EXCLUSIVE: It’s been four months since Riverdale actor KJ Apa crashed into a lamp post after a long day of shooting, giving rise to questions about long hours on movie and TV sets and the dangers of what is known as “drowsy driving.” Actors, actresses and crew members now are speaking on the record about the dangers of long hours and sleep deprivation and are asking the film and television industries to finally do something about it.
Many who spoke to Deadline said they had been told by others on set to keep quiet, something that has been steadily changing since camera assistant Sarah Jones was killed on a live train track “set” during the filming of Midnight Rider in 2014 and more so now and since the #MeToo movement has erased some of the fear of speaking up.
“The threats made to my career when speaking out, the [production managers] who refused to get hotel rooms for crews after these long hours and allowed us to drive home, the producers who pushed for this … I have lots of stories and far too many near-death moments that were deemed acceptable by productions over the past 18 years,” said Adam Bocknek, an assistant director who has worked in both film and TV. He said he is speaking up now to try to initiate true change after being injured himself. “Every study has shown that a lack of sleep is really dangerous for you. Every study says it, but the film industry chooses to ignore them. To me, that is unconscionable.”
He’s right. Studies by groups ranging from the Centers for Disease Control to the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration show cognitive impairment comes from lack of sleep. “Drowsy driving is not just falling asleep at the wheel; it mimics alcohol-impaired driving,” Stephen Higgins told Reuters after releasing his report for the NHTSA on the matter in February 2017. The study itself (read it here) states, “Drowsiness leads to slower reaction times, and impaired attention, mental processing, judgment, and decision making.”
Working long and irregular hours is one of the “lifestyle” issues that can cause drowsy driving, it states. “Annually on average from 2009 to 2013, there were over 72,000 police-reported crashes involving drowsy drivers, injuring more than an estimated 41,000 people, and killing more than 800,” the reports state.
In 2012, another study was put out that detailed there were 168 million drowsy drivers a year on the road and one in five car accidents was caused by it. And, a BMJ study found that working in jobs with overtime schedules was associated with a 61% higher injury-hazard rate compared to non-OT jobs.
Since the statistics are available to all entertainment employers, it would seem studios and networks would have some liability in being able to foresee a problem of pushing people to the brink.
“What we’re talking about is most of these people are considered independent contractors,” said personal injury lawyer Gary Dordick, who has handled catastrophic-injury cases against big-rig and commercial truck drivers who cross lanes and crash, harming others due to sleep deprivation.
“The question is, can you extend the liability to a third party to someone driving or operating machinery outside of a work site after they’ve been pushed to perform very long hours, and then, due to fatigue, they hurt [themselves or someone else]? Morally and ethically, yes, I understand the issue, but holding a third party liable for a crash outside of a work site … it’s my understanding there is one appellate court case in CA that has ruled that the employer cannot be held liable.” To that end, he cited the 1998 case Depew v. Crocodile Enterprises, Inc.
Torstein Coyler, who has worked in the industry for 15 years and three as a crew member in both TV and feature film, said he has, in the past, worked two days back-to-back totaling 33 hours. “It’s absolutely dangerous to work these hours. Fourteen-hour days should be banned,” said Coyler. “Twelve hours are even pushing it, but it should never exceed 12-hour days because it becomes dangerous. You become cognitively impaired, and the travel time is hazardous.”
And when there is an accident driving to or from set, workers’ comp doesn’t cover it as it is not considered an “on set” injury, even though it’s the long production hours that literally have driven people to crash their cars. In 2014, 48-year-old Longmire crew member Gary Joe Tuck was killed when he fell asleep at the wheel and rolled his car on a New Mexico highway after working an 18-hour shift (from 9 AM-3 AM). He was a Teamster driver for Local 492 and a SAG member and left behind a son, Adam; his mother; two sisters; and two brothers.
After that, one of the Longmire crew members — Em Perry — wrote a public plea to her own “brothers and sisters” in the film industry about changing things for the greater good. She wrote that she had worked 102 hours in one week on a film, and that she — like so many other crew members — wanted the overtime to be able to continue to work in the film industry but pleaded to keep up the conversation up on safety to initiate change. She said there had to be a better way.
Following Tuck’s death, the companies behind Longmire (Netflix and Warner Horizon Television) undertook new safety measures by providing charter buses to take the crew to and from remote shooting locations. That decision was applauded by crew members. But not all companies do that.
Yet despite Tuck’s death and work from the late Academy Award-winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler who repeatedly spoke up about this issue and even directed the documentary Who Needs Sleep? in 2006, the problem continues. In fact, some veteran production people say it has gotten worse. Deadline was told of one production that pushed their employees to work 20- to 22-hour days. Others said they had worked 18- and 19-hour days and almost all spoke of 12- to 14-hour work days as “routine.” We also heard of turnarounds anywhere from one to four hours.
