Back in The Setlife Again

After a year of being forced to sit on our hands (metaphorically, but also I tried it literally because turns out forced isolation + meditation is hard?), we in the creative space are able to get back to what we love.

Despite many of us making a resolution to slowly submerge ourselves rather than fly in headfirst, we . . . well, haven’t. We went hard and now – along with at least half the world’s workforce – are fucking. burnt. out.

throwing snowballs on the beach

This wild, utterly exhausting abandon is caused by many things.

First, it’s in our nature, our blood and guts, our fucked up psyches.

You don’t get into this industry – or you sure as don’t get far, usually your second PA gig – without being someone who loves it, who revels in the work, who can take the weird hours and unusual tasks and illegal turnarounds and worse, and do it at 60 hours pw. When I say “illegal turnarounds” I don’t mean to suggest “you should just shut up and take those,'” but they are rampant. Here’s the thing: even refusing to do them, or pushing for penalty rates for them, will wear you down, and it takes a certain type stubbornness and battle choosing to stay in the fray.

Stay in this industry a couple years and you’ll see plenty of PAs and even above-the-line-rs get fired or quit. Absolutely sometimes that’s because of abusive circumstances, unreasonable expectations, being inadequately prepared or supported, being underpaid, or worse. That the aforementioned sins are so rampant in this industry is on the industry. I’ve also seen some simply realise the job is not ‘for them’ and that’s perfectly fine.

But what a decent chunk of people realise when they get on a film set is it’s dirtier, colder, longer, harder, less glamorous than they thought or were told, and that’s unlikely to change any time in the next two to thirty years, and so, they go a different direction.

Whether through the brutal systemic problems which should be eradicated, or the plain old unglamorous grunt work which will rip you physcially and mentally and emotionally before restoring your soul in time to do the cycle again, really do love it, whether that’s the Stockholm talking or not.

And so . . .

shooting an episode with 12 – TWELVE! – dogs. quite an adventure.

Second, we fucking MISSED IT.

“Wait, you missed this work you’re saying is hard and sometimes underpaid and illegal and stressful and . . . “

Did you miss the part about our fucked up psyches?

But also, film work is like any work. It has its hard times and its rewarding times; it has workplaces which are wonderful and workplaces which grossly overstep boundaries; it’s hard work and sometimes you fail and sometimes you’re good at it; and if you want to, you can learn a lot about yourself and the world and get better and sometimes make good money and even more rarely make good art.

Amongst the work, there’s absolutely nothing like stepping onto a film set that first day of shooting, and the joy which offsets the drudgery is exactly what the pandemic has ripped from most of us. Being unable to sit together in a writer’s room, unable to watch the lights striking the set just so, unable to hug your actor as he finally nails that take, unable sit with your editor when she’s working on a sequence that has defeated you for weeks and finally makes it work – there’s nothing like that rush, that restorationg which keeps you moving and chasing.

In a time which was already particularly mentally and physically and emotionally and personally challenging, taking away our ability to do our jobs we’re good at, removing the experiences and in particular those joys, was another brutal blow in an unforgiving time.

directing green screen ninjas

Third, over the last year we have been told over and again, in many and various ways, by the media, the governments, and plenty of production companies, that our work wasn’t valued, and we as people aren’t worth the financial or mental support.

Our industry wasn’t worth the bailout given to airlines, even though we contribute six times more to Australia’s GDP. Many of us didn’t qualify for the payments rolled out to help those who lost their jobs. We had to fight and push for extra mental support subsidies, in an industry which was already taking a too-heavy toll. We struggled mightily to keep up with the legals and new requirements and paperwork and permits, even while certain Big Shows flaunted rules which could fine small productions into oblivion.

Now overseas productions are flocking here, most of them are bringing their own above-the-liners and ‘don’t think they can find enough crew’ partly for all the usual reasons (where they’re looking and who’s able to access it, loose ‘locals’ rules, because of what they’re willing to pay) and partly because because many last year had to switch industries to keep a roof over their head or sanity in their head.

Switch many have and shall continue to. If you’re a set builder, you can be a carpenter – maybe even on one of those ‘essential services’ worksites. If you’re a DoP being offered pennies on the dollar when you invested thousands in equipment, or are being replaced because that new Hemsworth picture show being touted by the government is only offering camera assist positions and importing their DoP, then maybe going back into hospitality** is more regular paycheck, or at least a more predictable work hours and foreseeable future.

