First published in the March 26 print issue of the Burbank Leader.
As live theaters across the country grappled with the coronavirus pandemic in late 2020, Burbank couple Chris Guerra and Kelsey Cooke had an idea — and saw an opportunity.
As actors themselves, the pair knew how it felt to be cut off from their usual creative venues. But with most productions put on hold, they decided to create their own. Armed with a character concept from Guerra, and Cooke’s production company, and taking inspiration from the experiences of the artists and theaters around them, they threw themselves into their first feature film.
Cooke and Guerra co-wrote and starred in the film, “Re-Opening,” along with Matthew Koppin, who directed the movie with Guerra. Though not widely released, “Re-Opening” has been screened or will be screened at a number of film festivals, including the Los Angeles Comedy Festival, the Santa Fe Film Festival and the Sunscreen Film Festival.
The movie, which includes some scenes filmed at the Burbank Historical Society, also won awards for best comedy and best feature at the Beaufort International Film Festival.
“Re-Opening” tells the story of a fictional theater in Tennessee trying to safely reopen amid coronavirus-related restrictions. It is formatted as a “mockumentary,” a faux-documentary style used by popular television comedies such as “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation.
Cooke and Guerra told the Leader in a recent interview that they took inspiration from the mockumentary movies of Christopher Haden-Guest, which — like “Re-Opening” — heavily featured improvised dialogue.
Guerra, Cooke and Koppin wrote extensive character summaries and a rough plot outline over the 2020 holiday season. They shot the entire production in 18 days over the next six months — a timeline extensively impacted, like the theater in “Re-Opening,” by COVID-19 surges.
“It was like the worst time to do anything,” said Cooke, who grew up in Burbank and performed show choir at Burbank High School. “But we were dying to do this, and so we started small.”
And while “Re-Opening” is a comedy, Cooke and Guerra said they took care not to politicize or poke fun at the pandemic, whose changes forced the filmmakers to pivot. They filmed the “interview” scenes, in which an actor addresses the camera directly, first. Because these scenes involved one speaker, they required only a few cast members, who could spread out in the room.
The setting of the film also allowed the cast to follow COVID-19 protocols, with characters maintaining distance from each other and wearing face shields and masks. Cooke also became certified as a coronavirus safety officer. And since the Groundlings, an improvisation and sketch comedy theater in L.A. where Guerra performs, was closed for renovations, the crew shot many of their scenes there.
“Nothing can stop the arts,” Guerra said. “That was kind of the theme to [the film]. It sounds cheesy, but anything you want to do should be defined by where you can do it. It’s like, if you want to perform, you can go outside and perform.”
That theme also reflected how the cast approached the filmmaking process, Guerra and Cooke said. As pandemic conditions worsened and some actors felt less comfortable with in-person work, they canceled shoots and rewrote scenes. One actress even played her role via Zoom calls.
Despite the setbacks, Cooke and Guerra said the process was a joyful one. With a low budget, they had to depend on favors from the Groundlings’ theater and the Burbank Historical Authority, among other locations, to find filming spots. The cast, they added, was thrilled to perform; each of them had previously worked with the filmmakers, who described them as a family.
Cooke and Guerra hope to win a “best ensemble” award from a film festival to honor the work their cast put into the movie. They’ve submitted the movie for consideration to the Burbank Film Festival, and “Re-Opening” is viewable online through Sunday at the Malibu Film Festival website.
“When you’re passionate about something, there’s a lot of sacrifices that have to be made, especially in the arts,” Cooke added. “Bringing people together is the key, and we all need each other, and we figured that out [during] the pandemic.”