Appearing on Sky News again earlier this week made me hark back to my days working on movies. Whilst live news is about as far removed from multi-million dollar feature films as you can get, being amongst broadcasting folk once more brought back some memories: it wasn’t, after all, that long ago that I had a career in the film industry.
I remember one of the movies I worked on had a night-shoot during December. There’s nothing like freezing your tits off outside all night to keep you awake while you are on some fuck-cold scrap heap of a set. As a Runner, one of my tasks was to look after the ‘talent’ – the performers – and ensure all their needs were taken care of. Generally the actors were a decent bunch whose requests were easily catered for and for which they expressed their gratitude; but sadly, many of them could also behave like total arseholes.
One night there was this guy – a leading Hollywood player if you must know, (and he certainly knew) – who demanded a cappuccino. It had to be just so, served in his special Starbucks travel mug (which, at 3am in the morning, could not be found anywhere on the studio lot for love or money) and delivered directly to him. I attempted to brew him the best coffee I could (when Stanley Tucci insists you must have Italian heritage because he loves your coffee so much, I think it’s safe to say you make damn fine coffee) and I brought it to the edge of set, approaching gently, so as not to get in his way.
“Here’s your coffee, [name deleted to protect the guilty]” I offered, as unobtrusively as I could, handing him the (hastily procured replacement) Starbucks travel mug.
Without even looking at me, he grabbed it from my hand and then turned away to face his chair. I made to leave, but before I could get far, he half-shifted towards me and hissed, waving a hand in my direction, “Wait.”
I did, standing there like a lemon, whilst he took a sip from his coffee – evidently to test if it was up to his standards.
“It's OK,” he said a moment later, gesturing me to leave, his hand casting me off like he was batting an annoying fly. I backed up again and made my way back to the office.
At no point had this man even given me eye contact, let alone said “thank you”. I had been polite and friendly: did I not deserve the same in return? I wished I could challenge him over his rudeness and brash manner, but I dared not: if I had said a word, he would have made a complaint, and, no doubt, I would have been fired.
On a film set there is a horrid climate of fear; it’s the ever-present knowledge that if you say the wrong thing, or even just get on the wrong side of someone – especially the talent – you will lose your job. If you’re a Runner, you soon learn your place: you smile, shut up, and don’t step out of line, ever. Perhaps that’s why many Runners spit in the cups of tea they deliver: it’s their one way of getting back at the humiliation. (I never did, because that’s not my style, but I witnessed others doing it. Frequently.)
On every movie I worked on, I was always reminded that there were 100 other people waiting in line to fill my position; so I should be happy to be there and never talk back. And I never did, even if I was treated like shit or exploited; or an actor told me to “fuck off”; or they made a complaint when their lunch was five minutes late. People ignore Runners because they have no power or status, but without them, everything would fall apart: they really are the cogs and oil in the machine that makes it all work.
I might be in the (somewhat privileged) position of being the ‘talent’ now, and thus no longer in fear of losing my job, but I still feel a sense of solidarity with the folk that work in a similar role to the one I used to have. When a Runner escorts me to a Green Room and asks me if they can get me a cup of coffee, I feel most uncomfortable: whilst I have two working legs and can get my own refreshments, I will. Because I’ve been there, because I’ve done it, I want to try my hardest to show Runners that they are valued – by me at least.
Given I’ll be doing a lot more broadcasting work this year, I dread that I might become one of those arseholes who demands coffee at 3am and who forgets that the person who delivered it has been working for 17 hours straight, hasn’t slept for 21 hours and who hasn’t sat down, or eaten, all day; not to mention who will risk their life, yet again, when they drive home exhausted. I sincerely hope I don’t forget just how tough it is, being on that bottom rung. But if I do, and I one day start screaming abuse at the poor soul who’s been kind enough to offer me a coffee, then to the Runner who brings me my drink: you’re welcome to spit in it, because god knows I’ll deserve it.