This past June, The Guardian published an excerpt from Sarah Polley’s memoir, Run Towards the Danger: Confrontations with a Body of Memory with the eye-catching headline “It took me years to see how responsible [director] Terry Gilliam was for my terror.” In the piece, Polley chronicles her reckoning with the trauma she experienced on the set of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), describing the experience, the memory of the experience, and her further reflections on responsibility. Initially she faulted her parents for failing to protect her on the set and then questioned her own recollections. Gilliam’s gaslighting in later years facilitated this uncertainty, as he challenged the accuracy of her memory, and dismissed her feelings (and boundaries) by pulling up her shirt and demanding to see the scars (of that experience). Following exchanges with others on the set who verified her memories and experience, Polley could finally place responsibility on Gilliam and on the enduring myth of the male auteur that facilitated and excused his behavior.
This notion of the male auteur as a mad creative whose chaotic and risky practices on set are justified by the art they produce is not a thing of the past. In 2016, the tortuous conditions on the set of The Revenant (Alejandro González Iñárritu) were deemed “entirely justified by the film’s acclaim.” The long, brutally cold working days conferred authenticity, value, and eventually awards. More recently, the release of Amsterdam has caused former allegations of director David O. Russell’s bad behavior to resurface.
A romantic acceptance of the myth of creative genius is just one reason that the health and safety of a film’s cast and crew may be endangered. In October 2021, lapses in safety protocols resulted in the avoidable shooting death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the set of Rust. Although one could hold the armorer, Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, responsible for the accidental discharge of a live round, there is more to the story. Reed was not only armorer, but also a props assistant, creating a conflict of duty that eroded on-set safety protocols. Moreover, reports from the crew described dire working conditions (13-hour days exacerbated by long commutes resulting from the production’s failure to provide accommodation close to the set), poor Covid safety protocols, and accidental gun discharges prior to the incident. An assistant camera person resigned the day before the shooting, stating, “In my 10 years as a camera assistant I’ve never worked on a show that cares so little for the safety of its crew.” And IATSE, the performing arts trade union, had been preparing to strike for the “living wage for the lowest paid among us, health and safety for those members who suffer abuse working unsafe hours or days without breaks”. To blame an individual crew member would be to ignore the larger culture of carelessness—and systemic failure—that enabled this harm. Finally, the film’s producer/actor Alec Baldwin and other principals reached a financial settlement with the family of Halyna Hutchins that would allow production to resume on the film.
These are not outlier cases, but are symptomatic of endemic carelessness in the film industry. The Care Collective points out that even as “we are hearing much more about care in these unsettling days, carelessness continues to reign.” In their book, The Care Manifesto: The Politics of Interdependence, they argue that care has been compromised by logics of capitalism and neoliberalism that have hobbled care-giving infrastructures with austerity, and that advocate self-care and principles of resilience and responsibilization over care for one another. Despite the best efforts to privatize care in every sense, care is still entangled with the social, the political, the economic, the ecological, and the creative. Care needs to be restored and recognized within these entanglements.
Although “care” and “carelessness” are tricky terms, minimized by their implications of mere concern or accidental neglect, they also carry with them the sense of intentional action. Care is not mere sensibility or natural inclination, nor is carelessness simply the result of the absent-minded genius focused on excellence. While the Care Collective describe care as an “individual and common ability to provide the political, social, material, and emotional conditions that allow the vast majority of people and living creatures on this planet to thrive” it can also be read as obligation, a task to be organized and undertaken. This is labor and it cannot be divorced from creativity or the creative industries. The film world, despite its troubling track record, has sometimes been a site of caring labor. The inspiring collection, Mothers of Invention: Film, Media, and Caregiving Labor (edited by So Mayer and Corinn Columpar) shows how caring work—defined by the editors under the umbrella of mothering—has been and can be an integral part of creative processes, innovations, and transformations in screen representation and media practice.
The material interventions that make room for care take place in a variety of ways. The non-profit organization Raising Films, co-founded by Mayer and Hope Dickson Leach in 2015, has been carrying out research to chronicle experiences of caregivers within the industry and to advocate best practices for the workplace. With care-giving duties falling disproportionately to women, understanding the demands of caring responsibilities and making spaces for these duties is crucial to more inclusive representation on screen and off.
