The death of an assistant cameraman following a grueling 19-hour workday on a film set has galvanized his co-workers to lead a movement limiting the number of hours worked on movie sets. They have petitioned New Line Cinema, the studio producing the film, and met with union officials in an effort to reduce the excessively long work schedules that have become standard in the film industry.
Brent Herschman, 35, was headed for his West Hills home about 2 a.m. on March 5 after having worked since 6:30 a.m. at a Long Beach location for the film "Pleasantville." He told others on the crew as he left that he wanted to get home because his 8-year-old daughter, Ariel, had been sick and he wanted to be with her when she woke up. Midway through his trip, Herschman fell asleep at the wheel, according to California Highway Patrol reports. He drove off the road, hit a telephone pole and was killed.
"The last thing he said to me was to drive home safe," said Baird Steptoe, one of Herschman's closest friends, who was also working on the set. "He was always thinking about everybody else."
Meanwhile, Herschman's stunned co-workers have met daily since his death, spurred by the tragedy and determined that the death not be in vain. In a petition they call a "resolution toward a sensible and humane workday," they seek to reduce the exhausting work schedules by enacting "Brent's Rule," which would limit workdays to a maximum of 14 hours.
"We believe it our responsibility to ourselves, our families and the innocent drivers of other vehicles to prevent this from happening again," the petition states. "Working exhaustive and excessive hours has become an industry standard and we all share blame for accepting it. We all know at least one person who has been in an accident trying to return home after a brutally long day. . . . We petition all production companies, all movie studios and this industry to limit our workday to 14 hours beginning at the call and ending when the last person has wrapped. . . . The work force in our industry has persevered for too long without such a vital safety guideline in place."
Cinematographer Haskell Wexler ("Matewan," "Bound for Glory") wrote an open letter in Variety this week urging supporters to sign the petition. So far more than 80 people have signed.
In a telephone interview, Wexler cited not only the dangers of such long days, but the damaging effect on families and relationships when crew people work such long hours.
"I've gotten faxes from so many concerned people," Wexler said. "It just makes me cry. . . . I had calls from producers who said, 'Yeah, this has to stop.' We all seem to be in some kind of trap. . . . We're trapped by schedules which everybody knows upfront can't be met."
Most industry insiders agree that shooting schedules are often unrealistic from their inception.
"Studios determine that if you work fewer days, the film costs less to make," Wexler said. "It used to be that overtime was a deterrent to the producers. Now other factors make it worthwhile and it's not regarded as a penalty to go into overtime. It's more serious for a film to go over [its scheduled time frame]."
New Line spokesman Steve Elzer said Friday: "New Line received the petition yesterday and we're working responsibly with the crew to address their concerns. While we discuss this matter internally, this is clearly an industry issue that demands the attention of every production company as well as other entities, including the Directors Guild."
Union officials did not return calls.
Most in the industry point to financial concerns, which fuel the exhaustive workday routine.
"It's a practice that's driven by a lot of factors, not the least of which is money," said John Lindley, director of photography on "Pleasantville." "It affects everyone on the set. Brent's call was for 6:30. There were people on set that day who worked a longer day than Brent. The makeup people had a 4:30 call. They just didn't happen to fall asleep at the wheel and die."
Also, unions, faced with the threat of losing productions to nonunion crews or to out-of-state locations, have made significant concessions and eased rules governing working hours to entice studios producing the films to keep their productions in California.
"Over the last 10 or 15 years, the unions have made concessions in one way or another," said Bruce McCleery, gaffer on "Pleasantville." "We now have pared-down versions of the original contracts, where rates are lower and we've given up turnaround periods [the time between the end of one workday and the beginning of the next] as a way to sort of secure the lower-budget productions."
"It doesn't matter what company it is," Steptoe said. "I'm sure that somebody sitting up in a tower is not really concerned about the health of the crew members working a long day. They're more concerned about the black ink and the red ink on the budgets."