Who Needs Sleep?

Lisa Napoli May 30, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: Used to be when a movie went straight to video it was the Hollywood equivalent of a book being sent straight to the remainder shelf. But straight-to-video movies do make money. And films are being made just to meet that demand. Warner Brothers announced a new direct-to-DVD business today. Ten to 15 movies a year that’ll bypass theaters entirely. Total budget no more than $5 million a piece. That’s peanuts, of course, compared to blockbusters like “X-Men” or “Mission Impossible III.” But what it takes to make those movies is a lot more than just money. Marketplace’s Lisa Napoli explains.

LISA NAPOLLI: There are those who will tell you that the biggest problem in Hollywood today isn’t the box office slump. Or piracy. Or even Tom Cruise. It’s the working conditions. Namely, the lack of sleep.
Just ask some of the people whose names you don’t know—who help make movies:

PERSON 1: You’re working uncivilized hours. There is no such thing as civilized hours in the movie business.

PERSON 2: There’s a macho quality to it. People brag about how many hours they work the way they brag about their sexual conquests.

PERSON 3: In all my years in the business, I’ve never had dinner with my family when I’m working. Never once, never once. It’s a big thing to miss.

Those are a few of the voices in the new documentary called “Who Needs Sleep.”

Now, while many people in the business agree that overwork in their chosen profession is a problem, the film’s director is one of the few people who could get them to come out and say it. Haskell Wexler is 80 years old, and he’s had a storied career as an Oscar-winning cinematographer. Which gives him the gravitas in Hollywood to serve as an unofficial spokesperson:

HASKELL WEXLER: You get up earlier. Drive two hours to work. Work 14 hours, 15 hours. Then sometime to wrap and then another two hours to go home. That’s not a life.

Worse, Wexler says, those crazy working conditions are costing lives. He started making the film after a young camera assistant died in a car crash on his drive home after a 19-hour day on the set of the movie Pleasantville. And in the nine years since, Wexler and others have struggled to get leaders of the entertainment unions to cap hours.

What they’ve been fighting for is a 12-hour day. Days often go longer than that because hiding overtime in movie budgets is easier than adding shoot days. In the film, the actor Billy Crystal is one of many celebrities who talks to Wexler. He says he learned when he directed his own movie just how counterproductive long hours can be:

BILLY CRYSTAL: Nothing good happens when there’s long hours. People don’t function well, people get hurt, people don’t act as well, people don’t keep things in focus as well.

People are willing to work extreme hours because they need them to stay current in the unions and qualify for health insurance. Also because the work isn’t consistent.

Wexler said in making his film he realized it’s not just his industry that’s losing sleep to get the job done.Doctors, nurses, truckers, lawyers, even troops on the battlefield go without sleep, and suffer because of it.

Experts in the science of sleep say the lack of it is causing American companies $70 billion a year —accidents, medical bills, lost productivity . . .

Wexler says what fuels our willingness to comply ultimately is greed — on the part of everyone:

WEXLER: What is the word success? Success doesn’t mean he has a great relationship with his kids, he and his wife have been married 40 years and they still kiss. Success means . . . money.

“Who Needs Sleep” is a look at the complicated problems facing one industry that’s perceived as glam.

Maybe because no one wants to hear about this trouble in Tinseltown Wexler has yet to find a distributor for his film.

In Los Angeles, I’m Lisa Napoli for Marketplace.

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