Featuring interviews with those who labor behind and in front of the camera and medical experts who specialize in the field of sleep, the documentary Who Needs Sleep? targets the long work hours that have become the norm on U.S. productions — and in other American industries — and argues that the practice does far more harm than good. Shot by Haskell Wexler, ASC, who co-directed with editor Lisa Leeman, the film is also a tribute to Wexler’s friend Conrad L. Hall, ASC, who spoke out against long hours shortly before his death in 2003. (See Filmmakers’ Forum, AC May ’03.)
Wexler began working on Sleep seven years ago, after the accidental death of camera assistant Brent Hershman during the filming of Pleasantville sparked widespread support of “Brent’s Rule,” a petition mandating a 14-hour workday on the set. (Hershman fell asleep at the wheel after a 19-hour day that had been preceded by four 15-hour days.) Written by Pleasantville director of photography John Lindley, ASC and his gaffer, Bruce McLeery, “Brent’s Rule” attracted more than 10,000 signatures in less than a year and put the problem of long hours on the agendas of guilds throughout the industry.
Wexler, an early adopter of MiniDV on the 1999 documentary Bus Riders Union, began documenting events with his Sony PD-150. “I thought this was a great story of how a grassroots movement let something be known, and the system responded and agreed to do something about it,” he says. “I thought I was going to make a film about how Brent’s accident brought the Hollywood community together — actors, writers, directors, producers and others. Then the bottom fell out.” As Lindley recalls in Sleep, the petitions “disappeared into a black hole” at the International Cinematographers Guild, IATSE’s Local 600, and were not seen again. “The issue didn’t just go away,” says Wexler. “It died.”
Over the next few years, Wexler’s project became something else: a critique of America’s “24/7” work culture that uses the motion-picture industry as an example of a disturbing and largely unpublicized trend. As he notes in the film, “These are bad times for all workers, not just film workers.” But given the glamour that attends the movie business, the irony is acute; the glimpse Wexler offers of Hollywood labor practices might surprise viewers who know Tinseltown only by its glittering veneer.
Along the way, Wexler compiles grim evidence of how sleep deprivation affects physical safety and psychological well-being. “Statistics show there’s an epidemic of sleep deprivation in this country that’s developed incrementally over the past 10 years,” he says. “One study found that on a Saturday morning in Los Angeles, there were about 150 drivers on the road who were legally drunk because of sleep deprivation. With traffic the way it is, you’re spending a good hunk of your life going to and from work.” And when work itself is a 15- to 20-hour day, the results can be devastating. “Turnaround [time off between one day’s wrap and the next day’s call] doesn’t count the time you spend getting home,” notes Wexler. “Another colleague who died [in an accident] while I was making this film, [camera operator] Michael Stone, had been called for 3 p.m., worked till 4 a.m. the next day, and had to be back on set that day at 10 a.m. The day he crashed, he practically hadn’t had any sleep at all.
“To me, the overall tragedy is how many of us in our culture do things that are unproductive, unsafe and unhealthy, and we do it because we say we have to,” he says. “Work is not your life. It’s an important part of your life, especially if you work in a creative field, but it’s not your life.
“These long hours were happening long before Brent’s death, but the problem accelerated when the studios became part of multinational corporations. Budgets for all kinds of films are worked out in office towers in Thailand or Switzlerand, by guys in front of computers who are in touch with marketing people here: ‘This kind of story is like movie X or Y, and if it has this kind of actor, if we can make it for X dollars, and if we can release it at that time of year, we’ll give it a tentative go.’ Then the apparatus starts. Along the way, other elements come into it, and when the producer finally gets it he’s got a jigsaw puzzle, and he’s got to put those pieces in place in a certain amount of time in order to make the picture.
“The terrible thing about it is, there’s no face on the bad guy. If you were making a film about Enron, you’d be sure to include the guy who ran Enron. What was in front of my camera were decent people trying to function in the system, doing what they perceive to be their jobs.”
