As the cameraman behind the lens for films like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?, Haskell Wexler is a wise veteran of the film industry and a member of the American Society of Cinematographers. He’s been nominated for five Oscars and won two of them.
He’s also the survivor of an automobile accident caused by falling asleep at the wheel on his way home from a movie set. Afterwards, Wexler’s friend and well-known cinematographer Conrad Hall warned him, “You better drive carefully or you’ll end up in your own documentary.”
That documentary is “Who Needs Sleep?” which, though a few years old, is still powerfully relevant.
For anybody working in the film industry – whether above-the-line or below it, in front of the camera or behind it – it should be required viewing. If you’d like to fulfill that requirement now, you can watch the feature-length film embedded above or purchase the DVD on Amazon.
The synopsis (from its website) helps illustrate why you, as a working member of the film industry, should take great interest in the movie:
Film crews routinely work sweatshop hours, often clocking 15 to 18 hour days at the expense of their families, their health, their well-being, and even their lives.
In 1997, after a 19-hour day on the set, assistant cameraman Brent Hershman fell asleep behind the wheel, crashed his car, and died. Deeply disturbed by Hershman’s preventable death, filmmaker and multiple-Oscar-winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler shows how sleep deprivation and long work hours are a lethal combination.
The crux of the film is Hershman’s death and how it spurred a grassroots movement among crew to push for more reasonable hours in production. As the reality of pushing for change unravels, Wexler is perpetually appealing to various authorities asking them what they’re doing to help and why they aren’t doing more. The answers amount to nothing more than Kafka-esque bureaucratic finger-pointing.
But it’s that access – and being able to see the faces of those in power as they give their hollow answers – that drives the film forward. Plus, due to his stature, Wexler is able to get established Hollywood players from in front of the camera such as Billy Crystal and Julia Roberts, as well as from behind it, like Vittorio Stattaro and Roger Deakins, to speak on how sleep deprivation effects them.
Spoiler Alert: We’re Still Working Long Days
The spoiler, of course, is that long 12+ hour days on set are still commonplace. If you’ve even a sliver of experience on a film set, you’ve likely worked through a tremendously long day.
It’s truly a gift whenever I get a call for a job that’s supposed to be 10-hours. And it’s an even greater miracle when that actually happens. While I see friends and family come and go for their 8 hour workdays, I’m happy when my time on the clock comes in at the low end of double digits.
20-hours or so is my record for longest day, though I can’t say for sure how long it was. I was so tired I didn’t think to record the time nor was I feeling prideful enough to take note. I had a singular focus once the martini shot wrapped – get into bed and get as much sleep as I could.
I’ll never forget how tired I was on a few of those nights driving home working on Ghosts Don’t Exist. One day I had put on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon (first mistake) while driving home on dark, winding roads through Virginia’s back country. The music, while deliberately chosen because I thought it would suit the atmosphere of the ride perfectly, felt like nothing more than a lullaby. Eventually, I had to roll down the windows, slap myself in the face, and pull out any and all tricks to complete the drive.
Watching Wexler’s documentary, and hearing the story of camera assistant Brent Hershman, woke me to the grim reality that could’ve been had I succumbed even briefly to the sleep deprivation I was so obviously suffering from.
There are, of course, skeptics who ignore or remain neutral to the effects of long working hours. Wexler highlights them briefly in his film as they attach tags to toolbags and calzone cases with phrases like “Real Men Can Work Long Hours” or “Long Hours Show I Care About My Job.” Their thinking is that in the economic downturn of recent years there’s good reason to take the jobs and take the extra money that comes with overtime. To them, it’s a combination of making as much money as possible through overtime and “if I don’t do it, somebody else will.”
But the supporters of Wexler and the 12on12off movement he helped ignite disagree.
The important thing for supporters of 12on12off (and for critics to remember) is that working longs hours is not an endorsement of toughness and that asking for reasonable hours shouldn’t be conflated with complaining about the work itself. I love being a camera assistant. I love the excitement, the cameras I get to build, operate, and work with, and the crew I befriend throughout a shoot. But I also love sleep and having time for life-activities like visiting friends, doing laundry, or reading a book.
The 12 On 12 Off Movement Continues
Still, years after the documentary premiered at Sundance in 2006 there has been marked improvement.
