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Reconciling My Love For Renegade Filmmakers w/ A Genuine Fear For The Safety Of Below-The-Line Crew

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by Cybel Martin
April 8, 2014 1:52 PM
1 Comment
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Sarah Jones was kin. I never had the pleasure of meeting her, so let’s call her my distant cousin “on the camera department side”. I look at her photograph and immediately connect with her exuberance. Huge smile. Huge camera. Film production can really be that awesome. I’ve always likened film crews to a family. Dysfunctional. But still family. This family has a habit, passed on from generation to generation, of evading authority for the “greater art”.

Orson Welles was our Godfather of Rebellion. From “The Making of Citizen Kane”:

“To keep studio execs off his back, Orson Welles claimed the cast and crew were "in rehearsal" during the first few days of shooting, when in fact they were actually shooting the film. It took a number of days before the studio caught on.”

I’ve always loved that story but thought of it differently after Sarah’s death. How can I reconcile my love for renegade filmmakers with a genuine panic that below the line’s safety is an after thought?

Details about the “Midnight Rider” shoot from The Hollywood Reporter: “The day felt strange from the very beginning, says [Hairstylist Joyce Gilliard]. She and the rest of the crew had gathered at a studio in Savannah that morning, when they were told they’d be traveling to a location to shoot a “camera test.””

Like everyone else who has reflected on this tragedy, I want to assert I have no idea who and what is to be blamed. The incident did make me take an honest look at my world of expertise: independent film and in particular guerrilla filmmaking.

For me, “guerrilla filmmaking” is whenever there is a disregard for regulations, jerry-rigged camera support or lighting rigs (instead of industry standard equipment) or filming proceeds without proper paperwork/insurance/permission. Typically, the filmmaker can’t afford to make their film through legitimate and traditional channels but hopes the next film will have a budget big enough to not cut corners. Shoot “El Mariachi” for $7,000 and a few years later, you can film “Desperado” for $7 million.

There’s a good chance that your favorite Hollywood Director (and perhaps Cinematographer) began their career and established their visual style via guerrilla style shooting. How many of my beloved French New Wave films were accomplished without location permits? Would that artistic freedom have been possible under a studio system? Several women and “people of color”, who were denied a seat at the Adult Table, saw guerrilla filmmaking as their only avenue into the industry.

Indie Filmmakers point to their ability to shoot without permission like a badge of honor. We like to trade “war stories” at wrap parties or while sharing a smoke on the back of a Grip truck. I have plenty. I’ve seen an actor jump on a live subway train track. I’ve gone up in a cherry picker during a sandstorm. If you are of a certain age, you remember someone tying into the circuit breaker (illegally) to pull electricity.

If you were a director, it was visionary. If you were below the line talent? It was being a team player.

The benefits to shooting this way are endless. The cons, that people mention, usually involve fines, confiscation of equipment or being kicked out of a location. It wasn’t until Sarah’s death that I began to wonder if it can be an addiction, or at the very least a sickness. When a filmmaker is young and reckless, it makes for a great story and ideally a great film. When the budget or shooting schedule is unexpectedly cut short, it’s used as a coping mechanism. “Just get us through the day”. But when the practice continues years later into one’s film life, it can have negative effects on professional and personal relationships. Do they ever stop to conceive of an equally creative but safer alternative? At what point does the reliance on cutting corners stop? And will it ever stop if a director thinks it might attract the likes of Martin Scorsese?

Whenever I take a job, I assume everything is in placed to assure my safety. As a DP, I do my best to advocate for my crew. If they ask for additional equipment or manpower for a particular scene, I trust their instincts. My producer may be resistant at first, but we usually come to an agreement that gets the shot, protects my crew and respects the budget.

It really makes me uncomfortable discussing “our dirty laundry” outside of the family. However, I believe the majority of my readers are filmmaking newbies. The children of the family. I want you to enter this industry with a clearer vision than I had. Your 1st AD, UPM and Line Producer are responsible for on set safety and reigning in the director. Film sets have a very reliable hierarchy. If you take a job as a 3rd Grip, the Key Grip (your boss) will also do what they can to make sure you are safe.

You probably won’t have these “luxuries” during your first few years in the film industry. It’s more likely to be a group of friends helping each other out. Or an ultra low budget feature where the director is also the 1st AD and Producer. (No checks and balances.) Your Director/Producer will be reluctant to spend money on anything that does not “appear on screen”. If injured, you probably won’t be covered by Worker’s Compensation. When I was at NYU film school, our worse horror story was someone accidentally dropping a 16mm camera down several flights in Bobst Library. This generation of filmmakers have the ghastly reality of an on-set death of student John Hunt Lamensdorf in 2009.

I always want my articles to inspire and encourage you to the point where making a film is your only option. Circumstances be damned. That is the wonder of guerrilla filmmaking. But this is what I ask of you:

When you are directing/producing your film, don’t become dependent upon stealing shots and lying to authorities. Your crew can offer a multitude of alternative rigs or locations that still make you look like the genius you believe you are. Take care of your film family. You don’t have to love them, but do feed them, watch out for their safety, keep a First Aid Kit at Crafty and a reasonable shooting schedule.

When you are crewing on a film and don’t feel safe, give yourself permission to speak up. Ask your Key for advice. Most times your concerns will be met with sarcasm or an audible sigh, but you will be respected. On occasion, you will be fired or labeled “difficult” to work with. If you are female, the term “diva” will be thrown around. That’s okay. You will work again.

For my professional crew readers: Darryl Humber, aka DollyGrippery, said it best in his post  “Sarah”: “No one said "No" for this girl and those injured in this senseless tragedy. Instead, corners were cut and permissions were broken and a 27 year-old girl who just wanted to do a good job was put in a position from which there was no escape. To get a freaking shot. And that's why we are here, guys:  To say "No" for those who don't know they can.”

Accidents can happen on even the best run and budgeted gigs. I understand a certain level of risk is inherent on any film job. As Independent filmmakers, it’s up to the individual when to enjoy the high of creative liberation and when its just plain BS and not worth the trouble.

If you haven’t already, sign A Pledge to Sarah / Pledge to Safety. Its a beautiful initiative.

Read about “Slates for Sarah”  and show some support on Facebook.

Lastly, watch the documentary “Who Needs Sleep (full)”  by Haskell Wexler. It’s a sobering look at sleep deprivation in the film industry.


See my Cinematography and past articles at CybelDP.com and chat film with me at @cybeldp

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1 Comment

  • Dankwa Brooks | March 7, 2014 3:54 PMReply

    Another great article CYBEL and strikes a note.

    This is what I said on Instagram after I read The Hollywood Reporter article:

    "After weeks of cognitively avoiding reading about the death of Camera Assistant SARAH JONES I finally read about her in this comprehensive article in 'The Hollywood Reporter' and Lord, what a reckless set this was. It seems as NO ONE had permission to film this scene on working railroad tracks (She was killed by a passing train).

    And yes I blame the Director, the Producer, the UPM and the 1st AD. All should be culpable because SOMEONE should have stepped in and asked was it safe (and got more of a reassurance and proof other than "Yeah".)

    Even if they were shooting #GuerrillaStyle (which in case of an active railroad is the stupidest shit ever) as "Dan J." commented on the article, they had "No reasonable plan to evacuate trestle in the event of a train."

    This whole tragedy is just the most unfortunate shit ever and hopefully #filmmakers will learn from it. #RIP #SarahJones"

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