Yeah, I Wasn’t Wrong: A Series Of Letters

If you read my last post, you’ll know that I had a lot of concerns about going back to work on set during the COVID-19 pandemic. My main point was that, without major changes to our industry and the way that we do things that at least partly took on the problems created by it’s massive structural inequality, crew people — and not just us, but really everyone working on set, given the way that we are used to working — would be put at risk.

Well, now I’ve been back at work on and off for almost two months, and I have some thoughts. I’ve decided to put them in the form of a series of letters to the different groups of people that I work with about the things that I’ve seen going wrong, and right, on set these days.

Here goes.

Dear first ADs,
Thank you for coming back and trying to do your jobs as best you can — by which I mean, keeping the ship that is a film shoot sailing, on course and on schedule (I guess the kind of ships that sail these days don’t have to stay on schedule so maybe it’s more of a bus or a train type thing…whatever). I especially appreciate those of you who recognized from the git-go that shooting during a pandemic was going to be complicated and required extra time and organization, who did things like have Zoom meetings with the crew in advance to talk about how things were going to be done, in addition to comprehensive safety meetings every morning to lay out the day, address concerns, and discuss what could be improved. Even if your control-freakishness sometimes annoys me under normal circumstances, it has certainly come in handy at this time in our lives and careers, because you thought ahead, came in with a plan, and did your best to stick to it.

To those of you who just thought you could roll in and do what you did before…what the fuck were you thinking? YOU are the person whose job it is to run the set. In order to do that right now, you need to take even more responsibility for how we do our day, which means everything from educating yourself on the basics of how people contract this disease and having discussions with the COVID compliance people about what their role should be (because a lot of them don’t seem to know), to making sure talent put their masks back on after every take (because they often don’t remember). Making sure everyone wears their masks whenever possible is extremely critical, and it is not, as the first AD said to me on my first job back, “just for inside.” Yes, interiors, where there is less ventilation to dissipate the virus or UV rays to help destroy it during the day, are more dangerous. However, YES YOU CAN GET COVID OUTSIDE YOU DUMBASS, AND HOW THE HELL DO YOU SERIOUSLY NOT KNOW THAT? I understand that you probably weren’t choosing between this job and epidemiologist, but still, come on, the information is out there you lazy fuck, so let me sum it up for you, since I have made the effort to educate myself that you, apparently, have not: all available evidence points to the fact that transmission of COVID occurs through micro droplets in the air (which can also become aerosolized, although data on that is limited) that come from people exhaling on each other — particularly when they are doing things like coughing, sneezing, talking, singing, breathing heavily, and anything else that can force those droplets out in greater numbers — that are taken in by others through their noses, mouths, and eyes. Masks have been show to be very effective in preventing these droplets from being transmitted by the wearer, and therefore, people without masks are the greatest risk to everyone else.

Who are these people on a film set? On-camera talent. So as a rule, you should get their masks off right before we go, and get them right back on right after — and if you have to have hair and makeup people do final touches when they are not wearing masks, either the talent or the vanities or preferably both should be wearing/holding shields in front of their faces. Then, remind the crew that they should be staying as far away as possible from the talent when they are unmasked (we say six feet as a guideline, but some studies have shown that that isn’t always enough) because, again, you’d be surprised how many people either don’t realize that, or forget when they are busy doing their jobs. If someone is suggesting that people on set do things in a way that is going to make maintaining a safe distance from the talent difficult — say the director and DP who insist that they must have the camera in the actor’s face when he is jogging, or yelling; the creative team that says they absolutely have to shoot in an apartment so tiny that social distancing is literally impossible; or the director who seems to think that they need to have all of the talent be in the room to do all of their off-camera lines and actions, without their masks, all of the time, even though you can and probably will still get all of that stuff wild later on, when everyone can all safely distance themselves from them (yes, all of these situations have occurred on sets I’ve been on since being back at work) — tell them that this is bad and should not happen. 

Yes, you can. I get that this is hard, but somebody has to do it, and you are the one who says “roll” and “cut,” who starts and stops everything. I know you don’t want to stop, or slow down, ever, because you want to make your day. But somebody has to speak up and do these things when necessary to make sure that everything is done safely, and as the person with the voice on set that goes out over channel one, that we all listen to, we are counting on you.

With appreciation for all that you do,
Your favorite(?) boom operator

Dear COVID compliance supervisors/assistants,
Thank you for coming to our sets to do a job that was just invented and is new to everyone. This cannot be easy. You are not medical experts (some of you are medics, so have some training, but the majority are not), and as far as I have seen, none of you are trained specifically in virus transmission. You tend to come from other parts of the industry — I’ve met COVID compliance people who told me they came from hair and makeup, or VTR, or producing, or even sound — and you, apparently, only received rudimentary training in what your job actually is. So I really do get that you are trying your best in a difficult situation, and I appreciate that.

However, ADs and crew desperately need you to step up. This means not only educating yourself at least as well as I have about how the virus is spread, so that you will not make bad decisions — like the COVID compliance guy on my first job who said we could put six people and a driver into a crew van whose windows don’t open — or focus on the wrong things — like the guys on a more recent job who basically behaved like walking hand sanitizer dispensers, one of them even going so far as to dispense it to an unmasked actor without reminding her to put her mask back on (when I pointed out that she wasn’t wearing a mask he was shocked — he’d been so focused on the sanitizing that he literally hadn’t noticed), and basically did nothing else unless I bugged the shit out of them. Bugging the shit out of people? That is supposed to be your main job, because the rest of us are so focused on doing the jobs that we have been doing for decades that we aren’t thinking about how we need to do them differently. So please, stay awake, and focused, and not on your phone, so that you can help ADs remember to get actors’ masks back on after every take, make sure crew keep their masks on and stay as distanced as they can, particularly from unmasked talent, but also from each other where possible, rather than just automatically clustering together in one corner of a large space either focused on our jobs or our phones, because that’s our default setting. And if you see someone in a situation where folks are not observing these rules when they could be, FUCKING SAY SOMETHING. At this point, I’ve worked with just two COVID compliance people who actually did do this, sometimes making royal pains in the ass out of themselves — and that was awesome. I felt safe with them around, and felt like I could finally stop worrying and just focus on what I was supposed to do.

