With everything that’s going on in the world these days, and with the somewhat hectic news cycle we’ve seen since Thanksgiving, you would be forgiven for missing a pretty important announcement that came out of SAG-AFTRA the other day. In the wake of tragic deaths on the sets of The Walking Dead and Deadpool 2 earlier this year, the actors union has established a President’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Safety to evaluate and address workplace safety issues on film and TV productions. And it’s about time.
For years, something as important as safety has slipped through the cracks on film sets, both in front of and behind the camera. While this is completely unacceptable, it’s also understandable, seeing as how many filmmakers sometimes cut corners due to time and budgetary restraints, all too willing to work under the assumption that everything — and everyone — will be okay. I know this from experience. About a dozen years ago, I directed the first in a series of live shows by a sketch comedy troupe. Part of the show was a series of video interstitials between the live sketches, which we shot a couple months earlier. One of those interstitials was a funny bit about two women who show up to a double date wearing the same dress, and the mayhem that ensues.
It had been a while since I’d directed anything, so I was both out of practice and eager to show my mettle, thus I suggested a shot wherein the cameraman would lie on the floor, and one of the actresses in the scene would dive over him, so it would look like she was flying through the air toward her adversary. We put it together, jury-rigged a little landing zone, and got ready to shoot the stunt. Meanwhile, I was so busy putting the thing together, I didn’t notice the increasing discomfort on the face of the actress in question, and it wasn’t until one of the other actors pointed this out to me that I stopped and realized that my enthusiasm had definitely gotten the better of me. The idea was then scrapped, the scene was completed a different way, and that one shot wasn’t missed even remotely from the final edit.
By the way, please note the reticence that actress had, on a no-budget sketch comedy shoot, to speak up about her own personal safety, and then try to give me a reasonable explanation as to how you can’t understand why women often take years to speak up about harassment or assault. But hold that thought, because I’ll come back to it.
This kind of thing happens every single day as all different kinds of films are shot across the land, and while it would be easy to argue that it only happens on smaller, non-union shoots that this Blue Ribbon Panel would not oversee, the fact that such a panel is needed at all tells us differently. Safety is not just important on any set, it’s paramount on every set. As we have already seen, it is literally a matter of life and death. Putting together a panel like this at the top is only going to filter down through sets of every kind, and make people aware that, no matter how imperative they think a particular shot, sequence, or stunt might be, it pales in comparison to insuring the well-being of the crew on set.
It’s sort of curious that it took two recent tragedies for a formal safety panel to come to fruition, especially in light of Sarah Jones’ death on the set of Midnight Rider in February of 2014. That she worked on the crew and was thus behind the camera, rather than in front of it, is immaterial. It still should have highlighted the cavalier attitude that can prevail on a set, when caution is thrown to the wind in service of “the art.” Jones’ death should have been a big, bright, flashing warning sign to everyone involved that things needed to change, and they needed to do so immediately. That it’s taken so long is just this side of reprehensible.
Which brings us to another such panel that should be immediately formed, because those same big, bright, flashing warning signs are alerting us to it right now, alongside the honking horns and deafening clarion calls for action. The Harvey Weinstein scandal, and all the fellows who have fallen in its wake thanks to newly empowered women and men who were no longer afraid to step forward after years in the shadows, should have immediately led to someone in a position of power — literally anyone — stepping forward to oversee some real and genuine change in the way the entertainment industry operates. Not just in the rampant sexual harassment that still occurs constantly, but in the standard bullying and boorishness that goes along in step with it.
I’ve mentioned Richard Rushfield and his The Ankler newsletter before in this space, and it’s worth mentioning him again in this context, because he began pushing for a Blue Ribbon Panel of sorts shortly after the Weinstein story broke. Rushfield suggested a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that would allow people to talk about what they did and didn’t know about who was behaving poorly, and what they did or didn’t do about it — because each and every industry insider has known something about someone at some point over the past decade-plus, whether it was first-, second-, or even third-hand information. In Rushfield’s words, this panel would be “empowered to force everyone into sweeping changes to get this industry caught up with the changes most of society adopted 50 years ago.”
He goes on to say, “without some leadership on this, someone providing a path out, we’re going to just die a death of a zillion tweets,” and I completely agreed with him at the time. That’s why I personally cheered when I read at the start of November that a group of high-powered women had begun meeting on a weekly basis to work towards a concrete list of changes to the industry, focusing on issues like harassment, female representation in the workforce, pay issues, and so on, with definite benchmarks to ensure progress. The group has come to be known as ‘Time’s Up!”, and reportedly features such names as Kathleen Kennedy, Oprah Winfrey, Amy Pascal, Shonda Rhimes, Reese Witherspoon, Megan Ellison, Jill Soloway, Natalie Portman, Kellie Bush and Katie Abrams, among others.
All of this is terrific, but there is some serious urgency here, and a prolonged series of meetings (there’s nothing Hollywood loves more) might miss a prime window of opportunity. I read each of the trades every day, and I only knew about Time’s Up! because I subscribe to The Ankler. That is totally absurd to me, because it should have been announced from the mountaintop within days of its formation. The fact that it didn’t is what gives me pause — that the people who have stepped up to take charge of the situation might dither too long over details to do the kind of good they intend.
It took two on-set deaths for SAG-AFTRA to step up and do something about safety, deaths that might possibly have been avoided had the union been proactive, rather than reactive. Likewise, countless people have been hurt, and careers have been devastated, because Hollywood has allowed this abominable behavior to continue for decades. There will always be predators in our midst, so maybe we can’t ever truly bring it to an end. But with the formation of a similar group to oversee and enact genuine change within the industry, change that comes with real and powerful consequences for transgressions, we can come close, and the time is now, not soon.