My Worst Experience In Hollywood, And Why Workers Want To Strike
Hey there, friend. We like to have a good time here, right? But today, I want to talk about the IATSE Hollywood labor strike, what’s at stake, and why it is, quite literally, a life-or-death issue.
Specifically, I want to share my personal horror story about the worst experience I’ve ever had working on set. I’ll be changing some minor details, so please don’t try to Internet Sleuth this one out, guys. Save that for ruining the lives of people mentioned on true crime podcasts.
What’s This Strike About?
First, some background. IATSE, or the International Alliance of Theater and Stage Employees, is a union representing those who work on film sets, everything from grips to gaffers to guy who shoots down the Rock with the lube-hose between takes to maintain that shimmery, oily glow. This possible strike was originally about streaming rights. Streamers have basically still been paying rates that were a holdover from when they were scrappy underdogs trying to muscles their way in to the market—and not, you know, how all TV is watched now by every single person not old enough to have opinions on different tapioca pudding brands.
But it evolved into a larger conversation about worker safety, since being a lowly worker in Hollywood is kind of like being a Professional Haunted Cave Diver.
If you’ve read my other work, you know this is something I’ve talked about several times before. Working conditions are so dire, people die. Most often from driving while sleep-deprived after working insane hours, and sometimes from simple negligence (such as the tragic death of Halyna Hutchins on the set of Rust). You need only look at the IA Stories accounts on places like Twitter or Instagram to get a taste of how bad things have gotten.
By the time you’re reading this, it’s likely that IATSE will have reached an agreement without striking. But I don’t think this will be the end of the conversation. A reckoning is coming, because in the age of the internet, the extreme working conditions of Hollywood are, like Russian car fights, easier to document than ever. And so, in the spirit of solidarity, I’d like to publicly talk about the absolute worst experience I’ve ever had working on set.
It’s Hard To Tell When Things Will Be Bad
I’d been in Los Angeles for two or three years by the time this happened, supporting myself through a combination of dog walking, being an extra, and, primarily, working as a PA. Not a Pennsylvania: a production assistant. For those who don’t know, a production assistant is the absolute bottom of the filmic food chain. It’s the person who does the grunt work on set that doesn’t require any specific knowledge or skill. They haul heavy things, they set up food, they push Steve Buscemi’s eyes back in. It's a shit gig with shit pay. PAs don’t have a union, but they are sometimes under IATSE’s umbrella.
I’d been working on indie movies, and a friend of mine texted me one day when I was an extra on the show Bella and the Bulldogs, saying a shoot needed a PA and was I interested? I took the job. I won’t tell you who the director was, but I will say this: They’ve had a very lucrative career directing commercials, and while they have had wide-release theatrical films, it’s very very unlikely you’d recognize their name. The job worked on a day rate—that is, a flat rate paid for a day of work. Only work for three hours or so, like I did the first day of this gig? Good news! You get paid the flat rate anyway! But what if you work longer than eight hours? Well, shoulda thought of that before you didn’t have a famous relative in the film industry to kick-start your career, jackass!
The second day—the Hellday—started off pretty normally. I was asked to drive a truck from the equipment rental place to set, and when I say a “truck,” I mean a piece of machinery larger than the average Manhattan apartment. Prior to this, I’d never driven anything larger than a Jeep Commander, so this was pretty scary. You think driving in downtown LA is frustrating in a normal car? Try it in a vehicle with the turning radius of an oil platform that, oh yeah, is also full of several hundred thousand dollars’ worth of film equipment.
Since I was delivering the stuff they needed to actually shoot, I was one of the first people on set. After somehow maneuvering the truck into the building, I helped unload it and then was put on firewatch duty. Now, firewatch isn’t watching for fires. It’s code for “make sure nobody steals our shit.” This is important because film equipment is incredibly expensive. An Arri Alexa SXT W, for example, retails at just under $90,000, and that’s just for the brain—no lens, no mount, nothing. If someone was wearing '90s jeans, they could probably stuff it in their gigantic pocket and walk off with enough for a down payment on a house—even in some places in LA!
So I was put on firewatch in the middle of downtown LA. My friend Kevin Fox, a writer/director who used to work security on sets, told me he wore a bulletproof vest when working security. I had a Cookie Monster T-shirt and skinny jeans. My heart leapt into my throat when a homeless man started marching toward me holding a box. What’s the box for? Is he gonna use it to steal film equipment? What if there’s a gun in there and he’s gonna rob me? What if he makes me look in the box and inside the box is a sculpture of my own face and it says “below average in length and girth”? Is this paranoia warranted because of the responsibility thrust upon me? Or am I just being a stereotyping asshole because he’s homeless?
So, swallowing my lefty guilt but also putting a hand on my multitool just in case, I watched as he approached. He came up to me and said, “Get a knife in your life, sucka” and flipped open the lid of the box to reveal it was full of weapons. A rich assortment of switchblades, fixed-blades, tasers, stun guns, telescoping batons, and brass knuckles fit to make a mall ninja blush. It looked like underneath an edgy middle schooler’s bed. Written on the lid he’d opened were the words “ALL KNIFES $5 TAZERS $10.”
