‘Connecting’ Creators on How to Create Intimate TV Comedy During a Pandemic

     October 15, 2020

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From executive producers Martin Gero and Brendan Gall, the NBC ensemble comedy Connecting follows a group of friends who are trying to understand and navigate life during a pandemic. Staying close through video chats is no easy feat for these seven friends, as they try to maintain their relationships while sharing the highs and lows that they’re individually experiencing.

During this phone interview with Collider, co-creators Martin Gero and Brendan Gall talked about what made them want to do a TV series set in a pandemic while we’re still in that pandemic, the challenges in going into production so quickly, establishing chemistry amongst an ensemble cast that isn’t in the same room together, the moment they realized all of this would actually work, the back-up plan for technical difficulties, why it was important to clearly state the day each episode is set during, and how they’re thinking ahead to other possible seasons.

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Image via NBC

Collider: What was it that made you guys want to and decide to do a TV series set in a pandemic while we’re still in a pandemic? Did you spend a lot of time thinking about how to make it appealing to people?

MARTIN GERO: Sure, yeah. For us, it was a couple of things. Brendan and I are very lucky that we have a very tight friend group here in Los Angeles that we have Sunday night dinners with, just like the cast on the show. A crazy thing happened when the pandemic hit, which was that we actually started talking more. We felt the need to reach out to each other a lot more and we’re having these Zoom hang-outs, where we’re having these very profound but also very hilarious conversations. Both Brendan and I were like, “This is a show, and it’s a show that we could do right now while everyone needs a job and we need to get people back to work, and it could also speak to the moment that we’re in.” Everything that I was watching suddenly started to feel like sci-fi or nostalgia, so it was an exciting opportunity to do something. Whenever something interesting and funny is happening in your life and it’s not on TV, that’s when you have to be like, “Oh, that’s a show.” We also love single room sitcoms, like Cheers or All in the Family or The Jeffersons, so to be able to do a modern version of that was thrilling for us.

Have you guys watched other quarantine-produced productions that were made over the last few months? Did you want to see what they did, good and bad, and learn from them?

BRENDAN GALL: We watched a couple of specials that came out, from some of the reunion episodes for things that were over Zoom. There was a show on Apple called Mythic Quest that did a really great Zoom episode. It was important for us to see that it could work. Obviously, we had our own ideas about how we wanted to tackle it, technically and story-wise, but it was nice to see that there were examples out there that showed the format could work.

GERO: We’re all going through it, at the moment, and it’s nice to see yourself reflected in media. It’s nice to know that what you’re feeling is not isolated to you and that you are part of a bigger community that’s all going through this. This show is a huge opportunity for catharsis and healing, all while having a good laugh, at the same time.

How quickly from starting to talk about this show did you actually end up in production and shooting the show?

GERO: It feels like we’ve made the show overnight. It’s been very fast and hard and amazing. We pitched it in the middle of June, and they picked it up at the end of June. Sixty days later, we had a locked cut of the first episode. It moved very, very fast.

What are the challenges in going into production so quickly on something?

GALL: It’s not just about quick, it’s also about new. It would be one thing if we were going quickly into production on something that we all recognize, but this is a completely new way of making a television show, and it was fast and there was no template. Also, it’s incredibly exposed, just the nature of a Zoom call. There’s no pulling someone aside, really. You can have breakout rooms, but for the most part, to be efficient, you need to be having these conversations together in real time and moving through challenges and troubleshooting. So, the biggest challenge and the biggest asset has just been really curating a group – a crew, a cast and a writers’ room – that is collaborative, patient, kind, respectful and game. In a lot of ways, it feels like a small theater production that happens to be taking place on a network television show. We’re all making this together, we’re all rolling our sleeves up, and mistakes are made. We just learn as we go. We pick ourselves up and we pick each other up and we just keep moving forward, making this very, very special new thing.

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Image via NBC

What’s it like to establish chemistry among an ensemble that are supposed to be good friends and have this history with each other, and yet the actors can’t be in the same room?

