Cinematographer Steven Poster, who’s shot such films as “Donnie Darko” and “Stuart Little 2,” and is a former president of the Americans Society of Cinematographers, has been head of the International Cinematographers Guild, Local 600, since 2006. At the just-concluded Camerimage cinematography film festival in Bydgoszcz, Poland, he sat with Variety to assess the state of the organization at this point in its history (good) and anti-union trends at the national level (bad). The organization, he says, continues the fight against the view, in some quarters, that labor is just another commodity.
How many Camerimage festivals have you been to now?
This is my fifth. I’m serving on the student competition jury and hosting the screening of the ICG Emerging Cinematographer Awards. We showcase those films here and around the U.S. every year. I’m amazed at their quality. It just keeps getting better.
How is ICG going as a union?
Membership is growing. The motion picture and television industry is the most unionized of all professions in America. We have the largest percentage of union members of any industry. One of the most important things we’re doing is identifying and solving problems in the area of on-set safety.
What are some of these safety issues?
One problem we recently recognized is free driving. That’s when an actor drives a car while a camera operator is sitting in the passenger seat holding a camera. What happens if the air bag goes off? It would be disastrous. Asking an actor to drive a car and act at the same time is multitasking – it’s like texting and driving.
So what are you doing about it?
When we discovered the problem we hired a company to do crash dummy tests, which we just put online. The test is very effective. It shows the terrible danger in this. And we put all this together within a month after the problem was first talked about. You can’t turn off air bags, even if you pull a fuse. That camera can weigh 50 or 60 pounds. When it flies around the car you can lose the cameraman and the actor. When you see these crash dummies holding a camera and getting whacked by that airbag – nobody in the world who sees that would ever do this again. It will be shown to every guild and every production company in the world.
What’s the solution?
Tow the car. We’ve all done free driving because it’s easy. I’ve done it. I’ll never allow it to be done again on my films.
Why are unions still relevant and important?
They protects us in a way we couldn’t be protected otherwise. The nature of the beast is that this is an abusive business. It’s abusive to start with: it’s physically hard and it’s dangerous. Almost nobody realizes how dangerous this industry is. We need to be able to teach safety, teach how to work within a crew that’s safe, and to remind everyone every single day to work safely.
Was the death of Sarah Jones [pictured above], who died in an accident during a location shoot in Georgia in 2014, a turning point in thinking about safety?
Sarah Jones put a flag on the idea of safety in our business like nothing else, and it became a worldwide movement. You’ll see slates around the world that say “Safety for Sarah.” As a result of that, ICG developed its safety app with guidelines on all the things you need to know about safety. So if you want to know how to use live ammunition, how to work with trains, airplanes, cars, boats, it’s all in that app, which is available to everybody.
What about the long hours and worker fatigue – an issue that was championed by the late Haskell Wexler?
That gets addressed in negotiations. Talks with the AMPTP [the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers] are coming up next year. These are the basic agreement negotiations. We’ll see what happens. Each time we go into negotiations it’s a bit of an adventure.
Does ICG take a stand on national politics and political trends?
We do. We’re a union. It’s so crazy now that I can’t even begin to understand how this dynamic happened. Fortunately we’re in an international industry so the way politics has swung hasn’t affected our pocketbooks because we’re busy. Anywhere we go in America has production going on – New York, Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, New Mexico – it’s great to see so many of our members working on a regular basis.
But what about national politics?
The politics are difficult. We’re trade unionists. We believe in the good of everybody. It’s a hard thing to come up against when you see these things on a daily basis. As more and more workers’ rights are attacked on the right, we certainly make our members aware of that. I think it’s incumbent on any trade union in this country to look at what’s going on in terms of the politics of this administration. I can’t imagine that this administration thinks of workers as anything but a commodity.