Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Sleepless In Hollywood -- Long Hours, No Sleep Threaten Film Crews

Oscar winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler is known for the big movies he has filmed-- "Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf" and "In the Heat of the Night," and "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" -- as well as some well known labor and "movement" films like "Bound for Glory," "The Trial of the Catonsville Nine," "Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang," and "Matewan."

Now Wexler has a new movie, "Who Needs Sleep?" and a new cause: making sure movie crews get enough sleep. In response to the death of a friend and co-worker who died driving home after a 19-hour day. He had been working more than 15 hours for five straight days on the movie "Pleasantville." Wexler is working with a group called 12 on/12 off which is fighting to reduce the work day for camera crews, assistants and staff to 12 hours.

In a Los Angeles Times interview, Wexler calls on union leaders and the federal government to set limits on the number of hours a day movie crews can work.

Movie making has always meant long, hard hours, but the problem has gotten worse:

Q: Haven't grueling hours always been part of the filmmaking business?

A: No. When I worked in the 1950s and 1960s, eight to 10 hours was a normal working day. Then in the '70s, the normal grew to 12 hours. By the '80s many shows were budgeted at 14 hours. Today, we see workdays of 16 to 18 hours.

Q: So what's behind the increase in work hours?

A: I would say one word: stupidity…. The people who make the movie budgets are sitting in some room in Switzerland in front of a computer with numbers, and they say this picture has to cost X. It's all mechanical and numbers. But you're dealing with something that's not on an automobile production line.
The problem is more common than many people realize:
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When we were shooting the "Lethal Weapon" series, it got so bad that we had three or four major automobile accidents.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I fell asleep at the wheel a quarter mile from my house after working 17 hours.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And I wake up going...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I ended up falling asleep at the wheel, taking my car into a tree at 50 miles-an-hour.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I woke up when a cop stopped me and I said, what'd I do wrong? And he said, well, I've been following you, you ran seven red lights this in a row.
Wexler's also not too happy with the response of his union, the Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees:
There was a petition [to prevent excessive work hours] with over 10,000 signatures. Then the union took the petitions and put them in a suitcase. It fell into a black hole. Tom Short may be president of the IA, but he uniformly represents the producers. I think he's there to deliver a compliant workforce.
A CNN report noted that some actors, like Julia Roberts are trying to make sure the crew gets some rest:
As an actor, I am given a kind of union buffer in that I have to be allowed a certain number of hours from the time I leave work and the time I have to come back to work. So, if I see the crews getting worn out, and tired, and overworked, I won't -- then I'll say, no, I have to have my 12 hours. Because if I have 12 hours, then I know they have a fighting chance at a nap or something.
And aside from the driving problem Wexler also notes that
studies shows lack of sleep dumbs down intelligence, slows reflexes, and reduces memory. It can lead to diabetes, obesity, and then again, it just might kill you. And another thing, says Wexler, isn't there more to life?
Next up: Bloggers Who Never Sleep: Threat To Humanity?