One day after the World Health Organization declared the Coronavirus outbreak a pandemic on March 11, 2020, filming ceased on the Apple TV+ drama “The Morning Show” out of an abundance of caution, recalls Nelson Coates, the show’s production designer who hails from Abilene. They were only three weeks into production of the show’s second season.
More Apple TV+ shows shut down that same day, Coates said. The second day, the rest of the industry stopped production. By the third day, businesses were closing. On March 19, the California governor issued a stay-at-home order as COVID-19 cases spread across the country.
It was the beginning of what would be a “wacky” year for Coates, an Abilene High School and Abilene Christian University graduate who has worked on nearly 50 movies and many TV shows in numerous countries. He was scheduled to be honored March 28, 2020, by the Abilene Cultural Affairs Council at the Paramount Theatre. But like many events impacted by the pandemic, “In the Heights of Hollywood with Nelson Coates” had to be rescheduled, first to September, and then to May 1 of this year. The sold-out event is benefiting the council’s HeARTS for the ARTS grant program.
This will only be Nelson’s second visit to Abilene since the pandemic began a year ago. His mother, Jane Coates, passed away Nov. 27, 2019, and Nelson made a trip to Abilene in April 2020 to settle her estate with his siblings. He drove a U-Haul back to Los Angeles while the country was gripped by the shutdown, and he was met with state troopers and closed freeways along the way.
Nelson worked on the highly anticipated film adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway musical “In the Heights” which was originally scheduled to premier in June 2020. That is now premiering June 18 of this year in theaters and will begin streaming the same day on HBO Max for one month. The movie tells the story of characters in the largely Hispanic-American neighborhood of Washington Heights, New York. At press time, Nelson said he was still hoping the movie would premier in a historic movie theater in Washington Heights.
Nelson is president of the 2,300-member Art Directors Guild, one of 13 major Hollywood unions. He spent part of the shutdown writing and negotiating COVID-19 entertainment industry protocols with nearly 70 other industry leaders and producers in North America. He went back to work in August, and filming resumed on “The Morning Show” in October. The show stars Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon.
“It’s been a very challenging, complicated shoot, partially because we could not leave Los Angeles,” he said. “I’m having to create locations all over the world in LA.”
The cast and crew are abiding by the COVID-19 protocols that Nelson helped develop. He is tested three times a week with the PCR test. People close to the actors, such as makeup, hair and wardrobe, receive a combination of PCR and rapid tests eight times a week. People work in pods to keep exposure low, and strict rules are in place for extras. So far, the extra measures are working, Nelson said.
“I’m very grateful we’ve maintained the health of our crew,” he said.
Although the show resumed production months ago, Nelson said COVID-19 has slowed the pace, which adds stress because everyone wants the same amount of work done “super fast.” He re-designed scenery for better airflow. Employees he would normally interact with in person and solve problems with quickly are now working remotely, making changes three times longer to get done. Vendors are no longer stocked with all the items he needs for shoots.
“It’s been wacky,” Nelson said.
Despite the setbacks, Nelson said the production team has been able to “maintain and exceed expectations.” He can’t wait for viewers to see Season 2 of “The Morning Show” this year.
“This season is going to be amazing,” he said.
By Sidney Schuhmann Levesque