Accidents on the set are not only frightening but worrisome for the safety of all involved, they upset a production’s equilibrium. A good production manager, producer and/or AD will handle the accident efficiently. If a serious accident should take place, inevitably the film commissioner will get a call from the press not to mention his/her ‘higher-ups’. Blame will always be looking for a home, and the film commissioner must be prepared for this eventuality. Whether the accident has to do with a stunt, an equipment failure, or a random act, professional attention to the injured individual is, of course, first and foremost, while simultaneously securing the safety of the entire crew and the public. Once that is in process and the situation is stabilized, it is advisable to connect directly with the producer to determine what happened.
The more you are informed, the better you can handle the situation. It is a good idea to also talk to the publicist on the film (or if there isn’t one, whoever deals with the press). The production company or studio will have their own talking points for the media and you need to know what they are planning to say. If possible, stick to the critical information – that the individual is being treated and the incident is being looked into. Remember: there is a high likelihood that legal action that will be taken in this situation and any public statements you make could influence those proceedings, let alone draw you into a lawsuit.
As a film commissioner, you want to make sure that safety protocol is being followed. Most often (at least on union films) there is a set medic who will be the first one to deal with injuries. Fire and Police, if not present for the filming itself (and if a major stunt is taking place, proper safety personnel and even an ambulance should be standing by) need to be on scene as soon as possible. If it is a studio production, there is a production safety executive at each of the studios who is immediately informed and if not present, may be dispatched to the location.
The sudden illness of a lead actor or the director can also mean shutting down production. In the case of an actor, the AD and UPM will attempt to move up scenes that do not require that actor. In the case of the director, there is nothing to do but to shut down. On studio productions and for insurance purposes, prior to production the major actors, director, and DP will often have a physical to determine that they are in peak health. A prepared film commissioner will have a list of doctors, dentists, chiropractors, and even specialists that practice locally and who are open to making set visits and/or taking patients on off hours. A prepared production coordinator will also have such a list, if local, and if on-location, will be looking for these contacts from the film office.
Not a crisis but rather a production problem, location disturbances can also halt production and will often be brought to the film commissioner for resolution. This can be anything from a greedy neighbor threatening to blast music unless paid off; a local fire chief enforcing a code that no one has ever heard of; or a news helicopter flying in circles over the set, making sound recording impossible.
As a government designee, it is important to think like a mediator. Taking sides can become a tremendous problem and result in legal issues. And there are always two sides to every story. Listening to both complaints is a good first step. If there is a police detail working on set, they may be helpful to get to the bottom of the problem. In the case of a resident trying to hold up the company for cash, being talked to by the film commissioner or the police will often get a better result than a set production assistant. And in many cases, things are not as they initially seemed. Best bet: don’t make any assumptions; look for compromise; stay focused on defusing the situation.
Any crisis that’s not a safety hazard can usually be managed and dealt with, if not completely overcome. There are some imponderables: I once had a pregnant actress turn up for a decidedly non-pregnant role. She had neglected to tell us that she was with child during her audition, but was clearly showing by the time she appeared on set. She played a waitress, and spent most of the film shielded by a large white apron and staying safely behind the counter.
Some cast members need special handling. One prominent actor (whose casting helped guarantee the financing) showed up for work without ever having read the script, and inquired of the second AD (assigned to shepherd him through production) just what the film was about. The actor learned his lines with his assistant the morning of each day’s work. This meant at least they were fresh in their delivery.
Crew members also make mistakes, from a soft- or out-of-focus shot on the part of the camera crew, to a lapse in a matching shot by the script supervisor. Sometimes insurance will cover these mistakes, but deductibles are never inexpensive, and the studio/financier’s accounting department will usually balk at actually exercising the insurance policy. Making mistakes is human, and productions always survive them. It’s best not to dwell on what is out of one’s control.
Dealing with the press can be one of the toughest parts of a film commissioner’s job. So often, the press is relentless in their pursuit of confidential information: Is the film coming? Who’s in it? Where are they shooting? Where are the stars staying? Obviously, you cannot supply this information until or unless the production wants to make the information public. It can be frustrating to see wrong or premature information hit the local television news program or the papers, but as long as you are not at fault, there is little that you can do about it. Some commissioners are fortunate and have the buy-in of the local press who will honor their position, but that is not the norm.
If there is a unit publicist on the production, this person typically becomes your point of contact for all things press-related. A cooperative publicist will readily take your calls and handle any press inquiries that you receive.