Brent Hershman, an assistant camera operator on "Pleasantville," a modestly budgeted comedy for New Line Cinema starring Oscar nominees Joan Allen and William H. Macy, had put in a grueling 19-hour day on the Long Beach set of the film.
The father of two small children, Hershman was headed for his West Hills home about 2 a.m. on March 6, exhausted from the day of filming that had started at 6:30 a.m. But driving on the Century Freeway, barely halfway home, Hershman, 35, fell asleep and hit a utility pole. He was killed instantly.
Tales of similar, if not always fatal, accidents involving healthy people struck down by exhaustion abound on sound stages and location sites around Hollywood. Grueling workdays seem to be taking an increasing toll on crew members, resulting in fatigue-related accidents.
The film set workday has lengthened in recent years--15 or 20 hours a day is not uncommon--with the tacit agreement of Hollywood's labor unions responding to pressure raised by the gradual exodus of productions out of state and to nonunion crews.
Althoughthe state Division of Occupational Safety and Health, known as Cal/OSHA, monitors accidents that happen on a film set, no government agency monitors work schedules or their possible consequences after the workday is finished.
No statistics on injuries sustained by tired workers are kept by the industry, their unions or government organizations, but Hershman's death has prompted his co-workers to organize an industrywide movement to put pressure on studios and production companies in order to reverse the Hollywood standard.
They have begun by writing a petition--called "Brent's Rule" in honor of the widely respected camera operator--asking that the film workday be limited to 14 hours. The petition has been widely circulated around the country, attracting more than 10,000 signatures, including such famous names as actors Julia Roberts, Sally Field, Tom Berenger, Kenneth Branagh and Lynn Redgrave and directors Milos Forman, Mike Nichols, Robert Altman and Nora Ephron. The petitioners' goal is to institute the 14-hour cap in the union contracts that govern the industry.
"Working exhaustive and excessive hours has become an industry standard, and we all share blame for accepting it," the petition says. "Productions should strive to keep exhausted drivers, impaired by fatigue, from getting behind the wheel instead of contributing further to this clearly tragic situation. We petition . . . this industry to limit our work day to fourteen hours. . . . This standard will improve our working efficiency and morale and certainly allows for a sufficiently productive work day."
The Screen Actors Guild recently endorsed Brent's Rule and the Directors Guild has appointed a committee to examine safety issues related to long hours in the entertainment industry.
"No other industry would consider a 12- to 14-hour day 'normal,' let alone countenance a work span of 17 or 18 hours," said Richard Masur, SAG president.
Directors Guild President Gene Reynolds agrees. "All the people on the crew or cast driving home after one of these ridiculous day's work have become vulnerable," he said. "The problem has to do with the succession of extended days: We all can do one 16-hour day, but when you do four or five, it's beyond stamina."
Shortly after Hershman's death, veteran cinematographer Haskell Wexler took out an ad in Variety, asking for the "humane treatment of humans."
Bertha Medina was luckier than Hershman. Bone-weary after a 20-hour day on the set of James Cameron's mega-budget "Titanic" in Baja California, the 30-year-old script supervisor dozed off at the wheel and ran off the road. She spent five days in the intensive care unit of a San Diego hospital, a blood clot having formed on the left side of her brain.
"It's horrible to think that something has happened to your brain," Medina said from her home in Mexico, where she is being cared for by her mother. "I had bad luck with this accident, but I'm happy to be alive."
The problem is not confined to feature film sets. Long hours can be just as grueling, if not more so, on hourlong episodic television dramas. The crew of "Deep Space Nine" has circulated its own letter to producers, "emphatically requesting" that the workday be limited to 13 hours.
" 'Star Trek' themes have always dealt with humanity and a positive hope for the future. Yet we, the crew of 'Deep Space Nine,' are often forced to work excessive and exhaustive hours," the letter reads. "The cumulative result has been mental, emotional and physical fatigue and ultimately a decrease in efficiency, productivity and most importantly, safety, both on and off the job."
