Steven Poster, ASC, isn’t necessarily a stranger to politics in his work; he was cinematographer on the Reagan-era film Testament, which created controversy at the time because it dared to show that nuclear war was in fact pretty terrible for children. Airing the idea bothered pro-missile folks.
But that wasn’t really “politics” in the street sense; that just happened to be a really compelling job, resulting in compelling work. Flash forward a few—too few, alas—administrations later, and suddenly it’s the election of 2004, with both the incumbent George Bush and challenger John Kerry, each trying to win a popular vote for the Presidency for the very first time.
Like about half of all Americans, Poster found himself disgusted and appalled by the first four years of the Bush Presidency—the list of mis-truths, half-truths, and vendettas against the environment, consumer protection, unions, fair tax laws, etc., hardly needs elaboration here.
But what could Poster do? Aside from the usual outraged-American sorts of things, like donating money, working a phone bank, remembering to vote… what would an appropriate below-the-line response to the present moment be?
In true Hollywood fashion, he found out when the phone rang.
And a producer started talking.
That would be Larry Kopald, “an advertising guy,” in Poster’s humorously understated description, asking “if I was interested in getting involved in a MoveOn.org ad.”
This would be the same series above-the-liners like Kevin Bacon, Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Illeana Douglas and John Sayles have donated their talent to. The ad Poster was being asked to lens stars Rebecca Romijn-Stamos (or just plain “Romijn,” depending on how you parse her marital status) as a woman offering a pick-up truck ride to a confused Republican voter, ever-so-metaphorically stranded in the desert.
Kopald had also worked with the American Oceans campaign and the Hollywood-based Earth Communications Office, so was no stranger to melding activism and images. And in his own gift of understatement, was given what he calls a “very modest budget”—four figures—and began making phone calls.
Poster felt immediately it was “the perfect opportunity to contribute.” So did a lot of other folks. “Everybody jumped in,” he says, from his own stripped down camera crew, to hair and makeup people, up through the on-set chain of command, to first AD Randy Gladsteen and director Marty Callner.
And thus the below-the-line, guild and union version of modern political activism was born: a crew could work for free and make a commercial that wouldn’t exist otherwise. A group like MoveOn could buy air time (needling the conservative National Review to no end, which called it “multibillionaire George Soros’ pet project,” though they rarely object to the “pet projects” of other multibillionaires), and thus a response to the Fox News/AM Radio/Swift Boat our-way-or-the-highway coverage of the election could be formed in the very marketplace itself.
“In four days,” Poster recounts, “a rather complicated car shoot in the desert” came together—a full complement of “everything you need to shoot a 35mm film,” including some called-in favors for gear, and suchlike.
“Everyone jumped,” Callner explains, at the chance to work “strictly from their heart.”
And so, on a single Friday the 13th, on a location near Palmdale, Calif., the pro-bono crew and the pro-bono talent shot the entire commercial on what Poster calls “a day full of political discussion. Everybody had a story about why they were so excited to support MoveOn.”
There’s no question that the stakes in this election are enormous for labor. Especially with such a rabid pro-corporate, pro-globalization administration already in power. Indeed, as these words are being written, the venerable, pro-labor British weekly New Statesman has just run a commentary by one of its “America watchers,” Mark Bearn, which says in part, “the established gerontocracy in charge of the major union combine, the American Federation of Labour (AFL-CIO), has risen little to these challenges. Its organising skills are extremely weak and its rhetoric is out of touch with ordinary people. It has failed to muster much of a fight against globalisation, instead fighting rearguard actions to protect its existing membership… The only union that has shown any growth in the past decade is the upstart Service Employees International Union (SEIU), whose charismatic president, Andrew Stern, has been highly critical of the AFL-CIO, and has made some efforts to organise service workers.”
IATSE workers may want to note that Stern is working on a plan to reshape the AFL-CIO to such a large degree that even Business Week couldn’t resist giving it a cover story: “The central idea is to slash the AFL-CIO’s 60 unions to 15 or 20 powerful mega-unions—and get those to focus on building what they call membership density, or share of the labor market, in specific industries, thereby giving unions more clout to lift wages.”
That shut-an-industry down density is an idea Hollywood already knows well—along with the fight against globalization, or “job flight” as it was known, before “outsourcing” replaced the term.
So depending how the election goes, below the liners may not be able to return to the comforts of a working set as they watch the day break with a good morning bagel from craft services, imagining that all is once again right with the world; there may be other types of skills to share, other types of pitching in to be done, with their brothers and sisters in other, non-showbiz unions.
Right now, though, there’s the hope that those pro-bono commercials can help sway even “a few hundred votes,” in Callner’s words. “It can really make a difference.”
Yes. And so might the plans of organizers like Andy Stern, who may be calling on Hollywood’s AFL-CIO members for even more “pro bono” work down the line—no matter which way the vote goes in November.
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