06 Nov The Show Must Go On! A Glimpse into the Stress of the Film Industry
I remember the first time I experienced that nauseating, stomach churning, heart pounding, adrenaline rush for the first time, after stepping up into the big wide ‘glamorous’ world of the film industry. It was my first job abroad and I had landed a nine month contract in the enchanting city of Prague.
It was a Monday morning, we had been preparing for the shoot for four months, and I had worked the previous 21 days straight, starting at 6am and finishing at midnight. I had taken a day off on the Sunday in order to allow my weary body a chance to rest. This had proved to be a BIG mistake!
As usual, I had got into work an hour ahead of the rest of my team to allow myself some solitude to wade through the 100 or so emails that would be waiting for me in my inbox since 10pm the night before and try and make a dent in the mountain of paperwork awaiting my attention in my in tray.
My boss was already in (not unusual) and called me into his office. “We have a problem” – my heart sank. It transpired that in my absence the day before, a critical shipment of Alien heads (yes, seriously, we are talking Alien vs Predator here) had become stuck in customs in Frankfurt.
Shipping often proved to be the biggest headache on these films and the potential consequences of this shipment being delayed could have stopped the shoot, which would have been excruciatingly expensive and cringingly embarrassing. When I spoke to our shipping agent to begin to establish what had gone wrong, I found that the situation was worse than feared as we were also potentially liable for a 200,000USD fine. I will spare you the details. Suffice it to say, my shipping coordinator’s neck was on the line, and so was mine. Not a great start to my first feature film.
As the 80-100 hour weeks took their toll, the signs of stress began to show; I was comfort eating, what little sleep I was getting became disturbed, even when it was not interrupted by actor’s agents or studio executives phoning me from LA in the middle of the night, oblivious to the time difference. At one point my poor body was so run down that I had mouth ulcers, styes in both eyes and thrush simultaneously. I was a wreck. But the show must go on! If you take time off sick you are replaced. Unless you’re in hospital, you are fit for work. I continued to lead my troops into battle, surrounded by aliens and predators!
When you work in the freelance world of film, you are only as good as your last job. If you get fired, it is very likely you will not work again for some time. News travels fast. There are no guarantees. There is no job security. You are contracted and paid on a weekly basis, and your contract can be terminated on a week’s notice. Signing up for the duration of a film does not guarantee it makes it across the starting line.
Two successive years running, I was contracted on multi-million dollar studio films, each of which could potentially have provided me with ten months work. Both films however folded after a few weeks owing to either creative or financial issues, leaving me out of work for the remainder of the year. Being out of work can be as stressful as being in it. Being freelance means no holiday pay, no pension, no sick pay, no healthcare plan.
I recall another occasion when I pushed myself to breaking point. This time it involved a boy and dragon.
I had had to coordinate the moving of a crew of 540 people to a location 3hrs from Budapest. Owing to the remoteness of the location, I had to split the crew into 24 different hotels within a 45 minute radius. As is the nature of the beast, the only thing you can ever be certain of in the film industry is change, which had meant that as usual, no-one had been able to confirm their plans until the last minute.
I had worked around the clock the night before finalising the document that would be given to each crew member, giving them details of the hotel they would be staying in, and transport arrangements. The document was nearly 200 pages long! Having returned to my apartment for a shower and change of clothes I went back to the office to pack up my desk and hit the road for the 3hr drive to get ahead of the crew to await their arrival and check them in.
Thankfully all went according to plan and shortly afterwards my head hit the pillow and I fell into a deep sleep. When my alarm went off the next morning, I felt completely disorientated and was aware that it was more than sleep deprivation. When I tried to get out of bed, it was almost as though I was paralyzed.
My brain was sending a message to my limbs and asking them to move, but nothing was happening. It was then I became aware of a strange noise, and it was only when I became aware of tears streaming down my face that I realised I was sobbing, almost uncontrollably and inexplicably. I could not fathom what was going on inside me. It took me much longer than usual to pull myself together that morning.
When I finally dragged myself out to my mobile office on location it was mid-morning. It was there that our Location Manager, who knew me well, came to my rescue. Seeing that I was not my usual self he ferried me on his quad bike, away from the hustle and bustle of the crew up to the tranquility of top of the quarry we were filming in. Here he made sense of what was happening to me as he explained that I had been running on adrenaline the past few weeks in order to coordinate the unit move, and now that that job was complete, my body had stopped pumping out adrenaline to keep me going and that without that to support me, I had crashed, both physically and emotionally.
I felt as though I had nothing left to give. It was the only time in my entire career that I no longer cared about the job – I wanted to give up and go home. I was very fortunate on that film; I had several members of crew who had become surrogate family, as often happens when you work away from home. They nursed me through the next 48 hours until our rest day. Then and only then, and against all protocol, did I shut down my computer, switch off my mobile, and sleep.
Some films are sprints, others marathons that test your endurance. Sleep deprivation plays havoc with your body clock. One film (involving a hell raiser and a fish man) was scheduled to shoot for 24 weeks, the last eight weeks of which were nights.
For the large majority of crew this meant them living on a diet of primarily energy drinks and nicotine. I have never smoked and have not drunk caffeine since my early 20s, so quickly learnt that energy drinks were not for me. Two cans a night was enough to cause my jaw to lock and prevent me from sleeping when I needed to.
An average day on night shoots for me started at 2pm and finished at 8am the following morning. My poor body clock became so confused that one morning after I heard my alarm go off, I dragged myself into the shower in order to wake up. I was so tired that I felt nauseous and dizzy. On checking the time again as I began to get dressed I realised that it was only 1 hour after I had gone to bed! My alarm had not gone off. Despite blacking out my bedroom, my body was desperately trying to sync with the daylight and had woken me up. When I mentioned my experience to my Producers later that day, the response I got was “Oh, you’ve got to that stage too then!”
The adrenaline rush is addictive. You work hard, play hard not daring to slow down in case you can never regain the same momentum. I remember an ex-boyfriend once calling me an adrenaline junkie as he began to familiarise himself with the fact that I lived my personal life at the same pace as my work life. One last adrenaline hit on a film in 2012 left my body so depleted that I developed a kidney infection that confined me to my bed for a week and had my boss threatening to hospitalise me.
To those outside the industry, it is a glamorous place to be. I don’t’ deny it has its moments. But it is not however a job for the faint hearted and there is a price to pay. For three years now I have been investing in my health with regular Kinesiology sessions and massive endocrine boosts involving large quantities of nutritional supplements such as Nervous Fatigue and Energ V (which do exactly what they say on the tin!) to repair the damage done to my poor adrenal glands, thyroid and kidneys. And at the beginning of this year, I opened the door to my very own Kinesiology clinic, where I now support others working with extreme stress.