The word 'essential' has seen its stock swell during the Covid-19 pandemic. In several countries, for example, people lined the streets each week to publicly clap 'essential workers'. The term has naturally (and understandably) been geared towards health workers, for whose service we are extremely grateful. But in reality there are essential workers of all kinds, which might not be immediately obvious. A new documentary series, entitled ‘Essentials’, from Mailchimp, Vice and production company Arts & Sciences, is following nine of these essential workers as they navigate their lives during Covid-19 in various cities around the United States.
These workers are telling their stories in real-time. These include a restaurant owner who has transitioned her restaurant into a market filled with locally made goods; a laundry service that is cleaning the clothes of first responders at no charge; a Houston-based doula dealing with the increased needs of expectant mothers; a community organiser and non-profit worker with three decades experience providing food and housing resources her Latinx neighbourhood; an urban farmer in the South Side of Chicago who offers fresh produce and opportunities for residents to grow their own food; an independent record store owner who has turned his shop into a temporary shipping center; a long time bike courier in New York City; an obituary writer in New Orleans focused on telling the stories of pandemic victims; and a truck driver negotiating a trucking industry that has had to reconsider its safety practices. All are striving to help their communities while the pandemic rages on in real-time.
The series was remotely directed by Arts & Sciences director Todd Krolczyk. LBB's Addison Capper chatted with him to find out more.
LBB> What are the foundations of this project? How did you get involved and why was it something you were keen to work on?
Todd> Arts & Sciences is a company that constantly encourages creative opportunity. Shortly after the stay-at-home order began, John Benson (A&S executive producer) came up with the idea and I was immediately drawn to it. Mailchimp - who are great collaborators - were just as enthusiastic about the prospect of the project.
I grew up in Michigan and worked on pig farms. I was employed as a janitor at auto plants.
I appreciate hard work and doing what it takes to get by. This series was an opportunity to celebrate that kind of work ethic via portraits of people and their work during unprecedented times.
LBB> The series follows nine essential workers - how did you define "essential" in the case of this project?
Todd> ‘Essential’ has become such an intriguing word, especially as it was defined for us by the government. However, I think it has changed over the last few months, and as Anya, one of the people in the series, said, ‘Our jobs don’t make us essential, but it’s how we treat friends, family and strangers that does.’ I think that’s as good of a definition as you can get, and one that I stand by.
LBB> There's such a broad range of incredible people profiled here - how did you go about finding and enlisting each of them for the project? What was that process like?
Todd> My producer Rob and I knew a few people who would be good candidates. After that, we did a bit of digging around and sought out the others via word of mouth. I also reached out to Good People Casting, who I’ve worked with a bunch of times in the past. They’ve got a knack for projects like this and know how to go down the appropriate rabbit holes to find the right people.
From there, I met and got to know the various candidates on Zoom chats. I prefer to have conversations instead of a series of interviews - that’s how you find the real stories behind the people. It was a fun process and I feel the audience will enjoy getting to know these folks too. They’re all genuine and honest folks.
LBB> Once you had those folks to feature in the series, what were the next steps? I imagine your ability to travel and meet with these people as a director were hindered due to social distancing. How did this impact the pre-production and planning?
Todd> Many of the projects I find myself working on are initially cast through remote lenses. So for me, that part wasn’t new or unusual. Not being able to eventually meet and film the people in person was the twist. Given the stay-at-home orders, we all had to rally around each other and figure things out together in this new situation.
Aside from technical phone tutorials, the tricky part was not having them ‘self-edit.‘ When you’re working directly with someone and observing and capturing the moments of their everyday life, you shoot everything and edit it down later. But now we have to be more concise and trying to convince someone that making their coffee in the morning is an interesting thing to focus on can be a hard sell.
LBB> And then what was the production process like? Shooting one film in lockdown is a unique task in itself - an entire series is huge! How did you pull it off? How did you "direct" all of this from afar? What were your main aims and ambitions overall with this project?
Todd> My approach was inspired by sociological art projects that I admire from the ‘60s and ‘70s. I used short lists and conversations to motivate the people in the series. I gave each person a ‘homework assignment,’ that was really just simple requests to inspire them to capture thoughts and moments that they might not have normally done.
One of the cast members, Erika, sent me a text explaining how the process made her feel much more present and in the moment. And Erika is an incredibly thoughtful and wise person, so it made me feel great to get a note like that from her.
I got a note from another cast member after we finished the most recent episode. It said something like: ‘Even though it was self-shot, it still felt like something you did.’ That was a nice thing to hear. My aim was to work within these remote restrictions but still tell real, human stories with my own style and sensibility.
LBB> What are your fondest and most striking memories of making this project?
Todd> I loved not knowing what I would see from the footage sent to me by the cast members. It was a bit like seeing how long you can keep your eyes closed while riding a bike. Especially at first, I had no idea what I was going to get, but everyone was able to capture moments that really surprised me. It was like a great little gift. For example, Kelli had hilarious moments that weren’t used, Rohani is such an honest person and her submissions were always striking and poignant. Anya’s strength and insight after the murder of George Floyd was completely awe-inspiring. There ended up being so many surprises, and when those showed up, it was like a great little gift.
I love music of all sorts and the other thrill was finding music by Thom Monaghan and then seeing how well it worked as a backdrop to these people and these times.
LBB> What were the trickiest components and how did you overcome them?
Todd> The trickiest component of this project was embracing the restrictions. These people were chosen for a reason, so for me to tell them, ‘here’s some direction, now take your phone and have a go at it’ was a new experience for me. But luckily, the results were great. These folks really put themselves out there and I’m really appreciative and grateful for that. Rob, my producer, was very helpful in taking my ideas and putting the production pieces together.
LBB> Any parting thoughts?
Todd> This is a unique time and to be able to spend a moment of it with the people I was working with was a big challenge, but a rewarding one as well. This experience has meant a lot to me.