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making the sausage

Polone: The Unglamorous, Punishing Hours of Working on a Hollywood Set

A week and a half ago we had an unusually long shooting day on the show I’m currently producing, Jane by Design. The crew call time was at 7 a.m. and we wrapped at 10:46 p.m. — fourteen hours and 45 minutes after subtracting our one-hour lunch break. And some had an even longer day: Our actors, including guest star Teri Hatcher, showed up for hair and makeup at 5 am, which meant that hairstylists and makeup artists, as well as someone from the transportation department and the set production assistant, also showed up to meet them and were there until wrap, giving them a total of sixteen hours and 45 minutes. Many of you who are less familiar with the culture of filmmaking may find these hours to be pretty crazy, but those of us who regularly work on sets know there was nothing out of the ordinary about this day — and it wasn't even that extreme compared to other movies and TV series, which often go beyond the standard schedule of a twelve-hour day.  

These hours can be a bit grinding for me, but as a producer I have the latitude to show up later or leave earlier. Actors can have brutal days, but they also usually get days off, as most shows are ensembles and they’re rarely in every scene. And let’s face it, producers and actors are highly compensated for their work. However, the average below-the-line worker (the budgetary classification for those who aren’t producers, directors, actors, or writers) has to be there every day and make a middle-class wage. And, from my perspective, they are also the people who whine the least about this extreme schedule. It has always been difficult for me to understand how so many in this business put up with such a punishing routine. So, as our work week wore on, I decided to interview some of the people around me about their feelings on the hours they work and how this regimen affects their lives.

Kirsten Robinson is our script supervisor, which means she helps the director keep track of continuity and makes notes for the editor on how he should put together the pieces of the scenes. Kirsten considered our show as a relief compared to a recent show she worked on where she “worked sixteen to eighteen hours every day and the worst day was twenty hours." And at the end of all that, she had to spend another hour putting together the data she collected and distributing it to others on the production. "At the lunch break, it’s like you have another regular person’s day ahead of you. What was the worst for me was the short turnarounds [the term used to mean the amount of time you have before having to be back at work].  We would work sixteen hours and then only get ten hours off and then be back for another long day. That was the real killer. Physically, you’re just exhausted. For me, it is very difficult because my job is mental. I never felt the money was worth it. I want to put my best effort forward: Fighting through and drinking as much coffee as possible doesn’t yield the best work.”

Steve D’Amato is our first assistant director, who is in charge of running the set. He recalls, "The worst day I ever worked on a show was 27 hours. It was the very last day of the very last episode of the series. We shot for 24 hours and I was there two hours before and an hour after." I asked him how this kind of schedule affects his marriage to a woman who isn’t in the business, a dermatologist: “At first, she said it might not work out, but now she uses the time when she’s alone. She’s gotten used to it. I used to be happy when a production would go over and I would make more money. But now that I’m older, it is more important to me to be able to get home and do stuff with my wife. What bothers me most is you don’t have time to do anything else. It’s hard. It seems like it’s unnecessary: You could just add one or two more days [to the schedule] and spread it out over more time. We’re the only industry that is fighting for a twelve-hour day: That is what I find amazing.” 

Our transportation captain Ali Yeganhe — who dispatches drivers, manages the fleet of vehicles, including those used on-camera, and drives as well — was the most sanguine about the nature of his job, even though his department has the worst hours. When a show is on location, the drivers are the ones responsible for ferrying all the equipment back to the studio at the end of the day and making sure it's all set to go for the next one. “We’re talking about a fourteen-hour day if we’re local and as much as eighteen hours if we’re farther out. We have an eight-hour turnaround that is mandated by the department of transportation. It does take a toll on you as far as aging you. There is a high divorce rate in this business. Truthfully, I haven’t slept a whole night in three years. My wife and I were together before we got in this business. She was in wardrobe, so she knew.”

I asked him why his union, the Teamsters, was resistant to the idea of productions hiring more drivers so you could have two shifts, each working eight hours. This would save the production high overtime rates and allow a more humane schedule for the drivers, while giving more people jobs. Ali explained that “there are two ways to look at it; there are some in it for the money, and some who work four months of the year and leave once they reach their hours for their medical. A lot of guys are accustomed to making what they make. If it changed, it would bring in a whole new element of drivers who might not get the job done. Eight-hour guys don’t care about what they do. They take no pride in it.” I asked Ali if he thought the hours he worked were strange in comparison to those outside of the film and television business; he disagreed, telling me that he thought many people work long hours to support their families: “When I had a rental car company I was in the office fourteen hours a day. My cousin owns two restaurants and he works sixteen hours a day.”

