In the spring of 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic caused all film production to shut down across the United States and many areas of the world. Film sets were shuttered, theaters were closed, and the majority of the industry was on hiatus, furloughed or out of work. With quarantine and stay at home orders in place, productions could not continue as they once had. As creatives, some filmmakers did try to create using Zoom or phone videos; but, in comparison to the complex shooting methods of the pre-pandemic era, this way was lackluster. However, there were two maverick filmmakers, Matt Leutwyler and Anton Laines, who knew this method wasn’t good enough and decided that they “could do so much more with a little bit more ingenuity and innovation”.
So they created Disconnected, a global television series shot entirely during the Covid-19 quarantine in four countries following each local jurisdiction’s lockdown requirements with no additional crew beyond who was in quarantine together. Fuconomy sat down with Executive Producer Anton Laines to learn more about how they came up with the idea, decided on the process, executed the production, and where they see these new skills will take them.
Fuconomy: If you had to describe Disconnected to someone who hasn’t heard of it yet, how would you describe Disconnected?
Anton: Disconnected is a series that follows the lives of individuals across the globe as they navigate the pandemic, Covid-19. It showcases a little bit of what everyone’s going through. We’re hoping that our audience can take away this understanding that we all are facing very similar things; whether or not you’re in East Africa or you are in India or you’re in the U.K. or even different parts of the U.S. We all have a lot of similar challenges that we’re all facing. We’re hoping when people watch us, they can identify with some of that and realize that they’re not alone in these kinds of things that they have to overcome. So even though the show is Disconnected we are hoping that it does bring people together in the sense of we’re not alone in this.
Fuconomy: When did you come up with the idea and what was that first conversation like?
Anton: I think it was probably within a week or two of things being shut down. Honestly, I think we started talking about it because we know, in California, they were one of the ones that shut down first. So we knew this was coming for the rest of the country.
Matt and I, we always have crazy conversations. This is probably our third or fourth show that all emanated from a phone conversation. It’s just having conversations about cool creative ideas, about politics, about the world, about everything that’s going on. Then we get inspired and spin some cool ideas. We wonder if that could be a show. And the next thing you know, we have put it to paper and we’ll write a treatment out. Generally within the week of writing the treatment or even in the first three or four days, we will [say] let’s send it to somebody, see what they think and you get really positive reactions.
Within a week of having the conversation, it becomes a real conversation about can we actually do this? Should we do this? Yeah, why not? And, generally, we just say, yeah, let’s go for it, because now we’re filmmakers and we’d love to try [to] make stuff happen.
Fuconomy: Where did the inspiration of using multiple countries come from and why did you choose these countries? The series was shot in India, Rwanda, the United Kingdom, and multiple cities around the United States (Los Angeles, CA; Palm Springs, CA; Oskaloosa, IA and Brooklyn, NY).
Anton: Matt and I are totally into global storytelling. Technology has become more prominent. You can be on the other side of the planet in 20 hours. Everything is becoming smaller and smaller. You really have to start thinking about global storytelling. So generally, everything that we do now, we really put it in a global lens. We aren’t necessarily interested in just doing a domestic story.
Matt just finished the show, State of Siege, in India. That was one of the reasons that was fresh in our mind. I’d gone out there and done some second unit directing for him and we had met some actors. We loved the fact that there was such a big film industry and community. Obviously, Bollywood is going through this transition where this advent of these web series are becoming a little bit edgier. They’re becoming a little bit more Western storytelling, but now they’re putting their spin on it. So it’s really interesting what India is doing in their own film revolution.
Then Matt’s tied to the charity, [We Are Limitless], in Rwanda and I’ve gone out there. We’ve done a couple of projects in Rwanda. So, we had known a film community and actor base out there. The U.K., those were people that Matt had met. He’d always wanted to work with April and Jamie . They’re filmmakers, which is exciting. They were really pumped to figure out how to do something as well. They’re super talented; they were actually brought on, helping us do some of the writing. So those three countries really were fresh in our minds.
Then domestically, New York, I had actually met Gene. I think he had done some work on the State of Siege India project. Christina, his wife, was a fantastic actor. So, a lot of things just fell in place and we just had this community of talented people that all wanted to do something. It really worked out in our favor that a lot of people that we had just recently been working with were available because everything was shut down and we had some great synergy with everybody. I’ve got to tell you, the one thing about this show that I’ve been most impressed with is the chemistry that everybody has. I mean, everybody from the actors to the writers to the producers, everybody just has been in sync with things. And it’s been really rewarding and fun to be able to do that.
