Crew at Massachusetts Studios Talk Health and Safety in the Film Industry

by | May 4, 2021 | Uncategorized | 0 comments

The fall and winter seasons in Massachusetts conjure different images for different people–as a brand new transplant to Boston, my personal totem is the Michelin man. After years living in arid climates of the American west, I am unaccustomed to the bitter, humid breezes and find myself wearing my puffy North Face jacket almost perpetually around the office of Interlock Media. But no matter your own emblem for these colder months, there is another moniker that likely resonates with you: someone stricken by the flu, coughing incessantly, with a sore throat and a dripping nose.

The fallout from contracting the flu can be serious on many levels. For the 2017-2018 flu season, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that as many as 960,000 people were hospitalized for flu-related illnesses, not to mention the uncounted masses who had the less severe, but still inconvenient consequence of becoming ill enough to miss work.

In the film industry missing work can pose problems for the whole production. After all, how do you film a movie or a television show without a cinematographer? Or a lead actor? Or a director? Just as vital are the crew behind the scenes such as the construction workers, and electricians, and accountants. Missing any one person on the team can mean a potential delay in already tight filming schedules.

That is why Dr. Paul Heinzelmann of setMD went to Massachusetts Studios in Devens, Massachusetts on a rainy, late November afternoon to give flu shots to over 40 crew members of an upcoming Netflix television show. Flu season is in full swing, and one sick crew member could mean many people are forced to stay home and recuperate.

Dr. Paul Heinzelmann prepares paperwork and supplies for a drop-in flu clinic at Massachusetts Studio

Safe Sets: Towards Healthier and Safer Film Sets

Dr. Heinzelmann, Boston’s preeminent cast and< crew physician, is currently working with Interlock Media on the project Safe Sets, which explores health, safety, and wellness in the film industry. Through interviews with industry professionals we hope to raise awareness of the public health issues prevalent on film and movie productions. Our hope is that these provocative discussions serve as a starting point toward enhancing the working conditions and well-being of film workers everywhere.

The makeshift clinic at Massachusetts Studios not only provided vaccinations to busy crew members, but also a platform for some of the film workers on the production to share their perspectives on the opportunities and challenges around health and safety in their jobs and on film sets more generally.

Dr. Heinzelmann prepares to administer a flu shot to a crew member at Massachusetts Studios

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Any movement of cast and crew, from hotels for crew members, to car services, to apartments for high-end celebrities, goes through Kristen Conaty, the Travel Coordinator of this Netflix production.

When I ask her how easy or difficult it is within her job to maintain a healthy lifestyle, her answer startled me with its immediacy, like the question is one she’s had a long time to consider. “It’s very difficult,” she says. “I don’t get a lot of sleep and that definitely takes a toll on me. So I know every show I finish I kinda crash for a little bit to reboot for the next one. So, my phone’s always on. So if someone’s flight gets delayed or something, that interrupts my sleep at night.”

For Kristen, a long and unpredictable work schedule doesn’t just mean interrupted sleep, but the inability to establish patterns of any sort in her life, patterns that the majority of us take for granted, like regular meals, sleep, or exercise. The lack of predictably takes a toll on her.

She tells me, “If I work until midnight then I don’t eat dinner. You know what I mean? So I think it’s just the hours in general make it difficult to just establish anything. Because I can say I’m going to work out tonight, think I’m leaving at seven and then I get home at midnight. So it’s definitely the unpredictability that is in the way. I don’t have time to cook, so I get fast food. That definitely effects a lot of people here. I know a lot of people, they smoke or they drink just to keep going, so that adds on, when they’ve already been stressed.”

When I ask if safety is something she has to consider in her job, she answers with a scenario that makes the realities of her job all too clear. “If there’s a snowstorm I have to decide if there are only five hotel rooms available [near the film set] and ten people need them, who’s going to get them.”

