Recently I chatted with Matt Miller, a Chicago-based industry professional who has been working in the arts for more than twenty years. Here he discusses navigating jobs through a pandemic and his thoughts on the future of theatre and tv/film production.
What is your job title?
I'm a director. Plays and commercials mostly.
How long have you been doing that?
I've been directing theatre professionally since I moved to Chicago in 1999. I've been directing commercials now for the last six years.
I’m sure COVID-19 has caused quite a disruption in your occupation. Are you working or are things at a standstill?
Live theatre is at a dead stop and will be for a long time I fear.
Commercial and TV/Film production stopped for a couple months when quarantine began back in March, but, as we have learned more about the virus and how to contain it, production has adapted and slowly re-started. Commercial production pivoted quickly to user generated content at the beginning of quarantine and now more traditional shoots are happening with new protocols, social distancing, and on-set COVID compliance officers in charge of keeping everyone safe.
How is your job different now than it was before the pandemic?
In May I directed a commercial for Lowe's that took place in four locations across the country (LA, Chicago, Alabama, and New Jersey) all through Zoom. That was definitely a very different experience and not something I ever anticipated doing. I don't think anyone liked working that way, but we were able to keep people safe and capture some good content that the client loved. I can see that kind of shoot happening again.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced while working during this time?
With the return of commercial production, the biggest challenge has been keeping actors safe. For crew, there are all kinds of protocols and procedures in place. However, most of those safety practices are rendered ineffective when you need to put actors in a scene together without masks. Right now most productions are casting actors or families who are already quarantined together to reduce risk. This will probably be the norm for the rest of this year at least until testing can become more readily available.
Has anything good or pleasantly unexpected come from being quarantined?
Well, on a national level I feel like our country is more actively wrestling with the many social inequalities and injustices that have long been allowed to fester in a culture that normally likes to serve up plenty of distractions. I think that has been positive and hopefully continues.
On a personal level, I'm trying to use this time to read more and work on projects around the house that I have been too busy for previously. My girlfriend and I are also growing tomatoes on the back deck and they are straight up delicious.
What are your thoughts on how you see the industry moving forward?
For a time, I do think that anything that can be done remotely through Zoom will be. Already clients and ad agencies are watching shoots via Zoom rather than being present on set. Now that this option has been tested, that approach may be something that sticks as it's a big time and money saver. Casting directors have been able to use the break-out room feature in Zoom to good effect and virtual casting sessions have become more standard. This development puts more responsibility on actors especially to have quality at-home set ups for recording with proper lighting, backdrop, and microphones. So I think we are going to see--and already are seeing--the rise of the home recording studio for actors. While I think we will get back to in-person casting sessions when it's safe, I would not be surprised if Zoom casting sessions remain in the mix after the pandemic.
What advice can you share with actors as they navigate through this crazy time?
Read fiction. Engage with challenging stories. An actor's best tool is their imagination and reading fiction helps keep that blade sharp in the absence of actual stage or screen time. And, on a practical level, today's novel is tomorrow's movie.
Check out some of Matt's work at mattmillerdirect.com.