Like I said to the ADs in another letter that you no doubt haven’t read because I sent it to them and not you (and which technically doesn’t exist aside from in this blog post), I know that speaking up is hard. It’s tough when you’re new to set, and don’t know the ropes, and it’s also tough sometimes when you aren’t, because those of us who work on set are taught to be cogs in the machine who just stay in our own lanes. But you are the ones who are perfectly positioned to do it in this situation because your job literally has “compliance” in the name. So try and get people to people comply — not in a nasty or authoritarian enforcer way, but in a nice, suggesting way, that recognizes that everyone is doing their best, and that they probably just didn’t know or weren’t focused on what they were supposed to do — because they probably weren’t. And if they say they will not or, more likely, cannot comply because it will affect their ability to do their jobs, offer them additional protection, like a face shield. Even if they say no, just this little suggestion will remind them that they need to be cognizant of where they are and how they might be putting themselves at risk — because, again, crew and cast are often just too busy and in our own groove to think about that. Doing so will also give us permission to care about ourselves that we often don’t feel that we have on set. We have always been asked to think about what’s good for the project, to stoically endure long hours and sometimes even abuse, and our default mode is to tune out and just get through the day. Don’t let us.

Many thanks,
That chick who is always nagging but really does appreciate you, I swear

Dear producers, production managers, and coordinators,
Thank you for bringing us all back to work. We need the money and the health insurance hours, and we truly appreciate that you chose to call us for these jobs. I also genuinely like most of you and when we aren’t working, you are some of my favorite people to talk and joke around with (and I’m not just saying that so you will keep hiring me, although, yeah, I do need you to keep hiring me). I get that you are nearly always in a tough situation these days, especially on commercials, dealing with budgets that are already spread thin by agencies trying to spread their budgets between TV and the internet, or on TV shows where sometimes there are 10 or 20 different producers of various sorts taking their piece of the budget pie, and now having to somehow add safety into all that must be a challenge. I also know that you often have much less power than it seems like you do, because in commercials, directors always choose the producers, and then producers hire the PMs and coordinators at a point when, I’m guessing, the job has already been bid, and they just need to do their best with it; and in TV these days, you are part of a huge machine with, again, so many names in the head credits wielding power over what you do and making demands who are not on set — and often not even in the same time zone — and therefore are very removed what you are actually dealing with on a daily basis. And you are kind of looking for guidance on what to do just as we all are; some of you have even told me you’d welcome more requirements rather than just guidelines from the unions and guilds, so you know what you have to spend money on, no ifs ands or buts, which somehow just don’t seem to be forthcoming.

Since we don’t have those clear rules, I think what I want most from you is honesty, from beginning to end. Please don’t just disappear before the shoot and ignore our texts and phone calls with questions about safety. If I’m asking what precautions you’re taking, and you tell me about the HEPA filters and the KN95s and the testing, but fail to mention the fact that the reason you’re doing all that is that we are going to be filming in rooms of between 60 and 20 square feet in size, you’re not really giving me the low down, now are you? And if I ask you, “Has the cast been tested?” just tell me, “No,” not, “No, but I don’t think they have it,” like you somehow believe that qualifier makes it better — because, unless you are either quarantining the cast or have been following them around for the past 14 days to make sure they aren’t interacting with people from whom they might catch COVID, it really doesn’t. Also, please don’t give us safety theater instead of actual safety. For instance, by saying that we are going to work in a “zone system” to minimize the chance of spread, when in fact the people zoned for “Zone A” (the one at most risk because they are with the cast on set when filming) includes basically everybody except for like eight people. Or by doing things like making any member of the crew who passes through set at any time wear shields and long-sleeved, garbage bag-like hospital gowns, even though we’re shooting exteriors only on a humid, 85-degree summer day — which will do nothing to protect anyone, but will make it a miracle that by the end of the day, someone didn’t pass out from heat stroke.

I know we are all learning as we go, you’re generally doing your best with the resources you have, and mistakes are going to be made. But real safety requires us all to be well-informed and take the measures that protect us, not the ones that don’t, even if they cost more money.

Thanks again,
The person that the sound person selects for you but I know that you could still not hire if you wanted, so please remember that I do a good job and I care

Dear directors,
I know you’re creative people. I see you trying to make your commercial or TV episode better than just any old boring ad or detective show, and you know what? Often, you succeed. Some of you have very good ideas about how to create an interesting look, many of you are excellent at casting and working with actors, some of you excel at figuring out how to make the dialogue funnier through improvisation. I mean, you could just phone these things in and work as a go-between for the agency and the talent on your commercial, or just do your episode of episodic according to the established style for that show, but you want to go the extra mile, and I totally appreciate that. If I were you, I would probably want to do that too.

However, these are not normal times. I know that, in commercials, most of you are used to doing 30 takes of every variation of every line in every size until you run out of time or somebody forces you to stop, because you’re used to providing as many options to satisfy the 20-to-30-person committees of agency and client as possible. I know that, if you’re a TV director who comes from movies, you may not be used to having to work much more quickly and make compromises. I know that, because you’re getting paid more than everyone else on the set (except for the EP if they happen to be there), or because you directed one Super Bowl commercial that people liked, or because you got some attention for your independent feature, some of you have somehow gotten this idea that you are the genius who doesn’t need a plan for how you’re going to cover a scene, or that every “inspiration” that comes into your head is gold and must be tried, or that you have to shoot with the particular style you’ve make your trademark, like having the camera handheld right in the actor’s face, or that you have your own, special, more complicated, more manpower-intensive way of doing things, which you are convinced is brilliant even though none of the famous and talented and experienced directors I’ve worked with do it that way, and in fact nobody else uses because it’s completely impractical and unnecessary at all times, not just during a pandemic.

