Anyone who gets into filmmaking knows that they're not facing a 9-to-5. 12-hour workdays are pretty standard in the film industry—or are supposed to be—and for those just starting out, working long hours is often considered a source of pride, or at the very least, bragging rights. You wear those dark circles under your eyes like badges of honor that signify not only your dedication to the craft but your induction into an industry that is often too brutal for those who "don't have what it takes."
But the shine begins to fade as time goes on. For many working on film and TV sets, an average workday can push 14, 16, 18 hours, and without the elixir of novelty and naivete there to dilute the growing physical, mental, and emotional fatigue, some days the realities of set life begins to go down like a shot of cheap wells, especially for those working below-the-line.
The "Punishing Routine" of Working on Set
Gavin PoloneCredit: IMDbZombieland: Double Tap producer Gavin Polone highlights this issue in an article he wrote for Vulture back in 2012, explaining, "It has always been difficult for me to understand how so many in this business put up with such a punishing routine."
He shared testimonies from several below-the-line crew members on one of his shows Jane By Design to reveal not only just how long these people were working on set day-to-day but also how these expectations had affected their lives.
Here are a few examples:
Kirsten Robinson: Script Supervisor
"At the lunch break, it’s like you have another regular person’s day ahead of you. What was the worst for me was the short turnarounds [the term used to mean the amount of time you have before having to be back at work]. We would work sixteen hours and then only get ten hours off and then be back for another long day. That was the real killer. Physically, you’re just exhausted. For me, it is very difficult because my job is mental. I never felt the money was worth it. I want to put my best effort forward: Fighting through and drinking as much coffee as possible doesn’t yield the best work.”
Steve D’Amato: First Assistant Director
“The worst day I ever worked on a show was 27 hours. It was the very last day of the very last episode of the series. We shot for 24 hours and I was there two hours before and an hour after.”
Polone asks him how his schedule affected his marriage:
“At first, she said it might not work out, but now she uses the time when she’s alone. She’s gotten used to it. I used to be happy when a production would go over and I would make more money. But now that I’m older, it is more important to me to be able to get home and do stuff with my wife. What bothers me most is you don’t have time to do anything else. It’s hard. It seems like it’s unnecessary: You could just add one or two more days [to the schedule] and spread it out over more time. We’re the only industry that is fighting for a twelve-hour day: That is what I find amazing.”
Ali Yeganhe: Transportation Captain
“We’re talking about a fourteen-hour day if we’re local and as much as eighteen hours if we’re farther out. We have an eight-hour turnaround that is mandated by the department of transportation. It does take a toll on you as far as aging you. There is a high divorce rate in this business. Truthfully, I haven’t slept a whole night in three years. My wife and I were together before we got in this business. She was in wardrobe, so she knew.”
Farah Bunch: Makeup Department Head
“I’ve been doing this for eighteen years. The hours have always been the same. I started out in soap operas, which have great hours; then I went into multi-cams, which have even better hours; but once I entered the world of single-camera [meaning one-hour shows and feature films], I was in shock. I thought only in third-world countries people worked hours like this — a fourteen-hour day is the norm for the makeup department. You’re making more money, but it is blood money, ‘cause you’re trading your life. It affects me in the sense that I give up all of my personal life. When I’m in season, I don’t see my friends or family. The weekends I spend recovering. I think it has contributed to me not being able to meet people because I’m not out there in the world mingling. I dated someone in the military and he was in shock that we were working all of these hours and he was out there saving lives and he’d be home by 4 p.m.: He was in Afghanistan and his hours were better than mine. You feel trapped with the hours because you know that if you don’t do them, someone else will. And another thing, you’re given a ten-hour turnaround, which is just enough time to drive home, sleep seven hours like a normal human being, and go back to work.
The Above-the-Line or Below-the-Line Difference
There are certainly a lot of moving parts regarding this issue, from budgetary constraints to scheduling conflicts to a simple acceptance of the status quo. However, most would agree that set life can be absolutely merciless regardless of the level at which you're working, whether you're a producer on a big-budget Hollywood picture or a gaffer on a local indie feature.
Polone points out something very interesting in his article about how these working conditions change depending on if you work above-the-line or below-the-line:
"These hours can be a bit grinding for me, but as a producer I have the latitude to show up later or leave earlier. Actors can have brutal days, but they also usually get days off, as most shows are ensembles and they’re rarely in every scene. And let’s face it, producers and actors are highly compensated for their work. However, the average below-the-line worker (the budgetary classification for those who aren’t producers, directors, actors, or writers) has to be there every day and make a middle-class wage. And, from my perspective, they are also the people who whine the least about this extreme schedule."
Behind the scenes of 'Zombieland'
Are Things Changing?
The experiences of Polone's crew are not new. Back in 1998, Filmmaker Haskell Wexler took out that full-page ad in Variety calling for "humane treatment of humans" after camera assistant Brent Hershman died after falling asleep at the wheel. Many experienced film workers have spoken up about these working conditions and are still trying to raise awareness about on-set safety regarding long workdays, especially after Riverdale KJ Apa got in a "drowsy driving" accident in 2017 after a long shoot day.
In fact, after this incident, Deadline's Anita Busch explored the dangers of 100+ work weeks and 1-4 hour turnarounds pose for crew members, not only when they get behind the wheel of a car to drive home but also when handling heavy, dangerous equipment. And though many of the stories Busch shared revolved around drowsy driving, the heart of them sounded earily similar to those Polone relayed in his article.
So, why not take another pulse and ask the current community. Is there still an overworking problem on today's sets? Do the accounts from Polone's crew still reflect the working conditions of below-the-line workers today?