Tijah Bumgarner and Curren Sheldon are the wizards behind the extremely entertaining web series, “Quarantine Life,” which asks—and answers—the question: What do two mondo-talented West Virginia filmmakers do during a global pandemic that has locked down the usual creative projects into which they’d been pouring their life force?
First, let it be stipulated: “Quarantine Life” is very, very funny. I have never laughed out loud so often, checking out episode after episode for this post—and that’s just not something I routinely do. You’ll also never quite romanticize banana pancakes again after seeing “Episode 7” (below). And you’ll understand why a ukelele had to die.
The duo—and mates and friends called into web series acting duty—have their fingers on the pulse of quarantine’s many First World insults, disruptions and changed life circumstances. Such as not getting the groceries you are used to:
“We’re having these experiences in quarantine that we haven’t had before,” says Bumgarner, addressing the camera in Episode 8, “Anger Management,” a dead-pan send-up of well-meaning, address-the-viewer, self-help videos in a time of need. “Ritz?! I ordered Triscuits! You think Ritz is a good substitute for Triscuits!?!”
Then, there is the coconut milk Sheldon tastes—aghast—that is now curdling his morning coffee: “Did you put coconut milk in this!?!” “Yeah, we ran out of regular milk.” Another production cost follows. The end of this episode is golden.
Also, for fans of Taylor Books in downtown Charleston WV, check out Episode 11, “Open for Business,” in which the beloved bookstore is a stand-in for “Bob’s Books,” as Tijah enters the hellzone—or “Twilight Zone”—of socially distant browsing and ordering coffee from 25 feet away. Bumgarner notes in another episode that she has been “an Internet actress” all of four weeks—but she is a pitch-perfect foil for all the grievances, annoyances and exasperations of Life in the Age of Covid.
In between the many moments of humor and wry commentary, a sly tone of insight, revelation, and sweetness arises from watching several episodes in succession. This pandemic thing is really emotionally weird, life is completely, and unnervingly topsy-turvy, and we really, really need each other to get through it. Episode 10, “Out for a Drive,” (see below) really captures this.
PS: After posting this story, I learned from Curren Sheldon that the 12-arc series of “Quarantine Life” has come to an end. So, have at it, future Pandemic Historians! And, much to the chagrin of us West Virginia culture evangelists, he and fellow award-winning documentarian Elaine McMillion Sheldon, moved to Knoxville, Tenn., last month, where Elaine has taken a job teaching documentary filmmaking at the University of Tennessee. West Virginia’s loss is Tennessee’s gain. Bonne chance!
The series may also be of use to future pandemic historians. Consider Episode 5, “Toilet Paper Run” (see below). We appear to have passed the signal, distressing moment in contemporary American life when the supply chain could not keep up with people’s posterior needs—and napkins and bidets suddenly presented themselves as possible toiletry crisis solutions. This episode will be one to watch with the great-grandchildren: “And then THIS happened, kids …”
Plus, Episode 12, “Nice to Meet You,” is a mock-horror movie take on what it was like to in the way-back-then, when we went to shake another person’s hand, forgetting their was a plague among us.
Bumgarner teaches film production at Marshall University and has done a lot of narrative and documentary work; Sheldon is an Academy Award- and Emmy-nominated documentary filmmaker. Below, we have a few questions for her about the duo’s efforts to cope with quarantine by laughing at it. Or with it. Or both. ~ Douglas John Imbrogno
WESTVIRGINIAVILLE: How did this project come to be and is it a lark or something you can see surviving beyond quarantine?”
TIJAH BUMGARNER: Curren and I had plans for the Spring that included shooting some short films and prepping to possibly shoot a feature film in winter 2020. However, all of these projects became impossible. While working on the scripts for the projects we couldn’t make, we started thinking about what could possibly be made during this time. In chatting about some funny ideas for short videos, “Quarantine Life” came about.
While the stories being told in the episodes are specific to this time, I feel that as time passes people will still be able to look back and have a laugh at the shared experiences we once had in 2020.
To subscribe to “Quarantine Life,” click here.
WV: Who is the audience for the series and what has been the reaction to it?
TB: The audience feels quite varied based on reactions on different social media platforms. The age of fans is quite a range—from people telling me how much their kids enjoy the episodes to grandparents enjoying a laugh, too. We were aware that not everyone was able to be home and spend time making creative work, so comments about relating to the content and appreciating the laughs during such a difficult time were definitely nice to receive. It was a pleasant surprise to get such a positive reaction to the series by getting thousands of views on a video we thought up and shot in a few hours.
WV: What creative work-arounds have you had to do to shoot what looks like a normal pre-pandemic film production, but which has been done under quarantine conditions? Are you shooting film or video to look like film, because it looks like film.
TB: All episodes were shot on video (by Curren Sheldon who did all of the production work). Luckily, Curren’s strong camera and editing skills made each episode look professionally polished. Because of quarantine, most of our episodes are shot outside and with specific lenses that look as if you are closer than you are. Other work-arounds included convincing our partners, who we were quarantined with, to act with us so we could be in the same spaces such as Curren and Elaine (McMillion Sheldon) in “Banana Pancakes.”
WV: There is a lot of well-meaning, but fairly lousy quarantine creativity out there on social media. Are you trying to plant a flag for Quarantine Creative Work Standards?
TB: While we worked hard to create a solid creative series, I feel we were lucky to have a group of creative and talented friends who happened to live in the same area and be willing to share their talent. If someone only has a flip-phone and a funny story to tell, I would say that they go for it! I have always been more interested in story than style, so to set a standard would exclude a lot of creative talent that may not be as lucky to have equipment and experience as we did.
WV: What are you itching to get to that, project-wise, that you can’t because of the pandemic, that led to “Quarantine Life.”? Do you think the way we create and share work will change any post-quarantine as a result of this shared experience?
TB: As mentioned before, Curren and I had plans for shooting various short films as well as a feature film. However, making these bigger projects requires multiple people, often in close proximity to one another. Because of this, we scaled back what we would need for those projects and created “Quarantine Life.”
I think that new precautions will be taken for safety on film sets in reference to the way we create work. Some guidelines to move into production have been established in some places. As for sharing, it has been interesting to see how many projects are online and even showing at drive-ins! However, this seems that it is an adaptation to the current moment and anything can change at anytime—just as our episode about the CDC app addresses.
WV: Ask yourself a pertinent question about the series or your work. And answer it:
TB: I guess a question I could ask myself about the series is “What did you learn about making this type of content since your past work is quite different?” While I enjoy making documentaries, as well as a narrative feature, this style of making was such a fun experience that I hope to be a part of this type of project again. Taking moments from real-life experience and working to comedically portray them in a quick turnaround time was not only fun, but I learned from it as well.
To make work with your friends and be able to have people relate and react the way they did was a great experience. I have always been a fan of SNL (with high school dreams of being on the show) and sketch comedy. Making this project reminded me of earlier dreams of acting and allowed me the space to explore those passions again.
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