Thoughts on the Long Work Hours of Film Production

So I got an email from one of my friends yesterday. He had to cancel an evening meeting with me because he was working on a music video. They had already been shooting for 12 hours. He half-jokingly said they’d be there until sunrise. It was 8pm. Do the math. That’s a 22-hour day.

While this is rare, the average production day for a film/television crew is 13 hours+. On student/indie sets, it can be really bad. I’ve heard of students pulling three 18-hour days back to back.

In 2006, Academy Award-winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler made a documentary called “Who Needs Sleep” that shows how sleep deprivation and long work hours in Hollywood are a lethal combination. Wexler recently wrote this article for the Huffington Post that talks about the health and safety dangers of “Sleepless Hollywood”. The article marks the 15th anniversary of the tragic event that led Wexler to make the documentary – after working a 19-hour day on “Pleasantville”, assistant cameraman Brent Hershman fell asleep at the wheel and crashed his car. He was killed.

On the short films that I’ve directed, I’ve tried to keep the days as short as possible (12 hours maximum), and give the cast and crew at least 12 hours of rest.  These decisions were partly driven by budget (the SAG contracts I used required overtime pay for work in excess of 10 hours in any day excluding time spent for meals, and rest period charges if performer is not given at least 12 hours of rest), but mostly driven with the well being of the cast and crew in mind. I, like Wexler, am an advocate of the 12 On 12 Off campaign. The campaign has “three basic rules of humane and responsible filmmaking”: 1) No more the 12 hours of work; 2) No less than 12 hours of turnaround; and 3) No more then 6 hours between meals. (Perhaps an exception would be shooting French hours on an 8 to 10 hour day.)

Not everyone in film and television has long hour production days inflicted on them. According to this article, Clint Eastwood is known for working 9-hour days. On top of that, Eastwood has a history of finishing a product early and under budget, and, in my opinion, his films are stellar. Talk about efficiency and excellence.

Thankfully, my friend mentioned above only had to work a 14 hour day. As filmmakers we are a committed bunch and we love what we do. We’ll work as hard and as long as it takes to get the job done. But to what end? Time with family, mental and physical health, and public safety are all sacrificed. Hopefully, it won’t take another tragedy or broken family to wake us up.

To close, here’s a comment from Sidney Lumet on long hour days in Hollywood – “Now I know that great movies have been done that way, and I know great performances have been achieved that way, but in my view they have been great movies or performances despite the hours, not because of them.” (From “Directors Speak Out” clip by Haskell Wexler, 12 On 12 Off Blog, posted January 29, 2010.)

Do you have any stories about working long hours (or short hours) on set?


Quotes from Fade In interview with Ben Foster

Just read a good interview with actor Ben Foster on Here are a few quotes from Mr. Foster that resonated with me…

On directing (what he’s learned from Oren Moverman’s directing style)… “…if you do your research, and you do your homework, and you come in and create an environment that allows the actors to listen to each other, you can do no wrong. It’s all about protecting that space.”

On burn out… “Nick Cassavetes said something really lovely to me that I’ve held onto about some silly job that will go unnamed that I didn’t want to do…’Well [do it], [do it] if you have to, but just make sure you don’t blow your own candle out.’ And Hollywood will do everything, it will find every weak point in your heart and in your mind, and try to blow it out. And that may be by making your candle so bright that it just fizzles after a few years…”

On working with great actors (Al Pacino and John Travolta in the upcoming film GOTTI)… “Yeah, bring your A game, but they will raise your game. And then, on top of that, these are professional make-believers. These are people who refuse to grow up. These are full-grown adults in costumes.”

Trailer for 2009 film THE MESSENGER starring Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster. Directed by Oren Moverman.

A Tip for Moonlighting Filmmakers

The starting line

If you’re at the beginning of your career as a filmmaker like me, and especially if you have a family to support, you’ll likely find yourself needing to do your creative work at the end of an already busy day. It is HARD to get going when your tank is already on E. Adam Pash over at Lifehacker writes about those critical moments between giving up and wasting your night, and deciding to get up and get creating.

The key, according to Pash, is just getting started. He makes a deal with himself that if he logs just 10 minutes on his project, he can go back to wasting his night away, guilt free. More often than not he finds himself getting caught up in a burst of productivity—always a welcome event in a moonlighter’s life. If you find yourself in the same boat, hop on over to Lifehacker to read the full article. I know I need all the help I can get.

Andrew Stanton on Story @ TED

Andrew Stanton of Pixar fame (“Toy Story,” “WALL-E”) shares about writing compelling stories that people connect with. Some great takeaways:

“Drama is anticipation mingled with uncertainty.” – William Archer

“Stories affirm who we are.” – Andrew Stanton

“If things go static, stories die, because life is never static.” – Andrew Stanton

Watch the full video here:

Out with the Theater, in with the Remote Control?

Image by Jeremy Toeman @ Flickr.

I just read a great piece in the New York Times about the future of indie film as seen by Ed Burns. Burns, the director behind “The Brothers McMullen” sees indie films playing and making money, not in theaters across the country, but rather on your TV screen through cable and satellite on-demand programming. Maybe it’s nostalgia or a too-clear dream in my mind, but the thought of not seeing independent films in the theater makes me sad. But if the big screen won’t take us, maybe we just shack up with the small screen and call it a day. Burns seems to think that’s the way to go. What do you think?


El Abuelo Screens @ SDLFF March 14, 6 PM

El Abuelo is an official selection at the San Diego Latino Film Festival. The film screens alongside other locally-made shorts, including films from Juan Guardado, Brian Garcia, Dexter Gareau, Magdalena Ramirez, and Niel Kendricks, all with ties to my alma mater, SDSU. The films will be playing in the “Frontera Filmmakers” block, a celebration of short films from the San Diego/Tijuana border region. We’re honored to be included and excited to see the rest of the films!

Watch the El Abuelo trailer here.