Well, here’s the thing: THIS IS A PANDEMIC, so while self-indulgence may be your default mode, that ain’t gonna work right now. We are supposed to be shooting with fewer people on set, not more. Shooting days are supposed to be under ten hours, not 12+, so that we all can rest more and and fight off the virus, like all the guilds and unions said in The Safe Way Forward. We have to plan more, not just say, as one young white man (though doesn’t that go without saying?) I worked with recently did, “We have to do it this way because I don’t know what’s going to happen” (and by the way, as the director, it’s embarrassing for you to ever say that). So if you are going to have to cram multiple spots into a day, because that’s the way we’ve all had to work for years now in commercials, or you have a lot of pages to shoot today on your TV show, because that is pretty much every day on a TV show, do your homework, come in with a plan, maybe come up with an interesting style parameter for how you can shoot this (like using all long lenses) that allows everyone to be safer, challenge yourself to work more efficiently, listen to the advice and feedback from the crew who are experts in their fields. Maybe take this opportunity to make the crew love you, because filmmaking is a team sport, and we truly do love those of you who look at yourselves as part of the team.

Sincerely,
Someone you generally don’t notice exists unless they fuck up, but is both a human being and has been doing this for over 25 years and therefore sometimes knows shit

Dear fellow crew members,
This is an extraordinary time. Whether you love your work on set or are just doing it for the paycheck, or somewhere in between like most of us, the job you are coming back to now is not the same as the one you were used to doing before the pandemic. It just isn’t. The things that many of us enjoy about it — the camaraderie, the challenge, the chance to work and interact with talented people we admire — are inevitably going to be altered when you have to sit six-plus feet apart at lunch and maybe not talk, when you shouldn’t get close enough whisper to each other on set, when you have to add how to stay as far as you can from unmasked actors into the calculus of how to best boom a take, or operate a camera, or pull focus, or reset props. It’s also really, really hard to reprogram your brain when you’ve been doing the same job for five or ten or 20 or 30 years, as many of us have, and one of the great things about that is all of the little things you don’t have to think about any more, because they are second nature. 

But things have to be different now. I, for instance, have to work on a longer pole than I would normally use nearly all of the time in order to to try and keep myself at least eight feet away from the actors (I’ve figured out that I feel more comfortable when I am three extended lengths of a K-Tek pole away, which is about ten to 12, depending on how close to the end I’m holding it). I’m often choosing positions that aren’t optimal for me to see all of the action, because I want to keep my distance from the crew as well when I can. Both of these things means that I’m working on a ladder a lot more, which, while I do enjoy being taller than everyone else, limits my movement and abilities in ways I don’t like. And sometimes I’m wearing a mask and a shield and headphones, all of which makes me hotter on hot days and just annoyed on others (advice: get yourself a shield that is adjustable, doesn’t fog up, and swivels). All of this makes a job which I primarily enjoy because I’m good at it that much harder. Did I want to go back in time to when I felt less capable, while still remaining old enough that my back and arms will definitely feel that extra weight of the extended pole when I go home at night? That would be a hard “no.” But this is where we are.

So pay attention, educate yourself about how the virus works and how to stay safe, and take care, even though these are often not easy things to do. We all want to take the down moments we have to chat with our friends or zone out and look at our phones instead of looking around us to see if we are standing closer to other people than we should and looking for somewhere else we could be. We are not accustomed to stepping off set, or being more judicious about choosing when we are on it, just because there are already too many people in that small space. We are used to all doing our work there at the same time, because we often aren’t given the time to do it separately — but we need to start asking for it. Accept that everything is going to take a little longer during this time, and let production know that if they’re rushing you, or asking you to do things that aren’t safe. If a room is too small for you to be in and stay a safe distance from the actors, tell your boss, tell an AD, and figure out a solution. If you can’t, you are allowed to opt out, because the fact that that unsafe situation exists is on production, not on you. And if you don’t feel comfortable doing that, or you think that the actors having tested negative makes you feel safe (even if that test happened two days ago), at least, please, put on a shield if you can. This isn’t the time to be stoic and just suck it up. This isn’t the time to prove anything.

And I’d remind everyone that this isn’t just about “trusting” the people you work with. You can be working with cast and crew that you 100% rely on to be responsible and safe and still have no idea who they live with, if their roommates wait tables, if their spouses are teachers who are back in the classroom, if their kids are too young to wear masks properly, or if, like most people under 25, their brains aren’t fully formed enough to make the right decisions in a situation that they’ve never had to deal with before. It’s not the fault of any of these people if they get the virus, but if they do, it could easily be passed it on to you over the course of a 10-to-14-hour day of working together in that close, somebody’s-armpit-in-your-face-is-normal way that we are all used to working. Wearing masks helps, social distancing helps, separating into zones and pods helps, testing helps, but none of these things is 100% effective or fool-proof and there’s still so much about this virus we don’t know. That’s why we have to try and maintain layer upon layer upon layer of safety — and real safety, not the kind that’s for show. I wish we could rely on the government, or the unions and guilds, or production to protect us, but even if they all did more than they are doing now (which I wish they would), we would still have to take responsibility for protecting ourselves and protecting each other. New York’s case count is low now, but given how things are in the rest of the country, and the fact that we are going back to school, and reopening more businesses all the time, it probably won’t stay that way. Being safe, by paying attention to and rethinking how we do things, is how all of us are going to stay working, healthy, and alive, together.

Your friend and colleague,
Me

You Think It’s About Magic But Really It’s About Money – The Sequel

Six years and about four months ago, I wrote a blog post about how camera assistant Sarah Jones was killed by a train during a shoot in Georgia for a film called Midnight Rider. It was an entirely avoidable tragedy that said a lot about the problems with our industry, ones that stem from the immense value placed on product and profit over people. 

