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