So one takes a little holiday time off, (and thanks to Tomee Sojourner-Campbell for her thoughtful filling in), only to return and find an entirely new Covid variant making its way around the world. What this does to plans for packing (mostly masked) people into theaters for holiday tentpoles and end-of-year Oscar-chummers remains to be seen, but events remind us that whatever the future looked like yesterday, it will be entirely different tomorrow. And probably the day after that.
Still, the past may yet be prologue, as Shakespeare said in The Tempest. It may be worth noting that same play gave us the phrase “Brave New World,” too, so even the Bard knew that as strange as new horizons may yet be, history still travels with us.
So, it was that we spent our past week talking to a lot of DPs, hither and yon, mostly about the projects they’ve shot now making their ways onto screens large and small, and soon enough, onto a lot of award ballots.
But while talking to them about how they might have shot this particular musical, that particular neo-noir, or a currently streaming holiday film, there was also a lot of discussion about how the past – particularly Covid protocols – will be part of production’s brave new world for quite a long time yet. We likely have more Covid-specific ruminations in upcoming columns, but those conversations, in turn, often lead to further chat about what the post-contract labor landscape looked like, in general.
One of the longest of these was with cinematographer Brad Rushing, CSC, known not only for his work in episodics and shooting music videos for the likes of Britney Spears, Eminem and others, but more recently for oft-streamed holiday fare for Netflix, like last year’s A California Christmas – as the giant streamer gets into its Hallmark/Lifetime mode – and its one-year-later sequel, A California Christmas: City Lights. Both are set in that rarefied romantic world where life running a ranch-and-winery combo with your met-cute love is threatened not by wildfire or climate collapse, but instead, being called back to the big city for work.
And while our initial conversation, for an article in a different context, covered whether the visual aesthetics of holiday films actually meant deploying different gear, or making distinct choices, on the glass/light/filter side (tl;dr* – sometimes the LEDs with digital color control run redder than they otherwise might), when Omicron came up, along with the whole notion of set safety, and then the Rust shooting, and the recent rocky vote on the IATSE contract, the conversation went into a whole different direction.
Rushing allowed that he’d always felt pretty well treated on the sets he’s been on: “From my point of view, my clients typically don’t work more than 12 hours (at a time, and) they give me great turnaround. Even when I was doing a lot of stuff – the long days didn’t bother me as much as the short turnarounds.”
He feels that on that issue in particular, “We’ve kicked the can down the road,” recalling how the late, legendary Haskell Wexler, ASC, “was campaigning for this.”
Indeed, this very correspondent sat in Haskell’s office a couple of times, around the release of his documentary Who Needs Sleep?, as he would fulminate then about various facets of labor leadership that simply wished he’d go away, since he felt that no one who was in a position to was really willing to demand the recuperation time, and work hour limits, that were truly necessary to address the situation.
And as Rushing observes – as have other cinematographers we’ve talked to here – the work too often “becomes a young person’s game, to put your body through” the long, and oft-grueling shifts required to build a resume, and to get rehired – even more so when starting out in non-union productions.
“I love to work hard,” he continues, “but to push yourself beyond the limits of biology, it’s just not reasonable at all. I couldn’t sleep at night if I was asking people to do that.” His philosophy in overseeing his own part of the crew, he emphasizes, is not “tough it out, do what you have to do… your job is not at stake.” Not, anyway, from being pushed past those aforementioned limits of biology. “First and foremost, you’re important, Your health is important. We all get sick. We love you,” he always tries to convey, “but we also need you healthy for the production.”
As for the short turnarounds that left many feeling the settled IA deal fell short of expectations, Rushing calls for ongoing dialogue between “the people who did the negotiating (and) the people who voted no,” hoping there’s still enough interest “to understand why you went a different way. Let’s talk about the precedent we’re setting – maybe you weren’t compromised, but what about your brothers and sisters who were?
“It needs to be about unity,” he concludes. “It needs to be about people standing together.”
As for the entire “working conditions” tangent that became the basis for this column, Rushing says, “It’s an interesting time – there are things that are happening that hurt me; [and] I don’t like to see people suffering, ever… I feel it in my heart if people are suffering. Two years ago, these weren’t the questions I was being asked,” he says, of our “extra” conversation. “I’m glad we’re talking about [them]. Let’s say the things we need to say.”
And let’s see, as the new year approaches and work under the new contract settles in, how many people will keep saying them.
*(Editor’s Note: This is an acronym for “Too long; didn’t read” for those unfamiliar with it.)
Mark London Williams is a BTL alum who currently covers Hollywood, its contents and discontents, in his recurring “Across the Pond” dispatch for British Cinematographer magazine, contributes to other showbiz and production-minded sites, and musters out the occasional zombie, pandemic-themed, or demon-tinged book and script, causing an increased blurring in terms of what still feels like “fiction.”
Mark London Williams’ Union Roundup column will appear every Tuesday. You can reach him to give him tips and feedback at [email protected]. He can also be found on Twitter @TricksterInk. Mark’s past columns can be found here and here.
Note: As mentioned at the top, Mark will be taking off next week, Tuesday, Nov. 3o, but we might have a guest columnist.
All photos courtesy of the respective copyright holders.