This may seem a strange topic for a period in which the film industry is running far below its capacity, but what better time to tackle such an important issue?
“Our responsibility is to the visual image of the film as well as the well-being of the crew. The continuing and expanding practice of working extreme hours can compromise both the quality of our work and the health and safety of others.”
When the late legend Conrad Hall, ASC issued this statement in 2002, he had just survived a punishing schedule on the feature, Road To Perdition. His purpose was the reform of a policy which had become a type of sanctioned abuse. Today, everyone is aware of the Sarah Jones tragedy. But they should also remember assistant cameraman Brent Hershman. In 1997 he was killed while driving home from a shoot in a sleep-deprived state. Countless others have barely avoided a similar fate. It remains a black mark on the industry that to date no substantive action has been taken to reign in the thinking that leads to excessive working hours.
None of us are lazy. In fact, no other occupation puts in the time we do – and in so many volatile combinations and environments. But while the human body is resilient and capable of staggering endurance, no one should have to call on those reserves to make a living. Consider this common scenario.
Rise at 5:00AM to be at the studio for a 7AM call on Monday. But instead of finishing an eight hour day at 3PM like most people, you work until 8PM. And you’re not done yet. There’s off-the-clock consultation with the director and producer, travel time home and perhaps a meal. No one jumps into bed the instant they walk through the door, so add at least half an hour of decompression time. Maybe a few minutes with the family or tending to other responsibilities. Now, you’ve been awake and at it for nearly eighteen hours. Then gradually push that 7AM call forward each day so that by Friday this crucible begins at 5PM and ends at 7 or 8 the following morning. You’ll start all over the same way at 7AM on Monday. I haven’t even factored in overtime. Working on location? It’s worse. Now repeat that pattern for months on end.
It’s like living in a state of constant, impenetrable jet lag. Health, relationships and quality of work suffer; safety on set is dangerously compromised. Would an insurance salesman agree to this pace? A grocery manager? An accountant? I promise you that the clerks who came up with this devilish design rarely approach a productive eight hours in their warm, dry offices. They probably don’t find themselves nodding off behind the wheel during the drive home on the San Diego Freeway, either.
When you strip away the emotional and artistic attachments to what we do, the object of our passion is seen for what it really is – a job. It’s the best one in the world for many of us, but is it worth life and health? How this lunacy of abusive hours became standard procedure and why it’s allowed to continue are of no significance.
What is important is that it needs to change.
For a deeper dive into this issue, check out the documentary directed by Haskell Wexler, ASC and Lisa Leeman, “Who Needs Sleep?”