Brent Hershman just wanted to get home. He had worked a 19-hour day as an assistant cameraman on the set of Pleasantville, a comedy starring Jeff Daniels, and he had about an hour's drive ahead of him. When he got on the road, it was already 1 a.m., but he had promised his eight-year-old daughter that he would be home when she woke up.
Hershman, 35, never made it to the Los Angeles suburb where he lived with his wife and two kids. Exhausted, he fell asleep behind the wheel and slammed into a telephone pole. His death last month has prompted many professionals in the world's most glamorous industry to call for an end to the grueling hours that are now the norm behind the scenes--a problem that has become even more endemic as studios rush to complete the megabudget "event" movies currently in vogue.
Hershman "was a big guy with a huge smile," says Bruce McLeery, the chief lighting technician on Pleasantville. "He had been away from home for 22 hours, and the day before he had worked 15 hours." McLeery understands why Hershman attempted the drive. "Brent's little girl was sick, and he told her on the phone that he would be there," he says. But after working so many hours, McLeery adds, "you're impaired. You might as well be drunk."
In an industry in which 12-hour days are considered short, Pleasantville was not an especially arduous production. But the fact that Hershman was killed on a relatively routine shoot instead of a challenging picture with big effects only underscores the danger. Says Steven Soderbergh, Pleasantville's co-producer: "It's amazing that it didn't happen on other projects where these specific kinds of abuses are rampant."
One project in which crew members say conditions are more difficult is Titanic, the $180 million extravaganza that director James Cameron is trying to finish in time for its scheduled July release. Crews on the film have routinely packed more than 80 hours of work into six-day weeks, sometimes going as long as two weeks without a break. "I think it's the closest thing to slavery that I've ever laid my eyes on," says Elizabeth Bolden, a set rigger who spent a month on Titanic's Mexico location.
While union rules require extra pay if there is no lunch break after six hours, crew members say Cameron often kept them going as long as 10 hours without pause. (The director had already gained notoriety for threatening to fire employees who took bathroom breaks while shooting True Lies.) After working 13 days in a row before Christmas, the Titanic crew set up a spectacular special-effects sequence in which thousands of gallons of water would crash through a glass dome atop a staircase inside the ship. The stunt coordinator's written assessment of hazards associated with the sequence included "risk of drowning," but a crew member says exhausted workers actually fell asleep during a morning safety meeting meant to minimize the danger. Producer Jon Landau says he was not aware of people dozing during those sessions. "I know nobody was falling asleep when we were shooting," he adds. Still, Landau says, endless hours are the nature of the business. "Any time you're on a movie, it is physically demanding," he says. "No one was forced to be there."