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Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Intimidation Game: Sexual harassment & my short career as a young woman in film

Installing a sign I made on a small indie pilot.
When I was a few years out of art school and still looking for direction, I hit the job jackpot when I happened into a position on a major motion picture. The movie, code name, The Intimidation Game, was filming all over the world. One of the first people in town on the production, I worked out of a hotel room with another production assistant (PA) and a producer, doing preliminary photography for the Special Effects Department. The producer, a white man in his 40s, was smart and kind. The work put me in some precarious positions and before leaving our hotel room/office in the morning he’d tell me, “Be safe. It’s just a movie.” He never wavered in his professionalism. When the huge production circus came to town I was offered a job in the Art Department - the dream continued. I worked closely with a local designer and the rest of the team, imported from Europe and Los Angeles. They were a truly amazing bunch of guys. They became friends and mentors, encouraging my personal art career and taking the time to include me on important decisions. I was making good, steady money and could barely believe my good fortune. I felt like I had found my niche, I could see myself doing this work for a long time and it was exhilarating. Strangely, more than one of the local crew warned me, “Don't get used to this.” At the time I didn’t understand what they meant, but it proved to be an ominous warning.

Living in the middle of the country, local production workers are at the mercy of what shows come to town. The options are to work or not work and I was eager to keep working. My next job in film took a hard left down a dark alley. I was hired, it seemed, exclusively to take verbal abuse. Apparently because of a dispute between the director and my boss, it was open season on my department. I spent my days getting screamed at both in person and on the phone. I was chained to my desk, so to speak, and the people in my immediate vicinity were pretty great, so it was bearable. I was young, they were paying me pretty well, but I still went to the bathroom to cry a few times. The film, though boasting two big names, was absolutely terrible. I tried to find the humor in how serious and how angry these people were. “It’s only a movie!” I wanted to scream. But the reality that “professional” adults acted like this at work was pretty shocking.

After that I worked on a series of failed TV pilots. At least 90% white and 90% male, there were few young women like myself. I got to know the local crews and met a few really sad men from LA. Almost without fail they were divorced, alcoholics with a sour sense of humor, some with famous last names. I tried to get the most out of every gig and there were always some good people learn from. Eventually, I got a job on a TV show which had been picked up for the ‘front 13’. I was working with an older man, my Boss, a Draftsman I had met before, and a female coordinator - all local. A small team with lots of work to do, we had a crowded little office in the basement. From the get-go it was clear how my boss felt about women. A man with daughters not too much younger than me, he seemed almost obsessed with the female lead in the series, who was just a bit older than myself. Nearly everyday he mentioned how ugly he thought she was. “Her face is lopsided. The camera hates her. She must have slept with everyone above the line to get this part.” It made me wonder if I had gotten the job because he could stand to look at me, but really, I didn’t care, I knew I was good at my job. TV shows are a hamster wheel with three episodes in play at any given moment - preparation for the upcoming episode, shooting the current episode and wrapping the last one. Things inevitably got more stressful as we transitioned from prep to filming. As the first shoot approached, Draftsman became overly involved in my daily duties, while Boss barely left his office. Draftsman was checking in with me incessantly, asking me to do one hundred silly tasks a day. It was my job to oblige him, but it was hard to totally mask my annoyance. It amazed me that he had enough time to spend bothering me, we all had so much to do. A giant man, he would stand behind me while I sat at my desk, instructing me on minute details. At last I told him, “Please, stand where I can see you. You’re like Lurch, lurking back there. It’s weirding me out.” Unfortunately, this must have been the desired effect, as his behavior quickly escalated. Soon after, while leaning over me from behind, he put his hand over mine on my mouse and his chin on my shoulder while he “showed” me how to complete a task on my screen. I was shocked. His cheek grazed my cheek. I wanted to punch him in the face. But I did nothing. I froze. When he left I spun around to see the wide eyes of my coordinator. Her and I escaped to the alley and talked about what happened. We mentioned his increasingly odd behavior to our Boss. Busy and annoyed at our interruption, he literally laughed in our faces. Everyday after that it was something. Draftsman walking past and brushing his hand on the back of my neck. He’d looked confused and even hurt when called him out. “You touched my neck. What do you want?” An accident, he’d say and then deny touching me at all. I made it clear, in no uncertain terms, that I did not want him to touch me, EVER. I emailed Boss to put it on the record - I don’t want Draftsman touching me. Of course, he ignored my email.