“Anything that is going on in film, you can triple the hours [for reality TV], and that is what the reality is,” said Tracey Izatt, a 25-year industry veteran who is a field producer and for the past six to seven years has been a showrunner for reality TV. “With one production, I only had a four-hour turnaround, and I know of some [production assistants] that only had a one-hour turnaround — and they are driving people around. This is pretty standard. If the PA had crashed, the liability becomes the show’s … so, I know someone who asked them to pull over so they could drive.”
And there is no union to intercede for reality TV workers or for production assistants.
In Canada, years ago, producers lobbied the government to allow a 70-hour work week to push their production weeks. The current work day for assistant directors and location people is now 14 hours before overtime kicks in. So these long hours are just expected.
Not only is there an ongoing issue with “drowsy driving,” but there is also something called “microsleep,” which can last anywhere from just a moment to up to 10 seconds at a time as people are fighting to stay awake. In microsleep, the brain basically shuts down involuntarily while driving with sleep deprivation. Bocknek and others said that microsleeping is something that has happened to them. In the case of Bocknek, he attributed microsleeping to his car crash last October. “I have two herniated discs, two compressed discs and a torn rotator cuff now,” he said.
“It wasn’t the first time that I fell asleep at the wheel either — just the first time I almost killed people,” he added. “I have nightmares about it and think about it all the time. I could have killed others. I think about it while I drive. I don’t think it will ever go away. I was just trying to get back to the hotel to sleep so I could turn around and start working again six hours later. I have a family to support.”
The health dangers of long hours was something Wexler fought to shine a light on most of his professional life after camera assistant Brent Hershman was killed in 1997 when he fell asleep at the wheel and slammed his car into a utility pole. Hershman had worked a 19-hour day – which had been preceded by four 15-hour days.
After that, Wexler took out an ad in Deadline’s sister publication Variety, calling for the “humane treatment of humans,” and a petition was launched to lobby for “Brent’s Rule” – a maximum 14-hour workday. It didn’t work.
A longtime special effects coordinator who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal told Deadline: “It’s a ‘shut up and make money’ system. It’s a ‘let’s hustle, let’s hustle to get this done.’ If they goof up the costumes, that’s one thing, but screwing up special effects or stunts is another. I saw an effects guy that made a mistake that led to his ultimate death. I now always try to be the guy [on set] who has slept.”
The late Sarah Jones — who worked as a camera assistant — had issues with long hours and trying to stay awake, too. “We had Sarah call us at 2 AM and say to us, ‘I’m driving home and you have to talk to me to keep me awake,’ so we know there is a danger there and we’ve seen it personally,” said her father Richard Jones, who along with his wife, Elizabeth, since have become strong proponents of on-set safety. “It’s about what you value and who you respect. It has to start with respect.”
Not all filmmakers drive their crews to working these kind of long hours. Those who have worked with them wanted to shine a light on the good directors and showrunners.
One of the filmmakers many crew point to is multiple Academy Award-winner Clint Eastwood, who routinely watches out for his crew with shorter work days (eight hours) and still manages to get his movies in on time and usually under budget. Chris Fisher, a director/exec producer for Syfy’s The Magicians, is notorious for looking out for his TV crew and making sure hours are palatable for all. Another film director who gets high marks for keeping the workday hour “human” is David Cronenberg. Line producer Lena Cordina and unit production manager Chris Shaw from the show Taken 2 (season two) were given high marks by Bockneck where he serves as a second AD.
“There are a number of people who are not doing this and turning out brilliant stuff,” said one veteran crew member. But the standard is for both film studios and networks to push crew to the limit to meet budgets and “unrealistic” expectations, they say.
Some say that was not the case shooting while television series in the mid-1970s. Marion Ross, who played Mrs. Cunningham on ABC’s Happy Days, said, “I spent 10 years on Happy Days, and we were very strict on how long we rehearsed and we only filmed one night from 5 PM until midnight. On Happy Days, there were younger children on set, and we were very strict on those hours as well.”
Loretta Swit, who played Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan on CBS’ M*A*S*H, said that the nature of the work is exhausting unto itself and fatigue can come both from longer days and shorter days. “Our work is demanding on many levels, not just physically,” she said. “We compete for excellence with ourselves at every retake. We need boundless energy whether we are doing comedy or tragedy.” She said when she was up so early in the morning, very often she would try to nap during lunch hour. But she likes seeing dailies, and “sometimes there isn’t enough time to do both. Even when you’re not working in every scene, waiting for the next shot can zap your energy.”
Crew members Deadline spoke with repeatedly pointed to the lack of organization on sets and smaller budgets with shorter schedules that is causing many of these problems. “Budgets are smaller or staying the same, however the same quality is expected,” said one veteran crew member. “The money has to come from somewhere, so it comes from labor.” Another said some productions are organized, but “really they have to say, ‘No we can’t use a 10-year-old budget and make it look amazing.’ Not realistic.”
We were also told more than once that sometimes directors don’t know how to use their time, and they have seen lengthy discussions about camera angles on set that should have taken place in pre-production and not the day it had to be shot.
“You cannot fix everything in post, either,” Izatt said. “Editors are held to 10 hours a day because they are so valuable that they are in a position of power to say, ‘I’m not working those hours.’ But these producers, studios and TV networks are actually imperiling people’s lives with these long hours, and they just don’t care.”