GALL: The cool thing about it is that actors know what their job is and smart actors, of which we have many – all of them – realize that exact challenge. They need to create a sense of shared history and intimacy that didn’t exist and never existed. In this case, they couldn’t even occupy the same physical space. And so, our cast, very smartly and instinctively, just gravitated towards each other and got tight very, very quickly. They text each other constantly on a group text and they call each other. Even when we’re shooting, because they’re all having to exist in a very different way of working where they have to be crew members too, they are incredibly supportive of each other and protective of each other in the process, in terms of giving room to each other and being there for each other for the performance. They’ve just risen to the challenge and ironically gelled and have gotten closer to each other, as a cast, than I’ve really ever witnessed before.

The other cool thing about the way that we shoot the show, and it’s a testament to our other director Linda Mendoza, who has a huge comedy resumé, is that she said we can’t shoot the show in a classic coverage style, taking turns. These guys all have to get their cameras up and going. In a seven person scene, we have to be able to shoot seven cameras at once, so that they can be responding to each other and spontaneity can occur, happy accidents can occur, and real listening can occur. They’re not in the same physical space but they are all responding to each other, literally. Every single take is a take of everybody responding to each other. In that way, it is the most together we’ll ever see a cast on television.

Did you both have a moment where you realized that it was actually going to work?

GERO: Oh, yeah, definitely. Just so you know, before that moment comes, comes the opposite moment, which is, what have we done? The hubris to think that we could do this. The first night of shooting, we didn’t get a shot off for eight hours, and it was just a two-hander scene with two cameras up. We were like, “Oh, no, we’re in trouble. This will never work.” There was just a very steep learning curve. Within a week, we’d gotten most of the bugs and gremlins out of the system. Finally seeing the show cut together for the first time, it was remarkable how quickly the Zoom part of it fades away, and how you stop thinking about the visual language of the show and you’re just engaged with the performers. That speaks greatly to the writing and the incredible writers that we have but also these phenomenal actors that are able to breathe life into this very, very difficult shoot.

What is it like to work with a whole group of actors who are also really their own crew members because they’re dealing with the set design, the lighting, the wardrobe and all of these things that they don’t normally have to deal with and you don’t normally have to deal with actors on? What has that been like to adjust to?

GERO: They’ve mostly been great. It’s exhausting for them. The second we cut, before they have a moment to be like, “Okay, how did I do? What about my acting?,” we’re immediately like, “That was great. You need to reset the light. That picture is crooked. You need to maybe close those drapes. Let’s take a look at your hair. It’s got a stray.” I’m a bit of a NASA buff and it’s very much like communicating with an astronaut, where you’re very far away from them and you have an entire team that needs them to do things. We came up very quickly with a structure of how to talk and communicate to them, in a way where it’s not nine people at once but we go through one thing at a time. We’re still shooting 12-hour days but we’re really only rolling cameras for like three or four of it. The rest is just set up because it just takes longer when there’s only one person on the set to help every department.

GALL: And when we’re rolling on cameras, they’re rolling on everyone, so it takes forever to get set up. But then, when you hit action, it just crackles because everybody comes to life, simultaneously. The thing that surprised me, and I think it surprised Martin too, was that we have these group scenes that are intimidating to write. To keep seven characters alive in a scene and interweaving with each other is a challenge, writing-wise. When you have a seven-person scene to block on a set, it can be a huge headache to make it feel dynamic and shoot it in an interesting way that doesn’t just feel like a bunch of characters standing in a line. But this show comes alive in those big groups. This show is electric in those big groups because they are all existing together. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen.

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Image via NBC

When you’re working with actors who are shooting on iPhones and you’re using Zoom, is there a back-up plan for if you have technical difficulties and things just won’t work?

GERO: The incredible thing about this crew is that we are prepared for that, for the most part. We don’t send the actors one phone, we send them ten. We don’t send one mic, we send multiples. They really thought ahead. The crew is a very experienced crew. Our sound guy, Akash [Singh], sent actors scissors to cut their double-sided tape because he didn’t wanna assume that every actor owned a pair of scissors and, guess what, he was right. And he sent WD-40, in case the chairs that they were sitting in got a little squeaky. What makes somebody a great crew member is being able to anticipate. They were able to bring decades of wisdom and distill it down to these little kits for the crew. It’s very hard, for instance, for us to judge focus on these cameras, just with the way that we’re monitoring them, so there were days where it comes back and you’re like, “That’s out of focus. We have to shoot that again.” Sometimes there are technical problems where, at a certain point, you’re like, “Okay, I guess we’re not shooting this guy today. We’ll have to just come back and pick his lines up on another day.” But honestly, that has happened very rarely. We’ve been able to overcome most of our technical gremlins, even though it takes some time.

