Jake Gyllenhaal was driving when a COVID-19 supervisor called and told him to pull the car over.
This was in November 2020, when U.S. cases were skyrocketing and Gyllenhaal was days away from starting shooting on “The Guilty,” a thriller about a demoted Los Angeles police detective (played by Gyllenhaal) who takes a kidnapping call while working at the 911 dispatch center. The whole point of the very contained production was to minimize COVID-19 disruptions. Gyllenhaal is almost the only on-screen actor. There’s one setting. The entire shoot would take 11 days.
“So I pulled over and I was like: ‘Oh no.’ I had already had COVID so I sort of knew it might not be me, but I didn’t know,” says Gyllenhaal.
No one on the production had the virus, but director Antoine Fuqua had been in close contact with someone who tested positive. Tests were negative for Fuqua, but regulations at that time required him to quarantine.
“You have a 10-day quarantine and an 11-day shoot, so it basically does your movie in,” says Gyllenhaal. “I just felt it kind of falling apart.”
But after Gyllenhaal, Fuqua and producers ran through their options, they settled on a novel one. Fuqua would direct “The Guilty” from a van parked down the street from set.
“We kicked it around, kicked it around and I looked up a van that’s used for photography. I wondered if there was a way to use technology to our advantage," says Fuqua. “Literally, I did the whole thing from this van."
The coronavirus has forced Hollywood to adapt in countless ways to keep productions running through the pandemic. Movie sets are teeming hubs of activity where mask-wearing and social distancing are often impossible when the cameras are rolling. But few films have pivoted quite like “The Guilty,” a movie made without its director hardly ever stepping on set. It opens in theaters Friday and debuts Oct. 1 on Netflix.
Movie making is usually a more full-contact sport. On their previous film together, 2015’s boxing drama “Southpaw,” Fuqua, a boxer, and Gyllenhaal intensely trained together twice a day. They sparred in the ring. On “The Guilty,” they didn’t see each other for the duration of the shoot. They spoke by phone or FaceTime. Watching feeds of both the movie and from spy cameras place around the set, Fuqua communicated to the crew through a “God mic.”
“There were days when Jake would climb up on a ladder and talk to me over a wall,” chuckles Fuqua.
“I’ve never made a movie where I haven’t had physical intimacy with my director — closeness where they come up after a take and say ‘OK, listen,’” says Gyllenhaal. “I thought: This is all new.”
Gyllenhaal and his producing partner, Riva Marker, first acquired the rights to “The Guilty,” an adaptation of Gustav Möller’s Danish thriller, at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. When the pandemic arrived and the film industry shut down, they returned to it, with Nic Pizzolatto (“True Detective”) penning the script. In the film, Gyllenhaal’s detective scrambles desperately to save a taken woman while also reconciling his own guilty conscience .
“We were all desperate to find material that we could make and keep the business going even amid so many things falling apart,” says Gyllenhaal. “We are adaptable creatures.”
Some of the voices heard on the other end of phone calls in “The Guilty” belong to longtime friends of Fuqua and Gyllenhaal’s, including Fuqua’s “Training Day” star Ethan Hawke and Gyllenhaal’s brother-in-law Peter Sarsgaard. They and others, including Riley Keough and Paul Dano, recorded dialogue live with Gyllenhaal, calling in by Zoom from various time zones.
There were hiccups. At first, Fuqua’s van was plugged into his house but everything was a half-second delayed. Gyllenhaal initially kept hearing his own voice played back in his earpiece. Zooms would glitch.
“That’s really odd for acting. It’s not right. So much of it is about rhythms,” says Gyllenhaal.
But the production eventually found its groove. And by the time Fuqua’s quarantine was over, he decided to stay in the van for the last two days. Surrounded by monitors and sound, he was positioned almost identically to the film’s main character. And it was working.
“Jake said: ‘Are you going to come in?’ And I said: ‘Absolutely not!’ says Fuqua.
Both Fuqua and Gyllenhaal have since returned to more fully scaled movies as vaccines have made larger productions less difficult to mount. Gyllenhaal shot Michael Bay’s action movie “Ambulance”; Fuqua is making the pre-Civil War drama “Emancipation” in Louisiana with Will Smith.
Fuqua, though, has kept the van. He made a few modifications and brought it with him to Louisiana.
“In Hollywood, we’re funny. Certain things, we stick to, like putting up tents with sandbags,” says Fuqua. “When I got in the van, I said this is great. You can drive it up and that becomes my tent. Me and Will go in there and look at the scene.”
But other trials continue. Fuqua was speaking recently during a forced break after Hurricane Ida and flooding rains halted the shoot. Contemplating such biblical production headaches as pandemic and flood, Fuqua sighed.
“Between that and COVID and everything else," he said, "you really got to love this job.”
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP
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