“Wicked Women” writer’s room

The final element is even more subtle, and it ties into all reasons above. People in the arts have always been willing to do more for less to get a foot in the door – the Oscars openly vaunted that fact at this year’s ceremonies and production companies don’t think twice when underpaying assistants or advertising unpaid internships which have been theoretically outlawed in most industries.

It’s the nature of the beast, and it’s been literally killing us through mental health crises, disgusting abuses, and pushing safety boundaries on and around sets. We have long wanted work/life balance, more space for our own creative pursuits, more community and public support, and more government making sure the broader industry was sustainable. Last year we finally – if forcibly – had time and space to realise some of those goals, and whether firsthand or secondhand to see and experience IT IS POSSIBLE.

It. Is. Possible.

And after that, being thrown – or rather, throwing ourselves – headlong into an industry which has gotten straight back to his bad habits is giving us whiplash.

trying to stay cool shooting in 40* weather

On the one hand we revel in the work, in being back on set, in getting our hands dirty again.

On the other, we realise that the space to truly develop projects, to be paid for a little more time writing, to really workshop things in a writer’s room, to have a weekend, to be able to plan a couple days to ourselves, resulted not only in a better product but better mindspace for us. We realised we were in some regards being given fewer ridiculous demands, and this made us more able to do our jobs and take care of ourselves. We saw that 10 hours was sufficient time, and we were damn productive with it, especially circumstances considered. We realised some of those “absolutely must be in person” production meetings were ego fluffers and could be handled just as well in half an hour over the phone. We found ways to stay somewhat sane while still doing our jobs and learning how to do them even better.

Even when the world wreaked havoc on various aspects of our life, the aspects of production which have always shredded our minds and bodies worst – the unpredictable overtime, the whims of producers saying certain people couldn’t sit down,*** the disparaty and mental toll – were by their absence allowing for life / work improvement . . . only for all that progress to be yanked away like a tablecloth in a magic trick the moment theatres opened their doors back and productions were able to get back to shooting.

We may have learned, but the ‘powers that be’ want to go back to the way things were, whomever they need to exploit to get it there. And we’re the ones being exploited, while at the same time also actually joyous to get back to our jobs, back on the sets, back in writer’s rooms, back to work.

The cognative disonnance this is creating is worse than ever, and comes right after a year of uncertainty, multi-week lockdowns, snap lockdowns, lack of financial support, sickness, govenrmental averice and incompetence, job loss, enforced seperation from loved ones, celebrities being flown in to film multi-million dollar campaigns we can’t even get hired onto, and more, has left us more mentally fragile and financially unstable than ever.

the hand thing is a cliche but also it really helps . . .

So what is this post other than a scream into the void. What do I propose as small implimentable changes or big picture solutions?

On a personal level, valuing one’s work and time, setting boundaries, and seeing a goddamn therapist, is more imporant than ever. I’m trying to do that, snap lockdowns, ‘please work for free’ emails, and that tiny voice inside my head which screams when I’m not ‘productive’ be damned.

On sets, we need to accept being more flexible; we need to keep to stated work hours; we need to do better to allow for peoples’ mental health; we need to hire more locals, and make sure we’re bringing a good blend of people into rooms and onto sets both in front of and behind the camera; we need to stop abuse in its tracks; we need to let people have production meetings on Zoom; we need to truly crack down on the sly comments and ‘teasing’ about gender and race and looks and parental status and more; we need to work on all this while we support each other because clearly the government isn’t going to.

Speaking of: the government should step the fuck up. We’re an industry which contributes not only to GDP but culture, we pay our taxes as productions and people, we attract hoardes of tourists and also actors, we should be protected and valued as such and then some.

The last we can’t control. The set we can’t do at the minute. Whatl we can do right now – beside write, and watch movies, and write some more, and rewrite, and do masterclasses, and pass edits back and forth on Wipster, and reschedule that shoot for the third time – is support each other. The job is transient and ever changing, but those of us who are determined to stay in it must be rocks, taking care of ourselves and our cinematic comrades.

Even without the lights and camera, let’s take that action.

