Do you want to know the quickest and easiest way to start a fight on a film or TV set? Muck about with the catering.
Catering is the lynch pin on which all productions hinge on. Sure, it helps to have a fabulous set, a great camera and sound crew, wonderful costumes and performers of the highest calibre but you fail to feed them properly and you will have a riot on your hands. I’m not exaggerating or making this up either: I’ve seen whole film crews down tools and threatening to quit over bad catering on a film shoot.
Filming days are long; you’re expected to arrive at 8am and, in return, the crew are expected to be fed because you’ve roused them out of bed before 6am and their blood sugar is low. Maybe they’ve managed to get a bite to eat on the way to work, but don’t rely on it. If the call time is 9am, fine, you can skip the on set breakfast as that extra hour is on their time, not yours, but you call them in at 8 or even earlier, feed them. If you’re filming in February (most British crews are filming then) and you’re in some cold and dark location, then don’t feed them supermarket own brand cornflakes served in a paper or superthin plastic bowl or you’ll get another riot.
Likewise lunchtime is something you don’t play around either: If the call sheet says lunch at 12:30pm then don’t push it back to 2pm without the overwhelming consent of the cast and crew or you’ll face a riot. Likewise, factor in 3/4s of an hour to an hour…they may finish their meals a lot sooner than that and are keen to get back to work but, again, don’t count on it. And remember your stars might be finished in under 15 minutes but as they’re patting their tummies and talking about being ready for the next session, your lowly crew members are still probably just being served their lunches and you cannot ask them to stop eating before they start just because you, the producer, are ready for work again.
And dinner can be problematic too. Everyone wants to wrap for the day between 5 and 6pm. If the shoot goes on longer than that, you have to factor in dinner. This isn’t about the cast and crew being prima donnas either: It’s about blood sugar and energy levels. Filming is a long process involving intense concentration, often precision work and interspersed with long stretches of waiting in anticipation. Most film days are 10 hours long, often 12. Really sadistic (or clueless) producers think nothing of having 14 hour work days. So catering becomes really important if you want the best out of people and you risk your shoot going South and shutting down if you haven’t got a catering plan.
Crews aren’t looking for luxury meals either: They need, first and foremost, fuel. A lot of crews are carnivores by nature and need the quick infusion of protein, carbs and sugar. Vegetarians favour similar combos but without the meat. This also explains why tea and coffee breaks are so important on sets with one of the lowly runners almost permanently assigned as a beverage wallah.
And all this brings me to the recent fracas (the BBC’s own words) concerning Jeremy Clarkson allegedly hitting a BBC producer. I am not here to defend Clarkson, nor am I going to make light of any alleged assault, nor urge you to sign the petition to overturn his suspension from the show or to say he is right and the producer is wrong. What I want to do is to provide some context for the torch burning posse on the one hand, and some clarity for the Clarkson deification committee on the other.
What we know of the incident, so far, is this: Top Gear was out on location and Jeremy Clarkson was angered that when they had got back from filming, the hotel kitchen where the crew were staying had closed and that no alternative catering had been laid on by the production team. In an ensuing argument with the assistant producer, Clarkson assaulted him but to what degree is still speculation.
Now, with my film and TV production hat on a few things immediately leap out at me when reading this story: On location, long filming day, no meal laid on. No catering plan for the evening. That kind of thing does get cast and crew blood boiling. The hotel kitchen had stopped serving main meals; that gives you an indication of how late the filming day had gone. At somewhere between 5 and 6pm the production team, and the producer in particular, should have been coming up with a catering plan if he knew that filming would extend past 6.
That he gets everyone back to the hotel, only to tell the star that there’s no meal for the evening, shows you he either didn’t think of a catering plan or was dismissive of one. Now I don’t know this producer, I’ve never worked with them so I don’t know what kind of person they are or how good they are in their job overall. What I do know is that if he didn’t have an evening meal planned for the cast and crew, he screwed up royally. I’ve worked with producers and directors who are so focussed on the filming, so obsessed with getting the shots done the way they want they forget that catering, along with transport and accommodation, are not luxuries on a film shoot; they’re central to the planning. They think Stanley Kubrick didn’t eat or sleep during filming and that he worked his crews over extremely long hours and think because he was a genius, that’s how you do things: Deny yourself for the good of the show. This is erroneous. The crew on a Stanley Kubrick movie ate well and on time. They slept in comfortable beds and they knew when the work day would start and when it would end. Kubrick was always courteous to his crews.
Clarkson wasn’t asking for lobster thermidor served in the Provencal manner, he wanted steak and chips….fuel food….because he’s a 6’4″ carnivore who, at the age of 54, gets tired after a 14 hour work day and isn’t the spry youth he might imagine himself to be. Speaking from experience, at 6pm you increasingly focus on what your evening meal is going to be, mistakes get made, you have to do multiple takes when earlier on two might do, the stomach’s rumbling, the biscuits are running out, there’s only so much tea and coffee from a helpful runner you can take, and you think of the hotel and a simple, yet filling meal before crashing out. 7pm and the director is lining up an artistic evening shot, the producer is thinking if he can only squeeze in 4 more set ups he can have a half day off tomorrow…or else he’s panicking because he’s promised his bosses a finished item and he’s let things slide and there’s so much to be done. So your tired, late middle aged, volatile star has hauled his carcass back to the hotel, he’s asking for his meal and what do you tell him?
“Sorry, Jeremy, but the kitchen is closed. My apologies, I should have planned this better. Look I’ll find an alternative place we can go and we’ll put the evening meal on account.”
“Kitchen’s closed. They’ll make you some soup.”
There are other possibilities floating around as to what caused a physical confrontation but, again, speaking from experience there could be a big clash of personalities going on here. Normally on a film set they can be contained but on location, with long filming days and the basics such as catering or accommodation not properly planned for, they can spill over into full on confrontation. I’ve seen a video editor completely lose it over an empty tea urn, and we’re not talking low budget films here, I’m talking about a prime time network TV show. The editor shouted across the set that the tea urn was empty, that it was unacceptable and that a member of the production team be assigned at all times to ensue the urn was kept at least half full. And the producers agreed to his demands, because despite his awful personality, he was good at his job. Me? I wouldn’t have hired him in the first place but once you have, and you’re locked into a location shoot, you have to live with them until the project ends.
So, should Jeremy Clarkson have punched the producer? No. Was Clarkson provoked? Yes, because someone thought to muck about with the catering and in the world of production, that’s a heinous crime.