Dave Chappelle was the toast of
Tinseltown when he signed a $50 million deal to extend his wildly
popular sketch-comedy series for a third and fourth season. The
Emmy-nominated "Chappelle's Show," which boasted more than 140 cast
and crew credits, was one of the highest-rated shows on basic cable
and the fastest-selling DVD in television history when the show's
enigmatic star walked off the set two-thirds into taping his third
season, refusing to discuss the sudden departure and his "spiritual
retreat" to South Africa.
Such are the occasional risks in
entertainment, though the age-old topic of how to manage disgruntled
entertainers is so incendiary that Hollywood insiders won't even
agree to talk about it off the record.
The Viacom-owned Comedy Central program, which did
not return calls for comment, may have been able to insure against a
shutdown in production under slightly different circumstances.
So-called cast coverage, which dates back to a policy written on
silver-screen swashbuckler Douglas Fairbanks Sr., covers cost
overruns related to the illness, injury or death of cast and crew
One recent example involved heartthrob
George Clooney putting up his $7 million home as collateral in order
to have the insurance reinstated on his recent film "Good Night, and
Good Luck." The policy had been yanked due to concerns about leaking
spinal fluid in the actor's back, which could possibly prevent him
from finishing the biopic of legendary newsman Edward R. Murrow.
Clooney, whose father was a broadcast journalist, directed and
co-starred in the film.
Without adequate insurance coverage,
motion-picture and television productions would be unable to secure
the necessary financial backing in an industry that's used to
incurring hundreds of thousands of dollars daily for simple
accidents on big-budget shows.
While cast coverage does not insure
against the risk of a star storming off set for whatever reason,
Hollywood's unspoken understanding is that top talent honor their
contracts. Or else they pay. Actress Kim Basinger lost a
high-profile lawsuit over backing out of a verbal agreement to star
in "Boxing Helena," a 1993 feature film about an obsessed doctor who
captures a former girlfriend and cuts off her arms and
"It cost her dearly," recalls Brian
Kingman, senior vice president for Aon/Albert G. Ruben in Los
Angeles, a film-insurance pioneer that has arranged to insure
three-quarters of the American Film Institute's 100 most celebrated
movies of all time. "What happens when you breach your contract is
you get sued and held responsible for liquid damages, and you will
have a credibility problem." Basinger filed for Chapter 11 just days
after being ordered to pay $8.1 million and eventually reached an
Chris Palmer, director of risk control in
the Aon/Albert G. Ruben Los Angeles office, explains how it's much
more difficult to weather the storm in motion pictures: "If an
episodic television actor gets sick, the show can go on hiatus for a
couple of weeks until that person gets back, which is an option you
don't have on a feature film."
In the event that a movie star or TV
personality crosses paths with the police, Kingman says, it's
unlikely that a court hearing or trial would commence until the
actor is done with his or her project, unless there's a compelling
reason to facilitate that process.
"If an individual is deemed to be a
safety threat to society, then they may take a different position,"
he says. "But usually they don't want a filmmaker to have to stop
production and put $10 million or $20 million at risk because an
actor may or may not have broken the law and had to attend court.
Usually they'll work with us."
It's anyone's guess how Russell Crowe's
recent brush with the law will affect his next film, "A Good Year,"
which is slated for release in 2006. Crowe, who was charged with
second-degree assault and fourth-degree criminal possession of a
weapon, is expected back in court when this article goes to press.
The irascible New Zealand-born thespian was arrested in June for
allegedly throwing a telephone at a hotel employee and striking him
in the face in a fit of anger.
The larger lesson may be that keeping
temperamental talent happy both on and off the set is as elusive as
bringing to justice each perpetrator on "America's Most Wanted."
Still, Kingman and Palmer insist that the salacious developments
that fill the pages of industry tabloids are rare, and pale in
comparison to more pressing matters.
