HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - JUNE 03: (L-R) Alethea Jones, Jamal Sims, Samantha Hawkins and Jaala Leis Wanless speak onstage during IndieWire's Consider This Event: Television 2023 at NeueHouse Hollywood on June 03, 2023 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Alberto Rodriguez/IndieWire via Getty Images)

Watch the ‘Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies’ team discussion on creating the 1950s despite the challenges of 2020

‘Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies’ went to great lengths to immerse its audience in a stylized 1950s world, but modern issues like COVID-19 have made sure its creators never forget they were working through the years ’20.

The panel discussion on the Paramount+ prequel “Grease” at IndieWire’s Consider This Event on June 3 featured executive producer and director Alethea Jones, choreographer Jamal Sims, costume designer Samantha Hawkins and head of hair Jaala Leis Wanless who recalled the logistical hurdles that the pandemic has thrown at them. While their individual works were impacted in different ways, all four artists credited the resilience of the entire team with the show’s eventual success.

“All departments have supported each other across the board,” Hawkins said. “There was just no room and no time for error. And obviously you’re shooting during the times of COVID, so we were constantly losing crew members and our cast members. Every day it was just brand new.

The difficulties created by COVID’s shifting schedules and production moving parts were magnified by the fact that the show’s period details demanded a level of technical precision that left little room for error for the team of craftsmen.

“Doing 1950s hair is technically very difficult,” Wanless said. “There are many steps that need to be taken to make this happen. When you have to string it together on someone’s head every single morning, it’s tough.

“(Creator) Annabel Oakes did a great job of talking to people who lived in that era and were part of this kind of environment,” Wanless said. “Then I looked at old issues of Jet and researched the doo-wop culture. We wanted it to be historically accurate, but through a modern lens.”

To that end, Hawkins appreciated applying a 2020 lens to the 1950s, a much more diverse decade than is usually portrayed. “Dressing the spreaders who were from the Latinx community, and Nancy (Tricia Fukuhara) is Japanese, was so meaningful because they were there in the 50’s and they were a part of this culture, but you have to dig deeper to find them because they weren’t pictured” Hawkins said.

But as for 2020’s challenges, Jones recalled the miracles he had to perform to keep the show on schedule during the on-set COVID outbreaks.

“There was a number we had to pick up in the first week of shooting where half of the women contracted COVID or had close contact. It means you are out. And we had already rehearsed the first dance numbers,” Jones said. “So half of our pink girls are out, so I get hit with COVID close contact. Our showrunner gets COVID.

But even when there seemed to be no going forward, the team was able to shoot a musical number amidst the chaos by having a group of actors swap roles and Jones directing from a remote location.

“So I’m at home directing remotely. There is a number that we can anticipate. It’s episode 2 and it opens with a split screen number,” Jones said before explaining that the dancers featured in the song weren’t the ones he originally cast. “So these women who weren’t part of our main cast, they were all playing housewives, because they didn’t have close contact with any of our cast. So I was directing remotely, Jamal had just tried it, these women showed up…and it was amazing.

While re-choreographing a musical number to accommodate the new cast members was a challenge for Sims, she said it was just par for the course given the grueling schedule the show demanded. Sims explained that the logistical complications created a sense of camaraderie between departments that elevated everyone’s performance.

“We did 31 issues in a couple of months, averaging three issues per episode,” Sims said. “It went fast. Once we said go, it was like a train that couldn’t be stopped. It actually took you one step further. Because all the departments were firing full throttle, so you didn’t want to be the department that let everyone down. It was a nice friendly match.”

Creating elaborate musical numbers in an episodic format requires an intense level of coordination and collaboration. “We had amazing cinematographers, DJ Stipsen and Mark Chow. And the great thing about working with them is that they would love to come to our rehearsals. Which is so important in a musical film, because you want to know where the dancers are, where we need the cameras, how can we hide the cameras, all this stuff,” Sims said. “A lot of cinematographers say ‘I’ll only see it when it came,” but actually they came to rehearsal and we accompanied them. As for the choreography, I would film a pre-vis first, just to show what are the best angles of the dance. Then our directors would come in and they could choose to use it or less. But at least we were giving the dancers a chance to be seen, because you can miss a dance just by putting the camera too low or too high.”

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