The Dream Factory: Camera! Light! Exhaustion!

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This week's hit film at the American box office, Pleasantville, is a deliciously sharp comedy of manners about two modern teenagers who are sucked into the world of a Fifties mom-and-pop sitcom. The film has the sort of breezy levity that leaves audiences carefree and exuberant - feelings that cannot, unfortunately, be shared by the cast and crew. For them, the memory of their experience making Pleasantville is inescapably associated with a frightening and senseless accident.

On 6 March last year, less than a week into the shooting schedule, the film's second assistant cameraman, Brent Hershman, was driving home after a 19-hour day when he fell asleep at the wheel and crashed into a telephone pole, killing himself instantly. Aside from the shock of losing a popular colleague, the rest of the crew looked on the accident with an uncomfortable shudder of recognition.

The movie business seems, from the outside, a glamorous industry; but it is one in which the working day is rarely shorter than 12 hours, and often stretches closer to 20. This was a disaster waiting to happen. Hershman had been so tired he could barely stand, but felt he had to make the hour- long drive home because his daughter was sick, and he had promised to come and see her before turning around for another gruelling day's work on the set - a situation to which every working father (or mother) could relate.

A group of technicians decided that enough was enough, and drew up a petition which was signed by a clutch of stars as well as thousands of rank-and-file crew members. They demanded an industry-wide daily working limit of no more than 14 hours.

"No other industry would consider a 12- or 14-hour day normal, let alone countenance a work span of 17 or 18 hours," Richard Masur of the Screen Actors' Guild commented. "It has reached the point where it is clearly endangering not only the quality of the work, but also the safety of all involved."

Nearly two years later, though, the proposal that has come to be known as Brent's Rule is barely any closer to implementation. The reason, ultimately, is one of hard-knuckled economics and the inability of labour unions to stand up to the demands imposed by studio front offices. With publicity eating up more and more of a film's budget, and the price-tag for writers, actors and directors spiralling upwards, producers are always on the lookout for ways to contain costs, and inevitably conclude that the shooting schedule can be speeded up.

Over the past decade, studios have also been tempted to move films out of Hollywood in order to take advantage of the cheaper, non-unionised labour force in so-called "right to work" states such as Montana, Utah, Texas and North Carolina. These are states where crews work far shorter hours than the industry average, and so have a chance to recover from exhaustion. In an attempt to retain business, the Hollywood unions have allowed contracts to be rewritten, and basic benefits - such as meal breaks and the number of hours between the end of one shift and the start of the next - to be cut.

The film that is regularly cited as the most exhausting to work on in recent memory is Titanic, which was shot in Mexico. The local workers were often seen scavenging for food in rubbish bins. James Cameron, who directed and produced the film, kept his team at it day and night - "the closest thing I have seen to slavery", in the words of set rigger Elizabeth Bolden.

"The director can afford to put on a macho display, because once the film is over he can take a break and relax. Technicians have to earn a living, and often they'll turn around from one 19-hour shift on one project and start straight into the next," said Bruce McCleery, a gaffer who was one of the prime movers behind Brent's Rule.

The producers of Pleasantville agreed to the 14-hour limit after Hershman's death, and made other gestures such as offering free hotel rooms and free rides home to exhausted crew members. Gary Ross, the first-time director, had been under intense pressure to keep up the work rate when the project started but he became instrumental in persuading the front office to slow down.

That pattern has not been followed since. The unions, particularly the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees, which includes most technicians, have shied away from Brent's Rule, and are still haggling with the industry about some kind of compromise deal. A handful of seasoned producer-directors, such as Robert Altman or Clint Eastwood, feel powerful enough to impose less frantic work schedules. But they are the glaring exceptions.

"It's a bad time for organised labour in this country," observed McCleery. And the glamorous film industry, far from being an exception, is actually one of the biggest sweatshops of all.