There’s an old belief that folks who go into assistant directing will only live to about 60. There was some truth to that back in the olden days of Hollywood where you were expected to be a screaming ball of stress 24/7. The real truth is that your job as an AD has an expiration date, even now with modern medicine and union standards keeping stress levels and dangerous situations in check. This is not a job you will have when you’re 70.
That said, ADs definitely have a tendency to get lost in the health of their production and not the health of their own body. We run ourselves into the ground, worrying about everyone else and barely stop and grab a water bottle for ourselves. We forgo sleep in favor of finishing call sheets and confirming plans. We grab junk food just to have something in our stomachs, or worse yet, not eat at all because who the fuck has time for that? We do these things even though we know none of this helps us, and often hurts us both physically and mentally. If I’m lacking sleep or hungry, I’ll be your worst nightmare and that’s not good for anyone.
Having recently worked on a set with another person who was known to go to the hospital during production, I wanted to have a serious sit down with you all, especially you crazy younger AD kids who have yet to know what a stiff neck in the morning feels like at 4AM while your alarm is screaming at you and your iPhone is blowing up with texts from the producer about a location issue.
Let me state two things that are the absolute truth:
1. You are not invincible.
2. You are not getting younger.
Your health matters. Nothing happening on set is more important than your health. Without your health, you absolutely have nothing. No amount of money or work will make life better than having your health. As you get older, this will become more and more true. But I can tell you’re rolling your eyes right now (oh to be 23 again!)
But it’s so haaaaard to stay healthy on set with all these sick people and long hours! I’m going to eat this entire pizza and drink myself into an early grave!
Sure, that actually sounds great. Hell, I had pizza and beer today. There’s really nothing wrong with treating yourself after a long day on set. That said, we also shouldn’t be dismissive of our bodies just because we work in production. I swear, there’s simple things you can do to take charge of your health even when you’re in the death grips of production.
Listen to your body. It often screams at you.
We have a very complex system of nerves and hormones and sensors that tell us what’s happening internally every minute of the day. We’ve just become used to only paying attention to what we want to pay attention to. Things like constant back pain, fatigue despite getting proper sleep, random fevers, and digestive problems can all be indicative of larger health issues going on. Do not ignore these problems. Not only could you have a serious health issue, you are also taking yourself right out of your career. It’s hard to concentrate on what you’re doing and make solid decisions when your body is screaming at you. Don’t be dumb. Get regular physicals and pay attention to anything abnormal.
Exercise or just get off the couch and touch your toes once in a while.
Yeah. That’s right. Don’t spend your entire day off on your ass watching Netflix. Oh believe me, I know the desire to not move ever again is strong sometimes, but you will feel infinitely better just by stretching the muscles. The problem with working in production is that your body gets out of whack by doing repetitive motions all day without any variety. Some muscles get overused and others atrophy. Many ADs I know of (and myself in the past) had issues with feet and shin pain from walking constantly on hard concrete. Or wake up with stiff muscles that get sore throughout the day from just carrying our stress in certain parts. You don’t have to spend crazy amounts of time in the gym, or even break a sweat, but going for a nice evening stroll, or a quick jog, or even doing some light yoga before bed helps get all your muscles moving and gets the blood flowing to your organs. I personally maintain 4-5 vinyasa yoga sessions a week varying from 20 minutes to an hour depending on how much time I have that day. Sometimes I do a physical class and other times I just pull up a youtube video to follow along with. Any bit of physical activity outside of just working will help immensely.
SLEEP. OMFG SLEEP.
At all costs, get as much sleep as you possibly can. Forgo that True Detective marathon you were planning if you have to. I know this sucks, but when you’re working a feature, you’re going to cherish every minute you get with your eyes closed. Not only do we feel mentally better when we get proper sleep, our bodies get a chance to heal from the day. This is super important when you’re working long hours on your feet with barely enough time to urinate before they’re screaming for you to come back to set (do they even care about 10-1 anymore? It used to be a sacred time). You need sleep for your immune system to fight infection, your metabolism to regulate, and your muscles to repair any damage that may have been sustained while chasing after 13 background actors who went the wrong way and somehow ended up in the studio executive’s lobby. Sleep is your best friend, your set medic, and your bottle of bourbon all in one.
Eat your fucking veggies.
