Would Brandon Lee be alive today if The Crow had been filming in unionized New York or California rather than in North Carolina, a nonunion, right-to-work state? Two weeks after the 28-year-old star was shot and killed on the set, apparently by an improperly loaded gun, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), Hollywood’s powerful crafts union, is raising questions about the safety of moviemaking in the Tarheel State.
While on-set accidents happen everywhere, IATSE insists filmmaking at the Carolco Studios in Wilmington, N.C., is particularly perilous. The union is pointing to the multiple mishaps bedeviling the Crow set prior to Lee’s death as an indictment of the state’s work rules, which allow productions to hire less costly, nonunion employees. The state’s inexpensive workforce has helped to make North Carolina one of the top five locations for moviemaking in the U.S. Between 1980 and 1992, 190 features were shot there (including Bull Durham). But IATSE claims that such growth has a price. In addition to The Crow, the union is also leveling charges against Twentieth Century Fox’s The Last of the Mohicans, which was shot near Asheville, N.C., in 1991.
”On the Mohicans set,” says union organizer Bryan Unger, ”I saw makeup people shaving scalps with razors and using the same razor on the next guy.” According to Unger, when one actor playing a soldier fell, cut his head, and bled profusely into his wig, ”He told everybody, ‘I’m HIV positive, be careful,’ and nobody told the costume people, several of whom handled (the wig) without gloves or anything.”
Mohicans haircutter Sharon McCurry, manager of Sears Hair Express in Asheville, insists that she never saw a reused razor on the set but knew about the actor who cut his head. ”He did tell them,” she says, ”and that was good.”
Director Michael Mann says he never heard of these incidents and insists the set was ”maniacally concerned about safety.” He agrees nonunion shoots may be less safe, not because the personnel are inadequate but because of ”an accelerated production schedule.”
The lack of a union presence to enforce safety and scheduling regulations may well have contributed to the accidents on the Crow set. ”This is what happens when crews are worked too hard,” Unger says. ”The producers’ attitude is that you can go down there and do anything.” Union productions average a 10-hour break between work periods; sources say the Crow crew endured a more rigorous schedule. But a representative for the film’s producers, Edward Pressman and Robert Rosen, refutes the criticism: ”They were not rushed and not unconcerned about safety.”
IATSE undoubtedly has a vested interest in criticizing the state’s nonunion stance: It’s been trying to organize there since the Wilmington studios opened in 1984. A spokeswoman for the North Carolina Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) admits that The Crow has been subjected to two safety inspections (for Lee’s shooting and the electrical accident that paralyzed a crew member), but those are the state’s only two movie-set inspections on record since 1973.
The Brandon Lee disaster may prompt an inquiry into the state’s movie industry. ”I’ve been talking with OSHA,” says Unger. ”They have not yet begun to investigate, but they will soon.” (The state’s OSHA director did not return calls by press time.)
Moviemaking’s risks should not be overstated. OSHA says the industry has fewer injuries than the apparel business. ”Making a movie is not terribly dangerous work,” says director John Milius (Red Dawn), ”but there are dangers. Explosives go off, cars crash. Everyone is looking for a villain. The villain is luck.” —With additonal reporting by Anne Thompson