Despite the shifting demands and sleep-deprivation inherent in her work, it’s clear that Kristen has passion for what she does. “It’s never dull, it’s always exciting.” She continues, “It’s fun to be part of something where you know you go to the theater and you see your name and you’re just one, small person who helped make something.”

As the Location Foreman for Construction, you could argue Whitney Yale has active living built into his job. “We’re on our feet all day,” Whitney says. “It’s exercise, it’s good.”

Whitney spends his days building and modifying worlds—not the ultra big-budget, elaborate fare like space ships or hobbit homes—but the nuanced environments that make a scene come to life: altering the look of a living room, or creating bathrooms where there weren’t any before.

While Whitney acknowledges that exercise is built into his day, he also echoes the sentiments of his colleagues when it comes to long work schedules. “I think one of the biggest impacts to everyone is the hours, and it’s across the board.”

While his ten hour schedule on this production feels just right to Whitney, he explains that many productions still do much longer work days of twelve or more hours on set—a practice that he calls “counterproductive.”

“I don’t think people function at a high level after ten hours,” Whitney tells me.

First In, Last Out

I grew up as the daughter of oyster and clam farmers. Anyone who grows up in a farming family will tell you they know what it means to work a long day. My dad clomped out the door in his rubber boots before I had risen for school and usually came home just before the rest of the family was preparing for bed. He did that schedule six-to-seven days a week for 25 years. That is why I was taken aback when Generator Operator Michael Reynolds shared a work schedule that would make even my dad take note.

Just a few days prior, Michael explains, “I was in on Sunday morning. I came in at two in the morning…I do about a 16 to 18 hour day, have so many hours off in between and do it again the next day.”

As a genny op, Michael has to be on set, as he puts it, “before anybody else.” He has to supply power to the trailers that provide wardrobe, hair and make-up to the actors, and then proceed to supply lights and power to the set where the cast and crew will work for the day.

Like Kristen, his schedule can be unpredictable. As he puts it, “At the beginning of the week I could be starting at two in the morning. End of the week I could be going in at two in the afternoon.”

For Michael, the constant shifts in his work schedule translate to poor sleep quality, which he speculates is priming him for other potential health hazards. “I know there has been reports about it [lack of sleep] affecting your heart and everything, and I’m sure I’m a prime candidate for a heart attack or something like that because of not having normal sleep.”

The Hub

Next I’m in the office of the Production Coordinator, Cathy Vlasuk, for the television show currently filming at Massachusetts Studios. Cathy’s domain consists of walls covered with large sheets of construction paper and riddled with dozens of colorful labels. As I look closer, I notice dates and times scrolled everywhere and my mind registers what I’m looking at: the production schedule for the show. It takes but a quick glance at this post-it tapestry to glean that Cathy’s schedule is both full and demanding.

Cathy explains, “My job is kinda hard to describe because I do so many different things. They call us the hub for production.”

On any given day Cathy could be creating call sheets, faxing paperwork, handling shipments, or managing the production schedule so that all filming happens on time.

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is challenging for Cathy on set. “My big thing is, I’m pretty unhealthy when I’m on a production because I’m contained into this office space, so I don’t really get to go out much, and when I have off times I get back on track.”

Getting back on track means allowing herself to have a recovery period in between productions. “I try not to take back to back jobs. A month is good for me.”

While her position requires lifestyle sacrifices, Cathy has known from an early age that she was in the right career for her. “I was always interested in television production. I just kinda loved it.”

Twenty-two years into her production career, Cathy recognizes the responsibility she has as a supervisor to ensure healthy and safe work environments for her team. She factors in commuting time to her employees’ twelve hour work day and provides courtesy hotels to cast and crew when needed to ensure people don’t have to do a long drive at the end of exhausting work days.

The flu clinic that she helped organize today is another example of Cathy prioritizing the well-being of cast and crew. “With the flu shots and everything it’s [about the production] becoming more [oriented] towards peoples’ whole beings, because they realize if you’re out [from work], you can’t be productive, and if you’re sick you can’t be productive and then we won’t have a show.”

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