Looking back at a life ended by an on-set tragedy, and forward with an array of veteran motion-picture professionals who discuss workplace safety and how the film community can do better.
I run a small production company out of New York called Glass Eye Pix. We have made dozens of movies, often with first-time filmmakers and often with the same crewmembers.
Our motto is: “Safety first, movie second, feelings third.” And by “feelings,” I mean ego. For me, this has philosophical weight. Safety of body and mind is the most important, and over the years the concept has expanded from car crashes and gunplay to include sex scenes, dietary restrictions and reasonable working hours. Let’s just say it up front: Good food, communication and a respectful schedule are essential to a creative team’s morale.
Having said that, production safety is everyone’s responsibility. As a producer, my approach is to build a community of trust around the movie — the thing we are working together to achieve. I want collaborators who are enthusiastic and who bring a sense of pride to the project. I encourage camaraderie as well as personal responsibility among the ranks. If it’s just another gig, they’re not going to be fully engaged in creating the kind of environment where everyone can do their best work.
At every budget level there should be a pursuit and expectation of excellence and care. On the low-budget ($250,000-$3,000,000) films I’ve produced — which have included fire, guns, underwater sequences, icebreaking, plane crashes, car crashes, boats sinking and bad weather — everyone knows each other and has each other’s back. A crew with fewer people means that everyone takes on more responsibility, and this group mentality has the effect of focusing everyone’s attention.
This also goes for those in above-the-line production, who must be responsive to the needs of the crew. If there’s a fear of speaking up on set, you’re already in trouble, and those producers who are cutting corners and pushing crews past their limits are ruining the business for everyone else. Producers must listen and assess. If a complaint is well-founded, you adjust. A filmmaker who truly understands the power of film knows you don’t need to endanger people to create a sense of danger on the screen. As Hitchcock would say: “It’s only a movie.”
Even so, I consider filmmaking a robust activity, and I expect my team members to have some grit. I grew up loving the films of Werner Herzog, Akira Kurosawa and John Huston; these movies have an aspect of controlled danger to them. You just have to create an environment of trust where your crew feels like they’re always given a choice, and where saying no doesn’t feel like a rebellion — it might just be a reality check. — As told to Iain Marcks