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Haskell Wexler: Sleepless in Hollywood

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  • Carbon Based Lifeform
    Jun 20th, 2011

    As originally posted on THE HUFFINGTON POST:

    Academy Award-winning Cinematographer

    Sleepless in Hollywood: A Threat to Health and Safety

    Tonight or early tomorrow morning in the Los Angeles area,
    hundreds of sleep-deprived film workers will be driving home after work
    in a state equivalent to legal drunkenness. Their unnecessary fatigue
    threatens their health and safety and the community at large.

    When you hear the word “Hollywood” it’s easy to think of the so-called the rich and famous, the ones on Entertainment Tonight.
    But in fact most of the people who make up the film industry — the
    cameramen and gaffers and editors and all the others — are not
    “celebrities.” The vast majority are the people behind the scenes — the
    ones who routinely work 70+ hour weeks. These long hours are the
    industry standard — scheduled and on the call sheet. If someone balks
    at that overload, there are 20 others standing by ready take the job.

    Fifteen years ago this month, Brent Hershman, an assistant cameraman on the film Pleasantville,
    drove home after working a 19-hour day. Exhausted, he fell asleep at
    the wheel and crashed his car. He was killed. Brent’s preventable death
    led me to begin my documentary Who Needs Sleep? which I finished in 2006.

    Since his death, Brent’s crew and friends have lobbied the film
    industry to “limit our workday to 14 hours, beginning at the call and
    ending when the last person is wrapped,” saying that “the workforce in
    our industry has persevered for too long without such a vital safety
    guideline in place.”

    I’ve tried to carry on their message. On the Internet and with my
    camera in Washington, D.C., I have been calling attention to the fact
    that working long hours takes a toll on our health, safety, and family

    The medical evidence on sleep deprivation is alarming.

    In Who Needs Sleep, Dr. William Dement, a psychiatrist at
    Stanford University School of Medicine, warns that sleep deprivation and
    long hours form a lethal combination. Sleep deprivation has been linked to high blood pressure, obesity, cognitive and mood changes, and heart disease.

    Col. Gregory Belenky, M.D. of the Walter Reed Army Institute of
    Research, was assigned to find ways to keep soldiers awake. Because of
    the extensive resources of the military, he was able to discover
    compelling evidence demonstrating how critical sleep is to health and
    safety. In the film, he shows us an example of sleep-deprived pilots who
    crashed their plane because of their diminished cognitive abilities due to lack of sleep.

    But government regulators seem afraid or unwilling to confront
    Hollywood, and they have fallen short on protecting workers’ hours in
    our industry. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)
    is chartered “to help workers come home alive and healthy at the end of
    the day.” But OSHA tries to dodge the issue — they’ve told me that
    perhaps we should take it up with our union, or with the employer.

    We wouldn’t want the Food and Drug Administration to let supermarkets
    sell rotten meat, yet somehow grossly overtired workers are asked to
    operate machinery on movie sets and public highways, where nearly one in five fatalities is related to drowsy driving. That’s the fault of government regulators. When OSHA ignores its charter
    and fails to oversee safety, the agency leaves the well being of
    workers and the public to market forces. That allows producers to take
    the cheapest way out. Long hours and disregard for the human need for
    sleep is a case of corporate values outweighing human values.

    But nothing has changed in our industry. Long hours are still as
    routine as when Brent was killed. Back-to-back 16+ hour days are still
    routine. We work late on Fridays deep into Saturday — it’s what we call
    the Lost Weekend.

    There’s nothing I love more than making films. But the health of my
    fellow film workers and citizens is more important than anything on the
    silver screen. Long hours can be an acceptable part of our work, but
    repeated excessively-long shifts and short turnaround times that leave
    us chronically sleep deprived are not.

    This is about our lives and the threat to public safety. The National
    Highway Traffic Safety Administration paints a dark picture of tired
    and distracted driving deaths, citing texting, emailing, surfing the
    Web, eating meals. In accident reports, police check for alcohol and
    drugs — and now they include “asleep at the wheel” as a cause. People
    who sleep six to seven hours a night are twice as likely to be involved
    in such a crash as those sleeping 8 hours or more, while people sleeping
    less than 5 hours increased their risk four to five times, according to
    a AAA report.

    To stay awake on a late-night set, we down gallons of coffee and Red
    Bull — or reach for the medicine cabinet. Common pills are Vivarin,
    NoDoz, Stay Alert, and Provigil. With quick turnaround time, we are
    obliged to shortchange our families and ourselves. Sleeping fast
    requires help: Alluna, Lunesta, or Ambien are common among the sleep

    There’s a line in Who Needs Sleep that goes like this: “the
    only thing we own is our time.” Dr. Eve Van Cauter points out that
    “sleep deprivation is unique to the human. There is no other animal that
    sleep-deprives itself.” Stretched thin, on little sleep at our jobs, I
    wonder if we really own our time anymore.

    While making Who Needs Sleep, I was driving home after 14
    hours of work. I knew I was tired, but I opened the windows and played
    the radio, confident I stay keep awake. But sometimes you can’t will
    yourself to stay up if you’re overtired. The lights went out. My
    beautiful ’87 El Camino was totaled. Hanging upside down by my seatbelt,
    I could hear the paramedics ask each other, “You think he’s alive?”

    During the course of making my documentary, there were three deaths.
    One of them was my friend Conrad Hall, the Oscar-winning

    From the hospital, he gave Roger Deakins, a mutual friend and cinematographer, and me a statement that he wanted to make public:

    Directors of Photography, our responsibility is to the visual image of
    the film as well as the well-being of our crew. The continuing and
    expanding practice of working extreme hours can compromise both the
    quality of our work and the health and safety of others.

    He knew I was making the film, and he urged me to finish it and to get it out.

    That’s what led me to form 12 On 12 Off,
    a nonprofit organization aimed at raising awareness of the lives of
    film workers and the risks of long hours and sleep deprivation. Our
    credo begins: “As individuals, we believe every human being working in
    the film industry has a right to enjoy a life outside of their work,
    including family, friendships, and sleep.”

    As I write this, I believe I am honoring Conrad’s pledge, which is now mine.

    Haskell Wexler is an Academy Award-winning cinematographer (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf; Bound for Glory) and director of the groundbreaking film Medium Cool. For more information on workers’ hours in the film industry, go to his blog at 12 On 12 Off. He’s
    working on a variety of film projects and was recently shooting on
    location in Northern California on the Yurok Indian reservation on Kevin
    McKiernan’s new film,
    Line in the Sand.

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