Safety on the Road Ahead
by Mark London Williams
In our winter 2016 issue, we ended the first part of “Storm Coming In”—our look at the conditions faced by location managers both when scouting, and on set, and some of the general obliviousness that has greeted those conditions—with a look forward at ways to make the profession safer.
Since that first part went to press, we lost hall-of-fame cinematographer Haskell Wexler, who passed away this past December at 93. We had mentioned his documentary, Who Needs Sleep?, which he was prompted to make not only by his own sleep-deprived car accident (he happened to favor restored Chevy El Caminos), but by the 1997 death of assistant cameraman Brent Hershman, attempting to drive home after 19 hours on set. He fell asleep at the wheel, crashed and died.
In a remembrance of Haskell, SHOOT online’s editor Robert Goldrich wrote about his last encounter with him, at a venue quite familiar to LMGI Compass readers: “It was in March 2014 when Billy Crystal presented Wexler with the Humanitarian Award at the 1st Annual Location Managers Guild of America Awards. Crystal recalled directing the HBO film 61*, which was shot by Wexler. Crystal said that Wexler implored him to make sure that the production of 61* was ‘really safe,’ without any crazy long hours.”
If so little had changed between Hershman’s death and the time of Haskell’s turn-of-this-century credit on 61*, what has changed in the years since?
And is anything likely to change further?
Location manager Clay Dodder, LMGI, currently working on the series Bones, thinks if it is, at least on the locations side, the burden may fall on the scouts and managers themselves: “We’re expected to have all of our own equipment, computers, cameras, tripod and car. No production thinks we need anything other than what we bring ourselves. Safety items like a Spot Messenger or a satellite phone are expected to be supplied by us and the cost of these items are absorbed by us.”
In other words, for basic safety, you might be on your own. Dodder continues: “In still scouting, my kit fee runs from $100 to $150 per day, so the cost of my Spot and the annual service is paid for in a few days a year. In TV, I am lucky to get $10 a day, if anything, so the cost becomes a burden. The majority of my work is in TV here in Los Angeles, and the production companies are not sup- plying anything in the way of safety equipment. Hell, my current show won’t even pay cellphone reimbursement!
“Cellphones are the first line of safety, both on set and out scouting. I think getting more money for box rental (TV and features especially) is the only way for scouts and managers to provide the safety equipment they feel comfortable with. Not all scouts feel they need a satellite phone, I don’t, but the peace of mind my family and I get from the Spot, is well worth the expense.”
In addition to the basic ability to let others know—and communicate from— your whereabouts on a scout, Dodder lists other basics—knives, water, car tools, wilderness kits, etc., that he takes with him, but other tools are being developed, too.
Perhaps more for on-set safety than solo scouting, the group A Pledge to Sarah— named in the wake of the entirely preventable on-set accident that killed Mid- night Rider camera assistant Sarah Jones (on which we reported in Part I)—has created a downloadable app to make reporting safety violations even easier.
As Deadline described it, the app “gives users quick access to safety hotlines for reporting unsafe working conditions and excessive work hours. It includes access
to Contract Services Administration
Trust Fund (CSATF) safety bulletins that can be read at the touch of a finger for the direct and immediate viewing of specific safety guide- lines. Users can also anonymously send in photographic evidence of safety and time card violations to the app, which will then forward submissions to union and industry organiza- tions that are tracking complaints.”
Besides making it easier to report the kind of blatant working condition violations that got Jones killed, the group’s FAQ addresses the is- sue that Wexler so vociferously advocated for, and answers those who ask if “set safety and excessive hours are two separate issues—why are they together in one app?”
The group says they “feel that they are both a set safety issue. It has been scientifically proven that fatigue impairs decision making. If you are working excessive hours, then it is more likely you won’t make good decisions while doing your job. Poor decision making can lead to accidents, both on set and on the way home.”
But of course, it’s not only being on the way home, but away from it, that gives location workers their own additional safety concerns.