Fuconomy: How did you handle the filming in these locations while both of you were in California?
Anton: I had done some work with this because I’ve also been doing some commercial work through the pandemic. We had come up with a setup using these object U-TAPS. You basically take your output, whether [it’s] HDMI or SDI, you plug it right into your computer. We would actually see the camera feed through zoom. So we sent everybody cameras; we sent a lot of people the U-TAPS and we would actually be able to get the frames up. For the most part, we do lean on our experience like, okay, well, what’s your exposure at, what’s your lens, where [are you] shooting? And so we’d be able to dial them in.
It was challenging because it’s not true 4K that you’re seeing on the screen, but you’re close enough and you’re doing the math in your head saying, okay, well, you’re six feet away. You’re on a 50 mil lens. You had this exposure. Okay. You should have this much of a depth of field for a focus. It gets a little dicey at times but I will say that for the most part, it’s worked. The teams actually through Episode one [to] episode eight [are] starting to understand that. So they’re starting to understand shutter speed and aperture and exposure and all these different terms that we’re throwing at them.
Then they’re starting to obviously tip to one of the most rewarding things, especially with, [for] example, Jenn and Brandon. Brandon has really loved this whole idea of learning the camera. From episode one, we’d be like, hey, Brandon, move the camera back a little bit. So you might want to be on a wider lens for this scene and we’d explain why you want to be on a wider lens. Towards the last episode he was starting to give us why he decided to pick that lens. You know, a lot of the times his instincts had come along to a point where it was in line with what we were trying to do. So that was pretty cool. A lot of the teams did that as well.
But we also have some other teams that were filmmakers; Gene is a filmmaker in New York. April and Jamie are filmmakers in the U.K. and they’re very good. So we would just have pre-pro calls. We would actually listen to them and we actually didn’t monitor them. We would do things where we would just make sure that we had moments that we definitely knew that we needed. Sometimes we’d have to go and do pick up shots but, for the most part, they would turn their homework in or their assignments and it would be rock solid. What was really a byproduct of that is that each of these scenes, and when you watch the series, they have their own feel.
New York feels gritty. When you look at India, [it] feels like it was shot in India just in the colors and the way that they shot it in the lens selections. It’s really interesting. So even though there’s a little bit of a disconnect on the aesthetic style, it all flows to create something that is actually pretty unique and pretty cool.
Fuconomy: When it comes to the technical aspects of audio and lighting on set, obviously there’s a limitation because you can’t monitor it. How did you manage the technical limitations?
Anton: A lot of ADR, a lot of creative fixes in post, lighting wise. We were shooting with teams that [would] get the lamp from outside the house. Our colorist, Adrian, really had to take this ability to almost go shot by shot. Usually when you color a scene, your DP has set the exposure and they’ve been able to make everything pretty across the board, pretty level. This one’s all over the place; this angle, it’s pitch black. You just have all of these scenes that just are all over the place. That was definitely challenging.
Audio, it’s tough. I think Africa at some point we were shooting on a studio mic, not necessarily a shotgun or a directional mic. It was just brutal. We’d have to sometimes do some ADR; sometimes we’d have to do some reshoots. I can’t tell you how many times, especially in Africa, we had to do reshoots because of audio. We were shipping stuff to them, FedEx, but delayed, delayed. So it was really, really tough. We’d have to do our shot selection, which put the camera right up to you so that we would get the camera mic. You just have to innovate outside of the [box] to be able to to get what you need. We had a good team that was doing a lot of cleanup in post.
Fuconomy: Did you and Matt co-direct the series?
Anton: We haven’t really put labels on it because we have really been focusing on the higher level things and empowering these groups. There are certain situations where we will step in and help direct. But really, these teams, they’re coming up with their own shots. They’re coming up with their own way of shooting and developing a little bit of their characters with us. So it’s hard to say that we’re directing this series; it’s more like supervising the directorial ensemble.
