Monday, 28 July 2008

An Open Letter to the DGA

It worries me that in my experience, both in the USA and UK, whenever there is filming in a public place, the film technicians may be required by the producers to harass any photographers that turn up uninvited.

I am a photojournalist who has often been assigned by legitimate news organizations to cover motion picture filming. Sometimes I was not invited and sometimes, judging from people’s actions, my presence was unwanted and I was actively harassed and even assaulted.

Putting up screens and holding umbrellas to shield the stars from photographers is not harassment but shining xenon flashlights or laser pointers into photographer's eyes, especially when they are looking down a lens, is assault.

Why should a film crew have to do this? Some crews I have encountered even enjoyed it and saw it as a sport. It concerns me that just because someone has got a permit to film in the street, that doesn't mean they have the right to prevent people from going about their lawful business or that the motion picture and television industry is exempt from scrutiny.

I have asked many times but I never got an answer from the DGA or FilmLondon on what rights - if any - a film permit gives a production. All I can find out tells me it doesn't give them any rights except that it complies with the bye-laws that you can't film on public property without one.

I certainly support crews filming in the street and will happily wait a few minutes when I encounter them if they're holding traffic for a shot as many of my friends and family work in the film industry (as I did for 25 years) and they have got to eat too.

But sometimes there is a mistaken belief that this enables the production to legally block the sidewalks, shut down noises and tell people what they can and cannot do. There's a industry joke about this that goes; "don't worry, we have cinematic immunity".

I have written letters to production managers and the DGA many times suggesting a code of conduct for film crews regarding the photography of their activity in public places. None have ever been answered. Even though I haven't covered a film set for about five years, it still concerns me that someday somebody is going to be hurt.

As a responsible journalist I understand that a production has to proceed without hindrance and, with 25 years experience within the film industry, I believe I know how to behave on a set. Whenever I have been at a set I have always made my presence known and given my name when asked (although there is no compelling reason to do so) and I have tried to come to an arrangement on to where it is safe to observe the production. This arrangement is usually then reneged on by the production deliberately placing lights, gryflons, vehicles or people for no purpose but to block the view. That comes with the territory.

With increasing frequency though people have also deliberately shone xenon flashlights into my camera whenever it was put up to my eye. Doing this can cause permanent damage to the retina and have done the same with laser pointers which is assault.

I don't need to wonder how the police and security would react if this was done by me to the cinematographer. I hate to think of where these sort of actions towards the media could escalate to.

Understandably the 'paparazzi' are generally unwelcome but it could lead to a tragedy if the attitude within the film industry prevails that they are fair game for assault.

I can appreciate a crew’s concern for public safety and the privacy of the cast and by always making my presence known and working openly I cannot pose a security or privacy threat and, as when filming is in a public place, I cannot accept that any form of direct hindrance is justified. Such actions only create incentives for the media to stay undercover and infiltrate film sets instead, if only for personal safety.

Perhaps it would be appropriate for the film and television industry to remind cast and crews that there are responsible journalists covering film sets and even if uninvited, they do not need permission to work if filming occurs in a public place. We live in a free society and the entertainment industry should be given the same scrutiny by the media as any other economic activity. If only there had been a couple of paps hiding in the bushes on the Twiglight Zone set, then the truth would have been told and the guilty punished.

Over the years I have heard an amazing array of ill-informed reasons presented by assistant directors, location PA’s, security guards and peace officers as to why I cannot photograph a film set, mostly based on erroneous interpretations of copyright and privacy laws. It would be useful to all concerned if industry bodies made greater efforts to clarify the situation but, in the meantime, they must ask their personnel to desist from direct interference.

I asked blogger Michael Taylor, a Hollywood 'Juicer' (what we call in the UK a 'Sparks') for his thought about this (I've redacted details of a particular incident we discussed). He said:

As you know, a film crew can develop a protective feeling about its stars -- I've seen this happen, and felt it myself more than once. While the film is in production, an "us and them" mindset develops, where the crew and actors are "us", and the outside world is "them." As the physical side of the group, the grips (in particular), and juicers can feel an obligation to confront any perceived threats or intrusions. Usually the cops take care of all that, but sometimes a "bogey" manages to get inside the comfort zone, and that's when a crew can get hostile. That someone would pull such a potentially dangerous stunt on you comes as no real surprise.

I can understand why the crew might be rude to any outsider who comes on set with a camera. The assumption would be that your real purpose was to get photos or some insider dirt to sell to a tabloid -- and to the base reptilian brain, that means "threat." You can bet there was no general announcement of your presence and purpose -- maybe a note on the call sheet, at most -- which means most of the crew had no idea who you were or why you were there. In the absence of such information to the contrary, they probably assumed you were just another guy with a camera, looking for something to sell.

Dangerous/lethal events happen on big budget films but in my experience, it's usually the low budget films trying to make miracles happen with pennies that push the envelope into the danger zone. While the remake of "Village of the Damned" (John Carpenter) was being filmed in my now-home town, the local newspaper editor (a weekly) went to the set to take some pictures and ended up in a tussle with a cop that landed him in jail. Supposedly he had permission to visit the set, but a misunderstanding arose, and things went all wrong.

The thing is, a film crew already has to put up with all kinds of publicity shoots from small crews who visit the set demanding power, time, and sometimes equipment -- all of which simply adds to the burden involved with making the film itself. I did a post about this resentment ("Promo Land", or something like that) -- and having seen it from both sides, understand it to be a natural, if unproductive, reaction within the group dynamic. I'm sure you weren't demanding anything of this crew, but your presence alone -- and outsider coming on set -- might have been enough to piss people off. Add in their natural distaste for the paparazzi, and I guess what happens is what happened.
That doesn't make it right, but such are the realities of the biz. Still, I've never heard of the crew "being employed" to harass a legitimate visitor to the set. Usually we just ignore them. It sounds to me like you have reason to complain.

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