Talking about safety in the theater and on the movie set seems an appropriate way to start off the New Year. I invited Myrl Schreibman, film professor at UCLA’s School of Theater Film and Television and author of A Film Director Prepares: A Complete Guide to Directing Film and TV to post an article about the subject on my blog today. Here is what he has to say on the subject of Safety First!
“The end does not justify the means when it comes to directing a movie. With today’s ease and mobility in production this concept is often forgotten by inexperienced (and experienced) directors when it comes to “getting the shot”.
Safety must always be first! First and foremost. The safety officer on a set is the First Assistant Director and they must be given the responsibility to always say when something that is happening is safe or not. They must never be usurped by the director’s schedule or creativity so that safety is an afterthought. They must speak up and not be concerned about what the consequences will be if they don’t. No means justifies the end! One is immediately reminded of the tragic accident on THE TWILIGHT ZONE movie when actor Vic Morrow and two young children were killed during an explosion sequence shot at night. In hindsight could this have any way been avoided? During the making of the Joe Pesci and Danny Glover movie GONE FISHIN a young stunt woman was decapitated during a stunt. Planned and rehearsed very carefully by a second unit director stunt coordinator one day, the stunt was re-shot a second day for some apparent creative reason at the request of the picture’s director. The re-shoot resulted in the tragic outcome of a woman loosing her life. A lawsuit resulted with some questions about safety, creativity and responsibility. No means justifies the end!
I produced a movie that required one of our actors, Gene Glazer, to be discovered in the middle of the woods hanging on a tree with the skin from the middle of his body stripped away as if he was a deer who had been skinned. It required Gene to be in makeup for three hours and then driven to the location laying prone. And then carried to the set prone on a gurney and rigged to a tree. The platform rigged on the tree gave the actor somewhere to stand and was invisible to the camera angle. Production worked through every single element with safety in mind. I went to The Makeup Effects Laboratory studios, our makeup effects house, to see how the prosthetic would be created and fit on Gene. I saw how they created a mold of his upper body to sculpt the effect of an empty body cavity and spoke to the effects company to see how the mold would be attached to his body. I was the producer and wanted to make sure that not only was the money that was being spent to do this important effect was worth it, but that Gene would be okay with what was to be done.
The day of the shoot proved to be a cold day in the woods. The production manager ordered standing heaters that were positioned near the tree outside of camera range so that Gene would not catch cold. Ultimately after all, he was naked! I watched our stunt coordinator Rawn Hutchinson (Hutch) rig the tree with the mechanical effects coordinator and waited for the van to bring Gene to the set. The director was working through the shot with the cinematographer; a long dolly shot a distance away from the tree which was designed as a reveal. The dolly grip was supervising the tracks for the dolly when the van carrying Gene pulled up. I watched as they brought Gene out and carried him to the tree. I watched as they rigged him on the tree and put the noose around his neck. I asked Gene how he was feeling and he said “cold” and was anxious to do the shot. The director was still with the cinematographer and the dolly when I asked him to come over and speak to Gene while I conferred with the production manager. A few minutes later, the first assistant director said they were ready to do the shot and everyone positioned themselves behind or by the camera. Except me! Hutch and I positioned ourselves by one of the heaters outside of camera range and just behind Gene and the tree. From my view, I could see the camera make its dolly move and see Gene at the same time. The first assistant director asked for the camera to role and the director yelled to Gene, “Hold your breath!…. Action” Hutch looked over at me with widened eyes. The dolly started its move and I could see the back of Gene’s neck begin to turn blue and his head begin to bob more than it should if he were acting. I yelled “cut”! (Something I never do as a producer) and then ordered Gene taken off the tree and rushed immediately to the hospital that was nearby. As they were taking him off the tree, I went to him and saw that he was groggy and couldn’t speak. I knew immediately what had happened. And so did Hutch and the set medic who gave him oxygen. The body cast he wore was restricting and designed to purposely allow him to breathe in short slow breaths so that while the camera was rolling we couldn’t see him breath and thus provide the illusion of a dead body. When the director told him to hold his breath, Gene, always doing as his director asks, held his breath. He already had restricted breathing and more restriction combined with the cold, caused a reduction in the oxygen he needed for his brain to function. The director yelled at me for cutting the camera. Angrily I told him why I yelled cut and then suggested he get coverage on the scene while avoiding a hanging body which was not there. We would worry about making it work later. Gene was taken to the hospital in the van accompanied by the set medic and the production manager who was calling ahead to let them know what to expect. I told my production manager to call me the minute he got there and knew how Gene was. The entire situation could have been avoided if the director had taken the time to find out how Gene was rigged in the body cast, or spoke with Hutch, or even asked Gene what his limitations were in the body cast. Safety first. As a side comment to this situation; because I was the producer on the picture and on the set at the time the sequence was being done, I was ultimately responsible for what took place. Therefore I was justified to make the decisions I made. Had I not been there, the responsibility falls to the director. And the director always has a team of people on set to advise him/her of safety issues as they relate to stunts, effects and other staging issues that involve safety; the First Assistant Director, the Stunt Coordinator, the Effects Coordinator, and of course common sense. The end never justifies the means. By the way, Gene agreed to do the shot again. This time it was a warmer day and the director took every safety precaution to do it right.”