Up until that moment, I’d thought that Wandering Weapon Merchants only existed in videogames, like magic swords, mana potions, home ownership, and Italians. “Uh, sorry,” I sputtered, “I don’t have any cash on me.” He flipped his box closed and left without a word. Wherever you are, homeless weapon salesman, I hope things are going well for you and that COVID hasn’t impacted your business too much.
Unfortunately, after the part of the day where I briefly thought I was going to be robbed, it was all downhill.
From Bad To Worse
First came some pretty standard backbreaking PA labor. Hauling stuff, lifting stuff, wondering if it’s possible to age your body twenty years in the space of a single workday, assembling stuff, the usual. Until I got given another task. See, we were shooting in the top floors of a building, and the only way to get up there was in a special elevator that required a special keycard to go to the top. And they only had one keycard made. So my job was to sit in the elevator like whatever those guys were called who wore those little uniforms and worked elevators for people in the '50s. Elevator pilots? I don’t know.
At first, I was pretty busy, as all the equipment and actors were ferried to the top floor. But I was told to stay in the elevator in case anyone else needed a ride. Could my difficult job of “holding a keycard” been done by some sort of machine? Probably, but the technology clearly isn’t there yet.
So I sat in a metal box with no cell service. For hours. And hours. It was basically solitary confinement, but hey, at least I wasn’t hauling sandbags around set! By the way, here’s a fun piece of Movie Magic Lingo for you: The heaviest gauge of sandbags are referred to as “ballbusters” because they dangle on little cloth handles and are so heavy they have to be carried in a wide-legged stance. When you carry them, they have a tendency to swing directly into the genitalia of whoever is carrying them, which I can tell you from experience feels like having a tiny pickup truck driven directly into your sack.
After several hours of quietly losing my mind in the Sensory Deprivation Elevator, my walkie-talkie crackled and told us it was time for crafty (which means “craft services,” which in turn means “food”). I leapt out of that elevator and ran for where crafty was set up like a hungry pit bull to a toddler factory, when an assistant director stopped me. “Where do you think you’re going?” she said. “You need to stay in the elevator in case anyone else needs a ride. We’ll save a plate for you.” They did not; they completely forgot about me like a Romney dog on a car roof.
When I got on the walkie much later (don’t want to be seen as someone on set who isn’t a team player!) I was told I could go to crafty and someone could temporarily take over my Sitting Silently in a Metal Box duties. All that was left was burnt rice scraped from the bottom of the little heated metal pans that are ubiquitous on film sets. But I ate it without complaining, because this was another step in making my dreams of writing movies come true—or so I thought at the time. Hollywood preys on people’s dreams to make them accept working conditions that would give pause to even the most hardhearted of Dickensian orphan-brokers.
How Long Was This Day?
So I was on set, both in the elevator and working, for the duration of the shoot. After all, I was the guy who drove the truck full of equipment, so I’d also have to be the guy who returned it at the end of the shoot. From the time I left in the morning to the time I got back home was about 28 hours. 28 goddamn hours. 28 hours vacillating between grueling manual labor and mind-numbing boredom. 28 hungry hours, 28 hours of being mistreated (“Where do you think you’re going,” she’d said, as though wanting to be fed per the agreement I’d signed was Marie Antoinette-level of entitlement).
I got home, crawled into bed next to my wife, and—sorry to get weirdly vulnerable in what is ostensibly a comedy article—I bawled my eyes out. This is not what I’d pictured my mid-twenties would be like. This was not a sustainable way to live. I didn’t really feel like the suffering I’d endured was putting me any closer to being a professional TV and film writer. And this was probably just an exhaustion-induced hallucination but I was absolutely certain that if I went back to set the next day it would result in my Final Destination-style tragicomic death—exploding light maybe, or perhaps strangled with an impeccably-coiled cable by a grip driven insane by spoiled LaCroix.
Oh, I’m sorry, did I say I was worried I would die if I went back to set “the next day?” Call time wasn’t even eight hours from the time I finally got home.
So, castigating myself for being a flake, I called the first AD and said I couldn’t work tomorrow. He thanked me for my hard work and that was that. I went to bed feeling like I had just screwed over a bunch of people who were kind enough to give me a job. People talk a lot about Protestant work ethic, but maybe more due should be paid to the Raised Catholic and Still Secretly Subconsciously Believes Insufficiently Productive Means You Go to Hell work ethic. For a few weeks I put the Hellday out of mind, with only aching muscles and a spine that creaked like the heavy wooden door to a wizard’s tower to remind me. Until I got my check in the mail.
Then Came The Paycheck
It was paltry. If you divided the hours I worked by what I got, it was less than minimum wage. That's the flipside of working for a flat rate.