A far more manageable goal of
motion-picture and television production companies involves
risk-mitigation strategies in the area of stunt work. Most
underwriters exclude coverage for hazardous stunts involving
principal cast members, explains Palmer, who devotes considerable
time to observing how these impressive feats will be performed so
that precautions can be taken to minimize risks.
Creative license has helped accomplish
this goal. For instance, he says, the chief tool for capturing
explosions on film is the use of computer-generated images known
within industry circles as CGI, whereas pyrotechnics or
miniature-scale models have been used during most of the past 10 to
"Now you don't necessarily have to put
someone in harm's way" to achieve a dramatic end result, he says,
noting the growing use of CGI and shooting against blue and green
screens, as well as long lenses. "There's no risk to the principal
But it's important to bear in mind that
production crews still run tremendous risks at a time when the
thrill factor has been significantly ratcheted up.
"We have to go further and further out on
a limb in order to keep today's audience entertained because they're
not excited anymore about seeing a fast car chase on San Francisco
streets," observes Scott Thaler, a veteran motion-picture line
producer and production manager who often teams up with his
action-adventure producer wife Stephanie Austin. "For a Coca-Cola
and box of popcorn, it isn't worth getting somebody killed, and if
at the end of the movie it says 'in memoriam to,' then you haven't
properly done your job."
Responsibility for maintaining a safe
working environment weighs heavily on the production manager and
assistant director. That means anticipating the trajectory and
physics of flying projectiles, or offering detailed instructions to
stuntmen who put their lives on the line. Such efforts also must be
factored into each production budget.
Thaler, whose film credits include
"Shanghai Knights" and "The Long Kiss Goodnight," recalls a recent
trip to the Czech Republic where a stuntman was asked to leap 20
feet off the edge of a boat. After noticing the stuntman's wobbly
legs by the third try, Thaler's advice was to print the best take
and avoid injury.
Thaler took after the spirit of director
James Cameron's cautious-but-prepared approach to stunt safety on
"True Lies." One noble example from that film, which starred Arnold
Schwarzenegger, involved a harrowing ski scene. Three months ahead
of shooting, Thaler and Austin assembled a 300-foot pipe rig to
ensure there'd be no chance of a helicopter hitting a tree. The
Austrian body builder who became California's governor was supposed
to shoot down a helicopter in Squaw Valley, slalom half a mile down
the mountainside and hop into a getaway van with co-star Tom Arnold
behind the wheel.
"We were going to mount a helicopter onto
a frame that fit onto a snowmobile and have Arnold appear to be
shooting down the hill, and Arnold said to Jim (Cameron), 'If you
will put your 2-year-old in it, then I will get into it.' He made it
very personal to all of us," says Thaler.
On another movie staged at a theme park,
Thaler kept stuntmen from bailing out of a boat and dodging
dangerous bullet-hit effects created by spear-like underwater pipes
blowing air up through the pool. "I had to stop everything--to the
distress of the director and producer--and take the better part of
an hour to find the safe area in this waterway with about 30 feet
clear so that they didn't get impaled on a piece of steel," he says.
On "Sahara," a water scene involving lead
actor Matthew McConaughey had to be moved off to the coast of Spain
from Morocco, where the water was high in bacteria. "You see kids
jumping in the water and figure it must be safe. They were born and
raised in it, but our people could have gotten terribly ill," Thaler
There were sand hazards on the picture as
well. About 40 Moroccans were hired to capture pinky-finger-sized
horned vipers burrowed into the Saharan desert along the Algerian
border. Cast and crew were warned not to wear sandals or open-toed
shoes. "You have to show the studio that you've done your due
diligence," Thaler adds.
Given the moviegoer appetitive for more
action than ever before, when budgets are tightening in the face of
higher ticket prices that have hurt box-office numbers, Thaler is
genuinely concerned about safety in Hollywood in the years ahead.
"They're going to be taking more risks because they don't have the
time and money to put in the prep they need--something that should
guide their consciences every day," he says.
BRUCE SHUTAN is a writer based in
October 15, 2005
Copyright 2005© LRP