While a lot of Hollywood has been dealing with production shutdowns, setbacks, and cancellations during the pandemic, writer/producer Lia Bozonelis decided to make a movie called “Safer at Home.”
This thriller is a pandemic film shot (safely) during quarantine — the first SAG/DGA production to successfully do so — back in the early summer of 2020. Bozonelis and her collaborator Will Wernick, who decided to write and create a thriller reflecting the uncertainty, tension, and reality of life in quarantine, filmed mostly on Zoom.
Greek Reporter spoke to Lia Bozonelis, who is also a co-producer on the film, about how the concept for “Safer at Home” came about, what it was like to film an independent movie in a pandemic, and her journey in the industry.
Vertical Entertainment acquired the movie that Voltage Pictures produced alongside 7930 Entertainment and Showdown Productions, which is due to be released in theaters, VOD and digital on February 26, 2021. It will be rolling out internationally, as well.
How did you get the idea for the movie, “Safer at Home”?
I have a collaborator I frequently partner with, Will Wernick. He’s a great writer and a terrific director. We had a psychological thriller that we wrote together for him to direct that we were aiming to make last spring; then COVID hit.
“So we went on a socially-distanced hike in LA to see what we could do, and realized we could see the current situation as an opportunity, and create something reflecting the new reality of our world. We spitballed tons of ideas and developed a few of them — a large action, a romantic comedy, etc.
“We crystalized around going the indie thriller route, with Voltage Pictures on board from the beginning. Will worked with them on his two previous features. We carefully hustled on every draft, finalized the script and began putting the pieces together to shoot it.”
How did you go about getting actors for “Safer at Home” so early in quarantine?
“That was one of our worries; how can we even get cast? At that point there was nothing like a COVID safety inspector, and we didn’t want to put anyone at risk and have people film together.
“We decided to cast people virtually, so we could shoot on location without getting people outside their quarantine bubble. That meant we never had the opportunity to have the cast meet and mingle, we couldn’t assess chemistry, but we went off our instincts and we got a dynamite cast.
“Will did do a little Zoom hangout/party before to have everyone meet and get to know each other and they gelled during the table reads, which were also done over Zoom.”
What was shooting during the pandemic like?
“It was definitely a unique experience. The first weeks of workshopping, finishing the story, and getting the production up and running.
“I remember thinking everyone is learning how to make sourdough bread and I’m on overdrive helping to put together this movie that we just wrote, day in and day out, at hyper speed for weeks.”
“By the first week of June, we had a solid shooting script and all the pieces in place to film. But then with the protests happening and the police cracking down, we also had the added hurdles of curfew and limits on being out and about to navigate.
“We didn’t have anyone touching/interacting outside their isolated state. We shot in actor’s homes and locations that were in lockdown. Nobody else went inside — the cameras linked together with satellite timecode and then the actors referenced each other’s performances in real time over Zoom, which was used as part of the production.
“Then late at night when he was able to, Will would go out with the DP and get some drone footage of LA, to get a sense of what the streets were like in the very beginning of the pandemic, as well. This included the National Guard set up, the increasing homeless population on the empty streets, etc.”
Tell us a little about the people working behind the scenes to make this.
“We had a lot of women working on the film, which I am very big on and always work to achieve with every production I’m involved with. Genevieve Vincent, a gifted composer, created the whole score for the movie, we have Producer Bo Youngblood of Showdown Productions who is dynamite, plus our fierce actresses: Emma Lahana, Jocelyn Hudon, and Alisa Allapach.
“Everyone was 100% committed and involved, and it’s what made this film work out in the end. It was an all-hands-on-deck situation; there could be no egos in this. We had to be jack-of-all-trades, covering any task or job that needed to be done.
“For example, at some point we needed three Macs for production, and I get the call that I need to run and go get them from half an hour away from my house before we get locked down for the day, so I just jumped in my car and beelined it to the boarded up West side, dropped them at video village before racing home to beat the noon curfew.
“It was definitely difficult because even under the best of circumstances, a million things need to be done correctly and go right for a film to be made.
“So, add in the pandemic, add in curfew and the National Guard, add in the fact that we want to make sure everyone feels comfortable, safe, and have their voices heard — it was definitely an intense experience. But a very rewarding one at that.”
Did the circumstances of 2020 beyond quarantine influence the filmmaking process as well?
