THROUGH THE COVID LENS: Three Men and a Baby
Reassessing “Three Men and a Baby” in the Age of Coronavirus
For evidence of just how much the movie industry has changed, look no further than “Three Men and a Baby.” On a budget of $11 million ($27 million in 2022), this Leonard Nimoy directed comedy went on to become the highest grossing movie of 1987, raking in a whopping $240 million (over half a billion in 2022).
Based on the Oscar-nominated French film “Three Men and a Cradle,” “Three Men and a Baby” was the first live-action movie at Disney to pull in over $100 million dollars at the box office. That’s right, the company that now owns Marvel, Star Wars, Pixar, and Avatar – live-action properties that routinely bank billions – had its first $100 million box office with a little comedy about three bachelors who have to take care of a baby.
“Three Men and a Baby” stars two of television’s most famous leading men at the time – Tom Selleck from “Magnum P.I.” and Ted Danson from mega-hit “Cheers” – and bankable 1980’s comedy star Steve Guttenberg who was in the middle of one of the busiest runs of any actor in the post-studio era. In four years – from 1984 to 1988 – Guttenberg starred of nine feature films.
Thirty-five years ago, this 80’s gem was released and spent a now unthinkable five months in movie theaters. It was even brought back to theaters for both Memorial Day and the 4th of July weekends. This much-loved movie has recently gained a new generation of fans due to near constant play on Disney+, resulting in Disney announcing a remake starring Zack Ephron.
So, put on your best 80’s outfit, tease your hair, and let’s look through the COVID lens at 1987’s blockbuster comedy, “Three Men and a Baby.”
To illustrate how pandemic guidelines and restrictions would affect this classic, we’ve broken things down into three parts:
- They’re Ultra-absorbent: What Makes This Movie Safe
- A Doodle: Pandemic Risks in “Three Men and a Baby”
- The Minute I Saw You: The Impact of Montage
They’re Ultra-Absorbent: What Makes This Movie Safe
When Leonard Nimoy began production on “Three Men and a Baby” (TM+B) in April of 1987, he wasn’t thinking about pandemic safety and yet the film has several aspects that make it COVID-19 safe. Let’s look at three major reasons why:
- Cast Size
- The Apartment
The title says it all: this is a movie about three men and a baby. The cast involves little more than a handful of additional characters and most of the scenes are between Selleck’s Peter Mitchell, Guttenberg’s Michael Kellam, and twins Lisa and Michelle Blair’s baby Mary.
That is a considerably small cast, especially for a movie that went on to become a blockbuster and the highest grossing movie of its year. That title usually falls to a large, big-budget film (at least it does these days).
By keeping the cast small, Nimoy and company could keep the number of people on set to a manageable level. This is a great way to increase pandemic safety.
Contrary to urban legend, the Manhattan apartment where they filmed TM+B was not haunted. Not only was it not haunted, it was not in Manhattan and it wasn’t even an apartment. This enviable penthouse was actually a set built on a soundstage.
As we have mentioned many times before in this series, soundstages are safer than filming on-location. They already limit the people who can access your set. Soundstages have state of the art ventilation systems, and they allow you to build your location however you like.
By building this set on a soundstage, the creative team was able to increase safety because the size of the rooms is changeable. Walls can easily be moved. This allows the cast and crew to maintain proper social distancing as often as possible.
The majority of TM+B was filmed in Toronto. The soundstage mentioned above was on a lot in Ontario, Canada. Canada still has strict entrance requirements that have left many productions – not to mention sports franchises – without important personnel.
The choice to film in Canada makes TM+B safer simply by riding the safety coattails of Canada herself. These strict protocols have allowed Canada to remain one of the least-hard-hit nations with only 42K deaths from COVID-19 thus far. For context, the United States has a death toll of well over a million.
By keeping the cast small, filming on a soundstage, and shooting in Canada, the makers of TM+B significantly increase their pandemic safety. These three choices allowed them to limit on-set personnel, maximize indoor distancing by moving walls when needed, and piggy-back on Canada’s impressive COVID-19 safety record.
But this doesn’t mean “Three Men and a Baby” was as safe as it could be. Let’s look at a few ways it could be safer.
A Doodle: Pandemic Risks in “Three Men and a Baby”
We would like to highlight two major COVID-19 safety issues in TM+B:
- The Birthday Bash
- Baby Mary
The Birthday Bash
The party that opens the film is a packed gathering of extras. We might not think of Tom Selleck as famous now, but the man was such a famous heartthrob in the 1980s that when production put out a notice for 100 female extras to populate this opening party scene, 5,000 women showed up.
Wisely – both then and now – the producers only used the 100 they needed and didn’t cram even more bodies into this scene.
While the studio lot soundstage does increase safety, it doesn’t increase it enough to allow us to film this large a crowd indoors. To increase the safety of this scene we would ask strategic questions of the creative team in an effort to get them to ratchet up the pandemic safety.
