[Originally posted on Feb. 18, 2014 at Hidden Baltimore by Mark Burchick and Sarah LaCorte]
Editorial Note: On Feb. 22, this article was taken offline briefly and edited. The story had received over 5,000 page views causing Brendan Cathcart, a key source, to express concerns about the job security of unnamed sources who could be identified based on his comments. That section of the narrative has been rewritten to focus solely on Cathcart’s perspective and protect those who are incidental to the story.
Bracing himself for another long day on the set of the Netflix Original Series “House of Cards,” Brendan Cathcart pulled on waterproof mud boots and poured himself the day’s first cup of coffee. It was 8 a.m. in his Bolton Hill apartment.
Cathcart, 24, arrived at Patapsco State Park at 10 a.m., the location of the day’s shoot. He walked through the Civil War style encampment alive with crowded tents and burning fires. The air was muggy and clouded with swarms of bugs. Horses used for the scene trotted in the background as crew members started rigging lights.
“This first scene was this person on this horse and they kind of did this re-enactment thing. While we were shooting the first day scene the gaffer had us go over to the first night scene which was at the tents and get everything ready, rigging the set because we were hours away from shooting it,” he said.
Coffee number two.
Cathcart is one among many film set workers that combat long working days and occasionally harsh conditions, all in the name of their literal labor of love.
As a set lighting technician, Cathcart’s job was to adjust the lighting to the director’s liking. He got to work stringing lights in each tent.
“There was a dimmer board operator sitting in one of the tents operating all of the lights and making them flicker like fires. Everything changed about three times,” Cathcart said.
The moisture in the air broke and it started to rain.
Cup number three.
The crew broke for lunch at 5 p.m. and it was on to coffee number four. The rain was relentless but the production continued filming.
“After a while, we were all just in rain gear, soaking wet – you couldn’t even see the black of my rain pants because they’re just covered in mud. At the end of that day, I was ready to be done,” he said.
A fifth cup.
“Then there was a road and we had lights all along it, smashing into the side light onto the encampment, so we had to walk up and down the street all night moving these lights.”
At 3 a.m., the production finally calls wrap. Cathcart watched as the directors and actors left set followed by other departments. Helping to wrap out the rest of the heavy lighting equipment, he and his fellow electricians stay behind.
“We did what is called a split where you do day and then you do night for the second half. That second half turned out to be the entire night,” Cathart said. “So it was split and a half.”
A faint orange glow bloomed on the horizon.
Cathcart helped himself to a sixth cup of coffee.
America’s labor unions have fought for better conditions since the mid-19th century, often fighting for these rights with literal sweat and bloodshed.
While many people may know the Screen Actors Guild for its award season honorees, other unions exist in the interests of working crew members.
Take the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees as an example. Some of IATSE’s workers constitute the locations managers, electrics and grips, or craft services employees who keep the sets moving through rigorous production schedules.
Contracts exist between productions and the unions to determine how a show will operate within a specific geographic region. However, given the difficulties of scheduling a $100 million show such as “House of Cards,” the traditional expectations for modern working conditions simply don’t exist.
“Everything that your mom ever told you when you were growing up – in the film industry, you crumple it up and throw it out the window,” said Wade Tyree, president of IATSE’s mid-Atlantic based Local 487. “You’re going to run with scissors, you’re going to climb to the top step of the ladder, electricity and water do mix.”
Tyree, 33, said that when working on Michael Bay’s “Transformers” films in D.C., the production never broke for lunch, instead opting to pay meal penalties upwards of $100 to ensure making their 14-hour days.
While crew members had access to food and water provided by craft services throughout the day, a crew lunch would have allowed them the opportunity to take a sit-down break. Meal penalties are consequential fees that production pays to union paychecks for not breaking its crew and allowing members to have that opportunity.
“The guys who were on that show full time were making more money in meal penalties than on the hours that they actually worked,” Tyree said.
However, a more troubling aspect for many workers is the long hours.
“Our industry is based on a 12-hour minimum day,” said Steve Saada, 24, a boom operator on the Emmy-winning HBO show “Veep.” “When I first started working and I told my family back home that don’t work in the industry that I was going to be doing these days, they just looked at me and were like, that’s legal?”
Those 12-hour minimums often extend into longer working periods. Work days as long as 14, 16 or 18 hours are not unheard of as regular elements of a work week, especially as part of what many workers colloquially call “Fuck You Fridays.”
Most union contracts stipulate that crew members are given at least nine hours of turnaround time before having to return to set, Tyree said. But come Friday, producers no longer have to worry about turnaround because crews are off Saturday and Sunday.
His first week of production on “Veep,” Saada worked a 21-hour day, stretching overnight into Saturday morning. Saada said that weekends are then spent playing catch up for your sleep schedule.