“Definitely. Will and I wanted the issues being brought to light in the real world to be reflected in the script and film. It’s interesting because a lot of these themes were part of the story before the tragic incident with George Floyd and the ensuing protests.
“The film holds a mirror to the real-world problems that have become part of the cultural zeitgeist over the past year. We also wanted to make sure we checked in with our diverse cast, and that they had a voice and a say in how they wanted these issues to be presented.
“Will had long conversations with each cast member to really listen to everyone’s perspective, and make sure everyone felt like an organic group of friends simultaneously.
“It’s a pandemic movie, but the social conscious aspect is extremely important to include because it’s relevant to what’s going on in the world. We’re in a very specific time in history with pandemic and an important movement within this time; it’s necessary to honor the emotions of the people going through it.
Tell us a little bit about your journey in Hollywood so far.
“One of my first jobs out of college was working at New Line Cinema during the success of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, which was a great time to be there. It definitely helped me learn the big budget side of the business. Then I moved with my boss to the arthouse division of New Line, then called Picturehouse, where I learned the indie side of the business.”
“I bounced around a lot between different facets of the business and got a great overall idea of the industry. I took my first whack at a screenplay…and it was absurd.
“I wrote a 300-page romantic comedy, gave it to the head of development, and he read it and told me: ‘you have everything to learn about screenwriting – literally everything – but you have a voice, you just need to figure out how to hone it.’
“So, I learned everything I could about screenwriting. I kept workshopping scripts, and best of all, just read every script that came in. That’s the best way to learn, in my opinion.”
When did you transition to becoming a full-time screenwriter?
“After I had written a few solid screenplays, I decided to become a full-time screenwriter. Meanwhile I took on journalism jobs at Fortune and CNN Money to support myself while writing screenplays. Those jobs took me to India, San Francisco, Los Angeles, among others, and overall gave me a lot of great experiences, specifically observing human emotion all over the world.
“When I eventually started utilizing my contacts, it was still a hard journey to get a movie made. I had so many projects almost come to fruition, with big stars and financing attached, etc. Then things would fall apart at the last minute, which happens frequently in this industry. That kept happening, but I was doing consulting work for a lot of terrific companies — HBO, Ridley Scott’s Scott Free Productions, OddLot Entertainment, etc… — in the meanwhile and developed a lot of great relationships.
“Finally I became head writer for a female sketch comedy series called “Sorry Not Sorry” which was premiering on go90. I was really proud of the work we did, we hired a lot of female writers to get an authentic perspective – especially because it was a female sketch show – and we had a great season 1. However, go90 was taken down as a service, so we couldn’t continue into Season 2. At that point I sold a couple romantic comedy features and my first produced feature, “Eat Drink & Be Married” was filmed and released worldwide.”
Do you have any projects coming up?
“Actually, I have quite a few, about ten active projects I’m working on at the moment, in both features and television. I am looking to produce one of the feature scripts in Greece, and another is a big feature safari project set in India.
“The one set in Greece is very special to me with a strong social conscious message at the core. So to be able to see that through in a country I love, employing local crew, is both the goal and the dream.
“Will and I also have several other projects we’re writing together for him to direct. “Ghosted” is a really bendy psychological thriller feature set in the world of online dating that we’re in the process of packaging up and hope to make this year.
“Right now, the great thing is I at least have reached a stage where I can make projects I want to make. Projects I feel are important to make and socially relevant. It’s been nearly 20 years of really hard work to get to this point, but I finally feel like I’ve hit a nice stride.
“In addition, I find enjoyment and fulfillment mentoring young writers with diverse voices, specifically women, Greek Americans and Greeks. I also support and have frequently volunteered with the LA Greek Film Festival. These are the experiences that truly round out my career.”
What advice do you give to future screenwriters?
“For all the rejection, you have to keep going. You need resilience. If you want it that badly and nothing else will suffice, you have to find ways to push forward despite all the challenges that will be thrown your way. There will be many. You have to know and accept that.
“Safer at Home” is my 17th feature screenplay. It took all these years, hard work, sweat equity, a moral compass to always stay above board in how I work, and finding the right people to work with. What I always told myself is to always be a writer who writes.
“My path was far from the easiest one, but I was always learning, writing, and creating content. Work hard, stay in the mix and just keeping on writing. That’s the best advice I can give!”
Check out “Safer at Home” in theaters, VOD, and streaming services on February 26.