Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Priorities - Set Safety - A Child HAS Died

There are points in the chronicles of the films I've worked on that I think it's appropriate to address a production issue at greater length, or expand on a point made in one of the production posts. This will be one of those posts.  I refer to these posts as "Priorities," the things we need to focus on in production. I try to post them at times that seem appropriate.  In light of the thirty year anniversary of a Hollywood tragedy last week, and the fact that there were safety issues on the Korean mini-series we are in the middle of chronicling, I thought this would be a good time to address, once again, set safety.

Character is what you do when nobody is looking 

A child has not died
-Alfred Hitchcock, upon seeing the frenzy that reports of being behind schedule and/or budget produced on set.

I've always loved the Hitchcock quote above, and I've used it myself to try to give people perspective on set when things are looking bleak.  Let's take a step back, folks.  A child has not died.  Our problems are not a tragedy.

Last week was a sad anniversary; thirty years since not one but two children, as well as veteran actor Vic Morrow, died because of the audacity and ego of director John Landis, and a system that made one man bigger in some people's eyes than common sense and the welfare of those involved.

Those not familiar with the specifics of the incident can read more about the anniversary, and the event, in
this good Slate article marking the anniversary.  The article talks about changes in Hollywood as a result of the tragedy.

What the article implies, but does not actually come out and say, is that Hollywood and the big money people who bank it finally decided that the risk/reward equation was not in their favor.  Any safety to cast and crew are likely considered a side benefit.

Hooray for Hollywood, and changes that inevitably make people safer.  It is reassuring that there are risk management people from the Studio who can act as advocates so cast or crew people who are concerned about their careers need not make the fateful decision that helicopter pilot made.

I don't work in Hollywood, but rather in the "dark" that is low-budget, indie filmmaking, and in that dark, character too often comes up short.

First, an important point.  Film sets are dangerous places, with big equipment being moved around by people who work too-long hours, and where stunts that seem risky - and often can be - are a regular occurrence. Even trained professionals doing everything correctly get hurt, sometimes seriously.  Many of the things cast and crew people do are inherently fraught with a risk that cannot be eliminated  We all accept that to be the case, and I'm not advocating here to expect 100 percent certainty before proceeding.

That is no excuse for the reckless lapses in safety that I know still go on every day somewhere on a film sets, and as the term "guerrilla film-making" becomes even more of a badge of honor, where crews are smaller and set protocol is scoffed at by first-time directors and producers, I fear that accidents will occur more often, and some of them will be serious, if not fatal.

My own brush with this came a year ago when I worked with a gaffer - who works regularly - whose foolishness resulted in serious injuries to him and a fatality on another set.  I won't go into specifics of either project so as not to bring further harm to those involved, but suffice to say that, when I met him a year after this accident, he was changed slightly, but not enough.

It was a set directed by a recent university graduate, who was careless in every aspect of his work, and had one of those egos that didn't care who had to sacrifice what to see his (weak) vision completed.  The DP was a hotshot who had rented a package way bigger than needed to spruce up his reel.  The assistant director was great, and helped keep the director in check as much as possible, with my full support.  I stayed involved with the project only because the producer was in very deep with his own money, and I didn't want to see him take a bigger hit than he needed to.  He was probably one of the nicest people I have met in this business, a person who put his spiritual convictions where his mouth and money was, which is truly rare.

The gaffer in question was a nice enough guy, who tried to be a go-between myself and the DP and director.  On more than one occasion, I had to shut down the director from asking ridiculous turn-around from the crew.

Make no mistake - turn-around is a safety issue.  Long hours may be the norm, but when added to short turn-around, they can lead to mistakes, and sometimes worse.

Film folk like to tell Teamster jokes, but anyone who hasn't driven on a few hours sleep doesn't appreciate the job done on bigger set by these folks.  On smaller, low-budget shoots, the irony is that those with the least experience and lowest pay - the PAs - are often put in the driver seat of set vans carrying crew and vehicles carrying equipment.  They are often not prepared for the hours or responsibility that is thrust upon them, and most afraid to speak up because they feel the most expendable.

For myself, I have always insisted that when PAs are driving crew, they be relieved of set responsibilities for at least reasonable breaks, and, when needed, naps.

Safe handling of guns on set has also been an issue in Hollywood over the years, with some famous deaths.  The proper procedure is known by any AD worth his/her salt, but I still see prop people screw with it.  I found myself sending a prop person off set crying after explaining for something like the tenth time that the gun was not to be left sitting unattended on set (she had assured me she understood proper procedure - and even explained it to me - during prep).  This time, I had to listen to a foolish DP about how "mean" I was to the prop person.

Whether the crew or cast member is male or female. there is a "macho" mentality on set that says "never say no" and "we can do anything."  Sometimes the pressure comes from the director or producer, or sometimes from not wanting to disappoint the crew.  When one of my better camera assistants pointed out safety issues to a gaffer on set, he was told to "stick to his department." (The safety issues included, but were not limited to, cable running through water, and this camera assistant also has G/E experience).

As AD, I am always looking out for actors, but sometimes they don't look out for themselves.  On the set of one film, the scene called for a (now rather well-known) actor to ride a motorcycle through the woods and pull a wheelie.  The actor insisted that, although he didn't have a license, he could do it. I wasn't as worried about the license as I was his safety, and asked the stunt coordinator (who I trusted) to try him out and tell me what he thought.

"This kid can't do that," is what he told me, and when my stunt coordinator tells me something shouldn't happen, it won't on my set.  I found myself literally with my legs astride the front wheel and my hands on the handle-bars while the actor argued he could do it and the director screaming at me.  Finally, we found something safe for him to do with the stunt coordinator doing the more daring stuff.

On the same shoot, which involved a lot of swimming, the 2nd and myself had to talk the lead out of going into the water AGAIN late at night while he had borderline pneumonia.  We put the heavy swimming off until he was better, but again, his concern for "letting us down" led him to keep telling the fool director he would go in again.  One more time, we were the heavies.

My key grip on that shoot was a serious talent out of Boston who was also a certified water safety person.  He was my go-to guy on all the swimming, and it was great that he was an ally on safety precautions in the water.

He had seen the "hero-actor" thing for himself on a shoot he worked in New England where the stunt coordinator had gone over and over the safe way for an actor to go over a bar during a staged bar fight during rehearsal, only for the actor to try and make it look "even better" during the take.  The actor wound up in traction with permanent injuries.

I know a lot of up-and-coming ADs and producers and such read this blog, and I put this out there as a lot of long-standing set protocol is being pushed aside - Safety First is not just a saying.  It has to be an oath, one so important that you are willing to sacrifice a job to protect it.  I know at least two excellent ADs who were fired for insisting on set safety (on non-union shoots, there is no DGA or SAG to protect you).  Both would do it again.

There is nothing ground-breaking in this post, and I'm sure there are pros who are reading this thinking, "oh, c'mon, everyone knows this." I would hope so as well, but that's what I see and hear on too many sets.

We live with the risks we have to take on set.  Those of us in positions of authority must insist on set safety.  People are literally putting their lives in your hands.  Be worthy of the responsibility.

*While American Evangelist Dwight Moody is credited with the quote "Character is what happens in the dark," variations abound and are credited to various people, including Jackson Browne, which I'm pretty sure is a mistake.  We all get the point.

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