The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have come in waves, especially for Hollywood. At first, everything started to shut down. Then people began to get creative filming over Zoom, before moving on to completely remote productions. HBO’s Coastal Elites was among the first series to announce a quarantined production, casting Bette Midler, Dan Levy, Issa Rae, Sarah Paulson, and Kaitlyn Dever to perform monologues about life before and during quarantine from five different “coastal elite” points of view.
Written by Paul Rudnick and directed by Jay Roach, the roughly 90-minute special starts in January of 2020 with a monologue from Midler about getting into an altercation with a Donald Trump supporter as she worries about the fate of the world under its current leadership. Dever wraps up the special playing a mid-western nurse who moves to New York at the start of the pandemic to help an area hardest hit by the virus. In between them, Levy plays an actor on the verge of his big break when Hollywood grinds to a halt, Rae is an affluent activist with a conflicting connection to First Daughter Ivanka Trump, and Paulson plays a meditating YouTube influencer distressed about a recent trip back home to visit her conservative family. Each is designed to dig into a specific facet of 2020’s disturbing timeline, whether its the political divide, job stability, fake news, racial tensions, or this unprecedented medical crisis. The special was filmed over Zoom during the early days of quarantine and then edited into a cohesive piece.
“We even more focused on each other [than on a traditional set] because there’s nothing else to distract us,” Roach told TV Guide about directing the project. Each monologue was filmed in the actors’ homes, with Roach and Rudnick watching on Zoom as they filmed full takes with a single camera. “It was a unique level of camaraderie, sharing the mission with Paul and I and the cast and sharing the challenge of it — the highwire act of having to pull these long monologues off continuously with just one camera, nothing to cut to, to break it up.”
Airing on a premium cable service, there’s no commercial breaks or cutaways to give the actors a breath or the audience the chance to look away. That connectivity is what Rudnick wanted in order to create the ideal vibe of the piece.
“I was hoping for a feeling almost of a town hall, or of talking to a close friend, or calling a family member that maybe you haven’t been in touch with lately,” he explained. “There’s a sense of a shared world, that it’s not in any way a lecture or a screed and it isn’t presenting only one point-of-view, but that, it’s a sense of what we’re all in together.”
While Rudnick is hoping for a wide audience to take the work, he’s not expecting everyone who watches to agree with all of the characters or even some of them. He just wants the monologues to engage with people at a time when we feel so far apart. “I think that’s what would be absolutely the most welcome, would be the widest and broadest possible audience of all — that it’s people who might identify as coastal elites, people who might find that challenging, and people who might live on some other coast altogether,” he said. “I think we hope the show will speak to everyone.”
While productions are slowly getting back to work, it still remains a mystery when life might go back to “normal” as we are still in the midst of this pandemic. Does that mean there could be a Part 2 in store about coastal elites trying to get back to work?
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“I find that this cast is so dangerously, seriously talented that it became an experience that you almost want to just cherish it,” the scribe said. “I never dreamed that I would be able to gather this particular group and have them say my words and have Jay direct it. Anything beyond that would be gravy.”
However, if Rudnick does come up with an idea for a sequel, Roach is ready to get back into the director’s chair — even from a remote distance.
“I do love all the characters though, Paul. So if you wake up and go, ‘Oh, I know what happens next,’ then don’t hesitate,” he shared. “You never know.”
Coastal Elites premieres Saturday, Sept. 12 at 8/7c on HBO.