by Chris Baugh/LMGI
Your voicemail is full. A relentless staccato of texts interrupt crucial phone calls. Deadlines come at you like dangerous jibe tacks while impromptu “To Do” lists scatter across your desktop. You’re working longer hours and there seems no end to the increasing demands of production.
As location professionals, we’re all acutely aware of stress in the workplace. Our responsibilities are intense. We joke about it. We take pride in our superhuman endurance. But the truth is, the level of stress that we have come to accept with our jobs can be a serious health hazard. I was unexpectedly hospitalized in the middle of a show recently. From that event, I came to learn that many location professionals suffer stress-related disabilities on the job and feel pressure to hide it. We need to recognize that these issues cannot be ignored. Each of us needs to identify our own personal boundaries and enforce them or suffer unexpected consequences.
Last February, I was doing what we all do on a difficult show. As conflicts arose, I simply dug in harder. My personal life was the first to go … the next sacrifice was exercise, then, I cut back on sleep. The producers’ mantra of More for Less takes effort. That’s normal. It was complicated and difficult, but things were still going well. I’m a pro at maintaining a calm demeanor while achieving one hard-earned success after another. So, it was a complete shock when, during the middle of negotiations in Koreatown, my vision suddenly became fuzzy. The white balance appeared to ramp up in the world around me. I felt sweat soaking my clothes. I thought I had been hit with a sudden fever or food poisoning. I snuck home and started retching. My health status speedily declined. My muscle coordination went next. I was on the ground in a dark room when I began to vomit large amounts of blood and lost consciousness. If my key assistant, Mike Betz/LMGI, hadn’t checked on me, this would be the end of my story. Three liters of blood loss generally leads to cardiac arrest. The doctors called it a near-death situation. I experienced a freak accident known as Mallory-Weiss Syndrome. The retching had split a major artery in my stomach. Mallory-Weiss is generally associated with bulimics or alcoholics. I’m neither. It can also be caused by severe stress. Veteran US diplomat Richard Hollbrooke collapsed and died after a press conference in 2010 from a similar spontaneous internal tear. I was rushed to the emergency room and spent four days in the hospital. I survived and went right back to work.
As word got out among my colleagues, other locations professionals began to privately share their stories with me. Almost everyone I spoke with had been in the business 20 years or more and either collapsed on the job or were hospitalized on the job from a stress-induced condition. The majority of incidents were back injuries (not from lifting). A high-profile international location manager tore a back muscle overseas and worked for weeks from a hospital bed. Another manager simply hired a driver after his onset of severe back pain and continued to work from the passenger seat. Key assistant location manager David Park/LMGI recalled a stress-induced event at age 30, while working on set in Los Angeles. “While helping prep a location in downtown, I had a severe rash that broke. It started with my hands and feet and within a matter of 30 minutes, had spread across my entire body and face until I collapsed unconscious on the sidewalk of Wilshire Boulevard next to the grip truck.” I heard stories of stress-induced retching into trashcans, heart attacks at concept meetings… “They will work you until you fail,” noted location manager Kevin Funston/LMGI. “No other job puts you through the stress of what a location manager experiences.” We are the only department that must effectively influence people outside the business in order to succeed. There were more serious examples. Caleb Duffy/LMGI, a 45-year-old location manager, collapsed from heat exhaustion during a show and missed his tech scout because he was in a coma. 46-year-old key assistant location manager Jennifer King drove off Malibu Canyon Road to her death while traveling between distant locations on a very stressful show. While many people were compelled to share their story with me after hearing mine, very few, not even close friends allowed their name in print associated with a stress injury on the job.
Location professionals seem compelled to project an image of super human strength to the world. Maybe they fear being passed over for future work if their stories reached prospective producers. Somehow, we have managed to make these serious maladies invisible and that does not serve us well. Studio safety is certainly happy to go along. I reached out to a number of studio safety departments to comment on their policy for stress on the job. There is none. “Try to be careful” is the most I got.
Aside from recognizing the signs of stress, there are a number of things that you can do to condition yourself to handle the pressure and intensity of our jobs. If you’re not in good shape, you’re going to suffer. It’s easier to say than to do, but a full night’s rest and daily exercise will increase your energy, mental sharpness and endurance. After my experience in the hospital, I force myself to leave work early enough to maintain my health. No producer has ever given me a hard time with that explanation. Veteran location scout Lori Balton comments, “My lower back goes out if I don’t take care of it… Our job is like running a marathon. I have a regime and I stick to it.” Eat healthy food in balanced portions. Stay away from craft service. Drink lots of water. Quit smoking. Take time for yourself. If you can’t get the work done, then you need more people. If you can’t stay healthy, you’re going to have a problem that will outlast your show. David Park reflected, “Although it is difficult to prove that (my health issue) was or was not definitively caused by stress, especially because the day felt like many other “normal” days at work, it was a reminder for me to be aware of my limits. I have learned that it is important for me to feel comfortable with taking breaks, even when I don’t want to because I am in the ‘flow.’ A lot of basic practices that may have helped avoid the incident that day seem obvious now, but are easy to overlook when working in the moment.”
It is a special thing to be a part of the entertainment business. Our contributions touch millions of people and ultimately, our work becomes a permanent part of global mass culture. Despite its challenges, location managing is an amazing and fulfilling job. But like any dangerous job, be it amazing and fulfilling, risks need to be identified and efforts must be made to prevent a hazardous event. Although it would be nice to have some recognition from studios and producers on this issue, it’s really up to us as individuals to respect our own bodies. Incorporate your strategy of stress prevention into your management program and don’t hesitate to enforce it. Discuss your concerns upfront with producers and colleagues as a critical issue for maintaining productivity. Then, when the pressure is on, remember the examples you read in this article. We are not superhuman. We are human. Our health is all we have. Try to be careful.