John Favreau, “Swingers” was shot in and around the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles. Most of the now-iconic locations used in the film have closed down: twelve years ago, The Derby became a bank, and the 101 Coffee Shop closed this year. But The Dresden Room is still around (though Marty and Elayne have yet to return due to COVID-19 safety issues).

“Swingers” is filled to the brim with so many quotable moments and unforgettable scenes that we can’t list them all here. A highlight reel would have to include: “You are so money baby,” “This place is dead anyway,” “Vegas Baby!” “double down,” the brother audition scene, the bear vs. bunny scene, the answering machine meltdown, and the wonderful ending.

It is no wonder that “Swingers” has remained a zeitgeist-staple for the last quarter-century. Let’s take a closer look at this classic indie comedy 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 “Swingers.” Let’s begin by looking at the ways this film is already safe.

Elements That Are COVID-19 Safe

When Doug Liman began production twenty-five years ago in Los Angeles, he was not thinking of COVID-19 safety. In fact, the budget was so tight he couldn’t even get on-set coffee. Nevertheless, the film has many aspects that are safe from a pandemic safety perspective.

We want to highlight three areas that will help keep any set safe from COVID-19:

  • Small Scenes
  • Minimal Crew
  • Short Shooting Schedule

Let’s look at each of them and see how they can make things safer.  

Small Scenes

The “Swingers” script develops the dynamics between characters through one-on-one scenes or small group scenes. By pairing off the characters, we see their specific relationships and personalities more clearly. This intimacy increases the impact of big scenes with the full cast (more on those later) because we know the tensions and quirks of each of the friends.

This strategy also increases safety on set. By keeping the cast size down, we can minimize our lead actors’ exposure to potentially infected sources. It also allows us to easily maintain proper distancing.

Intimate scenes with a small cast go hand in glove with a small crew.

Minimal Crew

With only $200,000 to spend, “Swingers” was a movie made with a skeleton crew. It is one of the rare films with a larger cast than crew.

This was a bare-bones operation. The production offices were in Liman’s house, and most of the background actors were unpaid, non-actors (more on this in a moment). While this tiny crew came from necessity, it also serves to make the set a safer place.

The protocols and procedures necessary to create the multiple safety tiers on a film set require testing everyone multiple times per week. It requires monitoring the number of people and equipment that enter the innermost bubble of the set. With large crews, this adds time to our schedules and drains money from our budgets.

By keeping the crew small, “Swingers” would have maintained the run-and-gun schedule they needed to make this film on their budget without necessarily decreasing safety.

Short Shooting Schedule

One effective way to increase safety in a pandemic is to decrease exposure to COVID-19. The longer we are exposed, the more likely we could become infected.

Principal photography is the most dangerous time during a film, far more problematic than pre-production or post-production. The sooner we can wrap filming, the sooner we can move to safer ground.

“Swingers” was shot in only 18 days. That is an insanely quick period of time to shoot a movie. Still, if you can pull it off safely, it is a wonderfully short window of exposure.

The budgetary constraints of “Swingers” dictated the majority of these safety-enhancing procedures. Little money meant small crews, a small cast, and a quick shoot. If we had to shoot this movie during the pandemic, we would try to replicate those three elements to maintain a safe set.

But “Swingers” also has some serious safety issues to consider.

Elements That Are COVID-19 Risks

Quick shoots can lead to lax safety, and that is certainly the case in “Swingers.” While many of the scenes are small, several scenes are anything but; house parties, bar scenes, and dance clubs. These locations are problematic for several reasons:

  • Crowds:  Large groups are still one of the riskiest places to be during a pandemic. The bar/club/party scenes all have several dozen extras in them.
  • Indoor locations: All of these scenes are also indoors. The movie does a great job of setting several pivotal, funny scenes outside. But there are still many indoor scenes with large groups of people. The CDC has consistently warned against large, indoor gatherings. Movie sets should follow the CDC’s guidelines whenever possible.
  • Non-actor extras: The budget was so tight that the production couldn’t afford to close down locations. Instead, they posted signs that warned customers that they could potentially be on camera. This is extremely risky in a pandemic because it is difficult to accurately ascertain the COVID-19 status of people we haven’t hired.
  • No location control: Not being able to shut down a location is the opposite of location control. In a pandemic, we must control each and every location to ensure maximum safety. “Swingers” had no location control at all.

This is a movie centered around the club, bar, dating scene of late ‘90s Los Angeles. These problematic scenes are integral to the story, so we must figure out how to make them safer.

Strategies to Increase Safety

We are not trying to say that we could do a better job than Doug Liman and company; “Swingers” is a classic that still holds up today. We are simply looking at how COVID-19 would affect the production of one of the best indie-comedies of all time.

With such a low-budget, we would have to rely on the same strategies the production used back in 1996, namely shooting at friends’ houses and locations where we know the owners will let us shoot for free. These two stipulations save a lot of money but they don’t have to mean skimping on safety.

As always, we would be sure to point out these large scenes in pre-production and assist the creative team in devising strategies to shoot them safely. Those strategies might include:

  • Shooting outdoors: One of the many reasons people move to LA in droves every year is the weather. We should be able to find houses with nice, open backyards to film the house party scenes. LA is also home to many restaurants and clubs that have outdoor areas. We would try to hone in on those to keep our cast and crew in the safest possible locations.
  • B-roll the crowd: Send a second unit (outfitted with proper PPE) to shoot crowded bars and clubs without the cast or the full crew. This will minimize the production exposure to COVID-19. With that footage captured, we can shoot our cast separately, in safety. Post-production editing and sound design can make the b-roll and the cast scenes look like the same location on the same night.

By finding locations that allow for outdoor shooting and separating the crowds from the cast, we should be able to approximate the authenticity of the original film while increasing the safety of the production.

Final Thoughts

“Swingers” was able to capture the vibe of late ‘90s LA party culture by shooting at live LA party locations. This gives the film its signature verisimilitude. The run-and-gun style of ‘90s independent film imbues that era’s movies with a lived-in quality that few eras since have been able to match. But that verisimilitude comes at a price – especially during a worldwide outbreak – and that price is safety.

When we look at “Swingers” now, twenty-five years later – and through the thick glass of this pandemic – we can see plenty of opportunities to increase safety. By keeping the cast and crew small and the schedule short, we can minimize exposure. By aiming for outdoor locations and crowd/cast separation, we can maximize safety.

“Swingers” is a time capsule of a by-gone era. Both the happy-go-lucky world of late 20th-century life and the scrappy realm of ‘90s independent film are both long gone now. But like all time capsules, it can teach us a few things:

  • A classic movie can be made on an ultra-low budget.
  • Budgetary constraints can be creative opportunities.
  • Making a movie with your friends can be more than just a vanity project.
  • You should always double down on an eleven.

Join us on the week of Halloween for the 20th anniversary celebration of a pop-culture phenomenon when we look through the COVID lens at “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.”  

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.