THROUGH THE COVID LENS: When Harry Met Sally…
Reassessing “When Harry Met Sally…” in the Age of Coronavirus
1989’s “When Harry Met Sally…” is considered one of the greatest romantic comedies of all time. It is also a great sick day movie and a wonderful film to watch during the pandemic.
Written by Nora Ephron, directed by Rob Reiner, and starring Billy Crystal, Meg Ryan, Bruno Kirby, and Carrie Fisher, “When Harry Met Sally…” was filmed on location in New York City in the summer and fall of 1988.
Ranked #6 on AFI’s Top Romantic Comedy list, this film is bursting at the seams with quotable lines and unforgettable scenes. From the opening car scene that introduces the driving premise of the movie, the airport scene, and “No one’s ever quoted me back to me before” to the wagon-wheel coffee table, recurring dreams, and the beautiful, heartfelt ending, “When Harry Met Sally…” is as perfect and cozy a watch as you can find.
So, put on your comfy pants, pop some popcorn, and snuggle up with us as we look through the COVID lens at “When Harry Met Sally…”
The first thing we notice when we look at this classic rom-com is how safe it already is. The vast majority of the movie is scenes between only main cast members.
They are in a car together, walking down near-empty sidewalks together, in apartments alone (and together), walking alone through the park, alone through museums, at batting cages, bookstores, and restaurants. The stars of the film rarely interact with anyone who is not part of the main cast.
As we highlighted in our article on script breakdowns, a great way to maximize safety is to minimize the cast in any given scene. “When Harry Met Sally…” does just that for nearly the entire film.
Even more impressive from a COVID-19 safety standpoint is that when the main cast is not alone, they are still pretty safe. The blocking, the actors’ position, and their distance from the camera in those scenes keeps everyone at an acceptable distance.
A great example of this is the wedding reception scene. This should be a transmission zone nightmare, but it isn’t. The actors are isolated from the wedding guests and the lens on the camera is long enough to keep the camera crew far from the actors. We discuss this very strategy in our article on shot lists.
This movie was filmed long before anyone worried about pandemic safety on set and yet, because of a well-structured script, clever blocking, and extraordinary lens selection, “When Harry Met Sally…” would have been a surprisingly safe film shoot in the COVID-19 era.
As we have mentioned before, it is an excellent idea to onboard your COVID-19 Certified Risk Managers during the pre-production process. This way, the risk assessors can help your creative team identify potentially dangerous elements in your scripts. If “When Harry Met Sally…” were shot today, during this pandemic, three scenes would jump out at us for their lack of proper pandemic safety considerations.
Those three scenes are:
- The White Man’s Overbite – Harry and Sally on a crowded airplane.
- Mr. Zero Knew – Harry and Jess at a packed football game.
- I’ll Have What She’s Having – Harry and Sally in a busy deli.
All three share the same major safety issues: too many people in a tight space, with too little distance. To help us understand more about COVID-19 safety, let’s analyze one of these scenes (though the issues and solutions could easily apply to all three).
Since “The White Man’s Overbite” is the first of the three to appear in the film, we’ll use it as our test case. Let’s take a look at this subtly brilliant scene and see what makes it dangerous and what we might be able to do to make it safer.
The White Man’s Overbite
In this early scene, Harry sits next to Sally on an airplane, and the two get reacquainted after five years apart. What makes this scene special is how it subtly subverts audience expectations.
At this point, our two main characters’ lives are intersecting again, so the expectation is that they will get together this time. But this is not that kind of movie, and this scene demonstrates just how clever a script this is.
Harry pushes his way into the seat next to Sally, but there is still no spark between them. She’s in a relationship, and he’s preparing to get married. She finds him repulsive, and he doesn’t really seem to care. It is a fantastic scene that shows the passage of time and the maturation of these characters.
Right off the bat, we can see that some elements of this scene are on the right track for on-set pandemic safety.
Elements That Are COVID-19 Safe:
- Limited speaking roles: Only four characters speak in this scene—the flight attendant, the man in the seat, Harry, and Sally. This keeps the essential character list to a minimum, which maximizes safety.
- Emphasis on the main cast: This is almost exclusively a two-person scene, which allows us to minimize the number of people on set.
- Shot Selection: The shots in this scene are simple. They alternate between two-shots and singles. Simple shots require fewer crew members to set up, allowing us to minimize on-set crew.
These are all elements that we would keep if we shot this scene today. We would, however, want to address some risky aspects of this scene.
Elements that are COVID-19 Risks:
- The setting: This is an enclosed location with tight spacing. There is not adequate space for proper distancing and airflow.
- The number of extras: There are simply too many people in this scene to safely shoot it without risking contamination, transmission, and infection.
- The proximity of the extras: Not only are there too many people in the scene, the extras are too near our stars.
If we had to shoot this scene today, we would ask the creative team a few strategic questions to help identify safer choices:
- Does the scene need to be packed? If we can dramatically reduce the number of people on the plane, we can reduce the likelihood of contamination. The humor in this scene doesn’t hinge on the flight being crowded, so this should be an easy adjustment.
- Can we further isolate the stars? In addition to reducing the number of passengers, we would emphasize putting space between the extras and the main cast. This scene doesn’t require the leads to interact with the extras, so the scene wouldn’t be negatively impacted if the flight were near-empty and the leads had no one around them.
- Can we lower the camera? If we lower the camera so that we only show the tops of the other passengers’ heads, we can allow those extras to wear masks throughout the scene. This would substantially increase safety.
- Can we move to a safer location? There are few places more cramped than airplanes, even fake ones. We’d suggest moving the scene to an alternate location, one that would allow for maximum safety. When possible in a pandemic, it is always best to set your scenes outside, simplify the locations, and maximize social distancing in each scene. In this case, could we move this scene to a sleepy courtyard restaurant? Or maybe a sparsely attended rooftop, movie theatre? Both are still awkward places to reconnect, but both are far safer than an airplane.
If we couldn’t reset the scene in a safer location, we’d ensure that there is a proper ventilation system in place and that proper PPE safety was observed between takes. By taking the time during pre-production to iron out these safety issues, we can keep production on schedule and outbreak-free.
“When Harry Met Sally…” is by far the safest classic we have looked at in this series so far. By the very design of its story, this film manages to create a dynamic romantic comedy that consists almost exclusively of scenes that involve only the main cast in isolated situations.
In the rare instances when the movie has larger scenes, the technical aspects of the filmmaking help keep the stars and crew safe from exposure. The three scenes that are risky to film in the COVID-19 era can be made safe without detracting from the story or negatively impacting the comedy.
“When Harry Met Sally…” is a classic rom-com that can serve as a reminder to all of us that making a great movie doesn’t necessarily require elaborate productions. A great script, careful casting, talented actors, and simple direction are more than enough to build a movie that stands the test of time.
Please stay safe, and we’ll see you again soon when we look Through the Covid Lens at one of the greatest films of all time: “The Godfather.”
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.