Staying sane in a mad business

Graeme Tuckett has some thoughts about joining the circus and staying healthy while we’re there.
Graeme Tuckett
July 4, 2024

We all have a story of how we came to be here. How we finished up working in ‘the industry’. And for many – maybe most of us - it’s a story with a lot of twists and turns.

My own involves being between years at Waikato University and going to sign on for the ‘summer dole’. I already had an under-the-table job lined up for the summer. So – being a smartarse - I wrote ‘Lion Tamer’ in the ‘previous experience’ section of the form.

Nek minnit ... I’m offered a job banging in the tent pegs and driving a van for Ringling Brothers circus. Which led to building sets for a theatre company. And a few years later that somehow turned into running around the Marlborough Sounds with a crate of wedges being yelled at on my first ‘film job’. Some days I’m not sure I’ve come very far since. To this day I still talk about film crew as ‘the ones who ran away and joined the circus’. And I reckon it’s a pretty accurate description.

Look around any film set and you’ll see a diverse collection of individuals. The ones who will work their guts out and smile right through it for an eighteen hour day if asked, sometimes for no money. But who would recoil in horror if you asked them to sit in an office or a shop doing bugger all for 8 hours in a ‘real job’.

I’ve met the smartest, hardest working, most competent and brilliant people in my life on film sets. There are stone-cold geniuses in every department and every strata of our industry. And – as with all the creative industries - also a lot of mavericks, eccentrics and outsiders. In fact, the geniuses and the mavericks are, as often as not, the same people.

Add to that mix the fact that we work sporadically, with no ongoing job security, the long hours, the weeks and months away from home and family and the film industry starts to look like an environment in which mental and emotional health issues would thrive. Which, as we all know, it is.

Mental illness is pretty damn common, especially in our industry. People are good at hiding it, and our professions make it easy to mask. We’re in an industry where all-nighters are normal, obsession can be called passion, and the momentum just keeps going forward so fast nobody can stop for a minute to realize that something real is actually wrong.
But these illnesses are like any other disease. They need time and support to heal, possibly under the guidance of a healthcare professional. Some of them need medication to manage, and that’s as okay as taking medication to manage high blood pressure or diabetes. There is no shame in asking for help, just as there’s no shame in going to a general practitioner with migraines or a podiatrist with foot pain. If you feel you need help, try to ask someone. If you know someone that needs help, offer to help. Or simply offer friendship and support without judgement. For some people, that can make all the difference in taking whatever next steps need to be taken.
Mental illness is often mistaken as a personality flaw, especially by the very person suffering from it: moody, short tempered, weak, lazy. And that makes sense in our profession, where we’re harder on ourselves than any of the critique we face every day. Kylee Pena.

Full disclosure. Ten months ago I got diagnosed with something that looks like a very low dose of bi-polar disorder. Which came as no surprise to anyone that knows me. It doesn’t stop me doing anything or get in the way of my work. But it’s a part of my life and probably always will be. In response, at a doctor’s suggestion, I put myself on a micro dose of Lithium (about 5% of what a clinical bi-polar patient would receive) and felt my life – or at least my brain – go through a transformation. For the first time in my life I can measure my attention span in hours, not minutes. And the anxiety and anger that have been a constant white noise in the background for every day of my adult life have completely gone.

So when I sit down to write this, I do have an idea of what I’m talking about. Even if you don’t count yourself as one of the ‘outsiders and eccentrics’, then you still won’t have to look very far on your next job to see that you work with plenty of people who do.

So let’s talk about that.

A year back, Victoria University (the one in Australia) released a report into rates of depression, anxiety, substance abuse and ‘suicide ideation’ (thinking positively about the idea of suicide). The report found that the screen industry rates for all of the above were well above the national average. I’ve seen near identical figures from the UK industry. So until someone does the same research in NZ, I reckon it’s safe to assume that the same numbers will apply to us.

44% of industry workers reported moderate to severe anxiety. This is ten times higher than the prevalence of anxiety in the general population.

“The report – which focused on performing artists and composers, performing arts support workers and broadcasting and media equipment operators – was alarming. Levels of moderate to severe anxiety in the performing arts industry were 10 times higher than the general population; levels of depression in industry workers were up to five times higher; and workers were four to five times more likely to plan to commit suicide, and twice as likely to attempt it.” The Guardian. February 9, 2017.

An indicator of depression suggested levels in industry workers may be as much as five times higher than the general population.

Australian Entertainment Industry Workers experience suicidal ideation 5-7 times more than the general population and 2-3 times more over a lifetime.

Suicide planning for Australian Entertainment Industry workers is 4-5 times more than general population.

What attracted the headlines at the time were the statistics on the higher profile workers; the actors, musicians, dancers and writers. But what got lost was the fact that the technicians and road crew WERE EVEN MORE AT RISK THAN THE PERFORMERS. The public perception of the brittle, unstable performer and the cheerful, resilient crew working behind them is wrong. Or at least, never more than half right.

Kind of ironic I’d say, considering how often we have all worked on films with mental health issues central to their plots, that we hardly ever talk about the very real crisis that is happening behind the camera and in our workshops and production offices.

But, we are film wankers. We pride ourselves on our toughness, our resilience, our good humour and our ability to get through it, or at least drink enough to forget about it. Add to that cocktail of self delusion the great Kiwi national identity of being a tough pack of Bastards and Sheilas regardless of what industy we work in and you’ve got yourself a pretty lethal environment for anyone who really does need someone to talk to. There’s a parallel crisis of suicide and depression in our farming industry too. I’m guessing the reasons are similar.

Also, in film we live from one job – and the dopamine high that comes with
it – to the next. We experience days, weeks and months of great company, interesting, challenging work and a decent amount of money going into our bank account every week. And then... nothing. The withdrawal can be murder.

If you are in the absolute top tier of your department then you might usually know where the next job is coming from. But for most of our industry, massive work instability is something we live with every day. And it’s not as if we
can plan a holiday in the downtime. Imagine not being available when the phone does ring with an HOD asking us to join a new project. You don’t just miss out on that gig, you might miss out on every other job with that HOD after. Or at least, that’s what the lack-of-work-security anxiety tells us.

And even if we are working, a personality clash or a change to schedule or budget can mean ‘Don’t Come Monday’ in film. It doesn’t happen often, and there’s usually something substantial behind it, but knowing it could happen is a source of far more fear than it really should be. From the runner straight out of film school to the producer on their twentieth feature film, this is the reality of our chosen profession.

Like most of you, I’ve listened attentively through a hundred Health and Safety briefings. I’ve prepared and delivered ‘site introductions’ to point out the hazards of a filming location. And
I’ve rocked up to the on-set medics
and nurses with dislocated fingers, concussion twice, rolled ankles, a few flash burns and an ocular compression (don’t ask. It hurt.) I even managed to get myself hospitalised on a freebie, with hypothermia. But never in twenty years in the NZ film industry have I heard anyone say ‘I’m not coping with this shit. I’m going to talk to the shrink after work.’ ‘The shrink’ doesn’t exist, and probably never will. But clearly the need for help is there.

Listen, nine times out of ten, I reckon
‘hang in there, it’s lunch soon’ is exactly the right advice to give to a crew mate who is having a lousy day. But there’s the other times, when ‘harden up’ just isn’t enough.

We don’t let our mates drive home pissed, and if we see needlessly risky behaviour on set we are happy to step in and help make it safe. But we are working every day with people who are at a higher risk of suicide, addiction and crippling depression than almost any other professional group. Look around. Can you help? Do you need help? Then say something. Because right now, all we have is each other.