Farah Bunch is the head of our makeup department and was probably the most critical of all about the system: “I’ve been doing this for eighteen years. The hours have always been the same. I started out in soap operas, which have great hours; then I went into multi-cams, which have even better hours; but once I entered the world of single-camera [meaning one-hour shows and feature films], I was in shock. I thought only in third-world countries people worked hours like this — a fourteen-hour day is the norm for the makeup department. You’re making more money, but it is blood money, 'cause you’re trading your life. It affects me in the sense that I give up all of my personal life. When I’m in season, I don’t see my friends or family. The weekends I spend recovering. I think it has contributed to me not being able to meet people because I’m not out there in the world mingling. I dated someone in the military and he was in shock that we were working all of these hours and he was out there saving lives and he’d be home by 4 p.m.: He was in Afghanistan and his hours were better than mine. You feel trapped with the hours, because you know that if you don’t do them, someone else will. And another thing, you’re given a ten-hour turnaround, which is just enough time to drive home, sleep seven hours like a normal human being, and go back to work. But production can force your call [meaning give you less than a ten-hour turnaround] for a $20 penalty. You can reject it, but you’ll be looked upon as uncooperative. My most defining moment was when I was working on In Time, the Justin Timberlake movie, and I had a 4 a.m. call in downtown L.A. underneath the freeway in the pouring rain and I thought, Is this it? … Is this going to be my life? Right now the [Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which is the organization that negotiates on behalf of the studios] are fighting with our union, local 706 IATSE, to change our double time [the point in the day where their rate changes from time and a half to double the starting rate] from twelve hours to fourteen hours, so that they can hold us longer without paying a penalty, which will only encourage them to keep shooting. It makes me feel like they’re inhumane.”

Nobody in production wants to go over twelve hours, if for no other reason than it is costly because of all the overtime. But it regularly happens when overly optimistic scheduling falls prey to bad luck, like cameras breaking, incompetence, and director egomania (though that is usually reserved for big-budget feature films). You may think, "Well, as producer, can't you just shorten the days?" but the studio sets the budget and the schedule, and you can only meet that with these long hours. I have no power to pull the plug on a day unless the studio tells me to do so, and that has happened maybe three times that I can remember in my career. Really, the only way to keep hours in check would be a firm work rule, unlike anything currently in place. In 2004, esteemed cinematographer and documentarian Haskell Wexler started an organization with the purpose of advocating for a "twelve and twelve rule": an inviolable twelve-hour maximum day with a mandated twelve-hour turnaround period for all industry workers. Wexler’s advocacy on this issue was catalyzed by the death in 1997 of cameraman Brent Hershman, who died when he fell asleep while driving home after a nineteen-hour day on the film Pleasantville.

I’m as libertarian as they come and usually believe in the individual’s right to make their own decisions on what they want to do — except when those decisions may endanger others, like driving drunk. After a long day on a film set, people drive home, often long distances, and drivers who take the wheel after a seventeen- to nineteen-hour day function worse than those with blood alcohol levels of .05 percent, according to a study by the British Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine

I think the unions haven’t been fighting this issue hard enough, probably because many of their members want the extra money that comes with super-long days. If some people want to kill themselves with overwork, that’s fine, but they shouldn’t be allowed to take out another person either on the set or the road as they do it. And the AMPTP should get behind the twelve-and-twelve rule as well, since little money is saved by overworking people and not giving them sufficient downtime to recover: Productivity lessens later in the day and the costs are significantly more after twelve hours. At hour sixteen, you’re paying people double, and sometimes more, and probably getting 75 percent effectiveness. There are many complex issues involved with managing the process of filmmaking, and there are usually two reasonable sides to those arguments. But when it comes to excessive hours on film sets, I don’t really see the side that advocates for unrestricted work time. It is time to change this: Twelve hours of work and a twelve-hour turnaround should be mandated and instituted immediately on all film and television productions, period.

Photo: iStockphoto