BY DANIEL FRANKEL
Illustrated by Alex Nabaum
The issue of overlong hours and potential safety hazards is perhaps as old as the film industry itself. It's almost inevitable when a professional, freelance workforce meets an ever-expanding schedule that people work long hours, they get exhausted, and accidents happen.
While awareness of the detrimental effects caused by production crews working excessive hours seems to be at an all-time high, there is no ebb to the economic forces that continue to push workdays to 14 hours and beyond.
Indeed, from directors to their teams, there seems to be almost total agreement that working too many hours harms creativity and productivity, while introducing a range of critical safety risks.
For over a decade, industry activists have pushed to limit the TV and film production workday to no more than 12 hours. But then common sense comes head to head with economic realities.
Facing a range of factors that include everything from "supersized" episode orders from television networks to more stringent budget scrutiny on behalf of media companies, producers are under the gun to deliver better content than ever on a shrinking budget and schedule.
Overtime becomes an acceptable price for studios to pay if it means a project can be delivered without extra days of shooting and equipment rentals. This is particularly true in episodic network TV, where as many as 22 episodes must be delivered in a finite amount of time.
"The studios would rather say they shot the movie in 57 days instead of 60 and say we came in three days ahead of schedule," explains veteran production manager Butch Kaplan. "That's three days of equipment, location and salary costs that they save. You could also look at how much they would have saved in overtime, and a lot of times, it's a lot bigger, but I don't think anyone wants to look at it that way."
Meanwhile, working in a competitive freelance business, crew members are eager to maximize their current paycheck, and certainly do not want to do anything to jeopardize future gigs by complaining that they're tired. The overtime associated with these long days, Kaplan notes, has become an ingrained, almost inextricable part of the economic model for most industry pros. Overtime is part of everyone's bottom line.
"There are financial incentives for people to work a longer day," he says. "Virtually everyone has an overtime quotient. Even the AD, if he works a 16-hour day, gets an extra half-day salary. And we don't have something like the Department of Transportation saying how long a grip can be on set."
These economic factors add up to what director and cinematographer Haskell Wexler calls a "cataclysmic problem," one that he doesn't believe has gotten much better since he highlighted the long-hours issue four years ago in his documentary Who Needs Sleep?
In fact, Wexler doesn't believe too much progress has been made in the 13 years since one of the key individuals showcased in that film, assistant cameraman Brent Hershman, fatally wrecked his car while staggering home from a 19-hour workday that followed a marathon week of shooting the film Pleasantville.
That tragedy—coupled with numerous other fatigue-related mishaps—spurred a progressive movement within the industry, with organizations like the DGA taking out ads in trade papers calling for shorter workdays. Ad hoc groups such as Canada's 12on/12off, to which Wexler is affiliated, also sprung up to push that agenda.
"In the late '90s, there was a push to do away with 14- or 15-hour days, but we weren't able to execute that," adds Bob Wagner, a 1st AD and 2nd unit director who has worked extensively with directors such as Michael Mann and David Fincher.
Indeed, over time, such focus gets distracted, and an industry that's been working with the same get-the-job-done-at-any-overtime-cost mentality for the better part of a century creeps back into old habits, perhaps without ever really breaking them in the first place.
At least now, most film and TV industry professionals recognize that they often don't get enough downtime, and that it's a problem. According to director Brad Silberling, who has looked at the issue as a member of the Guild's Western Directors Council, awareness of the industry's sleep deprivation problem is as high as it's ever been among the rank and file.
While the economic pressures extending the workday may be intense, production managers like Kaplan recognize long hours as an important issue. "Call it inflation," he says. "The crews are bigger, it takes longer to set everything up, and the workday has just gotten progressively longer."
That in itself, Kaplan believes, creates a self-fulfilling prophecy, with tired crews working inefficiently to meet producer demands that are ever more complex.
"You get there in the morning and the director wants to think, and everybody else wants to talk and schmooze because they're tired," Kaplan says. "And it gets worse as the week goes on because everyone gets even more tired."
