Review: ‘Who Needs Sleep?’

Cinematographer-documaker-social activist Haskell Wexler makes a strong case for the reform of American motion picture work practices in "Who Needs Sleep?" a comprehensive, personal and surprisingly engaging look at how film crews routinely work hours far beyond anything that can be considered safe or healthy.

Looking as spry and restless as ever into his 80s, cinematographer-documaker-social activist Haskell Wexler makes a strong case for the reform of American motion picture work practices in “Who Needs Sleep?” a comprehensive, personal and surprisingly engaging look at how film crews routinely work hours far beyond anything that can be considered safe, healthy or conducive to a balanced life. Intended as a tool to inform entertainment workers and the interested public, pic was not made for commercial reasons and will no doubt be shown wherever the filmmakers think it will do any good: at festivals, labor functions, benefits, on DVD, even sent out to industryites en masse.

Inspired by the 1997 death of assistant camera operator Brent Hershman in a car crash caused by the fatigue of up to 19-hour work days, Wexler and co-director Lisa Leeman’s docu is part of a movement within the industry to make “12 hours on, 12 hours off” the norm, an idea the labor unions have yet to get behind.

Eight years in the making, a fact evident from the number of film sets the frequently on-camera Wexler visits to gather background, pic is neither strident nor hectoring. As a pro for 50 years and an officer in his own union local, Wexler understands the commercial exigencies of filmmaking. But in a broader sense, he also sees the need for workers to have something resembling a normal life, which almost all of his dozens of interview subjects here agree is an elusive goal for most below-the-liners.

As the film helpfully reminds, the United States was an international pioneer in improving labor conditions, institutionalizing the 40-hour work week in 1938. Offspring of motion picture studio old-timers recall their fathers leaving early in the morning but reliably getting home for dinner. By contrast, contempo workers cite how they scarcely see their wives or kids during a shoot, how divorce is the rule rather than the exception and how they’re often driving home completely exhausted in the wee hours.

It was just such conditions that proved fatal for the robust, 35-year-old Hershman when he went off the road after a long day on the location of “Pleasantville.” With his widow and d.p. John Lindley filling in details, docu reveals how the man’s death received wide international coverage and sparked the birth of what became known as “Brent’s Rule,” a proposal designed to implement safer work guidelines that received considerable support.

Measure ended up down a black hole of bureaucracy, however, and Wexler is intermittently seen in what he jokingly refers to in Michael Moore mode, chasing after elusive figures like IATSE topper Tom Short and the head of OSHA in Washington, D.C., in search of answers about how to implement change. Filmmaker also visits sleep research centers, and reps from the Humane Society half-joke about how animals are now treated with more consideration on film shoots than are human beings.

Wexler pushes to the crux of the matter on both sides. On the one hand, workers want overtime pay and accumulated hours for insurance coverage. Filmmaking is a demanding business you have to work hard to enter and get ahead in; slackers and complainers won’t be around for long.

On the other, the economically motivated work-is-everything ethic is arguably far too prevalent in the United States. Workers’ concentration and clear-headedness decline after 10 or 12 hours, and constant long hours are not good for family life or long-range health or general safety.(Wexler recalls the time he fell asleep at the wheel on a Los Angeles freeway after a long shoot, resulting in a bad accident.)

In gathering his evidence, the film benefits not only from comments from crew members but from stars such as Paul Newman, Julia Roberts, Tom Hanks, Annette Bening and Billy Crystal; directors Sam Mendes, John Sayles, Andy Davis and Richard Donner; and top cinematographers Roger Deakins, Vittorio Storaro and Caleb Deschanel. There’s also a considerable amount of time spent with Wexler’s late best friend Conrad Hall, with speculation that the difficult conditions and long hours on his last film, “Road to Perdition,” may have helped do him in.

At the end, the bottom line seems to be that there are two options: Either the union can make work hours a negotiating issue in contract bargaining, or individual studios and companies can set their own policies.

On a visit to the “Casanova” location in Venice, Wexler hears about the reasonable-sounding Italian approach: In addition to the agreed upon hours of work, four more hours of overtime per week are permitted to accommodate emergencies. (At the post-screening discussion, Wexler noted that a few American directors, including Clint Eastwood and the Coen Brothers, insist upon “civilized” working hours, but they remain the exceptions.)

Compared with his frequent combativeness in “Tell Them Who You Are,” the recent docu about Wexler made by his son, the old activist here comes off as remarkably genial, making his case with logic and example. Shot mostly on the Sony HD camera he is usually seen carrying, pic had a projected image shape that was virtually square.

Who Needs Sleep?


Produced by Tamara Maloney. Directed by Haskell Wexler. Co-director, Lisa Leeman.


Camera (color, HD), Wexler; editors, Tamara Maloney, Leeman; music, Greg Landau; sound editor (Dolby Digital), Dave Nelson. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Spectrum), Jan. 24, 2006. Running time: 78 MIN.
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