Recently the ASC lost two of its most cherished members, Haskell Wexler and Vilmos Zsigmond. I’m privileged to remember them as friends and have tried hard to find an appropriate way to honor them. Late one night, after an absurdly long day on set, I recalled a statement made by another deceased ASC legend, Conrad Hall.
“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.”
The physical, mental and emotional effects of going too long without sleep or having one’s sleep patterns disrupted are well-documented; none of them are good. Haskell — a firebrand to the end — forced the awareness of this into every one of our minds. I’ve addressed it before in this column; the last time was sparked by a chat with Vilmos at the ASC Clubhouse. His vehement stance against the obscene length of our working day matched Haskell’s to a word.
If you’re unfamiliar with our habits in the motion-picture industry, don’t dare blame the ridiculous hours we log on laziness or lack of enthusiasm or motivation. We perform our tasks without delay or complaint under any number of variables and subject to every kind of environment. That might seem appealing to a cubicle-bound dreamer, but a job that takes everything out of you is not appealing, regardless of how passionate or committed to the process you are.
Consider the template for most of today’s productions. The fun begins with a 7 a.m. call time on Monday. But instead of finishing an 8-hour shift at 3 p.m., you wrap at 8 p.m. This is followed by a period of consultation about the next day with the director and producer; then there’s travel time home or back to the hotel, and perhaps a meal. Of course, no one jumps into bed the instant they walk through the door, so add at least another hour to decompress, then some stolen moments with the family or tending to other responsibilities. Already you’ve been at it for 18 to 19 hours. Gradually shove that 7 a.m. call forward so that by Friday this crucible begins at 5 p.m. and ends at 6 or 7 the following morning. Working on location? You’re likely finishing your week on Sunday morning — and preparing for a return to the set on Monday, again at 7 a.m.
Repeating this for months on end is like living in a state of impenetrable jet lag. Health, relationships and quality of work suffer; safety on set is compromised and co-workers get crabbier every day. Can you imagine asking a sales rep to maintain such a pace? A bus driver? A dentist?
The reasons behind such draconian conditions are varied and illusory. Poor planning, incompetent scheduling and greed have a lot to answer for. Just compare the amount of work crammed into the average day a decade ago to what we’re doing now. We’re putting out a hell of a lot more in less time than ever before.
And that’s where we share some culpability. We’ve become so good at our jobs that we’ve made the delivery of a first-class production look easy no matter how onerous the circumstances. Producers are aware that we’re Type-A problem solvers. They know that we’ll rise to any challenge and go any distance to complete the task. They also know that we’re freelancers and are happy to be employed, almost without reservation. This puts them at a tremendous advantage, especially when they mobilize our passion against us.
None of us got into this occupation for the normalcy most people crave. But this isn’t just about safety and quality of life — it’s about the value of what we produce. Rested people do better work! We should all pray that it doesn’t take another horrible fatality (you’ll recall Brent Hershman’s tragic accident in 1997) for progress to occur.
When you strip away the emotional attachments and artistic pretensions surrounding what we do, the object of our passion is seen for what it really is: a job. No one should have to call on wartime reserves to make a living.
I can hear Haskell and Vilmos speaking in unison: The only thing that matters is that this situation needs to change. Speak up and get the ball rolling!