Why was it important to make it clear exactly what days these episodes were set during?

GALL: For us, there was no denying the year that this television show is taking place in. It’s not a show that’s universal and that could be in any year, at any time. It’s happening in 2020. And so, by extension, to do a show that takes place in 2020 and not acknowledge all of the things happening in 2020 would have been doing everyone a great injustice. We wanted to embrace this thing that we don’t normally get to do, which is to exist in the most specific moment in time possible. The idea of doing shows that take place on a specific date grew out of that. If this thing is not gonna travel for two thousand years and feel like it was shot yesterday, then let’s exist exactly in the moment we say we’re existing in. That’s exciting.

GERO: On top of that, we didn’t want the pilot to feel tone deaf, when it comes out whenever it was gonna come out. The pilot is set in March, and the vibe in March was very different than the vibe whenever the show was gonna be released. We initially thought September, and it’s now October. It was a good way to communicate to the audience, “Hey, remember when we were here, how it was a little different?” And also, we’re dealing with some issues that happened at very specific moments, and we wanted to be very clear with the audience about where we were at every time.

You always hear that it’s better to show than to explain with story, but you can’t really do that with this kind of a thing. What are the challenges in telling a story and keeping people interested in that story when your characters really just have to talk about it and explain it?

GERO: That’s never been the case in half-hour comedy, in the olden days. All in the Family dealt with such a myriad of issues, and they were always able to figure out a way to bring it into that living room and dining room. Same with Cheers, and so many other shows. Even in early seasons of Seinfeld, they would talk about all of this incredible off-camera stuff and it was some of my favorite parts of the show. The way that most of us experience the world, if we weren’t there when the thing happened, we talk about it with our friends afterwards. So, it felt very organic and not necessarily an encumbrance to not physically be there.

GALL: The show has physical comedy and visual comedy within it, as well. Our frames are smaller than other frames but that’s the instruction that we love to live in. It’s about, “What’s the sight gag or the hilarious physical bit that happens in this closet or in this laundry room, or wherever we happen to be shooting the character’s scene in that episode?” The fun of it is, “How do you build dynamics within a show that has that small frame?”

Now that you know what this show can be, what impresses you about what the cast has done?

GALL: The impressive thing to me is that this is performance in a way that they’ve never had to exist before. There is no downtime for them. When they are not performing, they are a crew member and they’re making adjustments. There’s no us and them on this show. There’s no cast and crew, in the way that classically there would be. There’s a humility in all of it. The crew has an enormous respect for the cast and what they have to carry, and the cast has had such an eye-opening experience to be let into all of these departments and seeing what goes into what makes this camera-ready, in ways that are intentionally kept invisible from cast members on a typical film set. You try to keep problems away from cast members, so that they can deal with their characters and their performances, and we just can’t do that in this show. It is an altogether new vibe, and that has been what’s been most beautiful for me to watch. We’re all embracing this lovely, wonderful mess that we’re in together, as we wade through it and make this incredible new thing out of it.

Is it challenging to think ahead to what you might do for future seasons because you don’t know how the world might evolve and shift between now and then?

GERO: Well, yes and no. I have full confidence that we’re gonna need to talk about stuff after the election. There are going to be things that we’re going through. There are going to be things where we will be deeply thankful that we have a close group of friends to unpack things with. That’s what this show is about. It is a safe way to be with your friends in moments when you’re feeling isolated and in moments when you’re feeling alone. This show is about connecting, and our need to connect will extend long after the pandemic is over.

Connecting airs on Thursday nights on NBC.

Christina Radish is a Senior Reporter of Film, TV, and Theme Parks for Collider. You can follow her on Twitter @ChristinaRadish.

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