In a time when #MeToo has taken hold in the U.S. against those who have used their power to take advantage of the weak, and when students in Parkland, FL are using their voices to affect change, many crew members in Hollywood remain too scared to speak up against the powers that be over the abusive hours that are putting their own lives and personal relationships in peril.
Joyce Gilliard, the seriously injured Midnight Rider crew member, said last night on a set-safety panel sponsored by her iSAFE! organization that because Hollywood is “one film family,” everyone wants to work together towards a resolution to end the fear and provide protection for all movie crew members under budgets that will work for producers. Other union workers in the audience applauded the idea of working as a cohesive unit for the benefit of all, as did panel members.
A message that resonated at the event at Harmony Gold theater in Los Angeles was to speak up and keep talking about safety issues, as now is the time.
“The sexual harassment situation, it’s open. You’re free to talk. You’re free to express. The same thing has to happen in this industry,” said actor-director-producer Anson Williams, a panelist. He also noted the threats to people who are trying to protect themselves and others from harm with ” ‘You better be quiet or you’re not going to be back.’ Literally, it’s that blunt. It’s gotta stop. There has to be a platform of exposure, transparency and protection. You have to have the freedom to be able to protect yourselves.”
He said there “are no reasons for these guerrilla shots … they do it because they’re cheap. There has to be a safe place to expose this when it happens.”
There are several hotlines people can call about safety issues, but last night it was pointed out that when crew members who are concerned about safety call into the hotlines, it seems that nothing is ever done, and at least not in a timely manner. That, they say, is frustrating people, and they want to work to change that in a positive way. Also noted is that the pervasive culture of fear leads to regrets later of not speaking up when people are harmed.
Many filmmakers and crew members only care about “getting the day,” said actress Wendy Davis, who worked with the late camera assistant Sarah Jones on the set of Army Wives. “It’s part of the culture … it’s ingrained from the beginning” to get the shots on the cheap. And because it’s “a crowd mentality, no one wants to be the one (to speak up).
“Even though you’re not safe, you don’t want to be the person who says, ‘Hey guys, this isn’t a good idea,’ ” said Davis. “It happens all the time … guerrilla shots, safety measures that are not met … I’m here to use my voice because Sarah (Jones) can’t. I’m here to speak up.”
“We are the worst at taking care of our own people,” said Williams.
In the first iSAFE! panel about safety, those who work on film and TV sets joined in what was an engaging discussion about the problems in the industry and ways to change that culture.
“I was hit by a train,” said Gilliard in reading her own poem to a what became a captivated audience. “Think about it. The images of running for you life to get out of its path. The roaring sound of its engine … I am blessed to be alive. I carry the guilt of survival, especially since Sarah died … 60 miles per hour nowhere to run but ahead … seeing the train, not understanding why, why was this happening. We thought we were safe … safety precautions weren’t taken. Rules were not met. Not speaking up is the one thing I regret. We need to be vigilant. Show that we care. Look out for one another at work and don’t be scared.”
Gilliard later went on to described what she and others suffered the day a train plowed through their makeshift “set” on a Georgia trestle on February 20, 2014 (see below).
Gilliard was joined on the panel by Deborah Hershman, whose husband Brent died while driving home after working a 19-hour day after back-to-back 15-hour days on the feature 1997 film Pleasantville. Hershman said their one child doesn’t remember her father at all because she was only 2 1/2 years old at the time of his death.
“He said, I’ll be home soon to kiss you goodnight. I got up in the morning and knew something was wrong because he wasn’t there,” said Hershman. That’s when the police showed up and handed her a coroner’s card. “My Dad and I drove to the coroner’s office … and I wanted to see his car.” She said the guy at the tow company at the front desk where his car was held told her not to look at the vehicle “because Brent had been decapitated.” She then had to go home and talk to their young children. He was only 35.
“I’m sharing my story not for sympathy but because I don’t want it happening to anyone else,” said Hershman. “No one’s life is worth long hours or money.”
After Hershman’s death, cinematographer Haskell Wexler pushed a campaign of 12 On/12 Off, meaning that you work 12 hours and then are off 12 hours. It never went anywhere.