I didn’t even care. I just went to the bank and cashed my check, glad to put the whole sorry episode behind me and consign it to the deepest part of mind along with the time as a teenager my mom made me buy snacks and fuel at a gas station in my underwear as a punishment, the time in high school I was trying to impress a hipster girl I had a crush on by taking her to a screening of Eraserhead, and a mental folder the size of a New Delhi phonebook labeled BONERS (EMBARRASSING / INOPPORTUNE), VOL. I.
But guess what? The check bounced. I’d done all that work for less than minimum wage and the check bounced. I’d worked for someone who is almost certainly a millionaire, and they didn’t pay me.
So I sent a polite email informing them that the check had bounced and asking when we could expect a reissue. What I got was an email addressed to both myself and the 14 other PAs demanding to know how we’d gotten the director’s email (it was both on the call sheet and given to us by an AD when we’d asked about our pay). The email went on to say the LAPD had been alerted to our “harassment,” which, again, was us asking whether or not we’d be getting paid. We were told to choose our next move carefully. If you’re a libertarian and would like to live in a world where regulations don’t exist and the rich can do whatever they want, come to Hollywood. I’ve been to your Randian utopia, and guess what? It blows.
The message in the email was clear. A bunch of young folks working for less than minimum wage didn’t really stand a chance against a much-richer-than-us director who had access to fancy lawyers and, apparently, the LAPD. Of the 15 PAs, one was able to get the payment we agreed to. Thirteen just dropped it and moved on with their lives—sometimes getting stiffed on a paycheck is just part of working in Tinsel Town. The Dream Factory, baby! Destroy your body and get paid, maybe, if we feel like it. Because if money can be saved or costs need to be cut, you better believe the most vulnerable are gonna be the first in line to bleed for someone else’s dream. Because what are you gonna do about it, huh? Sue us?
So I Sued
Well, if you’re me, the answer is yes. Because I was the only one dumb enough, stupidly idealistic enough, stubborn enough, and, frankly, absolutely mind-bendingly burn-the-world-down furious enough to pursue it further. I am a small-minded petty person and spite motivates at least half of everything I do. I probably would have given up my Hollywood dreams already if part of me didn’t want to rub success in the face of the middle school gym teacher who told me I’d never amount to anything.
So I saved all my emails, got written statements from one of the other PAs, and built up a case with the Los Angeles Labor Bureau. This was all over a few hundred bucks. I was pretty sure I had a slam dunk case. Surely the common man can triumph against the wealthy, no? I mean, surely there are mechanisms in place to correct wage theft?
It took two years to hear my case. All this for a single day’s work. Well, a day and four hour’s work. It turned out that, no, legally you can’t just not pay someone overtime because they signed a document agreeing to a flat rate. That holds about as much jurisprudential weight as the I Am Rubber, You Are Glue Defense. So I was owed vastly more money than the amount I had agreed to work for. Which makes me think that the whole film budget was dependent on the PAs' reluctance to bite the hand that doesn’t feed. But this wasn’t about the money to me. I felt like I had to fight back in some small way against injustice because I am, as I’ve said, an idealistic idiot.
Fast forward two years to my hearing. I had all my paperwork in a little folder, I had my little suit on, I almost got arrested because when they X-rayed my messenger bag, they found a switchblade comb I'd forgotten I had in there. They didn’t believe it was a comb until, at the barrel of a gun, I managed to convince one of the guards to push the button to open the comb. This is not a bit, by the way: I really am just a dumb clown.
So, at last, I was at the hearing. The director came in. I remember them saying, “This will be fun!” to the person they came with. I stated my case, and when I mentioned that I worked for 28 hours, the person hearing my statement stopped me and said that I had only filed for one day, and that this was technically a two-day case. Despite my protests that they were 28 consecutive hours and thus constituted a single workday, they had already gotten up and left the room. That was it.
As I left, the director cornered me in the hallway and offered me a thousand dollars to drop the case. And I took it. Because the idea of fighting this for another two years made me want to ride a jet ski into a volcano, and because there was a good chance the other offer was nothing.
Sometimes, Strikes Are Necessary
To this day, I sometimes wonder if I’ve struggled so much to get a job in the entertainment industry because all that foofaraw gave me a reputation as a pot stirrer, as someone who isn’t a team player, or whatever euphemism they’re using these days to make workers accept exploitation. Or maybe I haven’t been able to get a job because of other factors, like my personality and the quality of my work? Nah, probably not.
That’s my story. And believe me, mine is absolutely tame compared to others'. Nobody died, nobody was injured, nobody was ripped to bloody ribbons for looking Tom Hanks directly in the eye. But I think it demonstrates both how accepted terrible working conditions are and how it’s virtually impossible to get justice without collective bargaining behind you.
So if there is a strike in Hollywood labor, either now or in the future, and you feel yourself getting upset that it might delay you getting the next iteration of your favorite quip-laden IP, remember that that work of art is made by real people with real lives. And despite what Hollywood will tell you, PAs are, in fact, people too.
William Kuechenberg is a repped screenwriter and Nicholl Top 50 Finalist looking to get staffed or be a writer’s assistant in your room! You can also view his mind-diarrhea on Twitter.
Top image: Brands&People/Unsplash