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Voice Of The Crew - Since 2002

Los Angeles, California

HomeColumnsI walk the line

I walk the line

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There is probably no issue as vital and under-reported in the film industry as safety on the set. I find myself asking about work conditions whenever I encounter someone who’s in production or has recently completed a shoot. And the details—with rare exception—verge on the nightmarish. People complain of long hours, short turnarounds and locations that are not properly secured. There’s invariably some story of how a crew member narrowly avoided an accident that would have rendered him crippled or worse.
Several months back I sat in front of the camera to talk about the issue. Oscar-winning cinematographer and filmmaker Haskell Wexler has been working on a documentary that focuses on safety and the politics of moviemaking. He’s particularly interested in the effects of sleep deprivation and trying to wrestle with how conditions on the set have been swept under the carpet, taken off the table during contract negotiations and generally been ignored as if it was something that would go away from lack of attention.
There is something else that appears to be going hand in glove with the issue. It’s fear. There is no end to the number of witnesses who can attest to sequences figuratively filmed without a net present. I’ve been told of instances where a film’s safety officer has walked off the set (and quit in one extreme situation) rather than be around when something considerably below code or guidelines was being done. Yet, to date, Haskell has only been able to get a few crew members to step forward and attest to the madness.
Now, if this were a movie script, the story would dramatically ramp up a precarious situation and the end of Act 1 would be an unfortunate death. The middle section would be consumed with the frustrations of the investigators and a single crew member divided by a blind sense of loyalty to the production that’s crippling his ability to do the “right” thing. However, just when all seems lost, he’ll step forward to reveal the truth and an injustice will be wiped from the books.
Real life isn’t quite that neat. There are indeed fatal accidents that occur on set that are the result of some form of negligence. Sometimes they occur despite best efforts; sometimes it’s a freak accident.
In the past two decades, set deaths have pretty consistently ranged from 14 to 17 annually. Only a statistician would try to paper it over by pointing to other industries with higher fatality rates. And while making movies isn’t supposed to be a high risk profession like firefighting, it would appear to have adopted an attitude that accidents will happen no matter how much care is taken… so why even bother?
Apart from it being an alarmingly defeatist argument, it’s an attitude singularly lacking in humanity. It’s tolerated by many because the single greatest fear on set is that if you speak up for your rights and dignity, you will be fired. The very nature of the business since the demise of the studio system is a relentless cycle of working and looking for work and after years on the job, even a seasoned professional will develop entrenched insecurities. People who hire or supervise know this all too well and in subtle or tacit ways will insert the word “runaway” into discussion or pit people against one another in contests of stamina where there can be no winner.
The movie industry has been called quite drolly “a one-shot job.” Film shoots are intense with work days that are rarely less than 12 hours and not uncommonly upwards of 18. Union workers are generally well compensated for their erratic labors. And most crew workers have convinced themselves that they can take the grueling schedules, sleep Sundays and catch up on rest between jobs. It’s a notion unsubstantiated by scientific research that’s concluded you cannot make up for sleep deprivation and that one’s motor abilities start to be affected after as little as three days of rigorous physical and psychological work coupled with insufficient rest.
The overall situation is perilously like something out of Dickens, whose depiction of working conditions contributed mightily to legislation that established the modern workday and social benefits for employees. However, that’s not the worst of it. At a time when the very essence of democracy is being threatened by global politics, everyone in the industry should be alarmed that the right to raise one’s voice about their own wellbeing and sanity is being compromised. It is not bellyaching; it is the law, and those who would use coercion to curb something so essential should be forcefully reminded that it is only a movie and not worth endangering one’s life, family and emotional wellbeing.

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