78-minute-long documentary ‘Who Needs Sleep?’ is a gem from a recent-past that deserves a watch if you plan on making a career working on set, in pretty much any position.
Shot between 1997 and 2006 on an SD camera in 4:3, and with funky transitions, Who Needs Sleep? might feel like a cute VHS tape, but it definitely finds its value in the subject it tackles: the problems increasingly long hours in the film industry pose, and the crews fight over the years to reduce the number of hours to a safe amount.
In 1997, 35 year-old Brent Hershman, the second assistant cameraman on Pleasantville died in a car accident after falling asleep behind his wheel, on his way home after a 19h day on set. Hershman’s death was a wake-up call for many workers in the film industry, including 2 times award-winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) who decided to document his quest on understanding why the film industry has gone overboard over the yeas with long hours, why nobody wants to change that, and how to fix it.
Wexler has been working for decades in the film industry and when he started, a regular day on set was 8h. By the time he started filming his documentary, 14h a day was a minimum, and days reaching 16h and going up to 20h were not uncommon.
Supported by a wide range of colleagues, including ASC Cinematographers Conrad L. Hall & Roger Deakins, Wexler managed to interview people from almost every position in the film industry; from grip, gaffer, cameraman, electricians, script supervisor, make-up artists, to actors, directors but also WGA, DGA, and PGA directors etc.
We always say that films are a collaborative process but don’t often tackle what it means on a practical level. And on a practical level it means is that hundreds of people are spending an awful lot amount of their time for average wage, helping a handful of people tell their stories, and an even smaller group of people make a lot of money. Hollywood glamour overshadows the fact that behind each movie, whether a hit or a flop, sacrifices are made by self-employed workers who can’t afford to say ‘no’ when the industry wants them to push their limit.
I remember clearly Frozen River‘s director Courtney Hunt explaining that the thing she thought was key for her to survive the weeks spent in the cold shooting her first feature film was sleep. Paraphrasing her, she said you can sleep 3/4h a night when you do a short film in few days, but you can’t keep with that rhythm during weeks. Who Needs Sleep? pretty much suggests that Conrad L. Hall died out of diseases increased by fatigue after an excessively harsh shoot for Road to Perdition that lasted months, with many 14h, 16h, 18h, 20h days.
This might not be the ‘feel good/be inspired’ article of the week, but the art of balancing life and work is a complex one, that needs our attention, healthy debates and can only keep evolving. Who Needs Sleep? is a great way to take a first step in that direction.
Watch the full documentary below and check the official website:
Thanks to Vincent Laforet
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