“Deterrents” exist in union contracts which are intended to protect workers by charging production for long hours and meal penalties, Tyree said. Anytime union crews have to work overtime past the 12-hour minimum or they are not broken for lunch, they are given penalty payments.
However, when producers have to squeeze extra hours or additional crews into a production in order to meet deadlines, overtime charges are the last things they worry about.
“They can work us as long as they want as long as they pay us overtime,” Saada said. This hectic scheduling is what leads to the 16-hour-a-day grind so many crews have experienced. Tyree said that in one week, he billed 104 hours on the prospective CBS television pilot “Company Town.”
“I was getting off of work and maybe having five hours off the clock and going right back to work,” Tyree said.
“At hour 14, most people are fine,” Tyree said. “Once you get to hour 16, that’s when stuff breaks, that’s when accidents happen, that’s when stuff goes missing.”
These types of physiological responses to lack of sleep have sparked the interest of sleep deprivation researchers and mental health practitioners.
“Without good sleep, you’re sort of running around with a toxic brain,” said Heidi Waltos, a nurse practitioner for Sheppard Pratt’s psychiatric care facility “The Retreat.”
Waltos said that lack of sleep leads to an increase of the hormone cortisol, which the body releases in response to stress and helps manage fight or flight responses.
However, prolonged cortisol production in a high stress environment – such as an overnight, exterior film set – can result in lowered memory, muscle strength, reaction times and alertness.
“It’s good for either fight, flight or freezing, which aren’t a lot of good options when you need to be expansive and creative and problem solving,” Waltos said.
On a different episode of “House of Cards” a few months later, Cathcart prepared for a company move after a split day. All of the trucks needed to get packed up and driven to an exterior parking lot for the remainder of the evening’s shoot.
The crew arrived just as it began to rain. Cathcart unpacked the truck and discussed the lighting plans for the evening with his fellow electricians.
“Your key grips and gaffers, they like to have their grips or electricians in their pockets. So we call them a pocket guy or girl,” Cathcart said. “You’re always in there running around with your lights for the gaffer, while people are standing by at the carts ready to bring equipment in.”
Cathcart radioed to his coworker in the pocket, asking if they want a coffee or if they need to step away to take a break.
“In that sense, we look out for each other and share the burden of all the work. We share the weight of the workload,” he said. “If one person had to do that all day, you’d be so burned out. We do look out for each other and care for each other because if we didn’t come together like that, there would be real, real exhaustion.”
Production wrapped for the evening and the crew hastily packed up their gear, ready to get home and out of the rain.
It was 3 a.m. and after a 16-hour work day, Cathcart found himself groggily driving home on Interstate 83. A blur of red taillights flashed in front of him but he couldn’t react in time. He slammed into the back of a white box van and totaled his car.
Over the next month, the production company made a rental car available to Cathcart so he could continue to commute to work.
“They were there for me as long as I needed. ‘If you need anything at all, please ask,’ that sort of thing,” he said.
As a production assistant, Evelyn Fogleman, 23, was usually the first one on set and the last to leave.
Her mind was racing. Grab the sides for the day, get actors to rehearsals, grab coffee for the directors, take actors back to base camp, go through the shoot, assist with crew movement, repeat, repeat. Time sheets and paperwork at end of the day.
“If you’re running on very little sleep, it’s going to affect your ability to really stay one step ahead of everything. You pass through it because you have to,” Fogleman said. “That’s your job. You get foggy, disoriented. When you’re tasked with doing a lot of things at once, you just feel confused. You feel somewhat removed. It’s hard to constantly engage with everything around you.”
In 1997, assistant cameraman Brent Lon Hershman died in a car accident driving home from a 19-hour day on the Los Angeles-based set of “Pleasantville.” Since then, cinematographers Haskell Wexler and Roderick E. Stevens have lobbied production companies in Hershman’s memory.
Together they started the non-profit advocacy group, 12on/12off, which fights for a guaranteed 12-hour workday and at least a 12-hour turnaround.
In July of 2013, the 67th Quadrennial IATSE Convention unanimously agreed to the “Long Hours Resolution.” This agreement moves that labor management will continue to make fatigue associated with long hours a paramount concern in any labor dispute with production companies.
However, lobbying groups fight an uphill battle because of the difficult nature of production scheduling within the film industry.
Long days are often essential because of time limits imposed on access to locations or to meet production deadlines. Tyree said that the example of having Camden Yards for an overnight shoot may require a longer workday.
“I’m not talking about those days,” Tyree said. “I’m talking about the daily grind. There is no reason why you should have to do a 16-hour day after a 16-hour day, especially in a controlled environment,” such as on a studio set.