Wexler notes that the problem isn’t limited to studio films: “Independent pictures at some point want to be dependent, because in order to reach the audience they have to have a lot of money [behind them].” One key to avoiding long hours is “having a director who has some oats with the big guys. I’ve been terribly lucky because I’ve worked with good directors, well-organized directors who had an element of independence that few of them have now. I’ve not personally suffered from long hours, except on [the HBO telefilm] 61*, and [director] Billy Crystal and I knew going in that those hours would be long because of the complications of filming baseball. No way would I say I was tired, even though we were working 16- and 18-hour days.”
As Sleep recounts, Hall experienced similar hours on his final film, Road to Perdition. During the wintertime shoot in Chicago, “we were working 14-hour, 18-hour days, and we were going nights into days, days into nights,” recalls camera operator Scott Sakamoto. (Darryl Zanuck, the film’s producer, tells Wexler he recalls three 20-hour days.) Upon returning to Los Angeles, Hall drafted a statement he intended to make public: “As 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.” Wexler recalls, “Conrad asked Roger Deakins [ASC, BSC] and me to take it to the ASC board, which eventually endorsed it, and Vilmos Zsigmond [ASC] subsequently took it overseas, where it was endorsed by cinematographer societies in many countries. When I went abroad to shoot some material for this film, I was surprised to find they were all familiar with it.
“It’s a loaded statement, and one of Conrad’s points is something I don’t think people in the ASC think too much about. We do think a lot about our art and our position as artistes, and that’s very important, but as directors of photography we’re the foremen of the crew, and that means we have to look out for the crew’s welfare. A number of cinematographers are really good about that, but some aren’t.”
Over the course of the Sleep shoot, Wexler conducted interviews on a number of sets — film, television and commercial — and several times he was escorted away with varying degrees of courtesy. “I always got permission to visit, but in a handful of instances word came down from somewhere after I got there, and someone would arrive to tell me I’d have to speak to someone’s attorney before I could interview anyone.” He was nonetheless able to interview dozens of workers, among them cinematographers, operators, gaffers, makeup artists, editors, producers, directors and actors. He used supplemental lighting only inside his car, where he used a single light panel LED. “They’re terrific little lights because you can dim them without changing the color temperature, they generate no heat, they can run on a battery, and they’re only 2 inches thick.”
Sleep also incorporates material shot by Joan Churchill, ASC; Kevin McKiernan; Alan Barker; Tamara Goldsworthy; Sonia Angulo and Rita Taggart. “I’d usually just call up a friend and ask, ‘Are you doing something Wednesday or Thursday?’” says Wexler. “Kevin felt my film should be more personal, and he also gave me some advice on structure that was very helpful. Joan was the one who recommended [editor/co-director] Lisa Leeman. I believe the editor of a documentary should be credited as co-director because they have such a hand in shaping the movie. I was researching a lot of things and throwing a lot of material on Lisa.”
Among the footage that didn’t make the cut was an interview Wexler conducted at the Pentagon about the use of sleep deprivation in basic training and interrogations. “The military has done an awful lot of research on sleep deprivation — it’s the ‘acceptable torture’ of choice, and it’s also behind a lot of friendly-fire incidents. I had all kinds of great stuff, but [producer] Tamara Maloney said, ‘Do you want to make a three-hour movie that will turn off all the Republicans?’ So I said, ‘Okay.’ When it’s my own film, I really need another person to be strong with me. Then I argue with them. Sometimes I win.”
Sleep closes with a salute to the grassroots movement 12On/12Off, which was recently founded by cinematographer Roderick Stevens in an effort to promote a 12-hour workday on set. Wexler says if Hollywood’s labor practices change, “it will be through a grassroots movement like Rod’s, or because the bottom line is affected, or perhaps through litigation — the sleep doctors have testified in some cases [involving accidents caused by sleep deprivation] that have been settled quietly, and insurance companies are starting to notice. I don’t look for leadership from the union. Originally unions were to represent workers and get us better wages, better conditions, better hours. Now they see their job as delivering a competent, compliant workforce.”