When Marielle Heller started filming her Oscar-nominated film Can You Ever Forgive Me?, starring Melissa McCarthy, she was thrilled to shoot in New York City, where she lives with her young son and husband Jorma Taccone. But her initial elation faded as soon as she realised being near home made little to no difference in balancing her work and personal lives.
She was expected to work 14-to-18 hour days, had to leave home for set before her 2-year-old son woke up, and couldn’t return before he was asleep. “I may as well have been in another country,” she wrote in an email to Refinery29.
These hours made it so she was no longer willing to take just any job in Hollywood. “I am a mom of a young child and I don’t like disappearing for that [long],” she wrote.
Of all the roadblocks women in Hollywood have to contend with, the long and punishing hours on-set isn’t the most flashy, or the most talked about. There are no red-carpet pins calling to change them, or rousing Oscars speeches about them. And yet, it’s often the most immediate problem in a system that wasn’t set up for women, or their specific concerns. In some cases, that means motherhood, and the responsibility of caring for dependents at home. For others, it’s the financial strain caused by having to allocate resources to tasks you can’t perform yourself while on-set, like childcare or even laundry.
According to a study conducted by Stacy Smith of the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, 2019 was a turning point for women directors, who helmed 12 of the top 100 top-grossing movies of the year (10.6%). In 2020, five of the biggest and most anticipated studio blockbusters will be directed by women. But as women leading sets becomes the norm, rethinking how the system works is an even more crucial element for them to succeed. All of which begs the question: What would Hollywood look like if women designed shooting hours?
Heller shared her concerns with McCarthy — also a mother — who told her about French hours, named so because it’s the schedule most commonly used by French film productions. (Think of it as how to make a movie like a cool French girl.) On regular sets, production shuts down for lunch, which means that momentum is lost and one has to account for delays to start it all back up again. If everyone on set agrees, French hours eliminate that lunch break in favour of offering food throughout the day, with everyone grabbing something when they can. It compresses a 14-hour work day into roughly 10 hours, which, for Heller, meant that she could get home in time to see her kid.
On her next film, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Heller used French hours roughly 70% of the time and was astonished they got as much done in 10 hours as they usually did in 14. More important, “I saw my kid (sometimes twice in a day!),” she wrote, “and I felt better knowing everyone else on our crew could see theirs, too.”
Even so, French hours aren’t a cure-all. Director Cathy Yan, who used them on her Harley Quinn spinoff, Birds of Prey, pointed out that skipping lunch wasn’t always effective in curtailing the workday for some of her stars.
“Margot [Robbie] had three hours of makeup every day,” Yan said during a visit to the Refinery29 office earlier this month. “Jurnee [Smollet-Bell) had to put on a wig and do her makeup, so they were often coming in earlier than crew call and then leaving later, and then [add] all the people that have to support that as well.”
The overarching problem is that Hollywood has been built for male creatives, who though they might have responsibilities and obligations at home can rely on others to fulfill them without being judged like a woman might be for doing so. Film sets are still hardcore macho environments and reward those those who can prove that they’re willing to go longer, harder and tougher than anyone else.
“We’re told these obscene, brutal hours are the only way to get a movie made,” Heller said. “That just isn’t the case, at least not in my experience. I’d love to see more women behind the camera. Since statistics show us many women leave the workforce to raise children, we can’t ignore that this is part of the issue. Adjusting the hours is one way we could actually create a world in which women can work on a set and balance the rest of their lives. We shouldn’t have to choose between the two.”
“We’re entering into a system that’s built for others,” said June Diane Raphael, who plays Jane Fonda’s daughter Brianna on Netflix’s Grace and Frankie. In 2018, she co-founded The Jane Club with producer Jess Zaino, to provide women — and especially mothers — with a space to better integrate their home and work lives.
“To even start this conversation, there needs to be a valuing of all types of work,” Raphael added. “Women disproportionately do the work of caretaking, which is usually unpaid. We need to build new institutions that were made with women in mind. I’ve always been trying to fit into spaces that were not built to support me, and the fullness of my life. The Jane Club is really built with women in mind, and honouring all that they do, both paid and unpaid.”
“Daycare and childcare facilities operate under ‘normal work hours,’ which is like 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.or 8 a.m to 7 p.m., five days a week,” director Julia Hart said in a phone interview with Refinery29. While filming her first movie, Miss Stevens, which she co-wrote with husband Jordan Horowtiz, the couple had to hire someone to be home with their 10-month-old son. By the time the movie wrapped, they had spent more on childcare than they were being paid to do their jobs.
“It was the kind of investment that we decided to make in our careers,” she said. “But that’s a privilege.”
For her next film — the musical Stargirl, set to premiere on Disney+ on March 13 — Hart negotiated language in her contract for the studio to pay for partial childcare while she was on location in New Mexico. The traditional production schedule for a musical requires a six-day work week: five days of shooting, and one extra day of rehearsal. Hart, who was six months pregnant with her second child when she was hired, asked Disney to provide childcare on that sixth day, when her regular childcare providers were unavailable. And to her surprise, they agreed.
“There are certain stories that are so important for women and mothers to tell,” Hart said. “We need to figure out a better system to allow them to do that, and for it not to be something that’s unattractive to the studios. It’s not something they have to ‘deal with,’ so much as something they should feel good about providing.”
The long and unusual work hours required to make a movie aren’t just a concern for women who already are mothers — they also act as a deterrent for many women who are thinking about whether or not they even want to have kids, and what that might mean for their careers. Yan recalled watching Smolett-Bell, whose son was 2 when she filmed Birds of Prey, juggle her responsibilities as a parent with her day job. It made her question whether that’s a challenge she’s ready to take on. “A movie is a year and a half of my life at least,” she said. “What's a good time to try to do anything else? And it's not just childbearing, it's literally anything. It's just such an all consuming job.”
According to Hart, getting men on board is a crucial element needed to move the conversation forward. Women aren’t the only ones juggling caretaking concerns, but men rarely speak up about it. If men in similar situations used their platforms to amplify their voices, everyone would benefit.
“There is a cultural belief — a fallacy — that men don’t take care of babies, or aren’t responsible for taking care of babies,” Hart says.”Because men are still by and large in charge, it would be helpful if they spoke up more about this kind of stuff.”
Early on in her career working as a screenwriter, Hart often heard her male peers boasting about how many hours they worked. “Before I had kids I was working like 12 hours a day too,” she said. ”But guess what, I’m still doing the same amount of work in a lot less time.”
Gloria Calderon-Kellett, a showrunner for One Day At A Time (which premieres on PopTV on March 24 after a fraught Netflix cancellation), also emphasised the need for organisation and planning as key elements for achieving work-life balance for everyone on-set.
“A lot of it is the boss taking the initiative to do the homework before walking in the room, so that you can best utilise the skills of your staff,” she said.”On day one, [Mike Royce and I] made a blanket statement to our staff: When you’re here, be 100% here, but if you need to go a kid’s soccer game, take your dad to the doctor, your cat needs surgery, whatever your thing is, you’ll always get to to go to that thing.”
“I’ve definitely been on shows where we were there until 2 in the morning, and I don’t know that it made things any more spectacular,” she added. “If I plan really, really well, all my department heads know what costumes I need, what props I need, what sets I need. We’re not sending out PAs in the middle of the night to find a flaming sword.”