Draftsman was utterly unkempt even though he was quite well-paid (why is it always like that?!). He wore ill fitting shirts where his belly bulged out of the spaces between missing buttons. One day he came over to my desk to give me some ridiculous task. He stood extra close to me and as he bent over me from behind, his bare belly rested on my neck and I lost it. “GET AWAY FROM ME!” I shouted. “Why are you touching me?” He retreated, but that night before I went home Boss called me into his office. He had heard about my “outburst,” and reminded me that part of my job was to support Draftsman. I told him that it seemed reasonable not to have to come into contact with the bare belly of a strange, grown man at work. “You're not gonna last very long if you’re so sensitive,” was his reply.

Draftsman’s wardrobe, hygiene and appearance deteriorated further. He regularly showed up in pants where many inches of his hairy ass were visible. In my small effort to fight back I never let it slide. “Oh no!” I’d proclaim, “You forgot your belt!” “I don’t have one.” he told me once. In a helpful tone I’d offer to pick one up for him or go to wardrobe and borrow one. As the days dragged on it seemed like they had joined forces make me miserable. Boss made a rule that I was to be the last to leave at the end of every day. Draftsman began napping in his disgusting hoarder car for hours during the day and then working late into the night, leaving him and I alone together in the basement office. Dying to go home and at his mercy, they made it clear I would be fired if I left. This is the real Intimidation Game, I thought. Still, some days I left before him. I found myself spending more and more time helping out other departments, finding any reason to get away from my desk. Finally, one day he got off the elevator with his fly wide open and the flap of his boxers just precariously covering his bulging penis. “Oh dear,” I covered my eyes, “your fly is down.” “I know,” he said, calmly, “It’s broken.”

The entire day I refused to interact with him, this was one step too far. I figured it was just a matter of time before he was trying to rub that thing on the back of my neck. I asked for a meeting with him and Boss. That night after work I sat down with what I now understand to be two old friends. I expressed my concern with his wardrobe, which was making me more and more uncomfortable. Boss listened quietly, when I finished he told me that I was being superficial, petty and unprofessional. “It’s not a fashion show,” he condescendingly explained. From there it spiraled into an appallingly bad performance review, where they took turns telling me how awful I was. It was obvious they got a kick out of this little intimidation game. Seeing how far they could push me before I quit or gave them a reason to fire me.The entire drive home I talked myself out of quitting. This is an absolutely horrible TV show, I told myself, there is no way it will get picked up for the back 9. I just have to make it a little longer. On the way to work the next morning, I repeated my mantra, “It’s just a movie. It’s just a movie,” (or in this case, just a shitty TV show). When I arrived I had a note from Boss - Great news! - the show had been picked up! When Draftsman gets in, I was to go with him, in his tiny disgusting hoarder car, on a 3 hour drive to scout a new location. I should plan on being alone with him all day and into the evening. He expected my “complete cooperation.”

Calmly, I sat down at my desk and typed out a detailed resignation letter. I outlined the many steps I had taken to address the issues. I described his bare belly, exposed buttocks and unprofessional behavior. I took my letter upstairs and gave it to the head producer. On my way out the door, I dropped a copy on my bosses desk.

It’s.
Just.
A.
Movie.

Afterwards, I was too naive to realize that the reason this major studio’s HR department kept calling me from Los Angeles was that they were worried I would sue them. To be honest, it didn’t even cross my mind, but I wish it had. I was reveling in the AVALANCHE of emails, calls and words of support from people who shared similar stories with me about Draftsman and others. Apparently, Draftsman was well-known in the industry for being a creep and had forced many a young women to quit or gotten them fired with similar behavior - how many of them stayed and put up with it? How far did it go? While no one disputed my side of events, he was not fired or reprimanded in any way. Draftsman had nothing extraordinary to bring to the table and still, over a decade later, he is getting hired by the same people, a member of the same Union. They all know what kind of guy he is. It as was clear to me then, as it is now, there is literally nothing a white man can do that will get him fired from a movie set /production job. There is however, many things a woman can do, first and foremost complain about harassment. 
Self portrait in 2006 - the world at my finger tips

The systematic, coordinated harassment of a young woman by her male superiors is not a unique story, I’m afraid. But there is something about the film and production industry which makes this a rampant problem. The close proximity to money and fame inflates egos. The (mostly) men in charge have the power to make or break careers, to make millions and to make people millionaires. The production is a limited engagement and thusly the cast and crew have no lasting memory of wrongs or misdeeds, and indeed, no real incentive to report them, as they’ll be on a different project next month or next year. HR is usually off site, and sometimes thousands of miles away. Who could one turn to for support in this situation? The recent Weinstein revelations come as no surprise to me. It’s impossible for me to believe that anyone one close to him didn’t know. My heart goes out to the many, many women he violated and mistreated. My experience in no way compares to those assaults. But the allegations did bring back long ignored memories of my short-lived career in production. Or as I call it, The Intimidation Game.

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