“I think scouting can be scary for the scout,” says Alison Taylor, LMGI, a recent COLA winner as supervisor for the location team on Straight Outta Compton. She cites one incident for a scout working with her on the series Southland: “We were looking for a house that would be like a meth-head house, out in the middle of nowhere. He was scouting out in Lancaster—on these really large properties, bizarre places. He got to one place, and somebody came to the door with a shotgun!”
Luckily, the gun was never fired. But it got Taylor considering how things look to those being scouted: “I know when I was scouting for Straight Outta Compton, you’d cruise up and down the street looking for something. When we do that, we look like stalkers—because we drive down the street, looking at property we think might work. People wonder, ‘Who are these crazy people?’”
She wonders whether providing location scouts and managers with some uniform type of identification would help smooth interactions from the get-go: “I’m happy the LMGI sends membership cards,” she allows. “At least it gives people some kind of credibility. But it seems we should have something from contract services—something we can carry, that lets people trust us.”
Beyond that, she wonders if digital technology can be brought into the mix: “Maybe we need a location app for checking in so that someone else knows where you are.” She sees it as another routine precaution that could be taken—nevermind the occasional encounter with the shotgun-toting owners. Every time “You’re about to step in a house,” she says, “tell them, ‘I have to check in, to let them know where I am.’”
For veteran TV producer Harry Bring (The X-Files, Criminal Minds), the Jones tragedy hit all too close to home: “I was part of the company that hired Sarah into the business as an intern on Army Wives,” he re- counts.
“After I flew back for Sarah’s funeral, the first day back to work in Los Angeles, I brought everyone back on the set. ‘That will never happen here, not on my watch.’”
Bring didn’t need to wait for an app for his on-set safety procedures. He tells his crews, “If you see something, say something. If something doesn’t feel good, say so.” And they never need to fear any retribution from the producers’ end, or someone saying “that guy screwed us up, and we missed two shots.”
But in spite of such safety precautions, “There’s all this chaos. Take the extra five seconds, 30 seconds, go to your first AD, your stunt coordinator, and ask, ‘are we safe up here?’”
Of location work he says, “We all steal a shot here and there —but you’re on a sidewalk, in front of a 7-Eleven.” Not, he emphasizes, “in traffic or on a roof.” Or on the tracks of an actively working railroad.
“Our stunt industry is so safety aware—I mean, they’re crazy, but they’re very safety conscious. And yet, they still have a couple accidents a year that takes a life or cripples somebody. We don’t have those shot-by-shot safety procedures for those normal close-ups, or a guy walking into a door.”
And even less so for location scouts and managers, usually flying solo in an urban wilderness, or an actual one.
“It’s a crazy world,” Bring says, “and producers and UPMs should completely support safety.”
And we’ll be looking at that “world” more in our next part. We’ll see wheth- er things are better in places that have been presumed to have more “sane” work hours, for example (like Europe), than on American film shoots.
One example of how that’s changing comes from Matt Palmer, a Canadian LMGI member, working on the FX series Fargo. He’s also a member of the Canadian DGA and has sat on a number of their Boards there (in addition to his own by-his-bootstraps work as a producer and director).
In one circumstance, they anticipated one of the changes that Taylor called for here: “Years ago, we used to have official police identification cards, that we used in concert with our contacts at the Film Commission, so that any business or homeowner has numbers to call to verify a scout’s identity. While we don’t have the ID cards anymore, we have a template letter provided by the Film Commission that gives a number people can call to verify identities.”
As Palmer says, “We need to shift our perspective of seeing safety as a cost, and instead, understand that working safely can save money, lives and downtime due to injuries. Long hours and exhaustion cost productions money. The longer one works, es- pecially in high-stress workplaces over long stretches of time, severely restricts their ability to make good decisions, let alone be able to use critical-thinking skills to solve complex produc- tion issues.”
Which sounds exactly like something Haskell Wexler might have said. Though perhaps with somewhat saltier language.
Next issue, we’ll be looking to pool some of those critical-think- ing skills mentioned by Palmer—both in terms of a further look at the problems, and how solutions are emerging in “locations” around the world, as we try to cultivate a habit of safety.