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Your Money Or Your Life

About a month ago, I received an email with the subject line, “Working on a low-budget feature…” I immediately thought, Uh-oh, because nobody ever writes me to say, “I’m working on this indie film, but despite its low budget, everyone is totally professional and completely reasonable about their expectations for the movie.”

So, what’s the deal this time?

Call time was 9:00am, which wouldn’t be so bad, if we hadn’t wrapped1 at 1:00am the night before. When I arrived, the AD told me it was going to be a long day.

I know you advise not to, but because I had promised to pick a friend up from the airport at midnight, I asked exactly how long we were talking.

Twenty. Four. Fucking. Hours.

Whut.
Um…

Because that’s how long we have the location, and we have like 16 pages to shoot. We were totally unprepared for this. No one told anyone on the crew the day was going to be this long, until I specifically asked in so many words.

Is this okay? Is this normal? What should I do?

Wow.

I’ve been in this situation a couple of times, actually. Once, while I was still a freshman in college, my film group somehow tricked our professor into getting us access to one of the school soundstages for a Saturday. Wanting to make the most of our time, we decided we were going to film 24 hours straight.

Around noon, after having been awake since sometime the day before, the crew began sneaking off one-by-one to take naps. I slept for about six hours, only to be awoken by the dulcet tones of the lead actors fucking on the greenbeds.2

The director told me to fire up the camera, but I refused, because Oh my God, what is wrong with you?!

Besides that surprisingly dark look into the director’s soul, nothing really bad came of that shoot. We were college kids, totally used to pulling all-nighters. Besides, we were all walking stumbling distance from our dorms. It was probably safer than going to a frat party.

The other time I was asked to shoot for 24 hours was on a shitty reality show. We were in a “haunted house,” and the show filmed the contestants constantly, even while they slept. (In case the producers decided to wake them up with Blair Witch-style creepy sounds.)

In that case, though, I was told when I was hired that I’d be there for 24 hours. Also, once the cast fell asleep, the PAs were allowed to sleep, too, as long as at least one of us was awake to watch the monitors.

There, the shitty thing was that they wanted me to report on my time card that I had worked two, 12-hour shifts, because the overtime was astronomical. I didn’t feel too cheated, because I got a full night’s sleep on a bed that was nicer than the one in my apartment.

But the case that my dear reader wrote in about is uniquely shitty. The first thing I asked was if she’s getting overtime. If not, walk away at twelve hours. That’s just unconscionable.

Once we establish that you’re being paid, it’s time to think long and hard about your health and safety.

A twelve hour work day is actually quite unhealthy, but it’s standard in this business. 13 and 14 hour days are fairly common. 16 hours isn’t unheard of. It’s why Haskell Wexler created his 12 On 12 Off campaign.

Driving tired is just as bad as driving drunk; you’re endangering other people as well as yourself on your way home from a long shoot. You’re more likely to get sick. You become irritable and irrational.

Plus, you start doing your job poorly. The 22nd hour of shooting will not be nearly as productive as the 2nd. You’re going to crash and burn, whether you want to or not.

And a film set is dangerous. If a PA’s mind wanders while refilling the crafty cooler, it’s probably not a big deal; if an electrician’s mind wanders while wiring a lamp, it could be deadly.

If I found myself in this situation, I would talk with other members of the crew, to find out who feels the same way. Then, as a group, we’d talk to the producer or AD: “Listen, you didn’t warn us about this ahead of time, this is an exceptionally long shoot, my turn around from yesterday was eight hours. I can’t work 24 hours and drive home safely. Neither can you or anyone else on the crew. If we can sleep for a couple hours in shifts, I’ll stick it out, but I won’t work past 16 hours. It’s dangerous.”

I would also wait until 9 or 10 o’clock, when it would be nearly impossible to replace anyone. If the higher-ups aren’t willing concede, just walk. This shitty little movie isn’t worth your life. You might burn that bridge, but you wouldn’t want to work for these assholes anyway.

Another option is to just straight-up walk off without warning. They shouldn’t have put you in this situation without warning, so why should you give them warning before calling it quits? Maybe next time they’ll think twice before endangering the lives of their crew.

Footnotes    (↩ returns to text)

  1. I assume this reader is talking about picture wrap, which means they were likely on set for another hour after that.
  2. Hey, it was college.
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8 Responses

  1. Wow – that moved quickly from long day to “risking death”. I don’t usually go around trying to start mutiny’s on set (even if TAPA recommended).

    What I’ve found works well for me:

    – Paid for 24 hrs? You can make a surprising amount in a week with 3 24 hr days and it shows that your time is actually needed. In some industries folks chase overtime for this reason.

    What I’ve found is that jobs with this type of schedule are not worth it if not paid, it’s not even a question (there will be a 100 other related negative issues).

    If I don’t get notice I keep things very positive . “I’m looking forward to the day – I’ve got a prior commitment at 11:00PM so I’ll be heading off an hour early” or whatever. I don’t ask – and just do it via email to keep to business focused.

    I did once pull sets of 24 hr days early in a working relationship, fully and fantastically paid. That showed me that they actually valued those insane hours. That led to approx 8 years of work – as they in turn knew they could count on me to deliver no matter what. I always priced appropriately though – and they paid.

    1. Permanent walkways built above the set, so grips and electrics can light from above without having to use ladders or manlifts.

      1. a-ha! Thanks. I guess we just call them grids on the east coast? Or maybe I just learned some new lingo that I can now overhear and understand next time I’m at work. Also, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a real “permanent” walkway in the lights so that’s probably half the problem.

  2. Your film school stage had green beds??? Granted, it’s a very industry-connected school, but still, I’m astonished. We can’t even get green beds on multi-camera shows anymore — not the cable shows, anyway. We’re stuck hanging, powering, and adjusting lights off goddamned pipe grids, which is infinitely harder and more dangerous than working off green beds.

    Beyond all that, your advice is good. Working a single extremely long day is one thing — I’ve done several 24 hour+ days in my career (most — but not all — on music videos, naturally…), but you can’t come back on set after an 8 hour turnaround to work a 24 hour day. That’s murder, and — not to be flippant about it — that really can kill you…

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