Today, the film business is abuzz with talk of how we are going to get back to work in the midst of a pandemic, and Sarah Jones is again on my mind. This disease and the massive number of avoidable deaths it’s caused in the U.S., disproportionately made up of elderly in nursing homes, low-income Americans, people in jails and prisons, and members of Black and brown and immigrant communities, is revealing deeply-entrenched problems with the political, cultural and social structures of our country that we’ve either ignored or accepted forever. Now, it’s doing the same with our industry. Because you can’t talk about going back to work safely on set without looking at the underlying issues that make it normal for us to go work in inhumane and unhealthy conditions daily, issues that made Sarah just the most obvious canary in the coal mine of a problematic system where very little of importance has changed since her death.

(NOTE: I am not in ANY way seeking to compare what Black and brown people experience every day due to centuries of systemic racism and xenophobia with what film production crew deal with, and if you haven’t taken the time to inform yourself about things like the case for reparations, the systemic oppression of Native Americans, why we need immigration reform, and other aspects of these waaaaay bigger problems in our society yet by reading and watching the books, films and tv shows on lists like this, this, this, this, this, and this, then go get to work on all of that first, and then come back and read this.)

I recently went through the White Paper put out by an Industry-Wide Labor-Management Safety Committee Task Force, listing suggestions for the ways our industry should change for us to return to production. It includes lots of sensible-sounding but passive-voice, no-responsibility phrases about how things “should be” done. Since then, another document called “The Way Forward” has been released by the DGA, SAG-AFTRA, IATSE, and the Teamsters, that adds on some very good, more specific ideas. It divides set into zones that need to be separated by the jobs of the people who work in them, with the part of set with the actors being the zone that requires the most caution — because remember, people on camera will have to work for a good portion of the day without masks. It says that frequent testing must be employed, particularly with people in those most dangerous zones. It says that 10-hour workdays, from call to camera wrap, should be implemented, so that people get enough rest to keep their immune systems up. 

The basic problem I see here is that every one of these suggestions is impossible given the way that we are used to working on the TV shows and commercials that are my bread and butter — and that way of working is ingrained in all of us. Because of that, I know that the first day that I go back to work, I am going to be asked to do something I consider unsafe, because I’m going to just be expected to do things the way that I normally do. 

Let me get specific on what I mean by breaking down some points lifted from the White Paper.

1) “To the extent possible, reduce crowding of all shared workspaces (e.g., production offices and shops) with a goal of keeping people 6 feet apart.”

I have almost never been on a set where I can stay six feet away from people at all times. This is because, no matter the overall size of the space we’re in — and that can vary from a big open soundstage to a tiny bathroom in a Manhattan apartment — the actual set within which the scene takes place inevitably contains two cameras, if not three, crammed into that space, each basically attached to at least one person, the operator, but generally also a grip and a camera assistant or two at least part of the time. There is also generally a DP, a director, a DIT, a script supervisor, ADs, lighting people, prop people, other grips, who have to move in and out of that space to do their jobs as well, and oh yeah, unmasked actors. And space in New York City, as we well know, comes at a premium — so there will always be less than you want.

Can we reduce the number of people on set at any given time? Yes. We should clearly get rid of the people who don’t need to be around, like the various visitors/girlfriends of VIPs on TV and movies, or clients and agency on a commercial who don’t have to give input, and some other folks can absolutely learn to work remotely via monitors that keep them a safe distance outside of that working set. When it comes to reducing crew beyond that, however, you have to remember that a film production is expected to be a well-oiled machine. Cut back on the number of people that are needed for that and the gears will slow down, potentially a lot. Which is fine, if you’re prepared to get less done over the course of a day. But in production, you’re never prepared to get less done. On the contrary, trying to get more done than is reasonably possible? That’s table stakes. That’s why, when you have expensive equipment, a large crew, and highly-paid cast and creatives, time is money and money is time.

There is one easy way to reduce the number of people on the shooting set that comes immediately to mind: reduce the number of cameras. The idea that using three, or maybe even two cameras makes the day move faster is just wrong. It’s pretty challenging to light for and shoot a set-up from three different angles that looks decent without seeing all of the cameras and the crew and the equipment that are necessary to do that. It often means that at least one (if not two) of those cameras is not getting quite what you want, because of the compromise of working around the other two. So you very often end up trying to come up with, and therefore spending time on, shots for that third camera that are not worth the amount of time and money wasted getting them — which could be used on another set-up afterwards that will actually get you something much better. I’d argue that the only thing that third camera will get you shooting an interior scene these days, when you will have to do the usual things where everyone crowds together, literally tripping over each other, so that they stay out of picture, is COVID-19.

And once upon a time, we only used one camera.

2) “Appropriate and adequate PPE will be provided.”

Who gets to decide what’s appropriate and adequate PPE, and who from production is going to provide it? I saw a conversation on Facebook between my colleagues who work in commercials about this, with a freelance production manager pointing out that basically it’s going to fall on him to get some poor PA to run out and buy whatever they can find, because they never have enough money or enough prep time. 

I don’t doubt for a minute that he’s right, simply because of, again, the way we’ve gotten used to working in commercials for the past five to ten years. Basically, clients and ad agencies are trying to spread their budgets around between TV ads and various online content, so that means that people making TV commercials are often expected to do even more (e.g. sometimes also shoot content for Facebook or Instagram) with less. Which means production companies are always trying to cut corners by spending less time on pre-production, cutting crew people, shooting in fewer days, spending less on equipment, craft service and catering, and so on. 