It’s been an interesting ride, to say the least, because it’s every day different parts of the world. Sometimes I’ll be like, Matt, you’ve got to cover Rwanda because I’m going to cover the U.K. Then I’ve got to be at Palm Springs with Jenn and Brandon and Matt’s got to be on with Audrey in Iowa and because the turnaround is so fast, we just don’t actually [have] enough bandwidth to be able to say let’s both be on this call. But it is pretty great when we do get those opportunities; when the schedule does line up.
Fuconomy: You imposed a daunting 7-10 day episode schedule on yourself. Why did you choose to have such a fast turnaround?
Anton: We initially thought that this show was going to be a time capsule of the pandemic. We didn’t know how long it was going to last but we knew things were gonna change fast. We thought that people watching this would have a really interesting experience to be able to almost see what’s happening through our characters. To get to really pull it off, [there’d] have to be a quick turnaround. I mean, we had shots where we had Trump giving information; he had basically a press release that happened three days prior. So when everything started having these big moments within the pandemic, we would include those in the show.
To make them relevant, we had to turn it around quickly. Also, Matt and I were really just seeing if we could. And so we looked at it and we just said, is it actually possible? Because it’d be really cool if it was and we said, well, there’s only one way to find out.
I knew it was gonna be tough. I think the hardest thing for us is that our shows are never done; we just had to put our pencil down. I feel like if we’d gotten another day or two days or four days, we could have put in more audio cues; we could have sweetened the sound. But part of the creative energy of this whole thing was, what can you do in a week? And I think that is part of the fun and part of the interest level that people have is that we just work as hard as we can. Then we put our pencils down and we see what grade we get. It’s been surprising. We always said that every show is our favorite show and we always beat the previous show.
Fuconomy: With the tight turnaround for each episode and having one primary editor, why did you choose to score original music rather than go with the easy solution of buying stock music?
Anton: The artistic outlets are being a little bit stifled. Hollywood shut down. All of these actors, all of these producers, all of these composers, editors, they’re just out of work. As much as everyone needs to make money, I think people also need to continue to create. We had basically told a lot of our friends that, hey, we’re gonna go down this road of trying to do a creative, fun thing that’s never been done.
We’re probably stacking the amount of things that we need to do, probably more than we should, but that’s just the nature of how we like to do things. We ended up getting a lot of people that bought in. In particular, Kobe Brown, the composer Matt had a relationship with. I loved the idea and the challenge; he is one of the people that we talk about that just crushed it. When we get his tracks, it’s just insane. It just talks about how talented he is.
Fuconomy: Filmmaking is an industry that requires major problem solving skills. It’s always about limitations: budgets, locations, crew size, etc. However, it’s also what makes it so fun and interesting. What are some of the problems that you had to overcome?
Anton: This thing was happening during the pandemic. Matt was running a restaurant in Rwanda and I was [still doing] a lot of work with some of my other clients trying to figure out how to do remote shoots. We realized that as filmmakers, you have to be able to innovate. We all want to be craft stories. But it almost became more important to be able to innovate so that you can continue to tell those stories.
What’s the evolution, given all these limitations that you can’t go to locations. You can’t get big crews, you can’t even get in some situations get camera gear. I mean, we had India shooting on an iPhone 7. It was because they were locked down harder than anybody else. Audrey, in Iowa, she only had an iPhone; but she had an iPhone 10 so we ended up making hers a little bit more about a video diary rather than trying to do these big cinematic shots. You have to figure out, with all the resources and everything that you have, how you can continue your craft.
It’s been the innovation as filmmakers and the experience that we’ve gained as filmmakers, [that] has been one of the most challenging and rewarding things that I’ve done. When we watch the shows and we see the collaboration and all the efforts. It’s one of the things that I’m most proud of having done for 20 years because I know how difficult it is. I know the way things normally are done; there are times when I wish we could do it that way but not letting that stop us. The absence of all of those tools, all of those resources, it is just such a such a cool experience to be a part of.
Fuconomy: Given the required innovation, how did you try to push yourselves and what changes did you have to make?
Anton: The show is evolving: the shots are getting better. People are really trying to do a match cut with the group in Palm Springs and a group in India. And you’re trying to do it within a week. There’s the coordination, trying to send them frame grabs. At one point we did an effects shot. I mean some of these things are pretty wild. Episode eight, I don’t want to give too much away, but, there are some pretty decent effects in there. We’re talking about face replacements and we’re talking about rotoscoping and green screening. I mean, it’s crazy. You saw on episode six we have talking animals. It’s just insane where we push the level of what’s possible.