Indeed, a 6 a.m. call time on Monday can quickly devolve into a 2 p.m. call time on Friday, with each 14-plus-hour day wrenching forward the schedule of the next day. Currently, the Screen Actors Guild mandates a 12-hour turnaround for its performers, but this doesn't necessarily benefit everybody. If call time is 6 a.m., and Monday ends at midnight, call time for actors on Tuesday won't be until noon.
Perhaps hardest hit are 2nd ADs, who under some production scenarios arrive on the set in the wee-morning hours with the hair and makeup people, but don't leave until every last piece of equipment is loaded back onto the trucks. "The 2nd AD is going to be there at least an hour longer than most of the production staff," says Mary Rae Thewlis, a production manager on the NBC Universal-produced Law & Order: Criminal Intent. "They come in early with the makeup call, and they're there well after wrap." Throw in an hour-long commute to a 16-hour day, and you're looking at four, maybe five hours of sleep. And then as each day gets pushed ahead a little more, not only is sleep cut short, but circadian rhythms are shot, too.
As for family life and other personal matters, forget about it. Studies specific to the film and TV business that would yield hard data on the toll this all takes are hard to come by. You have to turn to government-regulated industries that keep similarly demanding schedules to get accurate statistical information. Notably, with railway employees averaging workweeks in excess of 60 hours, the Federal Railroad Administration conducted a study revealing that from 2001 to 2005, fatigue either caused or contributed to 1,473 of 5,892 human error-related railroad accidents across the country. Of course, the effects on staff notwithstanding, tired production crews could affect the final product that winds up on the screen.
Indeed, lack of rest isn't just a safety and quality-of-life issue, argues Kaplan, noting, "I do think work is qualitative. A guy who's been on his feet for 12 hours is going to see his skill level drop; his work is less valuable. But that's also the point at which he goes into double time."
Aware of all these conditions, media organizations like NBC Universal—while not capping the workday—have created corporate safety mandates to mitigate possible hazards, specifically the company's "13.9" edict. "No crew member is allowed to work more than 13.9 hours, and if they do, they're offered a hotel room or a ride home," says Jennie O'Keefe, a 2nd assistant director on the NBC half-hour comedy The Office.
On the other hand, critics shrug off such offers as impractical corporate ploys, more adept at protecting media companies in court than actually making anyone's work life more manageable. Basic questions of practicality come to mind: How are they going to get back to the set in the morning? Where are they going to get a toothbrush? And isn't the guy driving the crew member to the hotel just as tired as his passenger?
"Besides," Wexler adds, "who's going to walk up to a producer and say, 'I'm tired. Take me to a hotel.' They'd be stigmatized for doing that."
However, O'Keefe insists "we adhere to it because they're extraordinarily strict about it, and people take advantage more often than you think."
"Believe me, they enforce it," concurs Thewlis. "Don't get me wrong—that's still a long day," she adds. "But it's not god-awful."
Besides SAG's 12-on/12-off mandate, in 2002 the DGA entered a clause into its collective bargaining agreement stipulating that a 1st assistant director "may call a meeting to discuss safety issues involved with the continuation of production when members of the shooting crew have worked 16 hours from the general crew call."
Still, such progressive edicts come amid increased market pressures to expand the day. "Unfortunately, what I think has happened, especially in the world of television, is that the appetite of producers has only grown as shows have gotten more visual and more sophisticated," says Silberling.
For example, the average procedural drama, he notes, is now a scene-intensive project requiring far more setups than the typical hour-long television show did 20 years ago. "They used to shoot Vegas in five days, but now it takes seven or eight days to shoot a network procedural," Kaplan adds. "It just takes a lot longer to film 48 minutes of TV now. There are a lot more setups."
Certainly, the demands on the creative side are taking a toll on the length of the production. To satisfy complex, hour-long, flashback-fueled story arcs, for example, Silberling says some TV series writers consistently write more scenes than are necessary and consequently the show winds up "shooting a lot of material that's never going to make it in the show."
Particularly on new series, Thewlis notes, scenes are often sent back to the writers' room for revision, bogging down the entire production. "The big offenders, for understandable reasons, tend to be new series," she says. "It takes awhile to figure out how to do things efficiently."