- Can the penthouse have a large outdoor patio? This is a fake location so it can have whatever floorplan the production wants it to have. By adding a patio, production could film the majority of the party scenes outside, thereby increasing air circulation and decreasing the chances the coronavirus spreads.
- Can the lead actors be somewhat removed from the crowd? If we can keep our leads from interacting with the large crowd of extras, we can decrease the chances that our leads contract COVID-19. This will help us avoid a costly shutdown and a keep us on schedule.
- Can we film the extras and the leads at different times? As we highlighted in our article on “The West Wing,” it is possible to film large crowd scenes in a way that keeps the main actors out of the danger zone.
More outdoor time and less interaction between the leads and the extras would help to make this potentially risky scene safer.
As we highlighted in our Through the COVID Lens article on “Harry Potter,” child actors bring a whole slew of additional safety issues with them, even when not filming during a pandemic. Shooting a movie with an infant is even more complicated.
Due to production child labor laws that limit the amount of time you can have a baby on set, most productions choose to cast twins to double the time they can film. To cast the role of Mary, Nimoy looked at two hundred sets of twins before casting Lisa and Michelle Blair.
Filming infants in a pandemic is even more complicated.
For starters, the COVID-19 vaccines for children 6 months to 5 years old was only recently authorized. But it is not an instantaneous process. For infants it is a three-shot system that can take as long as three months to complete.
Getting an infant vaccinated for a production, obviously, requires parental consent and this can limit the pool of babies to choose from. The vaccination process can add time and money to the production budget.
Shooting with an infant – vaccinated or unvaccinated – requires that the production be extra careful about sanitation on days the baby will be on set. For infants, fevers are often an emergency.
We would encourage the production to limit the number of scenes that require an actual baby on set and further limit the number of actors that need to interact with the baby. By limiting the baby’s days on set and the number of people she must interact with, we can make the baby’s time on set safer.
The Minute I Saw You: The Impact of Montage
“Three Men and a Baby” has three amazing montages backed by 1980’s pop hits.
- The opening credits montage that showcases the playboy status of our three bachelors set to Miami Sound Machine’s “Bad Boy.”
- After the drug subplot is resolved and the foursome have gelled into a makeshift family, there is a montage set to Peter Cetera’s “Daddy’s Girl.”
- At the end of the film, John Parr’s “The Minute I Saw You” plays over a mini montage that showcases Sylvia’s incorporation into the new—and now complete— family unit.
Put several images or short shots in sequence and you have a montage. Add a pop song and you have a music montage.
Montage has been around since the early days of cinema, but the music montage seems to have reached its peak in the 1980s. Looking back on that decade now, it appears that every film from that era had at least one music montage. The rise of MTV during that decade likely played a role here.
Since that peak, music montages have fallen out of favor. Today, if they are used at all, montages are often trotted out to spoof 80s films. But it’s time to bring back the music montage.
In the COVID-19 era, music montages make movies safer and these three montages from TM+B offer perfect examples of how that is possible.
Each of the three montages in TM+B are masterclasses in narrative efficiency and the power of visuals over dialog. Let’s look at the opening montage a little more closely.
The Opening Montage
TM+B must introduce us to three characters, their home, their daily routines, their careers, and relationships before the baby arrives and turns things upside down. That is a lot of work to do in an opening and Nimoy and company make it look easy through a well-edited and paced montage.
What could have taken twenty to thirty minutes in lesser hands is perfectly established in just two minutes. And all without dialog.
This efficiency is not only in the viewing, but in the filming as well.
When you know you are filming a piece of a music montage, you know you are filming without sound and that you are only capturing the briefest of moments that will then be cut together with other clips. In this case, you don’t need to have any sound crew members on set for those shooting days.
Furthermore, montages help you wrap faster because you are not filming pages and pages of dialog, or a complex action scene. You are grabbing short, little moments.
Montage has been around for a hundred years but its importance as in instrument of safety is only evident in the light of the pandemic.
“Three Men and a Baby” is a comedy classic that set a box office record at Disney. It has endured through the decades in part because it has three perfect lead performance from Selleck, Danson, and Guttenberg.
If we had to shoot TM+B in a pandemic we would keep the cast size small, shoot it in a soundstage, and use the added protection of Canada’s pandemic safety protocols. We would also help the creative team minimize the large indoor scenes by moving some of it outside and limiting contact between our leads and the extras. We’d help the production navigate the issues associated with casting an infant during a pandemic. Lastly, we would encourage their use of montage as a great way to increase production safety.
TM+B remains a streaming hit 35 years later because it is surprisingly progressive for what—on paper—is a dated 80s movie. The plot outline sounds like it would have aged badly. And there are certainly some parts that don’t cut the mustard in 2022, but as Diane Shipley said for BitchMedia: “Three Men and a Baby” says something that is seen in some quarters, even today, as “a controversial opinion: that men can enjoy and excel at parenting, even if the child isn’t genetically their own, and that love comes in all kinds of packages. For that, it should be celebrated.”
Join us next time when we go the distance and look through the COVID lens at “Field of Dreams” just in time for MLB’s Field of Dreams game.
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.