Horror Stories from Working on a Film Set

"I've been shot in the face four times with a flamethrower, and I don't have any visible scars to speak of."

by Jesse Donaldson
Aug 2 2017, 7:51pm

Being on fire: sometimes part of the job. Image via Ghost Rider

At one point or another, we've probably all wanted to be in the movies. Who hasn't hunkered down in front of the latest superhero reboot and casually thought: I could do that?

A 2012 LinkedIn survey found that many people have given it more than a passing thought; "actor" is tied for tenth place in its list of top-ten "dream jobs" (tied with the equally realistic "Olympic athlete.") And it makes sense. The film and TV business is regularly portrayed as a dream come true. In interviews, celebrities gush about how privileged they are, and late-night television segments regularly portray on-set life as a never-ending parade of hilarity and glamor.

But in reality, film and TV sets aren't easy places to work.

Productions can shoot six to seven days a week, 12 to 18 hours a day (or more) for months on end, employing thousands of people across multiple countries, all of them subject to quick daily turnarounds, which means everyone's operating on very little sleep. Any delay or screw-up could result in financial losses greater than what you or I make in a year. Then there's diplomatic snafus, actors' egos, creative conflicts, and a rate of fatal accidents that's proportionately higher than law enforcement or mining. And that pressure can be felt all the way down the ladder, from DOPs to camera operators and sound techs, even down to PAs and parking lot attendants—a group of whom recently sued five major studios for working conditions so bad that they were literally pissing their pants on set.

Collected below are stories from the people behind the scenes—actors, stunt performers, hair and makeup artists, and camera operators. They tell us about brow beatings, hazings, temper tantrums, bad behavior, and literally putting out fires. They make LinkedIn's tenth favorite dream job sound like a bit of a nightmare.

Kevin, Stunt Department

I've been in the business for 17 years—acting credits, sound department, writer, director, producer, editor, transport, whatever. I've got probably more than 80 stunt credits on IMDB. And it's the furthest thing from glamorous. My specialty is fire stunts. I actually held the world record for longest time spent on fire for awhile—three minutes [plus]. I ended up getting burned pretty bad on that record.

Last year, I was doing an air-ramp stunt as part of this big explosion. Maybe it was a gross oversight on my part, but I planned my own safety. I was the only guy who was going to be near it. I've got tons of experience with fire. I've set probably 150 to 200 people on fire. I've been on fire at least 200 times in my life. I've been shot in the face four times with a flamethrower, and I don't have any visible scars to speak of. I've done it so many times; you eventually achieve a new level of comfort with that discomfort. But what I didn't think about was how many rehearsals it would take beforehand. I got a bit sweaty, and salt breaks down the fire gel that keeps you from getting burned. When we went to shoot, I was running and holding a machine gun. Basically, I should have worn gloves because the sleeve of my coat was rubbing on my wrist, and it rubbed off the gel.

This explosion goes off, and I was on fire for three minutes. Suddenly, for this two- or three-second beat, I thought, This is the hottest I've ever been in my life. I ended up with a burn that wrapped around my entire wrist. It was the biggest blister I've ever seen in my life. After the paramedics left, I went to my buddy and said: "Hey, can you help me take my coat off?" "Yeah. Why?" That's when I told him, "Well, I'm pretty sure I can't move my wrists right now."

A lot of the time, the job is saying you're OK. "You OK?" "Yeah." "OK, let's go again." You're really thinking, Ah, fuck. I wish I hadn't said I was OK. I mean, it's not like we're being cavalier. But if the production is spending $80,000 an hour, do you want to be the guy who's holding it up?

I had a buddy who worked for two weeks with two broken wrists. He was fine in the end, but as soon as the job was done, he was like: "I guess I better go get this checked out." He was afraid of disappointing his boss. Or just being known as a pussy in the community. We're a bunch of tough guys. We're not crazy or anything like that. It just sounds like it sometimes.

Chris, Camera Operator

When I first got started, I got hazed by the camera department pretty badly.

I've been in the business for 12 years, and I've seen a lot of shit go down. I started in high school, volunteering in the camera department and learning how to load film. I got into a camera trainee program. I've worked on a bit of everything—Wolverine, Watchmen, X-Men. People are way nicer than they used to be. It used to be scary. Especially back when we were working with film. If you fucked up, you might never work again. Camera trainees used to get it especially bad. I remember once I was sent to make a sandwich for a camera operator. He took one look at it, slapped it out of my hands onto the ground, and said: "You call that a fucking sandwich?"

In film, every department is sort of like different divisions in the army. A lot of the early camera operators after World War II, they were ex-military guys, and that philosophy has held strong. There's a lot of jaded energy. There's a lot of drugs, too—on one show, we had a 16mm film tin in the darkroom that was full of cocaine, and one of the first assistants would go in and knock on the door and yell, "You've got three seconds to close that mag!" He'd do his bump and go back to set.

Back then, camera men were pretty bad for hazing. I was in the darkroom loading some film—I was a camera trainee at that point. Toward the end of my training period, a first and second assistant grabbed a canister of compressed air, poked a hole in it, opened the darkroom door, threw it in, and held the door shut. This thing ricocheted around the fucking darkroom, hitting me multiple times, really hard. The propellant that comes out is really cold, so it gives you frostbite. There's also an inhalant in there that people used to abuse, so they started putting some kind of compound in there that makes it taste like shit. So, it's ice-cold, ricocheting around the darkroom, hitting me, and it also smells horrible. When they finally let me out, I was choking and just ran to the back of the camera truck. I puked so hard into a big garbage can while this PA just watched me.

