Thursday, November 30, 2006

Thank goodness for the union reps!

There's an old joke among the background community that we are the "cockroaches" of the industry. Most folks will think this stems from being the lowest in the pecking order. But on the other hand, think of this:

1: We will eat almost anything organic left on set. (Just ask crafty!)
2. We are largely impervious to extreme changes in temperatures in holding.
3. We appear, and disappear, into strange corners of the set, such as behind C stands, flags, wild walls, etc.
5. We work in smoke, water, and other maladjusted conditions for extra bumps in pay.
4. No matter how many times you try to eradicate us, we keep coming back.

So, early this week I was on a new feature in downtown Los Angeles. Location shots are always interesting, but on this day, the rain was pouring down.

You would think production would have things under control. Instead:

1. We waited in tents for wardrobe to approve our business attire for a full 45 minutes. You might think, “So what?” But, at first there were no lights inside, then the electricians ran some lines through standing puddles of water after a few complaints. By the time we were done, most of us were standing in a full inch of water, clutching wardrobe bags, purses, etc. Anything to stay relatively dry.

2. We were informed that there was “no holding” area for us, either at catering (across the street) or on set. Originally, they wanted us to stay outside, in the elements – which were now dripping atmosphere. Apparently, they hadn’t bothered to order more tents for the shoot. Eventually, we were shown a small room inside, near set, which would serve as a “temporary” holding. It was the size of a large broom closet, with about a dozen seats to serve roughly 50 union background, and another 25 non-union background. Now, the contract is quite clear on all these things:


The following shall be provided:
(a) Pure drinking water.
(b) A seat for each Background Actor.
(c) A stretcher or cot to be used as a stretcher.
(d) Separate dressing rooms for actors of each sex.
(e) Separate dressing rooms for children of each sex.
(f) Adequate provisions for proper and safe keeping of Background Actor’s clothing during work.
(g) Adequate, clean and sanitary, individually screened toilet facilities, toilet paper, soap, and paper towels, or individual towels. Sanitary napkins must be obtainable.

Background Actors may refuse to change wardrobe if not provided with a place of privacy and comfort. Dressing rooms with adequate lighting to be provided. Buses and restrooms are not considered acceptable places to change. Buses used as holding areas must have lights and proper seasonal climate control.

The final nail in the coffin was the “privacy” concern. Some shootsdon’t want cell phones that can take photos on set. Some A-list actors don’t want to be compromised and production companies, understandably, don’t want plot lines to be released before a movie has been fully edited.

So, we were told, “No cell phones on set.” Fine, “How about in holding, which isn’t on set?”

“No, all cell phones must be locked in your cars.” [This applied to background only – even union – crew was still chatting away their online minutes like a bunch of teenagers on set.]

Minutes later, a good fraction of the call was on the phone bothering SAG Production Services – the enforcement wing of the union for backgrounders – with the following refrain, “Production is taking away our ability to call you from set regarding labor contract violations.”

That piqued their interest.

Now, I was in the shot for most of the morning, but when I emerged, chairs had suddenly sprouted like mushrooms after a good rain, all the PA’s and AD’s were very, very friendly to us (what a change), our 2nd 2nd AD had a copy of the SAG contract stuck in his back pocket, and people were getting called left and right from SAG reps with follow-up questions.

Yeah, we’re cockroaches, but sometimes the union pulls through.

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