Needless to say, the “cutting corners” environment is not the one into which you want to be returning during a pandemic. I haven’t been back to work yet, but I got a call on a Friday for a job on a Monday, and the boss who texted me about it basically knew nothing about the job. Pre-pandemic, that was 100% SOP, and I’d taught myself not to care; the MO for a crew person that makes you most popular is: show up where they tell you to show up, stay as long as it takes, and then go home when they tell you you’re done. This time, I started asking questions, and he said production would have masks, medic on set, as few people on set as possible, “six feet apart etc,” “the usual”— as if there is a “usual” when you’ve never worked during a pandemic before. By Saturday, he didn’t really have any more information; they’d confirmed it was going to be exterior, but it might be on the balcony of the producer’s apartment in Manhattan…? Again, there isn’t a lot of space in Manhattan apartments, much less on Manhattan balconies, and this is now two days before I’m supposed to show up and hold a microphone over the head of a person who isn’t wearing a mask. Because these jobs are happening before we’ve established any of these new guidelines.

It’s hard to be comfortable just “rolling with it” the way I used to when I know this is how things are done. It was different when rolling with it just meant the possibility of exhaustion and discomfort that we’ve grown used to in our business, rather than death.

3) “Heightened cleaning and disinfection should be practiced” and “High-touch surfaces shall be wiped down periodically.”

Again, the first question is, by whom, and where, and how? If production does hire a professional disinfection crew to come in between days, like The Safe Way Forward suggests, that’s a good start. But what about over the course of the day? Because all equipment on a shoot is shared and passed around from person to person. The pool of grip and lighting equipment is rented and used by anyone who needs it. The sound person brings all of their own gear, including wireless microphones and listening devices for other people on set, but those are, of necessity, touched by at least the sound person who is placing them/handing them out and the person who is wearing them (and are actors and sound people going to go back to getting within inches of each other in order for the sound person to mic the actor? That’s already a hot topic). Then there are props — meaning anything that actors pick up or touch in a scene, which prop people then have to place back where they were at the beginning, so that they can do another take. Wiping down every single piece of equipment you use, and especially every prop an actor has to touch, every single time, is going to be incredibly time-consuming.

Which is fine, again, if that’s what you’re prepared to do. But I already was feeling, on a lot of sets, that every time I wanted to go pee, or rest, or eat or drink something, that my job would be at risk, because I might not get back by the time they wanted to rehearse or shoot, and you can’t afford to be the person costing production those three minutes. If it’s going to take even more time to leave set and come back — because there must be more time for hand-washing, or mask removal and replacement, or getting checked back into your “zone” — will I just be expected to never take a break except for every six hours when we have a meal? (If, that is, we break on time, which we don’t at least 50% of the time because “we just have to get this shot/scene first.”)

4) “Paid leave policies shall be flexible and non-punitive to allow sick and quarantined employees to stay away from co-workers and the general public.”

So this is kinda funny, because in on-set production work, paid leave is just not a thing. We are hourly contract workers, not salaried workers, who get our health insurance through our union (non-union folks have to buy their own insurance). That means if you can’t make it to work, you have to get someone to replace you — which, when it’s busy like it has been in recent years, can in and of itself be really difficult and therefore a deterrent from staying home when sick, because you can’t afford to get a reputation for being unreliable. If you do find someone, that person gets your day rate and the hours from that day that go toward keeping your health insurance.

I haven’t seen any proposal for how exactly that’s going to change. The Safe Way Forward says people will be paid if they have to quarantine, but it also says “These payments may also be covered by federal, state, and local laws.” Riiiiiight. And even if there is sick pay for people who work on shows or movies full-time — which could, if we are talking about a sick person taking at least two weeks off because of COVID, where one infected person could quickly turn into many, end up costing quite a lot — that won’t apply to those of us who day play, moving between commercials and filling in for other people on TV shows and movies. 

5) “Limit the duration of workdays and excessive consecutive workdays whenever possible.”

So this is funnier, because people who work on TV shows regularly work a five-day week of 12-14-hour days. Again, that’s table stakes: when you get a job on a TV show, you know that’s what you are signing up for. On movies, depending on the movie, the days are more likely to be the standard 12, and on a commercial, it’s usually 10-12 — although, as I explained above, because commercials are tightening their budgets and attempting to shoot multiple spots in a day that used to be shot over many, we do more 12+-hr days than we used to. And for none of us does that include commuting time, which can easily be 1-2 hours each way with traffic (we only get paid for travel if the location is “outside the zone” of 25-30 miles from Columbus Circle). As anyone in the normal world who has ever worked a 12-hour day when they are on a deadline knows, these hours are inhumane. They aren’t good for you physically when there isn’t a pandemic, and they also aren’t good for your mental health or your personal life — our business is littered with broken marriages. 

And yet, you can’t simply cut back on the hours of film and TV people; see, they signed up for a 12-hour day, because their rates are based on an eight-hour day. This means that they only start to make real money when they hit time-and-a-half after eight hours. So the difference between working a straight day, in which you make maybe $45 per hr, so $360, and a 12-hour day, in which you make about $630 with overtime, is massive. That difference of $1350 per week — which, remember, will often be more, because on a tv show you will likely hit hour 13, which is double time, at least a couple of times a week — adds up. Fast. If you work 30-40 weeks a year, doing two streaming shows or one network show, that’s a lifestyle-altering $40-$54K more that you make per year in overtime. It moves you into an entirely different economic class. So while many in our biz are applauding the idea of the ten-hour day that the unions are discussing, that in itself is going to mean a pay cut of  $25K per year for many. Some people will be willing to make that compromise. But others, who have families to support, can’t afford to just trade the improvement in quality of life they get from that income — one that enables them to afford to live in New York City, or within commuting distance from it — for another. In other words, to work less, we will need to get paid more.

Now, do you sense a theme here? Yeah, the title of this piece is not for nothing. Every single point here comes down to it’s about the fucking money. And you say, “Well, every business is about money,” and that’s true. The film business is just a version of every other corporate America story where those of us in it have been fooling ourselves for a long long time that we are fine with the system, because we make enough to live comfortably — substantially more than most hourly workers — and we get to be part of a process that is often more interesting, and produces a more entertaining finished product, than, say, mining. But as I’ve explained above, that wage is, in the Coronavirus era, predicated on working too many hours to be safe and healthy at a pace that doesn’t allow us to be safe and healthy — and frankly, even before the Rona, never really did. 