Moreover, care is built into many existing roles in the industry including trade unions, medics, tutors, caterers, and animal wranglers. And there are emerging roles tasked with further care that affects talent, crew, and even the world beyond. Study of these roles can shed light on how care is understood and how the industry can move in a less destructive direction.
Intimacy Coordinators, although not a new phenomenon, are a part of this care work. These crew members function as advocates, intermediaries, and creative consultants to choreograph sex and other intimate scenes. Increasingly prominent in the wake of the MeToo Movement and the reckoning with longstanding complaints in the industry, they work with directors and actors to negotiate consent, and develop and determine best practices for the maintenance of physical and psychological safety in the realization of a creative vision. This is an exciting development but the ambivalence within the industry suggests there is more work to be done. Chivalry (Channel 4-TV, 2022), a comedy-drama exploring sexual politics in the film industry, had moments of sensitivity and yet presented the intimacy coordinator (played by a delightfully scattered Aisling Bea) as untrained, unfocussed, and personifying an almost foolish requirement.
Such ambivalence is not surprising as the contractual and administrative dimensions of consent can be dismissed as obstacles to creativity, intimacy, and care. Although not necessarily the case, it is hard to skirt cynicism when the industry’s adoption of these roles can seem more about optics than a true commitment to a duty of care.
Similarly, Covid Compliance Officers play a crucial role in maintaining the safety of filmmaking in a global pandemic, which, despite the claims, is not over—especially not in an international industry. Although essential to maintaining union standards and minimizing disruptions to filming schedules and budgets caused by infection, on-set covid compliance is fraught with the logics of carelessness. Within a hierarchy of filmmaking, Covid compliance officers are not empowered to enforce the protocols that are seen as impediments to a production’s bottom line. Corporations that standardize practice and training capitalize on these requirements but risk verging on carewashing—“opportunistic branding” that maintains a pretense of concern alongside reputational management.
Is such opportunism behind the emergence of the Sustainability Coordinator? They perform the role of “environmental steward,” surveying the film set and looking to maximize sustainability and minimize environmental damage. The practical work can include instructions on transportation (electric cars, public transport where possible), materials (re-use, reduction of single-use), waste management, and catering sourced from local businesses. The position has been sold as a cost-benefit but is fraught with resistance: Would a director willingly dispense with a gel lights and sacrifice artistry for a small adjustment? Production circumstances including limits to budgetary and material resources as well as shooting schedules could reduce perceived cost-effectiveness and support for stewardship. Faced with these objections, a sustainability coordinator, who sits comparatively low on the production hierarchy, can be powerless to put policy into operation.
It is easy to become cynical, as intentional carelessness would seem to have overtaken caring labor and its transformative potential. At the same time, this work lays the pathways for continued change. Jack Thorne, English screenwriter and co-founder of the movement for change, Underlying Health Condition, notes how Intimacy and Covid Coordinators have enabled the development of a new role: Accessibility Coordinator. This role will review accessibility needs and requirements to open a film and television production to disabled cast and crew. Sets are dismally ill-equipped, according to UHC’s tellingly named report, Everyone Forgot about the Toilets. Limited availability of accessible facilities and recognition of production practicalities produce barriers to entry at all levels. An accessibility coordinator can help identify and mitigate these obstacles.
There are tensions between these policies and standards and their implementation. But it is precisely here, in the study of these negotiations, that one can find the transformative potential of care as practice. There is a shift in the industry, not a clean and triumphant reckoning but at least a slow conversion. The once acceptable, and even praised, model of the workplace ruled by a badly behaved creative genius, has become less acceptable as alternatives come into play. When barriers to implementation of care are finally smoothed over, a structural change could follow.
The author would like to thank Susan Berridge, Mette Hjort, Tanya Horeck, Alisa Lebow, So Mayer, Girish Shambu, and the Quorum editorial collective for insights, conversations, and observations that have helped shape this piece.
Leshu Torchin is Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at the University of St Andrews. She is the author of Creating the Witness: Documenting Genocide on Film, Video, and the Internet, and other work that explores the role of film in representing and advocating for human rights, on- and off-screen.
Header image: Cinematographer Alicia Robbins filming during COVID.