THROUGH THE COVID LENS: Training Day
Reassessing “Training Day” in the Age of Coronavirus
“Training Day” premiered on October 5, 2001 and put Denzel Washington on the fast track to his second Oscar. Directed by Antoine Fuqua from a script by David Ayers, “Training Day” slams the buddy cop genre on its ear. This film replaces the genre’s banter and light-hearted fun with electric tension, in-your-face violence, and a quick-sanding moral dilemma. They might be cops, but these are not buddies.
“Training Day” is a two-hander starring Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke – both at the top of their game. Ethan Hawke stars as rookie cop Jake Hoyt on his first day; paired with veteran narcotics cop Alonzo Harris. What transpires over the course of the next 24 hours can only be described as the worst first day ever.
“Training Day” went on to gross over $100 million worldwide and earned Denzel Washington the Academy Award for Best Actor. AFI named Alonzo Harris one of the 50 Greatest Villains in Film History.
The “King Kong” scene is the culmination of everything this movie is about: What’s right, what’s wrong, what are you willing to do, and whose side are you on?
In this article, we take a closer look at this classic scene with an eye toward COVID-19 safety. We will break it down into three sections:
- Elements that are COVID-19 Safe
- Elements that are COVID-19 Risks
- Small tweaks that increase safety
This article is designed to help you better understand COVID-19 safety by illustrating how pandemic guidelines would have affected one of the most memorable moments in the history of police films. Let’s begin by looking at the ways the “King Kong” scene is already safe.
Elements That Are COVID-19 Safe
Many of the “Training Day” scenes are set in neighborhoods that had the highest crime rates in Los Angeles at the time. Fuqua wanted to shoot this movie in those real-life neighborhoods. Some reports from the production claim that Fuqua had to broker several deals with local gang leaders to shoot in their neighborhoods. As long as Fuqua cast gang members in the movie, the production had permission to film there.
So while Antoine Fuqua and DP Mauro Fiore definitely had safety on their minds when they set up this shot in early 2001, they never thought about pandemic safety. Despite this fact, this scene is remarkably safe:
- Small Cast: This scene may have a crowd of extras in it but it is still predominately a two person scene. Keeping the number of speaking roles down minimizes the number of people in the scene which, in turn, decreases the chances of spreading the coronavirus.
- Isolated Leads: Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke are by themselves in the center of the street with more than enough distance between them and the crowd.
- Zero Contact: This scene has major tension and a jolt of violence. But at no time do any of the actors come in contact with each other. This is a fantastic way to keep everyone safe during a pandemic.
As we have said before, minimizing the cast and keeping them separate from the extras is the best way to shoot a scene if you can. This charged scene from “Training Day” shows that we can still have a big, bombastic scene without sacrificing safety.
This scene is so safe that we would not change anything about what we can see in the scene. The safety issues are all in the things we can’t see.
Elements That Are COVID-19 Risks
What we can’t see is what happens between takes and between set-ups. Often our focus on COVID-19 safety tunnel-visions on the shots themselves. This can open us up to hidden transmission opportunities.
There are several aspects of this scene that give us pause when we think about what happens before “action” and after “cut.” The two most prominent have to do with props and makeup.
There are two props in this scene that are touched by more than one actor: the gun and the badge. But we have already talked about how to safely handle props between actors. The prop we want to focus on here is the pre-set prop: The cigarettes.
Alonzo’s cigarettes are already on the cement before this scene begins and he picks them up halfway through. These cigarettes were likely placed there by a prop person before each take. Denzel then picks them up, puts one in his mouth, and smokes it. This means that at the end of each take, the prop person would take the cigarettes from Denzel and put them back on their mark before they go again.
As we mentioned before (in our discussion of the restaurant scene in “The Godfather”), when we have props that actors put in their mouths, we must be extra careful. In the “King Kong” scene, the cigarettes were likely passed back and forth between our lead actor and the prop person dozens of times.
Furthermore, cigarettes are notorious for creating continuity nightmares for editors. Often an actor will smoke more quickly in one take than in another and the cigarette length will be inconsistent from take to take. But we are not here to talk about continuity errors in editing. We are here to talk about safety, and sometimes continuity, can create safety issues in a pandemic.