Producers will say, well, we have to keep the crew costs down, because every second is worth so much money when you have below-the-line costs of equipment and space and a group of 100-200 people getting paid a living wage and P&W every hour they work. And that is partly true. But what is actually driving budgets up like crazy in TV right now is the “spare no expense production values” (aka more and more ambitious shooting styles and special effects) and the cost of “top-tier” above-the-line talent: the actors, writers, directors, producers and executives making much more, and sometimes much, much, much more, than a living wage. 

And there it is, the root problem with this whole system: it’s the income inequality, stupid. There is a massive difference in how much people get paid above and below the line, and being in this industry means just accepting people earning “what they are worth.” Again, it’s not just our business — I mean, this is America. We think it’s fine to open our economies and send hourly wage workers with no health insurance out to get COVID, while the majority of people who earn over $150K/year, including those deciding to send the others back to work, can continue to work from home. We think it’s fine to have lots of millionaires and billionaires who earn their money off the backs of those hourly workers pay less in taxes than they do. But there is something about this huge difference between people at the top and people at the bottom working together in this shared space of set that brings it into stark relief. Because if we want enough time put back into pre-production, production and post (because we hear these complaints from folks in post-production as well) to make these jobs safe and humane, and if we want crew people to be able to get paid decently enough that we can work shorter hours, where is the money and time going to come from?

Take look at this budget for one episode of the TV show The Blacklist in 2017. Yes, it’s from Wikileaks, which tells you everything about how secretive this stuff is — and you’ll see why. If you just look at the ratio of above-the-line costs to below-the-line costs, you might think, okay, below-the-line is a little less than three times what above-the-line is, that seems right. But if you go and look at exactly what that means, you’ll see that above-the-line consists of waaaaay fewer people, most of them making waaaaaaaaaay more money. For instance, there are ten producers (executive, co-executive, supervising, or just plain) making from $20 to $50K (aside from one poor co-EP making $14K) per episode for the 13.22222221 days of work they are supposedly putting in. That is in addition to what they might also be making in terms of royalties, or story/teleplay fees. And I get that everyone wants a producer credit on a hit show for their resume, but what I don’t get is what all ten of those people could be doing on every episode to earn $1500 to $3782 per day. At least with the actors, the work that they’re getting for their $40-50K per episode (8-10 days of work, so $4-6.3K per day) is actually visible on the screen. And I kind of understand that James Spader is the reason why the show exists at all, and that’s why he’s making $140K per episode, or (because his part usually only requires him to be there for roughly half of the eight shooting days because he isn’t actually the lead character) about $35K per day, but…$35K per day?

Now, I used the boom operator numbers from this Blacklist budget when I was telling you how much a crew person makes above. Compare the $630 I’d currently make for a 12-hour day with $35K, or even $3782. That EP is making more than six times what I am, and considering I’m not even sure what he’s doing (and they are, all but one, “hims”), I’m pretty sure most of them aren’t working 12-hour days — even when writers come to set, they come in later than us and they leave earlier. And, mind you, my job is fucking important. There is only one boom op on set, and I basically keep track of what’s going on on that set all day for the sound department, often figure out how we are going to mic the scene, take point on communication between us and other departments, not to mention then booming, sometimes miking people, and tons of just helping out with all the basic grunt work that being on a set that is constantly moving and changing scene by scene requires. Are all of those ten producers really 2.5 to six times as important as I am? Is James Spader 56 times as important? And if you really want to get into it, the CEO of NBC Universal, which makes and broadcasts The Blacklist, is making…well, I just looked it up and he’s new, so we don’t know, but if it’s in the ballpark of what other divisions of Comcast are making (that’s who owns NBC now, in case you were wondering), it’s going to be somewhere around $20 million this year, which, divided by 261 workdays a year, would be $75,628/day — or 122 times what I make. Although the head of Comcast itself made about $35 million in 2018, which would be $134,100/day, or about 213 times what I make. 

So I think I can safely say we the crew are not the reason why television production costs so damn much, and I further think that all of these folks can afford to put some of their salary back into paying for our safety on set. But will they? Probably not — because there’s a more insidious side of this as well, aside from just the difference in pay. It’s that I know I’m valued less. That’s evident in everything on set from who gets a chair or a trailer of their own, to who gets a latte paid for by production and delivered to them whenever they want it, to who feels the need to learn my name or speak to me, and how they speak to me when they do. It’s about how I have to spend 12 hours out in 20-degree winter weather, while you better believe the talent and producers and clients and agency and everyone else who earns waaaay more money than I do, and is therefore clearly a more important human being, is guaranteed to get as much time as they need to go to their trailer between shots, or stays inside a heated people-mover, or a tent full of heaters — enough of which are only rented, mind you, for their tent.

Given this hierarchy, I doubt they will be forced to make sacrifices in pay, or even “creative compromises” that would save money — you know, the kind that most of us are asked to make all the time and that aren’t even really compromises. The best way to save money on a production? Plan. Crews do that all the time to the extent that we can: we get scripts and schedules in advance, we take the time to figure out and discuss with the ADs and the line producer and production manager and other departments involved what shooting those scenes will mean for us — like if there’s a car scene, production hires a process trailer, sound department plans for the portable gear and the mics that we will need to mic that car, camera and grip make sure they have what they need to mount the cameras, lighting plans for what will be needed to light it, etc (or we do it with a green screen on a stage instead, which takes far less planning, but still some). And yet, when most directors in TV show up on set, they don’t even have to have a shot list. They can roll out of bed, take their hired SUV to wherever we are shooting and figure it all out on our time and production’s dime — especially if they, again, have what I’d argue is the unnecessary luxury of three cameras to work with, and they can do what we call “hosing it down”: just keep finding shots with all three cameras for as long as it takes until they know they’ve got 50 times as much footage as they need to cut the scene, all so they won’t have to do their homework. Which, oh by the way, would actually make for a better end-product, because truly great directors don’t lean on their “artistic genius,” they work hard, they prepare, they use their craft. And in commercials, where the power of money that is calling the shots usually lies not with the director but with the agency and the clients, they come into a shoot with ten different scripts, or five different variations on every line in the script, and just shoot them all, rather than doing the work in advance it would take for everyone to agree on one version. But no, instead of putting a stop to that incredible waste of time and money, they skimp on everything else.

