One chilly pre-pandemic night, my friends sat around my living room, hunched over mounds of multi-colored sculpey clay, crafting obscene ornaments for my Christmas tree. Stanley Kubrick’s 1999 film Eyes Wide Shut—a Yuletide classic in our house—played in the background, featuring a stilted Tom Cruise skulking through a rear-projected Lower East Side. For some, it’s simply remembered as “that orgy movie,” but I fondly remember it as the film in which Kubrick tortured Cruise with maddening direction. With the recent news of Cruise’s egregious attack on his Mission: Impossible 7 crew, I find myself reveling in the fact that Kubrick made Cruise walk through a door for 95 takes goading, “stick with me, I’ll make you a star.”
“We’re creating thousands of jobs, you motherfuckers,” Cruise spat at his Mission: Impossible 7 crew, the very people he claimed to be saving from economic immiseration. The production had only just reconvened in London after it was shut down several months earlier when 12 workers contracted COVID-19. “No apologies. You can tell it to the people who are losing their fucking homes because our industry is shut down. That’s what I sleep with every night. The future of this fucking industry!!”
The expletive-laden rant was directed at two masked crew members who stood less than two meters apart from one another, the distance required on U.K. sets for social distancing. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for stars to chew out the crew—hello, Christian Bale circa 2009—nor is it surprising that the producer of a multi-million dollar blockbuster has a messiah complex. What is disconcerting is the applause Cruise received for verbally abusing his crew.
When the Sun released the tape of Cruise’s tirade in December, celebrities and film workers alike praised him for hardlining on set safety. While some offered mild criticisms of Cruise’s tact—George Clooney shrugged and said it wasn’t his “style”—most conceded that the outburst was justified. Given the precarious position the pandemic put the entertainment industry in (and the lax enforcement of safety protocols on some commercial sets) many wished they could do the same. But for those of us who’ve worked for toxic bosses, it was painfully clear this outburst wasn’t inspired by a genuine concern for people’s wellbeing: it was just a belligerent executive blowing off steam.
Cruise punched down because he could. Human resource departments don’t really exist for filmworkers and would be ineffectual if they did. Given its inherent deference to authority, H.R. would fall apart in an industry that not only respects hierarchy and fame but profits handsomely off it. In theory, filmworkers’ unions should be poised to fight back more strongly—perhaps by threatening walkouts and providing support for crewmembers who walk off set—but in reality they can’t offer much more than a disparaging statement. After decades of state-sanctioned union busting in both the U.S. and the U.K. (including strict limitations on how and if workers can even strike) many unions are chastened, relegated to the singular task of self-preservation. All of this amounts to a callous and quietly tyrannical system, one that tells film workers that if they’re not “tough” enough to handle verbal abuse, or even sexual harassment or grueling hours, they should find other work. As I was once told by a hostile co-producer, “Maybe you should become a teacher or something.”
The industry rarely checks the kind of arrogance that deludes Cruise into thinking another installment of his vanity franchise will save the industry. But what is more pernicious than Cruise’s arrogance is how he evokes the language of the deified “job creator.” When he shrieks “we’re creating thousands of jobs,” what he’s really saying is: you should be grateful I share a few pennies with you.
It’s the same hubris that allows Jeff Bezos to set up a national sweepstakes for another Amazon HQ, only to balk when New Yorkers didn’t want a few thousand menial jobs and sky-high rents in exchange for billions of dollars in tax breaks. While Cruise may be a far cry from Bezos, in both his wealth and scope of power, his demand for accolades is the same as any capitalist. Not only do they feel entitled to hoard the wealth we produce for them both as workers and consumers—Cruise took home a whopping $43 million in 2017 for starring in only two films—they expect gratitude for providing rapidly-worsening labor conditions, wages, and benefits in return. Cruise doesn’t deserve praise for sending our colleagues to work in the middle of a deadly pandemic to save his bottom line and his status, which are his actual priorities.
Which brings us to the question: who really puts us at risk? Is it two workers who absentmindedly breached social distancing protocol? Or is it the people making us work under conditions that are antithetical to the collaborative nature of a film set? I would argue the latter, in addition to our government’s refusal to sufficiently tax millionaires like Cruise (whose net worth is estimated at $550-600 million) so that we could pay people to stay home. Just because the unions and studios spent four months hashing out a “safe” return to work plan doesn’t make it conscionable. The U.K. is currently under full lockdown again, this time for six weeks, due to a highly contagious virus variant. The Los Angeles Times has declared that COVID is “everywhere” in L.A. County and productions there have been shuttered once more. While second and third waves crashed across the U.S., Congress held a second stimulus package hostage for eight months to discourage people from staying home. As I predicted back in June, workers were forced to choose between their lives and their livelihoods, and most chose to risk infection rather than eviction or starvation.
