The tragic death of actor and fitness guru, Greg Plitt has compelled me to write. Let me first offer my sincerest condolences to his family, friends and co-workers. Mr. Plitt was filming on railroad tracks in Los Angeles when he was killed recently.
Filmmaking is inherently dangerous, but it doesn't have to be. The problem is less about the actual dangers and more about a mindset. When I teach my students at USC, I always talk to them about "The Snow Globe Effect" and "Cinematic Immunity."
I once had a small group of students who wanted to do a documentary about a man who planted vegetables in a small urban public garden. The man did his planting at two in the morning. His plant plot was located in a gang-ravished neighborhood, under an overpass. I insisted the students have uniformed police with them. It was the only way I would consent. They hired two off-duty, uniformed Los Angeles Police and went away to film. Sometime in the middle of the night, two cars filled with gang members cruised by, saw the police and thought better of any attempted interference. The students weren't doing anything dangerous. The danger was in their isolation and their inability to accept the potential dangers of the real world.
That is an example of the snow globe effect.
So what exactly is the snow globe effect?
You have time to pass in an airport. You wander into the gift shop and there on a shelf is a little, idyllic, tableau encased in a little liquid globe. If you turn it upside down and then back again it may even snow inside. Impressed and momentarily enchanted, you buy it. But as you step back out onto the main concourse, the globe slips from your fingers and smashes on the floor. Gone are the idyllic tableau and the gently falling snowflakes. Why? Because:
THE REAL WORLD TAKES PRECEDENCE OVER ALL ELSE.
Cinematic immunity is the negative near-cousin and the logical extension of the snow globe effect. Cinematic immunity is the dangerous and inaccurate belief that because you are making a movie the real world can be held at bay.
I was the first producer of the long running prime time hit drama, Knots Landing. We filmed part of the shows in a cul-de-sac in Granada Hills. There was a house outside the cul-de-sac that faced our primary locations.
One day our cinematographer decided the electricians should place a light right in front of the house opposite the cul-de-sac. The homeowner's car was parked right where the D.P. thought his light should go. So what did the electricians do? They broke into the guy's car and rolled it down the hill. The only problem was, the homeowner saw them do it and called the cops. I spent a long and painful morning in the local councilman's office begging him not to revoke our permits to film.
When confronted about their behavior, the electricians simply explained it away by saying they needed to get the shot.
I have worked with directors who walked in front of moving traffic because they wanted to give last-minute directions to an actor.
I have seen grown men, professionals with years of experience in the film business, standing in an active bus lane because they are tech scouting a location.
I have to admit, even I have fallen victim to the sultry sirens of cinematic immunity. It was early on in my career. We were filming a movie on a street in Greenwich Village, New York. We were getting ready to roll camera when the director yelled: "Okay. Hold the traffic." Without hesitating I rushed into the streets, arms waving, hands gesturing for traffic to stop, right into the path of a large truck. The driver jammed on his brakes and the truck stopped about an inch from my nose.
Any of you remember the movie, North by Northwest?
In it Cary Grant flags down a truck, an eighteen-wheeler, in the middle of the open plains. When the truck stops an inch from his nose, the logo on the truck reads: "Peterbilt."
Mine said: "Franks Plumbing Supplies."
After we got the shot, the director called me over and said: "What were you thinking? You could have gotten yourself killed?" I replied, "You are right, sir. I will never do that again." But all the while, the voice in my head was yelling: "Hey man, we're making a movie."
So, I won't pontificate about permits and permission. I won't lecture about the lack of common sense involved in filming on an active stretch of rail. I simply beseech those of you who think you are above the mundane world of reason and reality to remember:
Cinematic immunity is a myth, the snow globe will not protect you forever and the real world will always predominate.