Are you getting the idea from what I’m saying that everything about the way we do things is going to have to change for production to become more safe? It’s the insane hierarchy of Hollywood, and a culture that not only accepts that but enshrines it, that makes this system broken all the way down. It’s why people like Sarah Jones die. It’s why people like Harvey Weinstein, James Toback, Kevin Spacey, and everyone we haven’t heard about yet gets away with rape, harassment, and the destruction of other people’s lives and careers — for decades. Because here’s the thing: when you’ve been brainwashed by years and years of trying to succeed in a system where you just accept that the people at the top (who, yep, are not-coincidentally nearly all white guys) are worth 6 times, or 56 times, or 213 times what you are are worth — and I’m not even close to the bottom of this food chain —  you come to accept all sorts of things that you shouldn’t accept. From thinking that you need to fuck somebody to get a job, to thinking that a 15-hour day is normal, to thinking that you should just go climb up on an active train track to get a shot the director wants, or work a long day in a too-small-for-social-distancing space with too many people during a pandemic, even though all your instincts are telling you you shouldn’t — because with this massive juggernaut of money bearing down on you every day, you don’t feel you have the power to say “stop.”

I’m a realist. I know the real changes within of our industry of the kind I’m talking about, that would reduce this enormous inequality and make it work better for everyone, will probably not happen. I know that all of the problems that inequality causes add up to me having to go back to work before I think it’s sufficiently safe in a system that is so fundamentally flawed in ways that serve the people with most of the power to change it that it probably won’t ever fixed. But if we don’t take this opportunity, when everything has already been turned upside-down, to finally talk about how clearly the wrong side-out-ness of our business has been laid plain by this global disaster, then we’re just waiting for the next Sarah Jones(es) to happen.

Because she will, and probably sooner rather than later. And if you’re someone in a position to help create the change we need — whether you’re at the top, and could choose to give back one day of your salary per episode to pay for Coronavirus testing or to make a ten-hour day pay as much as a 12-hour day; or you’re where I am and you could choose to join your fellow workers in asking for safety, a sane workday and respect instead of just “rolling with it” — and you decide not to, that’s on you.

Double-Edged Domesticity

The before picture. It was supposed to be “a ball” at this point. Yeah, right.

I grew up thinking that being a housewife was the ultimate in lame. My mother was one for the early years of my life, but I don’t remember that, because she was already working part-time as a substitute teacher by the time I was in kindergarten at age 4. And I wouldn’t have had it any other way, because my mom was happy, I was happy, and I didn’t know there was any other way to do things. When we moved to the suburbs when I was 7, my mom was back at work teaching full-time, so I became a latch-key kid. Again, I was cool with that, that was what Gen X kids did, and it made me self-sufficient in a way that I wouldn’t have been otherwise. My mom still made lunches for us every day and dinner almost every night — my dad often didn’t get home from work until after we’d eaten our meal at 6 or 6:30 — and we all enjoyed her food, but it was never something she loved to do. This might be why my father complimented her cooking so much: it was good, and helped me discover that garlic powder, paprika and salt can make a brick taste delicious if you cook it long enough, but he also knew that she was working and cooking and cleaning and also going to marches and meetings, because she was one of the organizers of her local NOW chapter. She knew that her raison d’etre was not being a wife and mother. While she loved her family and enjoyed spending time with us, the drudgework of those roles was never something she would pretend to enjoy, the way that many women of her era and the eras before hers did. She didn’t have to, because she had better things to do.

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Technology Bites (Sometimes, and Why)

Spoiler alert: IT NEVER PROMPTS FROM THE BROWSER.

Something a lot of people have been saying about crises like our current pandemic is that they bring into stark relief realities to which we might not have paid attention before. The massive disparity between rich and not rich in the United States that makes some people just fine working from home while others don’t have savings to pay their rent/mortgage now that they’ve lost their jobs, and still others have to go to work in unsafe conditions, even if they’re sick, because they can’t afford to be out of work; how health issues hit communities of color so much harder than the general population — because of disparities in housing, access to healthcare and information, underlying health conditions, and overrepresentation in “essential” service jobs, among other things; how small businesses, restaurants in particular, have been holding on by the thinnest of margins for a long time in cities like New York were the cost of living is high; these are all things that most of us know a lot more about now than we did before.

One additional thing this crisis in particular is making clear to me is the huge disparity in how middle-aged women deal with technology.  Now that it’s what we all are using to communicate while we’re social distancing, it’s increasingly apparent to me that my cohort, the ladies of Generation X, are all over the map.

Does any of the following sound familiar?

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Time Change

More wrinkles, but no watch.

These days, there are many new sources of stress in my life. Going grocery shopping is the biggest one. I went last Wednesday — a trip that I postponed from Monday, because on Monday and Tuesday, our water was off. It’s not so easy to wash your hands when your water is off, although it can be done. The night before the water went off, we filled up a ton of bowls and pots with water, and the bathtub, which, with the help of another bowl, we used to flush the toilet. But this made hand-washing a two person job: one person would pour water over the other person’s hands while they washed and rinsed. It was a whole new level of togetherness as a couple that we really didn’t need, which also involved notifying the other spouse when one us was about to use the toilet to prepare them for the imminent hand-washing. But due to the limited supply of water and the fact that Covid-19 hand washing is so much more stressful, we decided we wouldn’t leave the house for those two days. It also led to some acrimony with the co-op board of our apartment building, because a number of us proceeded to get pissy with them on the building’s group e-mail list for only giving us 24 hours’ notice about the water shut-off — which isn’t really enough in a pandemic, when you’re running out of food because you’re trying to go grocery shopping as infrequently as possible so the last time you did it was two weeks ago. 

