Indie Film: ‘Coronavirus Conspiracy’ is probably not the film you’re thinking it is
October 4, 2021
Scarborough High graduate James Sunshine wrote the wacky script after the movie he was filming at the start of the pandemic lost its funding.
When you’re preparing to interview the director of a movie called “Coronavirus Conspiracy,” I have to be honest, you prepare for the worst.
Luckily, director and Maine native James Sunshine’s movie (now available to rent or buy on your favored streaming service) is hardly the kook-fest I’d imagined. Instead, the independent film (shot under strict COVID guidelines right at the peak of both COVID and COVID-related misinformation-fed hysteria) is an entertainingly bananas absurdist comedy, less about the way that basic public health measures have been hijacked by conspiracy theorists and other nut cases, than about how we humans predictably make every situation worse.
Unless you’re Sunshine, that is, who explains that “Coronavirus Conspiracy” was born from the chaos wrought by the early days of COVID shutdowns and lockdowns. An indie filmmaker is always fighting the odds against completing his movie, but this was ridiculous.
Scarborough High graduate James Sunshine directed “Coronavirus Conspiracy.”
“We were supposed to go into production on another film entirely,” said 2010 Scarborough High School graduate and Los Angeles resident about what became his feature directorial debut. “I’d written a thriller – horror and thrillers sell really easily – when, in April of 2020, COVID really hit. An investor got understandable cold feet, and we lost half our budget just like that. I’ve always been a glass-half-full kind of guy, so, since we still had the cast and crew, and half the money, I wrote a new script.”
The resulting screenplay, informed by the pressure-cooker atmosphere surrounding Sunshine’s project (and life in 2020 L.A. in general), opens with a bewildered guy in chains. A shirtless, gun-wielding, UGGs-wearing man enters, introduces himself as an economist, and insists that the imprisoned man (who appears to be in his own, empty home) confess his sins. The Economist also only refers to the man as “Zookeeper,” and begins ranting about everything from COVID to internet memes to murder hornets to the planet Galgalon Prime.
And that’s when things get weird.
To say more would rob “Coronavirus Conspiracy” of much of its enjoyment, although the two leads (who, apart from the disembodied voice of the Zookeeper’s wife over the phone, are the only performers) carry the increasingly unhinged tale off with manic aplomb. The Zookeeper (John Lehr) and the Economist (Joseph D. Reitman) are both faces you’ll recognize. Lehr co-created and starred in the sitcom “10 Items or Less” (and was the original Geico caveman), while the shaggy-haired Reitman’s been in everything from the George Clooney starrers “The Perfect Storm” and “Money Monster” to the last two “Jay and Silent Bob” movies. (He was also the terrifying evil Santa in the Grant Morrison comics adaptation “Happy.”)
Said Sunshine of his stars (who originally met auditioning for that caveman gig), “It’s hard to carry a feature on only two performances, and these guys were true professionals. We filmed 10 pages a day some days, and they carried it off so brilliantly.” Praising Reitman’s seriously not-what-he-seems Economist, Sunshine said, “With Joe, not a lot of people know his name, but he’s one of the most underrated and underutilized actors in Hollywood. It’s a shame that he’s not a Seth Rogen, or someone like that.”
Sunshine’s path from Scarborough High (where he was known as “video guy,” and finessed his way into the school’s video production four times before graduating) to Hollywood was its own foot-on-the-gas success story. A senior producer at Food Network and producer on such reality shows as “Hell’s Kitchen,” “Big Brother” and “Project Runway,” Sunshine says that he knew that leaving Maine for the L.A. sunshine was always in the cards.
“I knew I had to go to where the heart and soul of the industry was,” said Sunshine, who got his film degree (from Florida’s Full Sail University) in just two years, and calls his time in the reality TV mines his foothold in the industry. “I came out to be a writer and director, but reality forms some 90 percent of TV now, and it falls into your lap. I’m not as passionate about it as filmmaking, but it’s a lot of fun, I’m good at it, and it pays well.”
Still, movies cost more than even a successful reality TV producer can pony up, and Sunshine is effusive about his cast and crew’s commitment to bringing his first feature to its eventual Sept. 21 release. (The film was partly shepherded to streaming by indie industry stalwarts Lionsgate.)
“Coronavirus Conspiracy” was filmed at an Airbnb, and incorporated the then just-established California COVID safety standards into the narrative, giving Lehr and Reitman’s characters an onscreen justification for PPE and social distancing. Sunshine saw the opportunity to be one of the only games in town when the rest of the film industry shut down, saying, “It gave us a lot of leverage, being the only guy filming not only new content, but timely new content. We got a distribution deal (from Indican Pictures) before we were even finished, and the way our script was structured allowed us to get quick approval from the unions.”
Of course, calling your film “Coronavirus Conspiracy” (a studio-picked retitling from Sunshine’s original “Safer At Home”) invites some unforeseen problems in a world teeming with actual COVID conspiracists. (The film’s advertising clearly proclaims, “This page is NOT for spreading Covid-19 misinformation.”) The film’s IMDb page has been flooded with one-star reviews, a result, Sunshine speculates, of both actual disappointed conspiracy kooks, or sight-unseen voters assuming Sunshine is a right-wing nut himself. (Having seen the admittedly scruffy – and occasionally exhaustingly too-shouty – film itself, I can attest that it’s far from a one-star piece of work, by any rational standard.)
Apart from that, the title has seen social media sites banning pages named “Coronavirus Conspiracy” in their efforts to block dangerous nonsense about the actual disease (which, despite the title, makes up only a single thread in “Coronavirus Conspiracy’s” crazy quilt of ideas). For Sunshine, his film is really about “taking responsibility for yourself and not scapegoating other people,” but that subtlety of message is no match for Facebook’s policies.
Still, indie filmmakers are industrious and clever out of necessity, and you can find information and streaming links at the film’s website, coronavirusmovie2021.com.
Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.