Les Misérables may chronicle a revolution by idealistic Parisians in 1832, but producers of this year's big-budget film adaptation of Victor Hugo's classic story were embarrassed when furious hair and make-up artists staged an uprising of their own on set.
During the shoot, which ran between March and May, 100 professionals joined a trade union to fight the "miserable" conditions on the set of the film, starring Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway. Those working on costumes, hair and make-up regularly had to work extra hours as shooting overran, including into days off, often without extra pay.
The conditions prompted them to join the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Cinematograph and Theatre Union (BECTU) to negotiate better terms, increasing the membership of hair and make-up professionals by a quarter in one month.
Tom Bell, supervisory official at BECTU, said: "They were taken for granted and got to the point where they just said no."
Productions in the UK work on the basis of "camera hours", with staff paid for the time the film starts rolling in the morning until it wraps in the evening, Mr Bell said. "That means that those arriving to set up before, and clearing up after, can be working three hours a day for effectively nothing. These are called 'goodwill hours'. We all agree this needs to be stopped."
Artists working on hair, make-up, costume and location are particularly affected, he said. "It is not limited to Les Mis, but this was a particularly miserable example." The film, adapted from the hit musical, involved hundreds of extras who all needed hair and make-up work.
One industry professional who worked on the film told Screen International: "The ethos of working long hours, breaking turnaround and being expected to drive long distances after working overtime meant it became a safety issue. We constantly overran, and ran into our days off, and were expected not to be paid for it."
BECTU officials visited the set to negotiate extra pay with the producers because some members were working six days despite being on five-day contracts. "The producers acknowledged that the vast number of extras made it a difficult production," Mr Bell said.
Working Title, the production company behind the blockbuster musical, was not available for comment yesterday. Some of the hair and make-up artists also set up a private Facebook page dubbed Project Bushfire during the Les Mis shoot, to post tales of productions where conditions are particularly bad. It currently has nearly 550 members.
There are rumblings in the industry that artists working in similar areas are set to demand better conditions in another high-profile shoot.
But Mr Bell said the industry was starting to change and that some make-up artists were gearing up to refuse to work extra hours. "There have been arguments about it. There has also been a change in the tone, people are asked to stay on, not told."
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