How Hilary Weisman Graham Brought the Pandemic to Netflix With ‘Social Distance’

The creator and first-time showrunner is making the most of this strange time.

A dark cloud will forever hang over the second week of March 2020, the extended D-Day of sorts of the coronavirus pandemic in America. Hilary Weisman Graham recalls it all too clearly. “On March 12—I remember because it’s my birthday—I was like, ‘What are they gonna do, close every public school?’ ” she says. “And then on March 13, they did. Now this is just how we live.” But while the world’s norms and infrastructures crumbled beneath the endlessly “unprecedented” situation, Graham didn’t crumble with them. Instead, the writer, who’d previously worked on “Orange Is the New Black” and “Bones,” came up with and pitched an idea for a television show that would become her first showrunner experience.

“Social Distance,” as its title suggests, is about this moment and for this moment; and someday in the future, when masks are only worn on Halloween, it will serve as a time capsule of this moment. Now streaming on Netflix, each of the eight episodes is a vignette of quarantine life viewed through one of the digital interfaces we’ve all been using to communicate with our friends and loved ones during these months. Executive produced by Jenji Kohan, it was made entirely remotely, from a virtual writers’ room to actors (including Danielle Brooks, Daphne Rubin-Vega, and Okieriete Onaodowan) who filmed themselves using equipment delivered to their doorsteps. It’s a new world, but Graham is adapting with it.

Take me back to the beginning: What was the genesis of this series? 
Shit hit the fan with the pandemic on March 13 in America. That’s when New York public schools closed and everybody was like, “Oh, this is here.” That Monday, March 16, I woke up in a panic. I guess I fall into the stereotype of the neurotic writer. And I was just like, Oh, my God, my job is going to disappear, because why the hell would anybody pay to have a screenplay or TV show written that they could never shoot? When is a network or studio going to let 200 cast and crew members into a soundstage again to shoot? From that paranoia and desperation came this idea of: The only way we can do it is to shoot remotely. Because I am on a text chain with Jenji Kohan and Tara Herrmann and the “Orange Is the New Black” writers from Seasons 6 and 7, I texted them: “Guys, I have a crazy idea. Do you want to get on a Zoom?” Everyone’s like, “Zoom? What’s that?” 

On March 17, I pitched them my initial thoughts. We would meet occasionally on Zoom, [and] I would write up more thoughts and ideas. As it was developing, I was like, “Jenji, we gotta get this to Netflix before somebody else beats us to the punch.” We ended up pitching Netflix on March 31. They bought it in the Zoom, and then [on] April 20, the writers’ room opened, and we started shooting on June 15. It was a really fast pace—much faster than normal.

What was it like doing a remote writers’ room?
It’s certainly exhausting. We very quickly learned the tips and tricks to make it slightly less exhausting. Most people now know staring at your screen all day and trying to communicate—especially to a group—over Zoom is not the dream. The advantage we had is we all knew each other really well. Our writers’ room was composed entirely of people I’d worked with before, and the only person who hadn’t been on “Orange” was my friend Joe Hortua, who has written for “Better Things.” We all had a real shorthand that helped us a lot. The other thing we did [was work] three- to four-hour days, and that was it. We were very targeted. There was a little less goofing around time, but people had kids at home, and it’s pandemic life. That was the way to limit our burnout—and it did work. We got it done. 

“When you take away some of the tools you normally have in your toolbox, it forces you to do stuff you didn’t ever imagine you could pull off.”

What was the process for actually producing an episode?
In some ways, it felt like making a normal episode of television. For example, for our first production meeting, the assistant director is running the meeting, and all the department heads are there. But instead of sitting around a table, we are in a Zoom. It’s always the collaborative problem-solving that continues throughout the pre-production process. The thing that was daunting about it was everybody was working in a way we hadn’t ever had to work before. That was difficult, but it also forced us to be more creative. When you take away some of the tools you normally have in your toolbox, it forces you to do stuff you didn’t ever imagine you could pull off. 

The thing we found hardest, which we realized really quickly shooting and producing a show remotely, is how much communication in the real world happens when you’re walking to the kitchen to get a snack [or] in the van on a location scout. You’re thinking more deeply and talking about a scene or the episode, or you’re coming up with ideas in a time that’s not intentionally set for that. Everything on Zoom is so intentional. Anything else you want to say is an extra call or text or appointment. With shooting, too; when you’re sitting at video village in the real world, as a showrunner or writer of the episode, you just lean over to the director and whisper, “Hey, I think you should tell the actor this.” There’s no whispering in remote production. We had separate text chains between me and the writer and the director of the episode, and that seemed to be our solution.

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How did the actors shoot themselves?
We had video village, which was just a Zoom. The camera department was advising the actor about where to put the camera, the props department was advising the actor like, “You have to reset the wine glass so it matches the previous shot.” We had the role we coined “Zoom DJ,” who made the breakout rooms and a green room for the actors and a private director’s room to talk to the actors. It was very well choreographed and it did feel very normal, except for the fact that nobody was touching anything except the actors. 