I don't know how many other guys have had that happen to them. I haven't met anybody else that had it done to them. But these guys knew how to do it. They had a the hole-punch ready. Things have changed a bit with the new generation, but I got in at the end of the sort of old-school philosophy. Anyone lower than you wasn't considered a human.

Caroline, Hair and Makeup Artist

I was working on this miniseries last summer. One morning, one of the actors comes in, and he's totally wasted. This guy has a reputation, you'd recognize him. The entire day was about his character. He's in every single scene, all day long. First of all, he showed up 45 minutes late. And in the makeup trailer, he was a fucking hot mess right from the beginning. So we finally manage to get his hair and makeup done, and he goes to his trailer and falls asleep. He ends up being another hour late to set because it took them so long to wake him up again.

So we're already super far behind. The scene takes place in a hospital. And during the scene, he's supposed to be having this conversation, but before every single take, he kept falling asleep. I remember sitting at the monitors and thinking, What the hell is going on? Is he fucking sleeping? He's wasn't saying anything; he's wasn't saying his lines. Finally, it got so bad that we couldn't keep him awake. In the end, we had to call an ambulance to production to get this fucking actor looked at. We had to throw out the whole day.

We later found out that the night before he had gone out and brought eight or nine people back to his hotel at 2 AM. He had been partying until 7 or 8 AM. That kind of shit gets around. Especially in the era of Facebook and Instagram; it's such a liability. On an average set, every hour is worth tens of thousands of dollars. If you fuck up a whole day, you've just wasted so much money. Especially because they had filmed stuff in the morning. The entire day had to be reshot.

It's such a waste of time. We all come in early, we've all spent a day preparing, and we're doing our jobs. And some actors, they think they're irreplaceable. Because they're the face of it, they think that they can get away with whatever they want. And we let them think that's how it is. But trust me: People get recast all the time.

Brad, Grip

The worst shoot of my life was only 12 days, but it was absolute hell on Earth. This was a low-budget feature early in my career. It was at this old mental hospital. It was shitty, rainy, Vancouver weather. It had a 90s Hollywood A-lister starring, and it was directed by this guy who is one of the worst human beings I've ever met. He was such a megalomaniac asshole. For example, he went around and took a shit in every actor's trailer on purpose. He would leave the door open so they could watch him doing it.

It was a bare-bones crew, so the whole grip department was only three guys. I was ahead pre-rigging sets, running back and forth, trying to scavenge gear, and tearing down sets, all by myself in this mental hospital in the middle of the night, by headlamp. Because we only had one generator.

It was a $3 million feature, and the A-Lister took $300,000 of it, for three days. But we didn't know which days. So we had to light everything and just leave all the gear in the air. Then the production manager just got a phone call one night that said: "He's in the air. He'll be there in three hours. Meet him at the airport with an envelope with $5,000 in it, or he's turning around and getting on another plane." And this was as he was arriving. We had a whole other day scheduled.

When he gets there, he didn't realize we were shooting nights. He said, "I don't shoot nights." So they had to grease him again. He also didn't memorize his lines. We had to cue card everything. He had to have his own room where he would just sit and meditate and drink this weird-smelling tea. He wasn't a prima donna; he just didn't give a shit about the production. He probably does a lot of these drop-in things on low-budget movies ($300,000 for three days). He wouldn't make eye contact and didn't give a shit who was who. When he got there, we just jumped from set to set and shot all his lines. Then three days later, he left, and we shot the rest of the movie.

Kevin, Stunt Department

I tend to be pretty accommodating in film. Sometimes being accommodating can be painful.

I was working on Final Destination 5, and I ended up doubling this guy who gets killed by a giant wrench. It's sitting on top of a machine, and it falls and gets spit across the room and hits him across the eyes. They were going to CGI the wrench, but they wanted a shot of him lying on the ground with this wrench embedded in his head. He didn't want to be there, and I was already there. So they put me on contract, and I said: "Sure. No problem." And of course, it involved a prosthetic. Beforehand, they told me it would take a few hours to apply. And they said: "We do apologize. The prosthetic was built to fit his face perfectly, so it might not fit your face perfectly."

Well, it couldn't have been any further from fitting me. It was horrifically uncomfortable.
And I'm thinking: I'm getting paid well. I'm agreeable. I'll just suck it up. But it was awful; the prosthetic was squeezing my head and pushing on my eyes. I could see but not very well. Every time they were putting blood into the rig, they poked me in the eyes. The prosthetic extended out like a foot from either side of my head.

After they put it on, they didn't need me for nine hours. All our trailers are very close together, with narrow doors, so getting through any doors I was like a moose trying to get into a phone booth. Just to take a piss, I had to turn sideways to get into the urinal and piss 90 degrees across my right side. And it gave me the most insane migraine. I ended up having to pop a couple of Advil and sleep for a number of hours. And I still woke up with a splitting headache. I ended up wearing it for 12 hours. Believe me, I couldn't get that thing off fast enough.

*Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.