With the death of Greg Plitt last week and the death of Sarah Jones on the set of Midnight Rider last year, it has come to the forefront about a dangerous and little-talked about aspect of independent filmmaking, which is the unnecessary risks that a lot of directors take to get a shot.
Harold Lloyd, king of risk takers.
A film set by nature is a very dangerous place. There are hot-as-the-sun lights and electrical cables everywhere, camera and lighting gear that can weigh thousands of pounds hanging over actors’ heads and that’s not even scratching the surface when we get into stunt work. Then there’s the addition of very long work hours that film crews put in and it becomes the perfect storm for something bad to happen.
Major productions have unions that follow very strict hours and safety regulations, and safety is a paramount concern. Even with all that, there are fatalities that occur on the sets of major productions, and it is a tragedy of the highest order when it happens. Many times directors and producers are left scarred for life knowing that someone died for the creation of their vision. It is a massive burden of conscience that no person should have to bear.
Indie filmmakers are in a little different boat. For many indie productions, going union can mean added expenses, expensive permits, shorter days and longer shoots. 99 times out of 100 we need that money to go onscreen, so regrettably we resort to stealing shots and cutting corners on unions and safety. I’ll admit, on my early productions I was guilty of skirting safety to get that perfect shot. I look back on it with shame and disbelief that I would put myself and my crew in harm’s way to get something that could have been achieved with a different and safer design.
As indie filmmakers we’ve been sold the narrative that we have to earn a badge of honor in the art of guerrilla filmmaking, that we should demonstrate the street smarts to make our films despite the shackles of rules and regulations. I feel like the term ‘guerrilla’ has taken on a different meaning over the years, and it need to be clarified for the sake of safety.
As far as I understood, true guerrilla filmmaking meant stealing a shot, being in a location you were not authorized to be in and grabbing footage incognito. Student filmmakers do this all the time. My DP and I stole several shots in Grand Central Station for our student films, hiding a 16mm Bolex in out backpack and following our actor around, making sure the Port Authority officials didn’t see us. It’s even easier now to do with cell phones being able to shoot HD and MFT cameras. There’s no violations of safety here, there’s just the *cough* small matter of breaking the law by not having a permit. But we’ve all done it at some point, and some of the most innovative film in history have been made this way, from Darren Aronofsky’s Pi to Christopher Nolan’s The Following. Most recently, the film Escape From Tomorrow was filmed almost entirely without permit on the grounds of Disney World. It’s a weird piece of filmmaking that Disney deemed far too bizarre to even pursue legal action.
My fear is that today, guerrilla filmmaking has taken on the connotation of cutting production costs as opposed to stealing a shot that is unaffordable. Today’s guerrilla filmmaking amounts to making people work for free, without safety measures or production insurance, and taking shortcuts. As subtle as it may seem, there is a big difference.
As a director it is your utmost responsibility to make sure that your crew and actors are safe. You might think this is the producer’s responsibility, but I place this upon the director because it is the director who designs the shots. It’s the director who says “I want the camera here and the actors there,” and is the one who assumes the risk of pushing for that shot.If you know it is an unsafe shot and still push for it, then you are endangering your cast and crew.
There’s a simple rule of thumb here. If it is dangerous to pull off, then don’t attempt it. Simple as that. If you must insist on having the shot, then you have to consult a safety professional and get a quote on the costs required to get that shot. If you can’t afford it, you must redesign it or ditch it altogether.
I know, I know. This goes against the ethos of making our films “by any means necessary” but our only, ONLY limitation to our ambitions is when it concerns the health and safety of our crew. If you are placing people in harms way, then you are not making films by any means necessary, you are making films by unnecessary means and you should stop.
There will always be the desire to push the limits, and we think we can get away with stuff, and most of the times we do. But all it takes is one accident. One accident and someone might lose their life or become crippled for life. Given those consequences, no film is worth that kind of risk. On Lilith I had a scene that was to be lit by almost two thousand candles - I wanted to pay homage to Barry Lyndon and the shot was designed to be beautiful. But there was a problem - the location we were using only had one exit and was on the eleventh floor of an old factory. You couldn’t dream of a bigger fire hazard. My crew was amped to shoot and we had some fire extinguishers on hand, but it was still not wise. I was pushing hard on the entire film, trying to get a major level feature done in fourteen days. In my haze of adrenaline I kept insisting we shoot the scene. I knew it was going to be stunning. Luckily my line producer had a calmer head and a stronger conviction. He pulled me aside and laid down the law about how unsafe the shot was going to be. All it would take is one candle tipping over and igniting the dry wood in the factory floor. One candle. And we’d have no way to get out if the exit was blocked by fire. It sobered me up. We came up with a solution, reducing our candles to a hundred, creating safety pans on the floor for the candles, and replacing others with LED candles. We had extra fire extinguishers and dedicated safety personnel. We shot the shot, and it looked beautiful. Not as beautiful as I knew it could have been, but it was the right compromise to make. The only way I could have achieved the original shot would be to get a different location with a dedicated fire marshal on hand. And I couldn’t afford that.
The candle shot from 'Lilith’ with Bianca Christians and Julia Voth. Imagine this shot with two thousand candles.
You will be tempted to break the laws when it comes to making your films. There are laws you can dare to break, and there are others that are there for very good reason, and those primarily involve safety. The consequence for one is that you get fined, maybe tossed in jail for a day. The other consequence is that someone could get severely wounded or killed. Which risk would you rather take?