How ‘Supernatural’ Filmed Its Final Episodes During COVID-19 (EXCLUSIVE)
Supernatural (Courtesy of Colin Bentley/The CW)
In 15 seasons of “Supernatural,” Sam and Dean Winchester have fought vampires and demons, they’ve been to hell and they’ve died a lot. But would the show survive COVID-19? It was a very real question after the Vancouver-based production shut down on March 13 because of the coronavirus pandemic, one day into filming the series’ penultimate episode. After successfully filming 325 episodes of the show since it premiered in September 2005 on The WB, a network that no longer even exists, was “Supernatural” really going to end its run without a proper finish?
There was no need to worry. The show’s loyal fandom will, in fact, get the ending they’ve been waiting for. One week ago, “Supernatural” completed production on its series finale, bringing the story of the Winchester brothers — Sam (Jared Padalecki) and Dean (Jensen Ackles) — to a close. British Columbia, where the show films, has handled coronavirus well, and production in the province restarted in earnest in July. “Supernatural” was the first Warner Bros. show to begin filming again there, but since then, The CW’s “Batwoman” and “Riverdale” have also gone back. The seven-episode final run of “Supernatural” will premiere on The CW on Oct. 8.
Robert Singer, co-showrunner and executive producer/director, told Variety that production on the final two episodes of “Supernatural” — which began filming on Aug. 18 — went smoothly. Singer has been with the show since its first season, and so have “a lot of crew people, and a lot of department heads,” he said — which may have been a benefit during these unusual circumstances. “It is a very well-oiled machine,” Singer said. Normally, an episode takes eight days to shoot, but they did the two remaining episodes over nine days each to allow for delays. Singer said their longest day was 12 hours.
The show filmed under the COVID-19 protocols agreed to unions in the U.S. and Canada: mask-wearing at all times, social distancing among the crew and enhanced sanitary procedures for people and the sets. Everyone involved in the production — around 360 people, according to Warner Bros. — was tested three times a week. That crew is larger than usual, Singer said, because staffers who would usually be used for day calls — in the electric department, for instance — were hired to be there full-time instead. A Warner Bros. spokesperson said the production was divided into seven pods, to enforce social distancing. And, Singer said, “Anybody who could work from home, worked from home.”
An added wrinkle for “Supernatural” — as well as other U.S. shows that film in Canada — is that the Canadian border requires a strict 14-day quarantine for foreign visitors. Singer, who directed the series finale, which was written by co-showrunner Andrew Dabb, entered the country in early August in order to quarantine. Singer then had a week of prep, during which he couldn’t go to the set because he was deemed to be in the office pod at the time. “Which was a very strange thing,” he said.
Quarantining is definitely an inconvenience, albeit a necessary one: The actor Jim Beaver, who plays Bobby Singer — a character actually named after Singer — flew up from L.A., completed his quarantine, “And the next day, he shot what he had to shoot,” Singer said.
Jensen Ackles on the set of Supernatural (Courtesy of Emma Bartley)
Speaking with Variety, Padalecki and Ackles talked about the responsibility they felt to be careful as they filmed, even in Vancouver, where life is pretty normal right now. If they were reckless, Padalecki said, “It would have been shutting down production and putting people out of work again, so everybody was more careful than they were required.”
He added, “We all felt the importance. We weren’t going out on weekends.”
Ackles agreed: “Everybody was taking it very seriously.
“I would say being on set was safer that going home to my apartment, because everybody’s getting tested, everybody was healthy and was checked on such a frequent basis you knew that there was nobody carrying the disease,” Ackles continued. “I’m being very cautious, and I would have felt comfortable hugging the crew members, just because I know that everybody was so diligently safe.”
It’s definitely a new-world, production during coronavirus. And if all of these extra things — the testing, the cleaning equipment, the masks, the quarantines, the set’s COVID coordinator and the extra day of shooting — sound expensive, surely they are. The studio, however, would not confirm any financial costs.
During the spring, when production plans began floating around, there were questions about whether filming during COVID would affect what audiences see on screen — especially with stunts and love scenes. The series finale of “Supernatural,” Singer said, was “more of an emotional journey with our characters” and a “personal look at the guys” than an episode filled with action, so there were none of those dilemmas here. But he did have to reconfigure one scene that they couldn’t shoot as written because of a limit on the number of extras who can be in a scene.
He doesn’t think the audience will notice any difference, though. “I don’t think there’s anything that you’re going to see you where you would say, ‘Oh, well, they clearly did that because of COVID,’” Singer said.
The finale was a mixture of days on the show’s sound stages and location shoots. Singer said he would arrive on set, answer a questionnaire on a Warner Bros. app he had on his phone and have his temperature taken. On testing days, he would go to a tented area to get checked. “If anyone had tested positive, the next day, they would have gotten a phone call,” Singer said. “What would have happened then? I don’t know. But we went through two episodes, and we didn’t have one positive test.”
He had been expecting delays, but there weren’t any. Singer said, “From the first desk to the time you got tested was maybe six or seven minutes.”
Singer would then go to stage what he was filming. He would work with the actors’ stand-ins to block the scene, and then leave so the crew could set up the lights. When they were done, he’d return to check everything — and the crew would leave. Finally, the actors would come in to rehearse and film. “Once we were ready to shoot, no one was allowed on the actual shooting set other than the actors and me and the director of photography,” Singer said.
Of course, it’s kind of a bummer way to end a show that’s been on for 15 seasons. “It’s a very family-oriented set,” Singer said. “It was different, in that the normal interactions between the actors and the crew just didn’t happen. Their interactions were really between the camera operator, our DP, and myself. And the makeup people. Other than that, everybody was sort of not around when they were there.”
Because of COVID, there could be no wrap party, nor any type of celebration of the show ending, which turned something Singer called “bittersweet” into a sad event. “Supernatural” is tied for seventh in the list of longest-running live-action shows, along with “CSI” and “ER.” Yet when the “Supernatural” braintrust — Dabb, Singer, the lead actors, CW and Warner Bros. — had decided to bring the show to a close after Season 15, an announcement that was made in March 2019, no one ever could have imagined a deadly and mismanaged global pandemic was on the horizon. “We wanted to go out while we still felt we had a fastball. Going out on your own terms is a good thing,” Singer said about the decision. “That said, there were some tears.”
“As you passed people and said goodbye, you could see that it was emotional,” Singer continued. “And I think the guys were emotional.”
The final day of shooting took place in a forest. Singer, Padalecki and Ackles addressed everyone there. When asked what his remarks were, Singer — who has directed nearly 50 episodes of “Supernatural” — said he thanked the actors, as well as the crew, especially those who have “been with us from day one.”
“I said, ‘I’m really gonna miss doing this,'” he added. “It was amazing how many people there were who had been with us right from the very beginning.”
For “Supernatural,” that number also includes its millions of fans, relieved that there are still seven more episodes to watch before the show’s series finale airs on Nov. 19.
Kate Aurthur and Danielle Turchiano contributed to this report.