Who Needs Sleep? is a documentary with a low budget look that will strike some as pedestrian in style, but it’s certainly an eye-opener.
The subject is the poor working conditions of people who work on Hollywood film sets, specifically the horrendous hours per day they sometimes have to work.
The filmmaker is respected septuagenarian cinematographer Haskell Wexler. He’s spent his life working on films, but this is his first opportunity to call the shots.
I infer the film, which was seven years in the making, was closer to a one-man operation than most. Wexler does the bulk of the filming, roaming around with his camcorder. He does the interviewing, at times in something close to a Michael Moore ambush style. He does the narration, which sounds much more like the speech of a real person, and an elderly one, than the kind of polished delivery one would expect from a professional. Many of the people interviewed in the film, including recognizable Hollywood stars like Paul Newman, Julia Roberts, and Tom Hanks, are there because they’ve worked with Wexler and are fond of him.
Though the pacing is slow at times, I felt connected to the film and Wexler because this is so clearly a labor of love. He saw an outrageous injustice close enough to home to significantly impact his life and the lives of people close to him, and he decided to speak out about it as effectively as he could, even if it took years of his life and meant learning to be a filmmaker in his 70s and figure out a lot of it as he went along.
Twelve and fourteen hour days are common, and fifteen to twenty hour days are not unheard of in the industry. Depending on where the shoot is, there can also be a significant commute for members of the crew.
The result is sleep deprivation. The result of the sleep deprivation is less efficient work, long term health deterioration, and hazardous driving. The result of the hazardous driving is Wexler has had two friends die driving home from shoots, and there have been many others—including Wexler himself—who have gotten in non-fatal accidents because they fell asleep at the wheel.
So Wexler’s mission with his camera all these years has been to learn more about the problem (there’s a worthwhile section of the film where he interviews medical researchers who’ve studied the consequences of sleep deprivation), raise awareness amongst his fellow workers, confront government regulators, and push union officials to act.
Why do these sweatshop-type conditions exist in the industry? There are multiple reasons.
Some of it is the nature of the business. You never know if a given scene is going to take a half hour or ten hours, and you don’t want to stop and start a different day after setting everything up and getting into a rhythm and such. So there’s an inclination to keep at it until you get it right, and if that happens quickly, you move on and try to complete another task that day. So the only options are that it be a long day, or a horrifically long day.
The workers don’t resist it as much as you might expect, because work is so intermittent that they can’t bear to turn down extra hours when they’re available, especially at overtime rates. So it’s not that you’re working eighty and ninety hour weeks consistently; it’s that you’re working eighty and ninety hour weeks here and there, with a lot of zero hour weeks in between.
Plus however bad the hours, and however mediocre the pay, there are always countless people willing to work under those conditions if you aren’t. There’s a glamour to working in the movies, even if you’re not a star in front of the camera, and people will sacrifice health, marriages, relationships, and anything else to be a part of the magic.
It goes without saying that the employers are amoral profit-maximizers who couldn’t care less how their workers happen to be harmed by working for them. But it’s not clear these labor conditions really benefit them and their bottom line anyway. Exhausted people don’t work as efficiently and creatively. Plus you’re paying all this extra for the overtime.
Wexler drops in an intriguing note from someone he interviewed in the industry that some of it’s just bookkeeping chicanery. He’s told that the way it’s set up, there are ways to bury the higher cost of overtime in the figures as some kind of unavoidable and unquestioned cost overrun, whereas you could not do that with the lesser cost of hiring more people or shooting more days.
So the people bankrolling the films end up paying more, and the workers themselves suffer, while only the folks in the middle benefit from manipulating the numbers this way.
The people at OSHA and other agencies pretty much give Wexler the brush off. It’s sad or maybe comical that when he challenges them by asking who will act on behalf of workers when they are being blatantly exploited in ways that harm and in some cases kill them, time after time after time he’s told it’s not that agency’s job, and the appropriate party to approach with these concerns is the employer.
Yes, when you have a grievance with an employer who’s killing you, be sure to bring it to the attention of the employer. I’m sure they’ll act on it right away.
The union folks aren’t much more helpful, pretty much telling him that until the workers raise a stink about it at the level of their locals, the top level of the union isn’t in a position to act on it.
I understand if they’re saying they can’t just wave a magic wand and get everything they’d like for their workers, or even get everything justice requires for their workers. The reality is what it is, and if they don’t have any leverage, there’s not much they can do. But what’s disappointing is that they don’t even express much sympathy for the cause, or disappointment that they don’t have the strength to do anything about it. Instead they seem uncomfortable with Wexler even bringing it up, like they’d prefer the issue go away and they not have to defend their inaction.
I appreciate how frankly political Wexler is in the film. Whenever possible he applies his points to workers in general and not just people who work on films, and rightly so.
Indeed even where I might be tempted to argue the other side of Wexler’s complaints, it’s the comparison with other workers in other conditions that persuades me not to.
For instance, you could say if people don’t want to work eighteen hour days and drive home groggy and such, no one’s putting a gun to their head and forcing them to work in this industry. If it’s so important to them to be a part of Hollywood, then they’ll just have to accept the downside of that as well.
But the problem is that’s exactly what could be said about any labor laws, or any union contract. Don’t want to get paid $2 an hour? Don’t take a job that pays $2 an hour. Don’t want to work 60 hours a week? Then don’t take a job that requires 60 hour work weeks. Don’t want to work in a crowded sweatshop with locked doors that violates the fire code? Then don’t take a job in that sweatshop.
What’s happened is a certain class of employers has found loopholes and semantic distinctions and ways to game the system that enable them to put their workers at risk, and no one is doing anything about it. I’d be outraged too if I were Wexler.
The film speaks to me on another level in that I have experience with driving while sleep-deprived.
I am not and have never been a morning person, and am always in a semi-daze if I’m expected to work or go to school in the morning. I’m somewhat more alert in the afternoon, and most awake in the evening and past midnight. Somewhere in the middle of the night I gradually fade again.
When I lived in Seattle, I spent a number of years working various delivery jobs. Some of them required working graveyard and different unconventional shifts. So I might have a route one day from about midnight to 5 or 6 AM. Another day I might have to work from 4 to 8 AM. And so on.
What would happen is I would either pull an all-nighter, or I would try to force myself to sleep before working and would get an unsatisfying hour or two before being jarred awake by an alarm clock. But whether I tried to tell my body this was a very late night job or a very early morning job, routinely for at least part of the time I was on the road delivering I’d be very, very tired.
To the point that I know I fell asleep at the wheel multiple times. Then maybe I’d go over that lane bump and that would rouse me. Or I’d never go fully to sleep but my vision would be blurred and I’d be moving in slow motion, and I know my concentration and reflexes were shit.
I knew at the time I was taking chances doing that, but I only fully grasped the degree of risk later. From what I’ve read—and what’s said in this film is consistent with this—driving in as sleep-deprived a condition as I routinely did is really equivalent to driving drunk. And not just being borderline drunk along the edge of the legal limit of alcohol in your system, but really sloppy, almost stuporous, drunk.
I’m lucky I never got in an accident. If I had it to do over again, I would never work in those conditions. Or at least the alternatives would have to be even worse for me to be willing to do so.
So I’m not a stranger to this issue, and I felt what Wexler was saying.
Who Needs Sleep? isn’t for everybody. I found the from-the-heart amateurishness of Wexler charming, I’m interested in issues of workers’ rights, and I’m interested in the issue of the risks of sleep deprivation, yet even I was bored at times watching the film. Folks less receptive than I to its message and style will likely struggle considerably to stay interested.