In Newcastle Tonight: coming as soon as the lockdown postponements stop us from shooting the rest of it

Stray Observations

*I’ve had many experiences where I’ve been asked to do things I should not have been asked; anything from something dangerous to mundane. It should never happen, and sometimes I was too young or unknowing, and sometimes I’ve pushed back, and many of the latter categories have cost me work; I once was asked to do work outside of hours by a producer who promised production knew and would pay me, then when I submitted those hours on my paysheet she called and (with plenty of screaming) told me I should have understood if I wanted to move up I just do the extra work (about 5 hours weekly) for free. I was not hired back.

**Not to say hospitality wasn’t also hit hard and isn’t a potentially brutal workplace; it’s not a competition and many in hospo have lost their livelihood, too. But as a sector, it’s got backers, and many in the the arts are having to fall back on it.

***I’m not even subtweeting a certain famous director; I’ve had this edict come down on a set I was working on. It’s not just cruel but shows a total disregard for your staff, and a lack of understanding of both ‘work’ and how film sets run best in the long run, not just how they please you and your puritanical aesthetics right now.

We’ve all got these war stories, every industry, every grunt. But that’s no reason to inflict them on the next lot . . . or ourselves, moving forward.

3 Responses to “Back in The Setlife Again”
  1. Nicholas Galauxy says:

    I’m curious – do you think that the majority of the abuses and bad habits occur because those negative things make something easier for the person doing the asking (combined with being able to get away with it because “working in film/arts” is simply personally appealing to many people and thus there’s a constant supply of people who will eventually submit to those demands), or more that as a “passion career” you have a lot of people who have personal sensibilities of “how things should be done” that they developed long before ever actually working in the industry, regardless of how effective/sustainable/harmful those preferences are?

    Working in software, we obviously have a whole different set of problems to deal with, but in trying to work on those, I’ve tried to find patterns to see if there are common sources that can be addressed at the root, rather than just “identify person X who is causing problems and fix/fire them” since that endless game of whack-a-mole is just exhausting.

    (Also, long time no see, hi again!)

    • Melanie says:

      Oh hallo! Long time no see indeed! Glad to see our first ever mode of communication has resumed 😀

      I think it’s part of things you state, but there’s another big factor: the compartmentalisation and transitory nature of the job.

      Sometimes we work with someone for a day, or a week, or three months. And often we can work on a show with an abusive or harmful person and it’s not [necessarily] that they are keeping those habits hidden, but we are not in the space – or even working *with* the people in the space for the rumours to hit us.

      For examples:

      I have “day played” on big long-running shows. IE I’ve worked on some 10-season shows only when they needed an immediate gap-filler and someone I’d worked with called me up, or when they were shooting near where I lived or knew someone so I could “work as a local.”

      I worked on [long running reality show I won’t name because in my experience it was all really great and I never even heard anything bad so don’t want to hint it was!] for maybe 2 weeks. If one of those leads / hosts was abusive, would I have seen it; likely not. And I wouldn’t have even gotten to know most of the long term staffers well enough to have them share something was bad. And if they HAD been abusive, it’s really easy to just keep hiring more people like me, who rock up and do a job and split, to keep their habits hidden. It’s kind of like temping, except our industry is built on it in a way few others are.

      I worked on a web series for a month. I worked on a feature film for 4 months. Let’s say one of those producers was a horrific POS. I may never work with them again, but what keeps another production company from hiring them – whether or not plenty of people know that person’s reputation! – because 1. they haven’t heard the stories 2. they don’t believe stories they’ve heard 3. they don’t care about abuse or culture in general 4. they don’t care because they think the producer ‘can get shit done’. Again, the transitory and “just needs to hold together for eight months” nature baked into the film industry makes it easier to perpetuate this.

      As does the compartmentalisation. The bigger the movie / show / etc., the less likely a lot of us interact with the others, let alone directly with the producer themselves. Sure, the whisper network within the industry will name the bigger offenders, but it’s also easier for the medium fish to cover up what they’ve done because [outside of some bigger established production companies] there’s no “culture” from a particular corporation to point at. Maybe it wasn’t them, maybe it was the director, or the other producers*, or etc. [I did, for example, work on a show which had two distinct producer teams, one of which was an absolute dream, the other of which was a nightmare. But 1. few people had to interact with both teams 2. the former team had almost no control over the latter, both were hired by a production company 1000 miles away, and so everyone just did their job as best they could, having no ability to course-correct once we were weeks into shooting. When I was contacted to give a reference for a producer from Team A, I was wholly honest that they were amazing, 10/10 would work with again, etc., but even with that, the culture was problematic and I had a couple specific bad experiences, never witnessed by anyone on Team A. Nobody ever asked me about that part, though.]

