A few months ago, Mystique Jackson woke up on a gurney. She wasn’t in a hospital or a morgue, but rather on a soundstage, with the overhead lights and cameras aimed at her face. Oh no, Jackson realized, wiping sleep from her eyes. It’s happened again.
A full-time background extra on various film and TV projects in New York, Jackson was portraying a dead body on HBO’s upcoming Crime and had nodded off during the shoot. This wasn’t the first time. In one particularly embarrassing incident, she passed on out the set of NBC’s Smash and woke up to the sound of guest star Jennifer Hudson screaming at her.
Jackson, who’s appeared in everything from The Wolf of Wall Street to Orange is the New Black, works nights at Home Depot; during the day, she scores as much background work as possible. This gives her an average of four hours of sleep, broken up into half-hour blocks. Upon hearing this, Hudson understood why Jackson was sleeping. Not that Hudson's condemnation would’ve deterred Jackson.
“My dream is to be a famous actress,” said Jackson, 49. “And I’m making it come true no matter what.”
Everyone who works on a film or television production, from fresh-out-of-college P.A.s to veteran production coordinators, has harrowing schedules forced upon them. Days often run in excess of 20 hours, whether due to production delays or to prevent studios from incurring extra costs. This leads to angry staffs, on-set mistakes and drowsiness-related deaths.
Sleep deprivation is probably the most well-known but least discussed epidemic of the entertainment industry.
Dr. Avi Ishaaya, a Los Angeles-based sleep doctor, estimates that 10 percent of his clientele works in entertainment. Ishaaya says that on-set schedules not only steal sleep, but also leave people so wired they can’t rest once a shoot wraps. In these situations, he worries his patients will become dependent on sleeping pills.
“I hate to generalize, but I think the culture in the entertainment industry is a quick fix,” he said. “It’s a matter of ‘What do I do to get to sleep? And what will it take?’ So unfortunately, as a result of taking the shortcut...it then becomes a dependency issue.”
What’s more, Ishaaya has found that unhealthy sleep is an issue of embarrassment many are afraid to discuss. These people won’t even use their real name when booking an appointment.
“It does become sort of a ‘hush-hush’ issue. And, really, restoring healthy sleep patterns requires that the people around you be supportive, so if you’re doing it without the support of others or without anyone else knowing, it becomes a more difficult issue to treat.”
Why are people so scared to talk about it? Ishaaya thinks some of his higher-profile patients worry the public will associate poor sleep with larger psychological issues.
Others may worry that complaining about sleep could be indicative of the fact they’re not cut out for this business, where studios expect projects to be finished fast and on-budget. Upset the studios once, many fear, and you’ll never work in this town again. For those who dream of big-screen success, it doesn’t make sense to raise a fuss.
Someone who can make a fuss, however, is Haskell Wexler, a two-time Academy Award-winning cinematographer. Wexler has been behind the camera for some of cinema’s greatest achievements, including Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, In the Heat of the Night and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
Wexler, now 93, regularly worked eight-hour days in the '60s and '70s. But Hollywood has steadily evolved and studio demands are greater than they’ve ever been. He estimates that everyone who currently works in film is sleep-deprived — a topic he explored in his 2006 documentary, Who Needs Sleep? The project examined the expectations on movie sets, and a culture in which the American Humane Association has more concern for the animals working overtime than the unions do for the humans.
It was a project that Wexler believes likely earned him a great number of enemies. “All I know is many, many people and friends who agreed 100 percent with me were afraid to talk,” he said.
In the film, candid commentary — from the likes of Julia Roberts, Annette Bening, Billy Crystal and Tom Hanks — revolves around long hours and their toll on production crews. But it focuses more heavily upon the tragic story of Brent Hershman, a 35-year-old assistant cameraman on the movie Pleasantville. Hershman died in 1997 after falling asleep at the wheel following a 19-hour day on set. (He had worked 15 hours each of the previous four days, too.) The young man’s death inspired Wexler to advocate for “Brent’s Rule,” which calls for on-set days to be capped at 14 hours.
More than 10,000 actors, directors and cinematographers signed a petition for Brent's Rule, but it gained little traction and disappeared into the International Cinematographers Guild. Wexler continued to reach out to various unions and groups, such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, but nobody seemed able to help.
The film itself, a Sundance darling, couldn’t find regular commercial sponsors.
“Someone told me it’s because it’s considered ‘industry unfriendly,’” Wexler said. “And it still is.”
In the years since, Wexler says the sleep-deprived culture has only gotten worse.
He notes that routine, excessive hours are everywhere. “The only thing we own is our time. We’re not finding the cure for cancer,” he said. “These excessive hours are really not productive. Actors hate it. Directors hate it. Everybody you meet hates the obligations to work these hours.”
At the very least, union actors and crews have turnaround time. For actors, it’s 12 hours; for crew, it’s 10. That means once they wrap for the day, a certain amount of time needs to pass before they can start up again.
But there are ways of getting around it. For instance, there’s the concept of “Fraturday.” On Friday nights, film shoots sometimes extend into Saturday as a way of avoiding overtime costs. This takes its toll on personal time, too.
The deleterious effects of these schedules stretch far beyond the soundstage. “Liam,” a freelance post-production editor in New York who works on documentaries, short films and commercials, often finds himself being taken advantage of because he doesn’t have any other choice.
“Sometimes you don’t have any kind of contract,” Liam said, who asked us to withhold his real name for fear of losing work. “And you just go into work trusting they’ll pay you and take care of you in exchange for what you’re doing.”
One production house demanded he edit a project for 18 hours straight, only letting him get up to go to the bathroom. A friend at the same production house had to endure 24 hours.
“It’s worse than production because you’re not exercising and you’re not moving,” he said. You’re just sitting in a chair.”
And yet, for people that chair — or gurney — is more relaxing than a bed. It means they’re working. It means they’re a part of show business.
Sure, it’s tough. But like Liam says, “I don’t think I could survive in another career.”