And I’m not talking about a watery iceburg salad or some mushy green beans out of a can. This is a real duh statement here, but vegetables are a very important part of your diet and it’s easy to forget them when you’re at catering staring at a four pans of grilled steak tips and BBQ ribs. Even vegetarians forget about vegetables on set. I’ve found myself running straight for the rice or pasta option and skipping right over the charred broccolini (I’ll never make that mistake again… mmmmmmm…) Not every set will have good vegetable options, sadly (producers, you can fix this!) but try to heap your plate with good, clean veggies whenever possible. Its ok to throw some meat and grains on there, but don’t make either of them the majority of your plate. As we all know, after lunch on set is prime time for yawns and the best boy passed out in the electric truck. The easiest way to combat the post lunch zombie apocalypse is to make veggies a priority at lunch. The nutrients will help keep your eyes open and not spike your blood sugar levels. They’re also vital to keeping your immune system strong, which you will be grateful for when the office PA starts sneezing all over the distro they just handed you and basecamp has quarantine tape from the actress who brought the black plague with her from the last production she worked on.
Maybe not drink so much damned soda.
Jesus lord do people love their soda. I’m guilty too. But it’s utterly trash. It’s disgusting if you really break it down. It’s basically taking water, pouring a half pound of sugar in it and blowing some bubbles into it. That’s what soda is. It’s diabetes in a can. And yet oh so refreshing. Especially on set. Or is it? The reality of soda, even on set where we all seem to think the rules for keeping healthy do not apply, is that it’s empty calories, it’s dehydrating, and it makes you tired quicker by crashing your blood sugar. And don’t get me started on digestion. And yes, this even applies to diet soda, which is the biggest load of bullshit since the invention of high fructose corn syrup. I worked with a guy who only drank diet coke (“I don’t drink water, it’s boring”) and then always wondered why he felt tired all the time. Your body can’t do anything with soda. Drink water. Drink tea. Hell, drink coffee. Just stay the fuck away from soda on set.
Don’t be patient zero on set.
Callsheets should also include “No infestation of any airborne disease without written consent from the producer or UPM” at the top. For. Real. Every show I’ve AD’d has had a plague sweep through the crew, taking them out one by one like bodies during the black death. I do remember having a particularly bad flu come upon me during one day on set. I woke up that morning feeling like sunshine and rainbows and left that day with the grips threatening to call an exorcist. There’s nothing fun about coughing while trying to call roll and there’s no greater fear than the fear of losing a lung as you echo a director’s “cut!”. I have so many stories of sick crew members but I always wonder why we poor bastards still show up even when our house is being sterilized per order of the CDC. Yes, we have to work, we have bills to pay, no one can do what we’re doing and therefore we need to be on set even though we’ll spend more time with the medic than with our own department. I’ve been sent home by a director because I was leaning against a wall slurring into a walkie and sweating through my t-shirt. If you feel like total and utter shit and you know you’ll make everyone else feel like total and utter shit, don’t go. Stay home, get rest, let yourself heal. Do yourself, and all of your crew and cast too, a favor.
CHILL THE FUCK OUT.
You know that feeling where you get so stressed out you can actually hear the blood flowing through the veins in your temples? So stressed that your heart feels like you’ve swallowed 14 cans of Red Bull in 2 minutes? No? Jeeze, how long have you been an AD? Seriously. ADing is that sort of stress almost from the moment you wake up and look at your phone to the moment you’re falling asleep that night and checking your phone one last time. Hell, you’ll have stress dreams about showing up to set naked and realizing you scheduled a huge stunt day when the stunt double isn’t available. It’s the 24 hour stress channel. You have an entire production riding on your back and it’s fine line between having a stroke over a scene change and looking “too relaxed” to the producers who then voice concern about your ability to AD. Finding that middle line is almost impossible. Almost. There are things you can do when you feel like your head is going to explode. You can excuse yourself to the bathroom, let your 2nd or 2nd 2nd keep eyes while you take a moment to reset your heart rate and think of a solution. This has been one of the more effective approaches, but it’s not always practical (you can’t AD from the bathroom). Sometimes just having your AD team there for you to bounce ideas off is just the trick to feel better. Venting helps too, but that should be done with caution… don’t say anything that will end with your foot in your mouth later. Breathing exercises are also helpful although you may feel silly trying to stable your breathing while 4 producers, a DP, and a director stare at you to make a decision. I think most importantly we need to just remind ourselves that 9 times out of 10, these situations will be laughed at over beers later. Put the situation in context. Was anyone killed? No? Ok, you’re doing fine. Take a deep breath and keep going. (Yes, I need to tell myself this constantly and I fail at it sometimes). Off set, you can do any number of things to release the day’s stress from working on a hobby you enjoy to massage, meditation, etc.
I do realize all of this advice is common sense, but we forget common sense often when we’re on film sets. Especially ADs. We’re fucking invincible, right? Nothing can hurt us! This is bullshit. When you start focusing on your health, the rest of your life follows. You make better decisions, you maintain a better mood, and you live a longer, more enjoyable life when you’re not spending it stressed, sick, and in pain. Just because the production demands a lot from you doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice your own well being.