I’m on the front page of the Los Angeles Sunday Times today.
Two years ago almost to the day I made the front page of the Detroit Free Press. At that time, I had sold a show to Discovery Channel and was about to begin shooting it in Detroit when the city shut it down. The series would have followed the stray dogs running loose (there are over 50,000 of them), and Detroit felt that the program would have shown the city in a negative light. In fact, when the Mayor’s Office shut down production, they said “we know this is a huge problem; we just don’t want anyone else to know about it.”
I was so frustrated with that ignorant attitude that I founded a non-profit called Detroit Dog Rescue to bring even more attention to the stray dog issue, with or without a TV show. I felt like I had to do something, anything, to try and solve the problem. In two years, DDR went on to succeed beyond anything I could have imagined. The first step to making a difference was speaking up.
I feel exactly the same way now.
I love my job, but my business is crazy.
I’m a reality TV producer and I specialize in extreme or dangerous productions. I’ve been producing these shows (“Deadliest Catch,” “Whale Wars,” “Storm Chasers,” “Eco-Challenge,” “Bamazon”) for over 15 years now and have loved every miserable minute of it. I knowingly accept the risks that come from immersing myself fully in a dangerous situation in order to film it. I love the adrenaline, and I love working with my extended family — the crew — on locations far and wide. I’ve seen and done things that many people can only dream about and I am incredibly lucky to have found a career that I love. And in 15 years I had never even thought about speaking up publicly until now.
I was badly injured on the job while filming a TV show called “Bamazon” in Guyana. I’ve gotten hurt before — I fell through a hatch while filming “Deadliest Catch.” I tore a ligament in my knee while trekking across Antarctica shooting a sizzle reel. I’ve gotten banged up and bruised. Every other time I’ve simply gotten patched up and gone back to work. After all, you’d have to be a special kind of moron to complain about getting hurt on a crab fishing boat when you already know that the injury rate for crab fishermen is 100%. I had never even filed a Workman’s Comp claim before, as it’s usually easier (as an independent contractor) to simply tough it out and get seen by your normal doctor once production wraps.
Here’s what different about this time.
On “Bamazon,” the star of the show was given complete control of the production’s budget. A person with ZERO experience in producing a dangerous television program in an extraordinarily inhospitable environment was given $1.6 million to handle the production logistics. And although I was the showrunner, and I asked all the right questions prior to taking on the job, I was not allowed to see the budget and I was forbidden from checking up on whether he had followed through on what he promised.
Here’s an example: this star tells History Channel and Red Line Films (the production company) that he has procured boats for the production in order to travel on the river to and from filming locations. But he doesn’t reveal that he brought the boats over from Alabama and that they are the wrong kind for the rapidly-dropping river where filming takes place. Nor does he tell production that the boats have no lights. Or that the boat driver he has hired has only one eye, and had already been involved in a prior near-fatal accident when he sheared off the top of one of the boats because he didn’t see a wire stretched across the river.
There’s a difference, as a producer, between accepting the risks that come with the territory, and wading blindly into a morass of willful negligence.
Another example. The star tells History Channel that the series — which follows redneck construction workers from Alabama gold mining in Guyana — uses ecological mining techniques that follow strict environmental standards. But off camera he dumps mercury in the water less than 100 yards upstream from a village.
This person, who was paid by History Channel and vetted by Red Line Films, was in charge of all of the production safety, medical, transportation, food, water, accommodations and supplies. Usually a team of experts is brought on to handle these logistics. Ideally, the production company would work with skilled logistics veterans and/or local “fixers” ahead of filming to ensure that the production will run smoothly. We the crew were put in the unique position of relying on the star of the show — someone we were hired to make “look good” over the course of the series — to handle every aspect of the crew’s needs.
As a showrunner, I’m brought on after a concept has been sold and the “cast,” as well as many of the pre-filming logistics (including insurance, safety, evacuation plan, risk assessment, etc.), are already in place. The star had already received his money and had been reporting back to the production company that all the details were handled. I came on board three weeks prior to shooting. My job was to go to the location, film the series, and then take it through the edit in post production once we finish filming. I’m the one in charge of the production crew — in this case 16 people on location in Guyana.
