DOCUMENTARY- Who Needs Sleep? Haskell Wexler (2006)

director Haskell Wexler

Renown cinematographer and director Haskell Wexler premiered his documentary film, "Who Needs Sleep?" at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival to packed audiences that had to be firmly 'persuaded' to leave cinema venues after intensive Q + A's with the director, co-director Lisa Leeman, and producer Tamara Maloney.

Seven years in gestation, the idea for the film began after the death of assistant cameraman Brent Hershman in 1997, who fell asleep at the wheel driving home after a week of very long hours, and then a 19 hour Friday, working on the Hollywood film, "Pleasantville". At the time, there was a fierce public outcry from both the IATSE Union's membership and its leadership which was supported by practically all of Hollywood's craft guilds.

Over ten thousand individuals signed a petition endorsing ' Brent's Rules' that called for a drastic reduction in the number of working hours a film crew could work. Then in 2001, after having worked brutally long hours on “Road to Perdition”, Wexler’s close friend, cinematographer Conrad Hall, drafted a statement calling upon cinematographers and the ASC (American Society of Cinematographers) to protect the well-being of their crews and to encourage the industry at large to stop the dangerous practise of working excessive hours.

"I made 2 promises to Conrad…The first was - to finish the film and the second was- not to end up in my own movie", says Wexler, as he describes his personal experience waking up in his own car wreck after driving home from a very long day filming. Tragically, Conrad Hall's health seriously deteriorated after the completion of ‘Road to Perdition', and he died never knowing that he would be honoured only a month later with the Oscar for his cinematography on that film. “I think we're also doing this for Connie; it took a long time because it had to be done right" Wexler adds.

While Wexler questions what has happened to "Brent's Rules" and why, in 2006, conditions in the Hollywood movie work environment have not even slightly improved and there has been more sleep related fatalities, he finds some very uncomfortable answers within the tight and cosy relationships between union officials and large corporation bosses who own and control the movie studios. "In these times of deceit, telling the truth can be a challenging act" Wexler says.

On national television, Wexler, donning a "12 ON/12 OFF" baseball cap, proclaims, "I am probably the oldest filmmaker here at Sundance", a festival known for its dominant Generation X and Y population, but at 83, Wexler also ranks as one of America's most prolific filmmakers whose illustrious 50 year career brought him 5 Oscar nominations and 2 Academy Awards for Best Cinematography, while he also directed over 50 documentaries in Latin America and around the world.

After interviewing some of Hollywood's most respected professionals and "A list" celebrities, ( Julia Roberts, Paul Newman, Tom Hanks, John Sayles, Sam Mendes, Billy Crystal, Annette Bening, Vittorio Storaro, Richard Zanuck), some who recognize this lifestyle madness of 'part-time' work, others, the dilemma of mega- budget production costs and a short shooting schedule, Wexler travels around the country meeting with doctors and scientists who study the long term effects of sleep deprivation which affects a large percentage of American workers. These specialists conclude that people with a large 'sleep debt' perform exactly in the same way as people who are intoxicated on alcohol, i.e.(who are drunk!). Wexler then visits film crews in Europe who express a disdain for overtime, who place a higher value on quality of life and family, and therefore often refuse to work "American hours".

While informative and disturbing, "Who Needs Sleep" is a sharp but entertaining wake-up call to the film industry around the world that, sooner or later, might become infected with this “American disease”. Haskell Wexler plans to attend screenings of "Who Needs Sleep" at film festivals around the world, and very soon, the film will also be available on DVD.

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In the summer of 2004, Haskell Wexler and Roderick Stevens formed the Non-Profit Organization, 12 On/12 Off, Inc. for the purpose of promoting more humane work conditions. "As human beings, we believe that every person's health, safety and life is worth more than any product we can produce."
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Madelyn Most


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