The movie The Big Chill is not really a touchstone for anyone any more, given that the topic of all-white boomer naval gazing is kind of past its sell-by date, by a lot. However, there is a great piece of dialogue in it delivered by Jeff Goldblum, playing the one friend in the group about whom everyone is constantly wondering, “Why are we still friends with this guy?” (we all have one), when he says “I don’t know anyone who can get through the day without two or three juicy rationalizations, they’re more important than sex.”
Crew people are the absolute masters of rationalization. How else would we be able to do our jobs under the ridiculous conditions in which we generally work — a standard week of 60-70-hours; one half hour break daily, for lunch, if we even get that; nine or ten hours of turnaround to get home, eat, interact with our partners or families, feed the dog or water the plants, sleep, and then travel back to set; and overall, never having any control over what we do all day or how or for how long — and continue doing them for years and years, and tell ourselves that we aren’t batshit insane?
You can divide our rationalization styles, as crew people, into types.
One type is the nihilist. This person basically takes the point of view that life is shit anyway, so what’s it matter how shitty your job is? They are so rooted in this way of thinking that angry outbursts, passive aggressive asides, and complaining about how much everything sucks, which they believe just make them darkly hilarious storytellers of doom, are really the only forms of conversation they are still capable of. There was a time when I was this type, until I realized that the only thing that being miserable all the time accomplished was making people not want to be around me. (And I went on medication, which I can’t recommend highly enough if this is you and you don’t want to lose all of your friends.)
Another type is the workaholic, who believes that anyone not working constantly and as hard as possible for all of the ridiculous hours we have to be on set is lazy and weak. They never turn down a job, because they feel like it’s leaving money on the table, and if you’re unfortunate enough to work under them, they will make a crack about every bathroom break and trip to the craft service table that you take (again, thinking that they’re coping with humor), and give you the side-eye when you spend more than five minutes sitting down. To be fair, this type is just as hard on themselves, always showing up for work an hour early and taking a ten-minute lunch, as if not devoting themselves to the job above and beyond even the absurd amount that is already expected of them would be abject failure. I’ve been this type of person too, worried that if I didn’t work harder than everyone else on set, I wouldn’t get hired. It sucked, until I finally realized I was good at my job, or at least good enough that I no longer had anything to prove. I still have one or two fucks left to give, but they’re small enough that I have a realistic position on where work fits into my self-esteem, and where it doesn’t.
Then there’s the type of crew person who falls in love with every project, convincing themselves that all the horrible shit we go through is worth it because the tv show or movie they’re on is so great, and they are just thrilled to just be a part of it. They talk about their jobs all the time — their interactions with the actors, the talent of everyone on set, how hard it was to get a particular scene but how amazing it turned out to be. There are several of this type who I’ve done films and TV shows with, and a couple of those projects really were the ones that you want to tell everyone you worked on, because they are that good. But they were also some of the hardest jobs I’ve done in terms of the hours, the conditions, the challenging things I had to do because some director or show runner had some vision that had to be realized their way. So on the one hand, I really admire these types of crew people for maintaining a positive attitude, rough job after rough job after rough job. On the other, they’re clearly delusional. And of course, at one time, I was like that too. I mean, we all got into this because we love visual storytelling, and want to be a part of creating it, and want to have the great stories to tell people afterwards about what it was like. But at some point I became that combination of realistic and bitter that made me realize that it’s all just stuff that we watch, and it’s not more important than living my life.
The way I’ve finally found for coping with the demands of this business? Learning to say “No.” I figured out what my boundaries were, and that it was okay — no, essential — to turn work down that went outside of them. And so I learned to turn down more work than I wanted/needed in a week, or jobs that I knew would suck, either by reputation, or because they were shooting nights, or because they filmed somewhere I didn’t want to have to go. I know that there are people for whom it’s much harder to do this than it is for me. I’m privileged to have grown up in a white middle class household, and while I knew my parents did sometimes worry about money, I had stability, and never any real fear around not having food, or clothing, or a roof over my head, or money to go to the doctor. And while I definitely feel like I get treated differently as a smallish woman on set sometimes, it hasn’t really kept me from getting hired (or at least not since that one time early in my career when a show decided to fire me as a mixer because, even though they’d already hired and fired three mixers before me, they convinced themselves that the problems with their sound weren’t due to their shitty soundstage, or refusing to hire a boom operator, but because I wasn’t tall enough). So, especially at this point in my career, I recognize that I can afford to be pickier than a lot of people.
Now, however, it seems that a pandemic has finally convinced a lot more crew people — perhaps all of IATSE — that we all need to learn how to say “No.” How’d it happen? First, like workers across the country, we all got to spend a lot of time at home receiving enhanced unemployment benefits — not nearly as much as we were making, but enough to survive. Suddenly, people who typically were working for 60-70 hours a week remembered how much they actually like their families and their hobbies and their passions and their beds. Then, our industry went back to work, with a lot of promises about how it was going to deal with covid. And it did do a good job avoiding community spread by using extensive testing and masking and other precautions. But what it didn’t do was follow through on the promise of ten-hour days, to ensure we’d get enough rest to keep our resistance up. Based on my experience, most productions didn’t even try. On the one or two shows that did, people talked about how much better that was — if still not as good as an eight-hour day. On the ones that didn’t, not only did we feel frustrated that production couldn’t be bothered enough with our health to do what they’d said they would, but lots of people experienced even worse hours, if their productions had to shut down for quarantine when someone tested positive. Because when post-quarantine shooting resumed, productions decided that, to make up the lost time, crews had to work six-day weeks of even longer days, for weeks or even months, to get back on schedule. To exhaust your crew like that is truly appalling even when you’re NOT in a fucking pandemic. And the combination of all of this brought back to us the truly absurd, greed-feeding inequality of our industry, and our place within it. And then a contract expired, and the AMPTP refused to listen.
And so, finally, here we are. Because there comes a time for all of us when we have to decide what we’re worth, and where we draw the line. We have to stop telling ourselves that this is all we’re ever going to get in life, or that we’re strong and hard-working enough to take it, or that our jobs are so cool that it’s fair. Because the fact is that we are human, and we deserve to work under conditions that allow us to be, and nothing — certainly not a movie or a tv show or a commercial — is more important than that.