      All that to say, It’s hard to pin something on one person when the industry works by setting up short-term operations which are free from overall structures. Even when those who have worked with someone for a month or a year KNOW they are trouble.

      And then, it’s not always above-the-liners who are the problem, and not always below-the-liners who are going to understand how things work. Maybe that PA got fired because they were being abused, or maybe they were bad at their job, or maybe they just walked in starry-eyed with the believe it’s a “passion career” and when it wasn’t as much fun as they thought, they changed career course. I have [once directly, once indirectly] witnessed someone get fairly reprimanded for doing an ATROCIOUS job at something, and that job reflected badly on those above them, who had done everything right, but then, because film sets are not always as straightforwardly hierarchical as office settings, it gets tricky. I may be in charge of 10 people on this set, and on the next one, one of them is in charge of me. Sometimes you’re actually switching that on a daily basis, pending your job! That’s not as typical in an office setting.

      Anyways, that’s a lot of ramble which maybe doesn’t directly address your question.

      You’re spot on about the fact individual whack-a-mole doesn’t cut it. I think the four main things my industry in particular needs to address (and these are VERY broad, and also a little off the cuff here) are culture, structure, expectations, and makeup.

      1. Culture.

      It’s the nature of my industry that things are able to be a little more familiar, off colour, etc. The rule of “what is said in the writer’s room, stays in the writer’s room” is necessary because you must feel safe to explore topics which are taboo, uncomfortable, personal, and downright wrong [think; racism, homophobia, rape, etc] to be able to get to what you’re writing. That’s not [usually, I guess, unless you’re building SIMS or something?] the nature of a software job.

      It’s also a job which means you may at some point be working with naked actors, lots of swearing (in scripts or on sets!), and people of wildly varying backgrounds.

      All that can be good! But it can also tend to engender a culture in which inappropriate activities and words get laughed off or defended as “just joking.” It also means some people decide to gatekeep ‘a certain type of person’ from entering the space, because that person may challenge them in a writer’s room and/or on a personal level, and they don’t want to be challenged. They don’t just want to be able to explore that joke which punches down, they want to be able to WEILD IT FREELY, and that’s the problem. Or they want to be able to treat people like shit because they were hazed, and don’t want to break the cycle. That sort of culture must change.

      2. Structure

      The independent siloing without much oversight needs to be worked on. Again a multifactoral approach. Unions should be stronger, and also have oversight. Heads of Department must receive not just first aid training, but mental health training AND support. There should be a better, industry-wide review process, and an independent board [including people who have worked in the industry for a long time and are voted on by their peers, as well as people with other experience, such as mental health practitioners,

      A lot will push back against such a thing, but there was a lot of pushback against, for example, rules around minors on set to help prevent their abuse (and even though I argue lots of those things are far from perfect, it’s better than it was when Judy Garland or the two Coreys were being exploited and we should continue pushing for change).

      3. Expectations.

      Right now we’re too outcome based. “Did the thing make money?” should not be the only metric.

      Some other questions which should be weighed: Does it add to culture? Did it actively harm people in order to make that money? Did it upskill people to make the next thing better / effective / monetarily successful? Are we able to seperate the art from some of the artists who made it, and if so, and one or several of them are harmful, how can we make sure the next piece is still made without that one harmful element?

      Not every piece of art must score a 10 of 10 in all these categories, and not all of them are straightforward answers, but we have to start asking more than “box office bottom line.”

      IE we need to play the long game, not just this shortsighted bullshit.

      4. Makeup

      It’s been proven time and again, in studies as well as various overwhelming preponderance of experiential evidence, that putting together a team involving a wide variety of genders, ages, sexualities, backgrounds and experiences, race, etc., produces not just a better experience, but a better outcome. Back to that ‘push pull’ which is one of the best things about a writer’s room, when you have a group made up of people who do not all have similar backgrounds and goals, you can learn from each other and make not just an atmosphere which is more welcoming and conducive to more people, but a more interesting and engaging product, which in turn is almost always more ‘successful,’ whether you measure that in artistic value or staying power or box office dollars, or (as I argue in #3) preferably all of the above.

      I . . . think that starts to answer your question, but feel free to point me back to something more specific if I strayed too far, my friend!

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