Coyler also noted that one thing that is not talked about but needs discussion is what these long hours do to personal relationships. “There is no balance,” he said. “Within the film industry, there is a very large culture of relationships ending, substance abuse to keep awake or fall asleep or to even cope with everyday life of not having a social life, not having friends or feeling connected to other people because all you are doing is working these incredibly long hours. Yes, you have friendships on sets, but it’s friendships out of necessity because you don’t get to see anyone else. It is a serious problem. For a lot of people, these 14-hour days are not just about driving, it takes a huge toll on your happiness, your ability to cope and have relationships. The film industry not only will take your time, it will also take your life.”
What are the possible solutions? If people keep working these hours, one helpful remedy we were told about from others (including actress Swit) is something that actor-director Anson Williams (Happy Days) has developed. He told Deadline that years ago, he was coming home from directing an episode of Slap Maxwell and fell asleep at the wheel. He woke up off the road, in the desert bouncing around in his car.
Williams’ uncle was the late Dr. Henry Heimlich — yes, the man behind the Heimlich maneuver that has saved countless lives. Williams told his uncle about the potentially catastrophic situation he had just gone through as a result of fatigue. “My uncle said, ‘Bite into a lemon. Your body responds right away from the citric acid, and the reaction is immediate,’ ” said Williams. “I did that for years to keep awake. But then during those years, I got into the product business and I thought, ‘There has to be a product solution for this.’ You can’t easily carry around fruit in your car, so I began working on something.” Williams developed a spray product called Alert Drops.
“It’s saving lives,” he said. “You spray a couple of drops on your tongue and it keeps you awake.” It uses the same concept that his uncle told him about — a squirt of lemon, but it won’t spoil like a lemon and produces a reflex-reaction of natural adrenaline. Deadline talked to some people who have used it, and they say it works.
“It does work,” said actress Kate Linder, who spent 35 years on The Young and the Restless. “I don’t know what it does or why, but it just makes you more awake. I keep it in the car. I had an appearance to do in San Diego and the drive took me forever to get there, and I had those drops and I used them then.”
Linder said, however, that productions really could help in this problem if they would provide drivers to sets both ways.
Crew members said that the only way to stop the craziness of abusive hours that is harming their health and family and friend relationships is for networks and film studios to either pull a Brubaker — go on set anonymously and witness this and be treated that way themselves and see how long they can last — or, as Sarah Jones’ father said, to actually start respecting the people who are physically putting together their TV shows and movies.
Deadline was told that the top people on a set (producer, director, lead actors/actresses) are driven to and from sets and therefore have no concept of what the crew and other actors are dealing with every day.
“It’s a combination of stopping these long-hour work days and then also getting to and from work. You have people in position of control and power who don’t know what goes on,” said Bocknek who urged the industry to be organized before going on set. “Writers think that a three-graph description is one scene, but it’s really like 12 scenes. We are only numbers on a spreadsheet. We are not people to them. The first question after my car accident was, ‘When are you coming back?’ and ‘Do we need to replace you?’ There was no, ‘How are you doing?'”
Coyler, who does not know Bocknek, said something very similar. “It feels like a lot of sets are highly disorganized,” he said. “They have a shot list, but the logistic matters of costume changes and other changes … it’s not just production but also actors themselves that can cause insanely long days. It can be an actor working on their hair for an hour and a half and the crew is waiting around. I’ve done days we had six to seven hours to shoot seven pages, and we got it done. The time management was fantastic. You go to the next day and you can barely get five pages done in 14 hours. It’s not a cure-all, but organization can definitely be a start in the right direction.”
Williams, who has been directing for more than 30 years, agrees. “I’ve been on so many television shows where they are not prepared and too self-involved,” he said. It becomes a ‘me, me, me’ situation. If you are a director on the set, you are responsible for your crew and their safety on the set and on their way home. That’s why people love Clint Eastwood.
“It’s about doing your homework and being prepared before you step on set,” he added. “You need to know your craft and do your due diligence for the correct shot list. Some directors take hours to figure out shots on set that could have been done in prep. That is very unfair to the cast and very unfair to the crew. It’s just laziness, and it’s not knowing your craft. Especially in the television business, there are too many directors who should not even be on set.”
He said that the entertainment industry should treat their employees like the construction industry does by making sure the hours they work don’t affect their lives negatively.
Added the veteran special effects man: “The military has learned about [long hours] and addressed the problem, but we [in the entertainment industry] have to sleep secretly as to not get fired.”
Since the deaths of Tuck and Jones, crews said that the younger people coming in to the industry are more aware of safety. “Film schools are really teaching it now. They are really talking about this now, and I give them a lot of credit for doing so,” said one veteran crew member. “So maybe the next generation will help get rid of the institutional problems we now have.”
Richard Jones agrees. He co-founded the Sarah Jones Film Foundation and is currently working with film schools across the country to implement safety as part of the curriculum so students are safety-minded when they work on productions: “If you really want to change a culture of an industry, you have to start with young minds.”