This past summer, at the 67th Quadrennial IATSE Convention, the “Long Hours Resolution” was adopted unanimously. It includes passages such as “there exists indisputable evidence from scientific, medical and empirical studies linking sleep deprivation and fatigue to critical safety and health hazards” and “overtime was created as a deterrent to excessive hours, not merely as a supplement to income.”
There is no doubt Wexler’s film and his continued advocacy on the issue through the 12on12off movement (featured significantly in Who Needs Sleep?) helped the resolution pass. After watching the docu and seeing the struggle to get union recognition on the issue, the victory tastes sweeter.
Though crew working within unions and guilds can, have, and will continue to push for better working conditions, “Who Needs Sleep?” might best be targeted at the wave of independent productions rising with the tide of more affordable digital cinematography cameras, greater financial access via crowd-funding platforms, and accessible distribution models.
As filmmaking becomes more democratized, so too must the standards professional crew expect.
And while the IATSE Local 600 has recently adopted the Long Hours Resolution, there’s still crew continually putting in those long days. I know because I work with them, I see Facebook statuses of crew announcing what hour they’re rolling into, and though Wexler’s documentary shows its age in its Standard Def delivery, the message of the film and 12on12off is just as important:
As individuals, we believe every human being working in the film industry has a right to enjoy a life outside of their work, including family, friendships and sleep.
As managers, we believe that while occasional long days can be an acceptable part of our work, repeated excessive shifts and frequent insufficient turnarounds are not.
As crafts-people and technicians, it is our responsibility to initiate discussions about these concerns and to look out for the well-being of everyone on our sets.
As human beings, we believe that every person’s health, safety and life is worth more than any product we can produce while jeopardizing same.
As an organization, our responsibilities include developing and disbursing educational materials to promote these basic rules of humane and responsible filmmaking.
#1. No more than 12 hours of Work
#2. No less than 12 hours of Turnaround
#3. No more than 6 hours between Meals
As you hear people talk about the crazy long hours and watch the documentary, it’s hard not to think about that all-important on set mantra: “It’s only a movie.”
And yet, for some, like Brent Hershman, it became much more in the worst way possible.
Please take the time to watch the film and support 12on12off as it continues to push for reasonable hours so we can all continue to make the movies we love, while also spending time off set with friends, family, hobbies, and ourselves.
For more information:
Update from Haskell Wexler
Since publishing this article, it’s ended up in front of Haskell Wexler himself. Haskell was kind enough to send me an email providing more context and information about 12 on 12 off as well as thanking those of us who have lent our voices to the movement. He gave me permission to post it here:
I just got to read material on theblackandblue.com talking about 12 On 12 Off. I am so pleased to read the writings of assistant camera people whose voice is missing from all Union publications. Roger Deakins and I worked with Conrad Hall before he died to present this statement to the ASC.
“As Directors of Photography, our responsibility is to the visual image of the film as well as the well-being of our crew. We strive to explore the language of cinematography and the art of story telling. The expanding practice of working extreme hours seriously compromises both the quality of our work and the health and safety of others. I believe it is my obligation and the obligation of every Director of Photography to oppose a practice that compromises our creative ability as well as the health and well-being of every member of the crew.” – Conrad Hall
Poster, as President of the ASC, rejected Conrad’s wish. The new ASC administration accepted and published what Conrad proposed saying it expressed exactly what the ASC is about. Outside the issue of extreme hours is the belief that we ASC members, directors of photography are “leaders of the crew, captains of the ship who are concerned about the health and well being of every member of the crew.” “There exists indisputable evidence from scientific, medical and empirical studies linking sleep deprivation and fatigue to critical safety and health hazards.” Since the IA convention accepted this, and since most ASC members are Union DP’s it is time that we all, Assistant Cameramen/Crew, let the world know that we’re not giving up our lives finding a cure for cancer, but working in entertainment for very large international profitable organizations.
12 On and 12 Off, and any who wish to join us, are asking producers to adjust their schedules so that there will be no “Fraturday” accidents Friday March 21st, Saturday March 22nd.
Haskell Wexler ASC
I’ll be in touch further with Haskell about the 12 on 12 off event happening in March and provide updates to those events on this page as well as through The Black and Blue’s Facebook page.