The thing about a show like this is that it does pivot. When the George Floyd killing happened, we realized that we were doing a time capsule with such a huge moment in history. We can’t not address it. I think that as we continue on, there is going to be these moments that we’re going to have to adapt these stories to and understand how these different groups really react to things that are not just happening here in America, but things that are happening in India, things that are happening in the U.K.
Fuconomy: How do the storytelling elements transcend the pandemic? Will these stories extend beyond the pandemic?
Anton: This show really started because of the pandemic and the ideas; also a lot of the issues that are within the show, are about the pandemic. This show, as a premise, is really something that can live further on than the pandemic. It’s really about how people deal with certain issues and situations over this vast distance. That from India to the U.K. to Rwanda to the United States, people were pretty much the same. What we really loved and what we found about the show is that there’s something more than just this idea of a small pandemic show that will go for eight episodes. I do think that we want to apply this global storytelling; weaving these characters in and out onto a couple of other projects that we’ve been kicking around.
One of the things that we’ve learned through looking at travels and the international products is that we’re all pretty much the same. So what we like to do is find those commonalities that we all share and really try to create stories around that. There are certain issues with the government that we face here that a lot of the rest of the world faces. There’s poverty. There [are] taxes. Everything that we experience, that we have good, bad or indifferent feelings on, everyone else in the world feels the same when you really just whittle down to the core idea behind it. Our idea is to really figure out what those core ideas are and then weave them together in a way that is relatable across the board, across the globe. There’s systematic threads.
We all know what it’s like to be in love, right? The love story might be a little different in certain countries, but those feelings that you emote in those situations. The awkward first date is something that you could talk to anybody across the world; they’ll understand not getting called back after having a great first date. If you’ve been following the show, with the pregnancy in India, we do try to touch on some of the more edgier topics, things that are a little bit more uncomfortable for people to talk about. As filmmakers, I think we don’t want to just do the happy go lucky stuff. We want to really get in the trenches with some of these more deeper themes.
Fuconomy: With all this innovation and new skill set, where do you see taking your experience in the future?
Anton: What we realize is the skill set that we’ve honed with Disconnected. Once we get a studio or a network on board, we can just apply everything and it doesn’t change much. What we do is we get better cameras; we get better sound gear. We’d have some more resources on the editorial and on the back end that would make things smoother and give us a little bit higher quality of imagery. Maybe we can have a little bit more prep work, but it doesn’t change much. We’re still going to have to be able to coordinate these global efforts and these schedules to make sure the stories all intertwine.
I do think that through this show, we’ve now taken away this skill set that I don’t think a lot of filmmakers have right now. I don’t think there [are] a lot of people that are capable of it, but I think we’re one of the few people that actually now have the experience and now actually can show this is what’s possible. We’re the guys that can help you to craft these bigger stories or these global TV shows. We are gonna try to take away something good from this experience and hopefully build off of it.
We’re hoping that if we are fortunate enough to do a season two. Then, the sky’s really going to be the limit; we’ll just try to figure out how to up the game from us already upping the game. This skill set that we’ve developed, I think will really help us out in our future future projects. It’s global storytelling, not just one story about India. It’s not a story about this certain country. We really are interested in doing global storytelling.
Fuconomy: What do you want filmmakers to take away from your experience?
Anton: You don’t have excuses. If you work hard and you want to create and you be creative, you can actually put out something that is engaging, entertaining and actually pretty darn good. I think with just a matter of sheer willpower and do you want to do it. I know it’s not an easy thing, but I keep telling people, we as an industry have got to innovate. We’ve got to figure it out. We can’t just wait for things to go back to the way they were because they’re not going to.
So whatever new version of things are going to come, we’ve got to be prepared. So I think to Matt and I, it’s more important for us to get that out there and keep doing this. When things open up or come back the industry is going to look to people like the team for Disconnected to really figure out how to adhere to these new guidelines and be able to make things still engaging while having a lot more limitations.
If you want to see more about how these maverick filmmakers actually created Disconnected, check out the “making of” episode. For more Hollywood stories, see what Breaking Bad’s Charlie Baker has been up to during the pandemic.