The part that makes me sick, and the reason I’m on the front page of the paper today going public with my story, is that I saw this coming. The star of “Bamazon” had already been dropping the ball left and right over the course of the production. He didn’t bother with a risk assessment or put together a medical evacuation plan until the day before we left the U.S. to begin filming. Once on location he had left two of my camera crews stranded in the jungle without food, water or transportation for several days. As a producer, I did the “right thing.” I let the production company and History know that we were certainly not getting $1.6 million worth of logistics on location. In fact, we were limping along with desultory safety protocols, disgusting living conditions, malfunctioning ATV’s and unreliable local labor. Yet there were five flat screen TV’s and a satellite feed in the star’s living quarters. So the money was being spent somewhere, but certainly not on the production.
One thing I wish the article had made clear was that those of us who make these kinds of shows — the producers, camera operators, audio engineers, AC’s, AD’s, AP’s, PA’s — accept the risks of the production with the understanding that IF something goes wrong, there is a plan in place. And that is the biggest difference between every other show I’ve done and “Bamazon.” I agree with Thom Beers and his quotes in today’s article — we get paid very well for what we do. I worked for him and he takes safety very seriously; if something goes wrong on “Catch,” you know that someone is going to make an effort to fix it or find you. But not every production company runs their shows like Thom, and when you jump from show to show as a freelancer, every new series has the potential for disaster while a newbie production company tries to figure it out on the fly. I am currently paying for this production company’s learning curve with my health.
For me, in Guyana, something did go horribly wrong on that night. When it did, we found out that there was no safety plan whatsoever. We as a crew had been lied to and told that there were protocols in place in order to meet a production schedule. We had been sent into the jungle with no safety net.
The evacuation plan that the star had submitted turned out to be falsified. He had simply cut and pasted names and numbers from the web — never bothering to line up hospitals, medical evacuation, transportation out of the jungle or proper medical care. He had promised that there were Medivac helicopters on standby. He put in fake names and numbers of local hospitals, counting on the fact that we would never need them. And History and Red Line chose to ignore all the correspondence regarding his incompetence, opting instead to “hope for the best.”
I was hurt in two back to back boat accidents on a pitch-black night traveling in a boat hired by the star of the show and under his control. During the first accident we hit a rock going about 40mph. Everyone was thrown from the boat. I was knocked unconscious and pulled out of the water by my cameraman. We continued on, and about 45 minutes later we hit a half-submerged tree. After we finally made it back to camp, it took almost 19 hours before I could get to a clinic. And once I was evacuated — taken illegally over the border by a rogue mining helicopter to Venezuela — I had to drive around the streets of Venezuela with a concussion, bruised ribs and a badly torn shoulder trying to find a clinic on my own to check into. At the roadside clinic where I ended up (which had no MRI machine or other modern medical equipment) I had to mime my injuries and symptoms to a Spanish-speaking staff. I was sent back to work and I finished the shoot.
It was not until I got back to New York and saw a proper doctor that I found out I had torn my shoulder in at least three places.
Five days after I told my boss — the owner of Red Line Films — that I would likely need surgery, I was fired.
I went on to have shoulder surgery, and the surgeon fixed five different tears in my shoulder, including my rotator cuff and biceps which had both been torn in half.
As I write this now, with a fresh new year ahead of me and eight weeks of recovery behind me, I’m contemplating the best way to move forward. I feel very strongly — just like I did in Detroit — that the only way to make a difference is to speak up. We sign these ridiculous non-disclosure agreements in our business and, as freelancers, we can never take a chance on pissing off a former employer. It’s just too easy for those in charge to blame the crew rather than taking responsibility for their own mistakes during production. After all, they never see us again and they can churn out show after show after show.
I’m frankly sick of it. I don’t know what the solution is, except that I feel I must tell my story and hope that people support me. I’m a behind-the-scenes person and it makes me nervous to go public. In the past, I have signed NDA’s that forbid me from speaking to my co-workers about the very show we were in the middle of producing! We have no-one to complain to if things are going wrong, and then no recourse once something actually happens.
More than anything, I just want to get better and go back to work. I struggle through three PT sessions every week, trying to lift my arm an inch at a time, and I wonder how long it will take before I can wear a backpack or carry equipment or trek for long distances. I miss the feeling of packing my bag and getting ready for a new adventure, and then the pride I feel when I see my hard work air on television. Sitting and staring pensively out my front window is not my style.