Indeed, life on a first-year series can be challenging. Dan Shaw, 1st AD on the new AMC drama Rubicon, starts each day with every intention of keeping the shoot to 12 hours. "We're in it for the long haul," he says. "And it's important to meet the challenge of keeping everyone's energy up and have the entire crew start each day fresh. That means having a good production plan coming in."
But as a recent location shoot for the show proved, planning is what happens before an unforeseen presidential motorcade delays your rooftop Manhattan scene several hours, putting your whole production schedule behind the 8-ball.
At the same time, as schedule pressure intensifies, the quality bar is continually raised. Shaw and his crew work for a cable network that hangs its brand on the cinematic aesthetic of Emmy-winning original series like Mad Men and Breaking Bad. "We have a very ambitious show," he notes. "We all want to do something great—we all want to do something big that no one else can pull off."
That ambition, meanwhile, is tempered with the basic cable shooting schedule of only seven days per show. "It's a real challenge not having that extra day," adds Shaw, who got used to an eight-day schedule while working on the NBC hour-long drama Friday Night Lights. So despite the Rubicon crew's best efforts, Shaw concedes, "We've had a few long days."
Of course, overtime pay is the thing that makes these long days acceptable on both sides. "The penalty for violating these rules isn't losing your license or something, it's to pay more money," says Richard Frey, a Los Angeles-based attorney who has litigated both for and against the studios. "It's so many pressures converging, and the remedy is always pay."
As for actual rules of governance, they remain, for the most part murky. California law mandates that crew members can work a maximum of 16 hours including breaks, and that there should be 10 hours between the end of one day's work and the beginning of the next. However, the rules do not apply to anyone working under a collective bargaining agreement.
Liability is also a murky area. For example, after Hershman's untimely death, his wife sued the producers. However, after three appeals, a California court ruled in favor of the defendants, stating that Hershman's death was his own fault since he'd left the job site and it was unclear that it was work-related. That decision was unpublished, however, and is not part of any legal precedent.
Public information about these legal outcomes is hard to come by, Wexler notes, because most of the cases have been settled out of court, "and part of the settlement is always not to talk about it."
So without strict government or union oversight, and with no pressure being exerted to curb the work schedule, good judgment seems to be the only practical remedy. O'Keefe concedes that not everyone takes management up on the hotel room offer, but she notes that NBC Universal's edict does have a broader effect on the production culture. However, when contacted, representatives of the other networks declined to comment on any safety policies that might be in effect beyond state laws and guild mandates.
On NBC shows, staffers such as 2nd ADs are strongly encouraged to schedule their subordinates appropriately so that no one has to be there from the very beginning to the very end. In the early '80s, the DGA negotiated provisions calling for companies to hire an additional 2nd AD to avoid overtime penalties and stagger the workday. Consequently, O'Keefe is able to "sleep in" until 5:30 after longer days by having her 2nd 2nd handle early-morning call times. "That's why you have a 2nd and a 2nd 2nd," says Thewlis. "The one who sits with the hair and makeup people in the morning should not be the one who stays while the grip and electrical people are packing up."
But more effective than anything else, O'Keefe says, is maintaining production practices that adhere to rigorous planning of a five-day shooting schedule. "Our shooting days are not long," she says. "They only average around 10-12 hours a day."
To Kaplan's way of thinking, rigorous organization and efficiency are the only ways to combat the market forces pulling the day even longer. He says his biggest challenge is motivating everyone on staff to work just as hard at 7 a.m. as they do at 6 p.m. "Everyone wants to take it easy in the morning, then rush after lunch," he notes. "And then getting home before midnight becomes a struggle.
"I try to schedule everything to a 12-hour day, and I try to hold to that the best I can," says Kaplan. "Usually I'm successful, sometimes I'm not. But I try to get in there and say, guys, let's go."
With schedules demanding too much in too short a time, Silberling believes it's important that directors now stand up for safety and not wait around for corporate guidelines to be established. "If no one takes responsibility for how much material has to be shot, then you have a problem. It's a leadership moment for directors, in both film and television, to decide for themselves. They have to ask, 'Am I going to be part of change?'"