Williams also talked about the 30 miles radius rule. If you are at a location 29 1/2 miles out, producers don’t have to pay for a hotel room and can save on the budget. “Years ago, I was 29 1/2 hours out,” he said, when he thought he could make it home but he was tired and he ended up driving off the road.
“You’re just like anyone else, for hire. You’re depending on the showrunner, you’re depending on the producer, you’re depending on the production manager to be a human being,” he said. “And that’s what missing from our industry, being a human being. Being a leader. You’re responsible for people. They don’t think like that. They look at budget. They look at numbers and they want to ‘get the day’ … at whatever cost. Well, it’s cost a lot of lives over the years.”
Audience members also spoke up about harrowing work conditions and the ramifications they have faced when trying to have a conversation about safety. Others offered suggestions that iSAFE! become a kind of watchdog when a crew member tries make a positive difference and calls a hotline, only to have it fall on deaf ears. Another said that in Ohio, for instance, you can get into the union without any safety training, and that also needs to change.
Another issue is that fines against producers who flagrantly violate rules are too low to be truly punitive, and that slapping someone with a $10,000 fine is low to people who are dropping $20K to fly first class to Europe for fun.
Gilliard’s own story about what happened on the set of Midnight Rider was a chilling reminder of what can go wrong when a director tries to get a “guerilla” shot with lack of safety rules in place.
“The question that people always ask me … is, ‘Did you see the train coming?’ And my answer to that is, ‘Yeah, we saw the train coming but you hear the train before you see the train and when we heard the train coming, we immediately started running,’ ” said Gilliard about what happened four years ago to the day on the Doctortown, GA trestle — which, unbeknownst to her and others, was a live train track. “By the time we heard the train coming it was too late.”
“Everything happened so fast, and it was like seconds … you didn’t have time to think. All you could do is react,” she said. “It was not enough time to get off of that trestle. When that train came barreling through the set, I remember saying to myself, ‘Oh my gosh, am I going to die?’ “
Metal supports extended two feet across the less than 3-foot-wide walkway along the eastern side of the trestle, further narrowing potential exit routes. Crew members who could not get to safety in time huddled as the train passed.
Gilliard said when she realized that she wasn’t going to get off the trestle, she clung to the side and held onto the iron girder, which seemed like the only place to escape danger. “Jumping over wasn’t an option. You didn’t even have the option of even trying to jump over into the the water because the train was already there.” The train was going 60 mph when it plowed through the set.
“The train was so fast that it sucked you off — it was like a pulling sensation with the train — so with that suction it pulled me off of what I was holding onto and that’s when my arm went back into the train and it snapped in half,” said Gilliard. “And when it snapped in half, I fell down, but I didn’t fall down backwards, I fell down forward and held onto the cables … and I held my arm because I was bleeding out.”
Because they had been filming a dream sequence on the trestle for the Gregg Allman biopic, there was a metal prop hospital bed that broke up upon impact and became flying metal shrapnel. Gilliard said she took the bed sheets that fell in front of her and wrapped a kind of tourniquet around her arm. “That’s what saved my life,” she said.
She is often asked what she did after that. “Everyone was in a state of shock. No one couldn’t believe what happened,” she said. “To tell the story, I have to be real with it. There is no need to sugar coat what it was. I have to let you know that when we got off that trestle, we had to cross over Sarah’s body. Cross over her body to get to land. I’ve never seen anything as gruesome as that. And the images are still embedded in my head. That’s why it’s good for me to see pictures of her of what she was. To see her angelic face and her beautiful smile.”
What happened on that track that day has motivated Gilliard to move forward to help others with iSAFE! Last night’s panel was the first of many initiatives iSAFE! will be involved in to promote safety awareness.
“Sarah Jones lost her life,” said Gilliard. “And this is one of the reasons why I started iSAFE!, so we can have this conversation, so that we can bring awareness to safety issues that we all see every day on film sets because it was a taboo to even speak up anytime. But now, everybody is more able to say, ‘I’m not doing this. This doesn’t feel right. I don’t feel safe.’ And now people are listening.”
She added that everyone on a film set has to look out for each other and know and teach about available resources, calling the cast and crew “our film family.” The panel was moderated by Christy Fiers, who works as a 2nd assistant camera in Atlanta.
The panel discussion began with a moment of silence for Jones.