Safety: Hoping vs. Planning
Updated: Aug 21
True story. A few years ago an out-of-town production company doing a “docudrama” in South City about a gang murder, hired a friend of ours for the crew. At the time of the booking, the LA show runner sounded competent and experienced, so my friend happily signed on. Day one involved an exterior reenacted running gun battle between two rival gangs. You know where this is going but you still can’t believe it, right? Yes, the producer had not bothered to obtain anything resembling a permit or had the basic good instincts to alert the local police precinct or police community relation’s officer that a video was going to be rolling. Needless to say, the entire crew was shortly surrounded by multiple squad cars, officers spilling out will guns ready. Fortunately, they quickly accessed the situation but were a very unhappy constabulary.
While our first reaction was at a minimum a stifled laugh, this could have really ended in tragedy. It really goes to a larger concern, that working on a set, any set, can be dangerous. The cause of this particular snafu could be only three things: inexperience, laziness or arrogance. Unfortunately, the latter I have seen a few times with ‘big time” production companies rolling in as you get the feeling that they presume they will be able to bluff their way through a small Midwestern city’s bureaucracy or use the ‘easier to ask forgiveness than permission” tact.
There exists an extensive list of tragic accidents that have incurred on film sets since it’s early inception. The first that we can find is a camera operator and actress drowning on a location shoot in “Across the Border” in 1914, to the current decade in “Cops,” “Star Wars: the Force Awakens,” “Silence,” “Blade Runner 2049” and “Deadpool 2” just to name a few. It is quite an ignominious list. Admittedly, accidents are often just that, caused by some truly unforeseen causation.
While no one is totally immune from missing some important due diligence, safety should be the essential square-one move. We have a pretty good situation in the Midwest. In a region that has yet to become production jaded, permits are relatively easily to obtain, locations reasonably priced, generally friendly town administrators and only the occasional crabby neighbor. So this is a call for us in the production community to reassess how good we have it and to reapply ourselves to doing the detailed producing necessary to keep this an accessible, friendly area to shoot in.
It sounds like a hackneyed bromide, but it is everyone’s business. We would go a step further, advocating to those starting out in the production business, particularly in entry-level jobs like Production Assistants. We would reemphasize, working on a set can be perilous. As a PA or in any entry-level position, you will be trying your best to impress the Producer or Assistant Director. In the inevitable hurry that is production, there are a myriad of ways to get hurt. Be careful of the ask. You might be told to help control non-production gawkers on a public sidewalk or unwisely help lock down street traffic. With pedestrians, you must always be polite and never say we are “shooting,”say “filming” as that can lead to problems (see above). For vehicles, you should never be in the street directing traffic. The production company should hire police officers for this duty. It is illegal for you to impede traffic and downright dangerous. If you are being asked to do something you know is inherently risky, remember no production is worth injury. And everyone should feel empowered to ask, “Did you get a permit to shoot this?”