With cigarettes, this is especially true. Say we want to begin a take in the middle of a smoking scene. To maintain continuity, productions will sometimes have someone work a cigarette down to match its length at a particular point in the scene (often by clipping the end off). This creates a situation where people are touching a prop that will go directly into our lead’s mouth. Take after take.
In a few instances, we have even seen someone else smoke the cigarette down and then give it to the actor. In non-pandemic times this is gross and unadvisable. In a pandemic, it is downright dangerous and should not happen.
Cigarettes are already health issues for the actors and the crew. But in a pandemic, they are even more of an issue. Think twice – hell, think three times – about using cigarettes in a movie during a pandemic.
Both of our leads are bloody, dirty, and sweaty in this scene. This means that between takes crew members from hair, makeup, and wardrobe rush in to ensure the wounds look right. That the blood is still shiny. They will spray the actors to keep them sweaty, fix their hair if it moved during the previous take. This is a lot of contact between crew members and our lead actors.
This is not a problem if all members of the cast and crew are vaccinated. However, that is sadly not the case. We are already seeing high-profile actors mandating that everyone on a film set is vaccinated. Major television shows and movies have been shut down due to COVID-19 outbreaks among unvaccinated cast and crew.
Until everyone is vaccinated, touch-ups between takes can be a safety issue. In the meantime, let’s look at how we can make things safer.
Small Tweaks That Increase Safety
This is an iconic scene that earned Denzel Washington the Best Actor Oscar that year. We are not suggesting that we can do better than Fuqua, Washington, and Hawke. In fact, this scene cannot get any better. But it can be made a little safer.
We see a few ways to increase safety without making any major changes to this scene. To do so, we obviously must address makeup and cigarettes.
At the beginning of this pandemic, many actors were doing their own makeup and touch-ups. This didn’t last forever. Once production in Hollywood began to return to normal levels, makeup artists returned too. With their return, we have seen a reliance on more durable makeup techniques, such as airbrushing, that allow for fewer touch-ups.
The reverse has also been a trend. Instead of more durable makeup, we have also seen less makeup overall. Either choice would increase safety in this scene.
We would certainly recommend that the production consults with the makeup department about ways to minimize the need for touch-ups. We should strive to make our sets as contact-free as we can. By using either more robust applications or less makeup overall, we could reduce several repeat contact points in this scene.
We would strongly suggest that the cigarettes be eliminated in this scene. We would advocate for their elimination from the movie altogether as they present a considerable pandemic safety issue. We know, however, that we will probably fail in that larger goal. Smoking is a big part of Denzel’s characterization of Alonzo.
We would, however, try to reduce the number of scenes that involve smoking. The fewer smoking scenes, the safer this movie becomes. In this particular scene, we think there is a more powerful prop that we can substitute for the cigarettes: Alonzo’s badge.
Instead of reaching down to pick up his cigarettes, Alonzo could reach down to pick up his badge. The character doesn’t keep his badge clipped to his belt like most cops; he keeps it on a loose chain around his neck.
In the action scene that preceded this moment, Alonzo’s badge could have easily ended up on the ground. With this small change, the scene becomes more powerful, and we introduce the badge more organically.
As this scene is currently shot, the camera has to pan down to remind us that Alonzo wears his badge on a chain. Then Hoyt yanks it off his neck. By replacing the cigarettes with his badge, we can establish this moment with more dramatic tension and increase the symbolism: Alonzo has lost his badge. He finds it and tries to reclaim it, only to have it taken away from him.
We know that having Denzel drape his badge-necklace around his neck might remind viewers of “Crimson Tide” when Denzel defiantly put the missile-key around his neck. But we are willing to risk that comparison to increase the safety of this scene.
The safest way to film this scene today is to have a 100% vaccination rate among the cast and crew. We strongly recommend that everyone on your film set get their shots well before production begins.
Until we can achieve full vaccination on our film sets, we must remain vigilant in the face of COVID-19. Alonzo might think that King Kong is no match for him, but neither one of them stands a chance against the coronavirus. Join us next time when we look through the COVID lens – and through a shaky cam – at the action-packed “The Bourne Ultimatum.”
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.