Saada said he wished there was more pressure on insuring a better turnaround with a five-day work week. With more time to sleep and see family and friends, crews would be happier.
“A five day work week in our industry is a minimum 60 hours,” Saada said. “That takes a toll on people and if they have those two days to recoup, the next week is going to be just as good.”
Tyree said that everything written into production contracts are meant as ways for the union to protect its members and to insure safe film sets. However, when it comes to producers abiding by those contracts, he is less than optimistic.
“Anything that exists in any contract the IA has out there, productions have taken advantage of it,” Tyree said. “Productions have taken advantage of the human nature.”
Many workers may treat overtime pay as a deterrent for long hours, but producers may see it as an incentive for workers.
A friend of Tyree’s once spoke with an accountant in motion picture work. While discussing triple overtime, the accountant treated it like workers would be happy to have the money.
His friend responded in disbelief, noting that no one actually wants to work triple overtime. Tyree said the accountant had never considered that workers may not care about the extra pay.
“Twelve hours becomes more of a quality of life issue,” Tyree said. “To a certain degree, there is an attitude of, if you can’t get it in 12 hours, shame on you. You are either trying to get too much or you are abusing your crew.”
Tyree’s longest day of billable hours was 22 and a half hours. He asked why producers would want to pay the overtime on such a day when production could easily split it into two 12 hour days.
“Don’t kill anyone. Save yourself some money and make sure you’re getting your quality,” Tyree said.
But so far, production has continued as it always has. Mustering universal agreement has been difficult, but Tyree said he feels there is a consistent theme in the relationship between crews and production companies.
“It’s about being proactive,” Tyree said. “Your crew is always proactive. Production is always reactive. And to me, that’s a huge problem.”
However, Saada said that neither the unions, nor the production companies are truly at fault for long hours.
“It’s a fault of the nature of the industry,” Saada said. He added that the film labor industry started without minimum hours and workers passed that foundation down from generation to generation.
“It’s definitely a tough situation to deal with, but because it has become the norm, you accept it,” Saada said. “In this industry, you kind of just go with it.”
But that mentality does not affect worker’s love for this occupation.
“No matter how crazy it is and how much of a toll it take on someone, on your body, your mind, and your life – its so fulfilling to me to finish a show,” Saada said. “Or finish a day of work or finish a scene that was proving difficult.”
For all the lobbying efforts he takes part in, Tyree said that he could not see himself doing anything else.
“That’s what makes us all special people, that we are willing to go to those extremes,” Tyree said. “We are as much a product of the job as the job. It’s a labor of love. I tell that to people all the time. I think that they think it’ll be cool, and once they’re out there and realize what labor of love actually means.”
Sipping a leisurely latte at Starbucks during his off-hours, Cathcart reads Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking.” He tugs on his tweed driver’s hat and squints in thought.
“I often don’t mind how long the hours are, but safety is the biggest concern. I have no expertise or advice on how it could be any better. You like your check when you do a few 14- or 15-hour days that week. Checkbooks fatter, but at the same time, I guess I’ll know a little bit more about it after I read this book, that one of those days could have been the one that killed you.”
He folds the right corner of the page down to mark his place and sets Didion aside. Cathcart came from a photography background. He learned early on that his strengths were in the technical aspect of photography.
His career in film emerged after helping a photographer and gaffer move lights on a film job. Two years later, Cathcart now dreams of being a gaffer, the head electrician in charge of the lighting plan for a production.
“I don’t know what else I want to do,” he said. “I have no desire to be anything else.”
As he describes his venture into the film industry and the regular 12-hour work days, Cathcart stares plainly, emoting nothing.
“A lot of people are probably just used to it,” Cathcart said. “I think in the film industry it’s been like that since it started. Since things take so long to do, or it takes so much to do in a day, if you slowed it down, ‘House of Cards’ season two would take two years to do. They just have a lot of work to do in a day so we have to have really long days. I think, it is kind of an uphill battle. But I think that historically that’s how the business has been run.”
Yet Cathcart’s future is uncertain. He only gets hired if he gets a phone call, and he only gets that phone call if the job is local.
“We’re concerned so much with keeping the film industry here that those other battles become secondary. Because those are assuming that work is here in the first place,” Cathcart said. “I’ve been told that anywhere else in the country, New York or L.A., I would not be this close on a film set as I am here, due to the size of the market. If I was in L.A., I’d be a nobody.”
Cathcart tosses the empty cardboard cup and slips Didion back into his backpack. He has precious off-hours to enjoy while they last.
“Being as young as I am, as strenuous as the job can be, I feel sore at the end of every day. I can’t imagine being 40 and doing this. It will only get harder, I think, but I don’t think I will like the job any less.”