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Am I Doing It Right?

The streets are quieter now, except for the sirens. I’m not sure if there are more ambulances, because there were always a lot, but now I notice every one. A lot more businesses are closed this week than were closed last — one of the bodegas, the dollar store, the closest pizza place, the fruit stand, the closest liquor store. Our favorite wine store is still open and they were delivering until yesterday, when I guess the delivery person decided they’d had enough. Who can blame them? Luckily we ordered a case of wine and a shit ton of hard alcohol two days ago. It’s been sitting on the floor, in the detoxification space (aka the rug in the entryway), until we think it’s safe/get around to putting it away. It’s hard to know the rules on that. There’s so much information and misinformation online about everything — how long the virus survives on surfaces, whether or not you can get it by ingesting it or just touching your face, how to sanitize your groceries because a doctor told you to or is that just stupid according to a food scientist? The real truth is that the virus is too new for anyone to really know the answers, so everyone is guessing.

Detox jail.
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This Is Not a Drill

Today is Friday. It’s been almost a week and one day since my last day of work, on Thursday, March 12th. I’d say that means I’ve been in isolation since then, but I did got grocery shopping at the Park Slope Food Co-op on Friday, so I technically have to date my isolation to then. Plus I have left the house to go for walks, checked mail, etc, so I have touched doors and mailboxes and packages and so on, but I always sanitize and wash my hands afterwards, so hopefully that doesn’t count. Oh, and I bought bananas on Tuesday, but with all of us (mostly) being six feet away, and the person behind the counter wearing a mask, and me sanitizing and washing hands again after coming back from buying the bananas, let’s say that that doesn’t count either. So I’ve been isolated since Friday. That’s almost a week. Which means about another week until I’m out of the incubation period. But if I go grocery shopping again, which I will probably have to do before the week is out — because even though I stocked up like a motherfucker to the extent that I could in a one-bedroom with limited closet space, and we now have frozen vegetables and dried fruit, I am saving those for the real emergency that we hope never comes and we will need fruits and vegetables, which I also happen to actually like — does that set me back to day one? I hope not. We all hope not.

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The Things You See In Big Box Stores When You Have To Spend Way Too Much Time In Them

These past few of weeks, I’ve been working on a lot of commercials. I actually like working on commercials, at least when compared with what it’s like to work on television shows. The food is better. The pay is better. The days are generally shorter and more sane. And as for the content? Well, I used to say that the commercials I worked on were generally better written and had higher production values than the TV shows, but that was before TV entered its current golden age, and TV commercial budgets started getting reduced to make way for social media content. Now, most of the TV shows I work on are at least pretty good, some of the commercials are still funny, and the social media content is …well, let’s just say it’s not directed at me (Why Instagram Stories? Why???). But generally, let’s face it: I’m shilling for corporate America, there’s just no way to make that better. 

One thing that really drives that home is spending a lot of time in that epicenters of consumerism, the big box store. Here are a few things I saw wandering out in these mundane-to-the-point-of-creepy settings that I found strange, disturbing, or just “Huh?”

What is the right occasion for these? Is it when you’re actually drinking alone (in which case, cocktail napkins?), or is it when you want to invite your friends over to laugh at you because you’re a cat lady who drinks alone? Or should the packaging just say, “A Fun Cry For Help”?

 

“What happened to the first six Odor Busters?” is a thing you might ask if you were trying to stay awake at 3:40 in the morning and you couldn’t tell that that was a Z. And because why are little deodorant grenades a product that you want to jazz up with a Z, like Starz, or cheez? 

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How I Learned That My Sanity Is Worth More Than $230

Several months ago, I got two parking tickets. Only in reality, I didn’t get them. I just went out to get in my car, only to discover that it wasn’t where I thought I’d left on the corner across from my apartment building. This in and of itself isn’t that strange, because a) Your average New Yorker doesn’t drive every day and therefore might only visit their car once a week when street cleaning regulations force them to do so; b) Your average person who works in film production is used to finding themselves parking their car after a 12+ hour day topped off with an hour of searching for a parking spot at 3:30 am, the details of which they might not recall in full; c) your average 50-something-year-old entering menopause has a brain under attack by hormones that make it much more spongey than it used to be, and d) I am, yes, all three of these things. But because I’d been unusually coherent when I’d parked it after grocery shopping a few days earlier, and because I was also fairly sure that I’d seen a truck from my electricity supplier, Consolidated Edison, on that corner the day before, I felt pretty confident that my car had not, in fact, been kidnapped by aliens (which, considering the shape it’s in, with the front bumper now out of joint from having recently been knocked off and reattached with a couple of well-placed screws, seemed more likely than its having been stolen).

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Autumn in New York

Things I like about fall in New York City:

1) It stops smelling so “New Yorky.”
(aka like urine)

2) Less sweating.
Summer in New York is just one long odyssey of walking walking walking between air conditioned spaces and un-air-conditioned hell holes packed full of people and sweat, much of it mine. I’ve always been quick to overheat from any physical exertion, but that wasn’t a huge issue until I moved to a city where it was humid and I was always in a hurry. But soon after I moved here in 1990, I found the perfect tool for dealing with that: iced coffee. Walking around with an iced coffee in my hand was basically how I controlled my body temperature, because I really didn’t seem able to do it any other way. To my mind, there are no other iced beverages. Iced tea, either sweetened or not, is gross, and soft drinks aren’t my thing. I do love lemonade, but can’t drink that now because of my acid reflux — which is why I had to give up the coffee. 

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