The dream factory: In pursuit of safe sets

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The veteran cinematographer Haskell Wexler remembers working on a movie a few years ago that involved a complicated scene with rain makers, helicopters, stuntmen and more. The first assistant director dutifully read out a list of safety rules to the technical crew: be careful climbing on and off the camera car, don't slip in the rain, be careful of the propellers on the helicopter.

All very proper and correct, except that the crew had been working for 15 hours and could barely keep their eyes open. "You had these 40 guys in a stupor, handling electrics and shifting heavy equipment around," Wexler recalled. "If the producers were really interested in safety they would have sent us all home to bed. They didn't have those rules read out of respect for human beings, but out of fear of lawsuits."

Working crazy hours has become the norm in the film industry, with technical crews in particular suffering from the studios' determination to cram shooting schedules into the tightest possible timeframe. As this column described last week, the death of an assistant cameraman who fell asleep at the wheel after a 19-hour day has led to an industry-wide cry for more reasonable working conditions - a cry that has so far elicited no more than a token response.

Talking to Haskell Wexler, Hollywood's most outspoken voice on labour issues, the picture that emerges is of an industry that has lost touch with its own artistic integrity and become obsessed with one sole objective: maximising profit. "You've got guys out there whose health is suffering, whose marriages are busting up, who never get to see their kids. If you're working 18 or 19 hours a day you don't have a life, but what you are told if you complain is that you are a weak person who can't cut the mustard."

Wexler is not exactly your average whining unionist. He has been in the business since 1946 and seen how it has changed. As a much praised cinematographer and occasional director (he won an Oscar for his work on One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest) he commands tremendous respect among both studio executives and rank-and-file technicians. If he weren't so well respected, in fact, it is doubtful he would dare speak out. Hollywood has a glamorous reputation to maintain, after all, and even the established unions are afraid to challenge it.

"There's tremendous instability and people are afraid to speak their minds. Instead, they get pushed into taking stupid chances. If a stuntman says he's too tired to do a dangerous stunt because it's three in the morning and he's been on set since breakfast time, he'll be told that's okay. The producers might even offer him a motel room and a car to take him there. But when the next job comes around he won't get called.

"They do it even with kids. By law there has to be a social worker on set to approve everything a child actor is asked to do. The kid might be exhausted but if the director asks for another hour or two hours the social worker will agree because if they say no they won't be hired again."

The steady erosion of working conditions in the film industry has gone hand in hand with the takeover of studios by large multinational corporations which, according to Wexler, "don't know shit from shinola" about making films and concern themselves exclusively with the bottom line.

"In the Forties, studios were run by people who made films that they wanted to make and felt passionate about. A lot of great movies were made on eight hours a day. Now, instead of Jack Warner running the show you've got Time Warner. There's no personality there. The bottom line doesn't have a face, just an abstract accountant-computer-business-quarterly-statement face that doesn't care about human beings. This is a phenomenon that is pervading our whole culture."

Wexler is currently collecting stories for a movie about abusive working conditions in the industry. Like the driver in Tennessee who was driving his cargo of high explosives at 60 mph even though there was a large sign on his dashboard saying he was to go no faster than 15 mph. "If I don't go at least 50 there's no way I can make the schedule they've given me," the driver said.

Wexler sees the issue as being about far more than worker safety or perks like free motel rooms. "It's a conflict between human values and greed," he says. But safety, at least, is a campaigning issue that can get the lawyers interested, and lawyers are just about the only way to make an impression on the studio bosses. "There's no point trying to touch their conscience," he concludes, "because they don't have one."