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Night Productions

A History Lesson | Cinematographer Fred Schroeder talks about how old movies were filmed at night and how the process has changed.

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One may think working in the film industry is a glamorous life, but for those working on set at night, the job can be grueling and even dangerous.

By Stephanie Guzman

Fred Schroeder takes a break from filming a music video in downtown Los Angeles. A few people casually stroll by, take a glance at the set and continue minding their own business. Then a man approaches him, opens a bag and says, “Do you need a snake?”

“A full-on python was in the shopping bag,” recalls Schroeder through laughs. “It was like a guy opening a trench coat and saying ‘do you need a watch?’ I just said no, we don’t really need a snake right now, and he closed up the bag and kept walking.”

Schroeder, a 33-year-old cinematographer, is used to unexpected encounters while filming. After shooting four features and more than 100 commercials and short films, Schroeder says the late hours and tall buildings in downtown can attract peculiar people.

Security guard Leonidas Orozco agrees. He’s been working on film sets for 10 years, and has been thrust into uncomfortable situations.

“A couple day ago we were working on 4th Street and Main Street. A guy was walking by us stumbling,” says Orozco.

Orozco didn’t give it much thought. He says that homeless people often wander the streets late at night. Orozco and his coworker figured the guy was just drunk.

“Then he falls face down and there was a knife in his back.”

Production companies submit their employees to these bizarre and often dangerous situations because it’s cheaper and easier to shoot at night.

“Sometimes it’s logistical reasons such as scheduling or access,” says Schroeder. “We can’t film at a supermarket during peak hours when there’s a bunch of people.”

During the day, large sets need to hire more security, which can be costly. Guards protect equipment and keep fans and passersby off the set.

While fans are less likely to wait for his or her favorite actor in the middle of the night, robbers are more likely to steal at night.

“People try to break into trucks, steal cables and sell them,” says Orozco.

However, late hours equals more pay for employees. Unions pay their members well for doing overtime. Workers call this “the golden time,” because production companies can be required to pay three times as much.

While overtime pays more, working long hours has repercussions. Mike Shore who has worked as a key grip for over 40 years says he missed out on a lot of family life because he was working so much.

“It was like a choice between raising my first kid or making enough money to support my family,” says Shore.

Long hours also create more accidents. In 1997, cameraman Brent Hershman fell asleep at the wheel after shooting 19 hours for the film “Pleasantville.”

“If you’re on location somewhere out of the way and you have to drive an hour home after working 16 hours, it can be dangerous,” says Schroeder.

Hershman’s death prompted his coworker Haskell Wexler to produce the documentary "Who Needs Sleep?" The film prompted Hollywood to launch a campaign for shorter workdays, no more than 14 hours.

Shore says drugs like cocaine or speed were often used on some sets to help people stay up. In 1980, director Stanley Kubrick made the classic film “The Shining.” His daughter later made a “making of” documentary showing crews working 16-hour days. It’s rumored that the only scene she had to cut out is when the entire crew snorted cocaine to stay alert.

“I’m not sure if I would consider those the ‘glory days.’ You saw a large quantity of great classic films coming out of that time, but I don’t know if it was due to the amount of drugs everyone was ingesting at the time or creativity,” says Schroeder.

Currently, productions have insurance, union contracts and try to emulate a regular job environment. The only legal perks crews can use are coffee and energy drinks.

Despite a more normal job environment, Schroeder says he hasn’t gotten used to the hours. “Once you’re shooting at night, there’s kind of a euphoria for the first few days. It’s kind of neat and new and you get a jolt out of it but then it kind of wears on you,” he said.

Orozco agrees, saying it’s hard to get used to sleeping during daytime when everyone else is awake.

While it may seem like a glamorous job, these workers stay up all hours of the night for a paycheck and your entertainment. When the city starts to wake up, production crewmembers like Schroeder, Shore and Orozco head home after a long night’s work. That’s the fabulous life for someone who makes movies.

LISTEN: Interview with Clifford Sutrisno

Deep in Downtown L.A.
Shooting near the Los Angeles river has its perks: It's more secluded, it has a gritty feel to it, and productions don't need to hire as many traffic controllers. However, some are hesitant to shoot near the Los Angeles River because it can be dangerous.

More Stuff Equals More Headaches
As sets require more equipment to film, the size of film crews become larger. These crews take up more space on streets, causing lane closures and less parking. Some neighborhood residents react in unfriendly ways.

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Hollywood Park | Night at the Museum | Night Golf | Night Productions | Santa Monica Pier | Starry Night | Wig Out

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