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Promotion photo of the cast of "Hightown"
Production still from STARZ "Hightown" series

Many industries were turned upside down because of the pandemic, but perhaps one industry that was most impacted was the television and film industry, and three UNC Greensboro alumni can attest to that.

Brad Smith, Joel Meyer ‘02, and Dale Williams ‘82 ‘90, all alumni of UNCG’s media studies program, worked together on the second season of the STARZ Original series “Hightown” during the pandemic, a crime drama series about Cape Cod’s local opioid epidemic and organized crime. 

Meyer, senior vice president of television production at Lionsgate, which produces “Hightown,” supervises the show’s production. He oversees scouting locations, budget, and timelines, and now, he’s ensuring the safety of the cast and crew by overseeing COVID-19 testing and protocols.

Williams, who was in the very first cohort of graduates of the media studies program, is the line producer for the show’s second season. She works along every phase of production, hiring the right people for the jobs, tackling any issues, bringing ideas to life, and ensuring the best possible show is produced on budget and on time.

Smith, whose resume includes Billions, Outer Banks, and more, was the director of photography for five episodes.

“It’s really cool that three Spartans ended up on the same show, especially because we all serve in different capacities in the industry,” said Smith. “We all left Greensboro and took very different paths yet ended up back in North Carolina on the same show. I think that’s a good testament to UNCG – we were given the resources, skills, and a good foundation to be successful in this industry.”

Although production on the second season of “Hightown” had its challenges from COVID-19, it wrapped on time and safely. On camera, you see a maskless cast in a coastal setting, but on the other side of the camera, the set looked a lot like the movie “Outbreak,” Williams describes.

“People wore masks, face shields, and even paper gowns.”

Not only did cast and crew members wear PPE, but the production process itself was altered to keep everyone safe.

“We had to adjust nearly everything,” said Smith. “Production is a very intimate process. We’re typically on a very small, closed set with lots of people. So there’s a lot of trust involved in the entire cast and crew, from testing to social distancing outside of work.”

In addition to wearing masks and social distancing, the amount of people that could be transported from one shooting location to another was reduced, creative meetings were held virtually, and cast and crew members worked shorter days instead of the industry standard to keep immune systems strong. COVID-19 testing and safety meetings were conducted daily. 

Meyer’s job evolved from supervising a typical production to contact tracing and speaking with medical professionals daily.

“Although it’s been difficult, I’m proud that the industry has been able to come back and that I’ve been able to help keep about 1,500 people working across our shows,” said Meyer. “And to wrap production in a timely manner during COVID-19 is a major accomplishment. Many shows aren’t achieving this and are taking much longer to produce during this time. This accomplishment is a testament to Lionsgate, to Dale, to the showrunner, Rebecca Cutter, and to the entire cast and crew in North Carolina.”

They predict more productions will come to  North Carolina for its affordability, efficiencies during COVID-19, and good reputation.

“The crews that I work with in Wilmington are fantastic,” said Williams. “Every director that I work with that comes to Wilmington for a production says that the crew here is the best they’ve ever worked with. We work hard here so that more productions come to North Carolina. And it’s working. There is a lot of interest from different companies to bring productions to the state.”

What is their advice to Spartans entering the industry?

The three agree that it’s about getting your foot in the door, networking, and working hard.

Smith says, “UNCG is going to give you the tools you need, and then you’re going to have to do the hard work. If you work hard, you will make it far.”

Story by Alexandra McQueen, University Communications
Photography courtesy of STARZ

 
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