February 15, 2011
On Oscar night more than one recipient will thank his or her family for being patient with the long work hours entailed in making a film. But glib references to the extraordinary amount of labor time it takes to create a movie can’t convey how shockingly arduous production schedules can be. Viewers outside the industry might think winners are grateful because their loved ones agreed to a late dinner a few times a week. Or because they put up with the occasional missed t-ball game or parent teacher conference. Not even close.
A typical day on-set can leave the filmmaker with barely enough time at home to unwind for a half hour, get a few hours of sleep and arise to do it all over again. Eliminating days (or even weeks) from production and post production schedules by lengthening the work day itself benefits film financiers, because doing so facilitates recouping their investment more quickly. It also enables them to cut overhead costs such as space and equipment rental, and even to cut down on union “fringes” (pension and health insurance contributions); the faster a picture is finished, the sooner bill-paying stops.
Looking at contractual “guarantees” sheds considerable light on the movie industry workweek. A minimum 12 hour day is typical in crew/management agreements. The upside for filmmakers is that we will be paid for 12 hours (as will our fringe benefits) even when we knock off after 10. But we usually don’t leave after a mere 10 hours. And given that, the advantage for producers is tremendous. When the crew is entitled to a 12 hour day, time and a half doesn’t kick until after the guaranteed employment period. So a typical film production week is at least 60 hours -- one and a half times the norm which was hard won after a century of labor struggles.
Fortunately, some moviemmakers don’t like extremely long work days. The Coen brothers and Woody Allen leave the cutting room at 6 pm or earlier and manage to get a lot done each week. The late Sally Menke, Quenten Tarantino’s editor, was famously family-oriented, knocking off in time for dinner with her husband and two children every evening; her amazing work attests to the viability of such a schedule. I found, with the Coens and with Paul Dinello on “Strangers With Candy,” I got more high quality work done in a 40 hour week than in a longer one.
This issue is framed far more dramatically in the documentary “Who Needs Sleep?,” directed by renowned cinematographer Haskell Wexler. He made the film when camera assistant Brent Hershman died after falling asleep at the wheel on his way home from a “typical” 17 hour day, and has used it to spearhead a “12 hours on/12hours off” movement in Hollywood. Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of Mr. Wexler and others, production schedules have gotten worse of late.
Until a few years ago, moderately budgeted feature films were shot in 8 to 12 weeks. Now, a mere 30 days of principal photography is considered acceptable (as it was on “The Fighter”) and 20 day shoots are not unheard of. Such radical trimming of production schedules is accomplished by cutting corners (in ways audiences do feel!) and, at times, by lengthening the work day.
Ironically -- and necessarily -- filmmakers’ intense work periods are frequently followed by protracted stretches of unemployment. And despite the economic “hit,” not working is usually a welcome relief. Idle periods are used for recharging -- physically, emotionally, even professionally. I recently ran into one of last year's nominees for Best Editing -- a man who had spent all of 2009 working long 6 and 7 day weeks; in 2010 he stayed away from cutting altogether.
Some of us choose to travel while out of work. Others give ourselves concentrated doses of what we call “real life:” appointments with doctors, dentists, optometrists, accountants -- even marriage counsellors. We engage in deferred home maintenance, family projects, classes.
I use breaks from editing to read lengthy or difficult novels -- Infinite Jest, say, or Underworld. Re-viewing classic films helps me recharge. And going to the theatre -- a lifelong favorite pastime -- becomes possible when, between projects, I can actually make an 8 o’clock curtain. (I look forward to seeing Jane Fonda in “33 Variations” this week.)
The unemployment period is also a good time to write about life in the film industry. Sitting down last Friday with blogger Dennis Cozzallio to have our annual Oscar chat for his delightful site, “Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule” (http://sergioleoneifr.blogspot.com/2011/02/off-charts-another-conversation-with.html), I marvelled at his ability create new posts, parent and work a full time job. My next editing stint will definitely make me turn to guest wrtiters for “Filmmaker’s Diary” content.