The International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees, which represents many Hollywood workers, has stepped into the fray as well, even though it is largely responsible for having negotiated the contracts over the last decade that led to the loose on-set restrictions.
"The union as a whole is incredibly concerned," said Bruce Doering, national executive director of Local 600 of IATSE. "We think this is the plague right now."
The number of hours worked is not monitored by Cal/OSHA, which does monitor such film- and television-related safety issues as on-set accidents or injuries, for instance those caused by stunt work or special effects.
Technically, the state Department of Labor Standards oversees the length of working hours, but it operates on a complaint basis. A spokesman for the department said Monday that the office had not been aware of Brent's Rule or the outcry after Hershman's death.
It is a situation that has slowly escalated over the last decade. One of the main forces behind the lengthening hours derives from contractual concessions made by desperate unions and endorsed by workers at a time when Hollywood was losing productions to out-of-state locations (often in right-to-work states) and to nonunion crews.
"The pressure to keep production in town has played a large role," Doering said.
Rules governing working hours were gradually eased and monetary disincentives loosened to entice studios to keep their productions in California.
"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," said Bruce McCleery, gaffer on "Pleasantville" and one of the authors of Brent's Rule. "So we tend to see conditions we didn't use to have."
Skyrocketing salaries of actors and growing numbers of highly paid producers and writers attached to projects have also led to cutbacks in below-the-line expenses.
And it's not always the film's director or producers who are driving the schedule but the studio, which is driven by financial concerns and the need to complete shooting so that a film can open on a particularly advantageous weekend.
"There are very few directors who want to push to work these kinds of hours, but they have tremendous schedule pressures on them," Wexler said. "Also, there are a lot of first-time or new directors who don't know how to work quickly."
Many believe that film schedules are devised unrealistically from their inception. "It's very easy for the guy up in the office to say, 'We'll save a pile of money if we finish this location [as quickly as we can],' " says the DGA's Reynolds. "But they are pushing people terribly by making deals that are unrealistic in the first place."
Doering said several IATSE locals are looking into other ways to address the problem, including pressuring production companies to put workers up in hotels after long days or to provide drivers.
Individually, some producers have already responded.
Still reeling from Hershman's accident, "Pleasantville's" producers and director, Gary Ross, have taken aggressive measures to help the crew of the film, which is still being shot, beginning with a 14-hour maximum workday. The filmmakers are also providing hotel rooms and rides home. They are also encouraging crew members to stop working if they are too exhausted, without fear of reprisal.
But despite the thousands who are rooting for change, there remain some vocal opponents to limiting hours. Some crew members rely on the overtime pay, which can be substantial. After eight hours of work, union contracts require workers to be paid time-and-a-half. Workers receive double-time pay after 12 hours. (The film industry is not affected by the new state law that goes into effect July 1, which states that workers may receive overtime pay only after working more than 40 hours a week. The entertainment industry's union contracts supersede state law, and those contracts do ensure overtime pay when more than eight hours are worked.)
"I don't want to limit myself to 14 hours a day," said Jim Bradfield, an electrician on "Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman." "That extra five hours is my savings money. I've felt sleepy after working eight hours. But you have to have enough sense to pull over."
There are others who have mixed emotions; they may not be happy about the exhausting schedules, but they regard long hours as simply the cost of doing business in what is generally a lucrative industry.
"A lot of people had complained about the hours," Medina said about the "Titanic" shoot. "But everybody worked the same; the director, everybody. You get so involved in a project."
And some say the conditions of the business just have to be accepted.
"Whose fault is it?" asked a veteran script supervisor who requested anonymity. "It's my fault; it's any union member's fault. A smart producer will make the best financial decision. We get angry because they make the cheapest financial decision. But that's what they're hired for."
But most crew personnel who have signed the petition say they would forgo their overtime for more rest and the promise of a safer environment. So the petition's authors and its thousands of supporters remain hopeful that the industry will take their pleas to heart.
"I don't know if there's anybody in this town who wants to maintain conditions that are dangerous and [conducive] to people getting hurt and killed," Reynolds said. "In a way, we are protecting the companies from themselves--from their own excesses."