The way I pitched it to actors was, “Are you up for doing this? It’s going to be like the Blue Apron of production: We’re going to send you a little box, and it’s going to have a camera and audio equipment. We’re going to walk you through it.” And then the first two episodes we shot, the actors were like, “This is not easy. I just lugged a 40-pound case up my stairs.” These are real actors who haven’t had to do something like that in a long time! There was only so much we could burden them with. We were able to send props to their house, but with the agreements we signed with the unions, because of COVID safety, we couldn’t even bring them inside. That became a thing we had to consider: Who is at the house with this person? Is someone able to help them carry all this stuff? It wasn’t just a budgetary thing. Whatever we send, Danielle Brooks is going to have to lug in all this crap. Just because she’s Danielle Brooks, she’s not magically having a better time during COVID. 

Since every episode is viewed through a different digital interface, was there a lot of thinking about interesting tools to use beyond just Zoom?
It started from a place of: How much can we ask these actors to do in terms of coverage? They’re not going to be able to shoot it in the way we would shoot normally. But then I was like, The show is called “Social Distance.” The only way we can communicate with most of our loved ones is over these devices. Isn’t that the perfect point of view of the series? Because that is how we’re experiencing social distance. Looking at something like the teen episode, the teens, even pre-pandemic, their reality was this mediated reality through their devices. I joke that teenagers are like, “What pandemic?” because they’re still texting and on social media and on their video games and on their phones. 

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Was there catharsis in writing about this uncertain time while it was still unfolding?
It was really cathartic to talk about these stories and write them, for sure. And I hope the show is cathartic for people who watch. There were days on “Orange”—especially when we were doing the immigration and detention center [episodes]—where I would drive to work listening to podcasts about children separated from their parents and just be sobbing on my commute to the office. For this, we were listening to stories of parents who thought they were dying of COVID, and they had no one else to take care of their kids. One of our writers, while we were in the writers’ room, his wife’s aunt got coronavirus and died. It touched us. But writing, for me, is always cathartic. I feel like I’m always working out my own demons on the page.

“Whatever [equipment] we send, Danielle Brooks is going to have to lug in all this crap. Just because she’s Danielle Brooks, she’s not magically having a better time during COVID.”

Why was it important to create something both during and of this moment?
The ingenuity involved. The fact that I got an opportunity to sort of rewrite the way television gets made, it truly gives me hope that anything is possible. I know that sounds really naive, but I have a lot of crazy ideas. Sometimes they’re ridiculous, and sometimes they become a TV show. Any time that change comes about, there was some kooky scheme at the beginning of it. “We’re being oppressed in England? I know—we’re going to get on some boats, and we’re going to sail across the ocean and start a new country.” Like, that was bonkers; boats were shitty back then!

I’m just very attracted to [the idea of]: Let’s find a better way, a different way. Let’s do something we haven’t thought of before. I always want to write and make TV; it’s what I love to do. And I felt really proud and happy that, at the time, nobody in Hollywood was working, and I employed some people.

Do you hope the post-COVID industry looks different than it did before?
The thing that was most eye-opening making a TV show in this way was, this is a pretty low-budget series. What we asked of them really democratized the process. We were so reliant on the actors. I think they got an appreciation for what all of the crew members do on a daily basis. I’ve been on shows where there is a star, in some cases a superstar, making so much more money than anyone there, including the showrunner. And this show, it was very democratized. There was something really lovely about it. It felt like we were truly all in it together, because we had never done it before. Also, sometimes in writers’ rooms, it can be sort of like the writers versus production, where you’re like, “I’m writing things the way I want, and they’ll have to figure it out,” and production is like, “You can’t spend the money!” This made me think, Oh, maybe that doesn’t have to exist in the real world, because I just saw it not exist in eight episodes. Maybe Hilary’s socialist production will continue into the future! 

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Do you have any advice for people feeling creatively stunted right now?
I do think there is something to not putting too much pressure on yourself, because it’s such an intense, emotional time. There’s a lot we’re all processing on a daily basis. But I also think: Just write. I just don’t believe in writer’s block. I believe in sitting down, writing something shitty, and then working on it till it gets better. I think it enables me to both get a lot done and not be so hard on myself. I spent the first 10–20 years of my career being very hard on myself and not having as much success. When I learned to have more compassion for myself and be like, “This wasn’t a good writing day. Oh, well. There’s always tomorrow,” things just opened up. And write about this time. I often take pictures as I walk around my neighborhood because I do think we’re going to want to remember this time. I hope, in a way, this show is a time capsule of this time. 

This is your first time as a showrunner. How does it feel to reach that milestone under these circumstances?
I could not have foreseen these circumstances, but it was a great first experience. I’m so grateful to be employed during this time when so many people are not, and to be doing what I love. I just mostly feel grateful—and on the plus side, I did get to make a whole TV show while barefoot.

This story originally appeared in the Nov. 5 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.

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Photographed by Ian Spanier on 10/9 in LA