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DP Ricardo Diaz on the IATSE Strike That Wasn’t – as “Hot Labor Summer” Becomes “Stormy Labor Fall”


cinematographer Ricardo Diaz

So the informal end to summer, at least in America, now starts to reside in the rearview mirror. We refer of course to Labor Day, that holiday, as noted in earlier columns, offered up as an alternative to the more potentially incendiary May Day, around which, when unions were just starting to form as a reaction to working conditions in the early industrial era, some violent– and often fatal – clashes between workers and police took place, such as Chicago’s Haymarket Riot.

Besides simply fighting for safer conditions, and more equitable pay (and for an end to child labor) one of the battles was also for more humane working hours – eight, instead of the usual 12 or 16. Ironically, of course, the latter remain somewhat standard on film and TV sets, even the heavily unionized ones. 

That is, of course, when there are film and TV sets on which people are busily employed, which is scarcely the case as Hollywood’s twin strikes head into fall. Indeed, one of those strikes might even grow larger: SAG-AFTRA is holding a vote, as we go to press, about whether to expand the stoppage to interactive and video game companies, including such heavyweights as Activision Blizzard, Electronic Arts, Disney Character Voices, WB Games, and more. 

“Here we go again!” union president Fran Drescher said in a statement from the guild, “Now our Interactive (Video Game) Agreement is at a stalemate too. Once again we are facing employer greed and disrespect. Once again artificial intelligence is putting our members in jeopardy of reducing their opportunity to work. And once again, SAG-AFTRA is standing up to tyranny on behalf of its members.” Talking about the overlap between the TV, film, and now interactive sides of the widening dispute, she called the convergence ”no coincidence, but rather a predictable issue impacting our industry as well as others all over the world. The disease of greed is spreading like wildfire ready to burn workers out of their livelihoods and humans out of their usefulness.”

The absolutism of her language, which harkens back to some of her “Versailles” references during the initial actors’ walkout, doesn’t augur an easy settlement. It also indicates how, as “hot labor summer” heads into what is looking like “stormy labor fall,” the current stoppage becomes increasingly unprecedented, compared to earlier Hollywood walkouts. 

One DP we spoke to recently thought the stakes involved should have been addressed even more directly by IATSE when their contract was up, even by a stoppage, which would’ve sparked a Hollywood “hot summer” a year ahead of the current one. 

And that might have been for the best, at least according to Ricardo Diaz, who shot last year’s revisiting of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and now returns to the Halloween season with the haunted-implement-and-game-gone-wrong film, All Fun and Games, starring Stranger Things’ Natalia Dyer. 

The cinematographer’s additional autumnal offering comes in having lensed the third episode of this season’s Winning Time, the HBO show charting the rise of the Magic – Kareem era “Showtime” Lakers, and the rise of the NBA in general, as it works to displace baseball as “America’s second most lucrative sport.” 

So this might normally have been an emerging-DP-on-the-rise piece. Diaz does talk about shooting film – 35mm, 16mm and even Super 8 – to get the contemporaneous look for Winning Time, with his episode shot in collaboration with director Todd Banhazl, ASC who, as DP, helped originate the show’s look in Season One. 

Diaz then moved to digits for All Fun and Games, using MiniHawk Hybrid anamorphic glass, with a Sony VENICE (with its dual ISO settings allowing for “a little less lighting”) to achieve a look that takes in the story’s “horror DNA, but (with) a bit of that nostalgic Amblin’ aura.”

Indeed, in a less fraught time, we might have gone on at length about the craft brought to his latest works. But when we caught up with him, he was home, happily distracted with a new baby, and quite “enjoying being a new dad.” 

And while he may be enjoying putting this forced furlough to very good bonding time use, he also notes that his wife recently directed, and acted in, her first feature, and being both a WGA and SAG-AFTRA member, is now, he says, “very much on strike.” 

Credit: Chicagology

Diaz says he “admires the position the writers have taken, over the last five six years. They understand the value they create. They have an understanding of how that value has been chipped away over the last 20 years…as conglomerates try to apply pressure to the very people,” who, he says, create that value in the first place. 

He continues that “now both SAG and IATSE members have to deal with the reality that these prolonged strikes hit us even harder [because of the position we’re in] – because of deals we have been convinced are in our interests,” but, he thinks, really weren’t, such as raises that haven’t kept up with inflation, or healthcare benefits that can too easily vanish, when work does. “Other than the biggest of the biggest stars,” he says, “other actors who work regularly,” and certainly by extension, nearly all below the liners, are “also middle class laborers,” with little ability to withstand long work outages.

That’s why he thinks that IATSE should’ve struck last year, ahead of actors and writers. “We’ll likely never have the kind of leverage that we had in 2021 – so we missed that opportunity,” he says, citing both Hollywood’s need to quickly start amassing new material, coming out of the pandemic, along with the societal supports still in place – still-suspended mortgage payments, eviction protections, COVID relief funds, etc. – that would allow a labor force more leeway in a shutdown.  “The studios were on their hind legs – and they were spending at the time,” in contrast to the downsizing, layoffs, and ongoing M&A speculation that preceded the current walkouts.

Now, he says, with the IATSE contract coming up again, “unless this next one is substantially better, we’ve lost out.” One critical issue will be – once again – the need for a substantial gain in turnaround time, so “that we have a life. I see no difference in the hours of work” among his colleagues since the last contract, at least not “in the projects I’ve worked on.” And it’s important, he says, that one can also be “a father, be a mother, be a partner – and not a zombie, not a shell of who we are.

“My point is,” he says, “that our battle still remains – and it was not solved to the satisfaction of most members of IATSE.”

Meaning that perhaps the rescheduled Emmy awards won’t be the only thing from 2023 cropping up again in 2024. Simmering Labor Spring, anyone? 

Mark London Williams is a BTL alum who currently covers Hollywood and 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’s Union Roundup column will appear regularly, and he welcomes both tips and feedback at [email protected]. He can also be found on Twitter @TricksterInk.

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