Cruise’s tirade also revealed a double standard that below-the-line workers (the rank and file of the industry) face. The “ability to remain cool under pressure” is a hiring requirement for below-the-line workers but optional for talent like Cruise. Above-the-line workers (actors, screenwriters, producers, directors, etc.) are allowed to mask their toxicity as eccentricity and their blowups as dramatic flair. But a new, more troubling double standard is emerging against the backdrop of COVID. As one anonymous filmworker confided in me last month:
Today my production got shut down because the lead actor tested positive. Nobody is going to shout at [them] like [Cruise shouted at his crew]. Last week my supervisor warned us that if one of us in our department tested positive, [they] would be ashamed. I wanted to point out to [them] that I’m taking huge risks every day… but I just stayed silent.
According to this source (who requested anonymity to avoid being fired or blacklisted), the same actor ended up going abroad for Christmas, disregarding “numerous emails from the production telling us to stay in L.A. and respect the stay at home order.” As a result, the production had no choice but to extend the hiatus in order to give the actor time to quarantine. It’s safe to say that if my colleague traveled abroad against the production’s directive, they would likely be fired or not asked back for jeopardizing the shoot.
We shouldn’t shame people for contracting a highly contagious virus; even those who are abundantly cautious have fallen ill. But there is a clear divide between stars who can defy stay-at-home orders with few repercussions and crew members who could be fired for doing the same. This hypocrisy is rooted in prevailing ideas about who is deemed replaceable—and it was obvious who this was even before the pandemic demonstrated that some of us might even be expendable tributes to the economy.
My colleague’s anonymity also hints at the industry’s oppressive code of silence. It’s what kept the abuses on Ellen DeGeneres’ set a secret and allowed predators like Harvey Weinstein to hide in plain sight. Whatever form the intimidation or abuse takes, the crew is expected to keep quiet. When asked about Cruise’s blow up on a recent episode of the Jim Norton & Sam Roberts podcast, Ricky Gervais said the quiet part loud.
“Never mind firing people for not wearing a mask,” said Gervais—it’s worth noting again that the crew members were masked—“what fucker recorded that and gave it to the papers?” To which Norton replied, “That’s what we were saying before. It’s really irritating… they had to tell everyone that the boss was yelling at them.” As is common in these situations, the whistleblower is derided as an oversensitive snitch and the aggressor is absolved as a victim of cancel culture, making it that much harder to hold those in power accountable.
A few years ago, I worked for an explosive co-producer who read emails over my shoulder, berated me in front of my colleagues, and micromanaged my work to the point where I had a hard time completing basic tasks. Just days before the show wrapped, I took up the issue with the head of my department, prepared with a season’s worth of grievances. I wanted to be thorough because I felt I underperformed on the job due to stress. I wasn’t the only person who had issues with this co-producer—vendors made formal complaints about their temper which resulted in public, sobbing tantrums in our office—but that didn’t make the task any less daunting.
But instead of consolation I received a disappointing yet revealing explanation: “Sometimes we keep people because they are good at what they do.” The next day the co-producer, who’d clearly been made aware of the meeting, issued a vague threat: “I’m sure you all talk about me behind my back while I’m not around and that’s fine—but it’s not cool if it leaves the office.” Later that afternoon, they “joked” that they wanted to throw me in the trunk of a production car.
Despite being a vindictive boss (who I later discovered tormented all of the post coordinators before me), this co-producer was kept on the show year in and year out because they devoted their life to it and were, unquestionably, technically skilled. More importantly though, they met all of the impossible deadlines the production called for—with the help of my occasional, unpaid overtime. It was on this horrid job that I understood that the rules of the industry, and more broadly the rules of capital, were defined by subjugation.
I have no interest in revealing the identity of the co-producer because this is a systemic issue. It starts with people like Cruise and snakes its way through every department to the next overburdened, ill-tempered boss it can find. But I do hope that my experience emboldens others to exercise a shred of solidarity with their colleagues when they’re being intimidated.
“I care about you guys,” Cruise said in a softer tone, as he neared the end of his two-minute MI:7 tirade. As a director, I couldn’t help but admire his nimble gaslighting routine. He nailed all the emotional beats of a toxic dad monologue. Slipping seamlessly into a threat he screamed, “But if you’re not going to help me, you’re gone, okay?!”
Five workers walked off the set the next day, apparently after a second outburst that wasn’t recorded. These are the kinds of workers (and the type of action) that we need to model ourselves after. I understand it’s a lot to ask of my colleagues, especially during such a precarious time, but our sets will only become more cruel and unhinged if we don’t start now. If we continue to use our fear of economic precarity to justify workplace abuses committed against us, we’re in for a hellish future.
Setting aside the current pandemic-induced employment crisis, we can anticipate that the entertainment industry will only become more exclusive as jobs generally become more scarce due to a mix of automation and labor underdemand. If Andrew Cuomo is any indication—the glib, criminally incompetent governor said he’d change his name to “Amazon” Cuomo if he won the HQ2 bid—those in power will continue to sell us out to mitigate job losses. New York already gives entertainment companies corporate welfare in the form of massive tax breaks. Insatiable studios are going to continue to ask: what else can you provide for us?
It’s imperative that we, the workers, reclaim that question. As gutted and paralyzed as our labor movement is today, we have to remember that entertainment crafts organized themselves in the very early days of cinema, when robber barons ruled the world. This huge feat should prove that we are capable of challenging the status quo, union and non-union workers alike, at home and abroad. We are not as replaceable as they would like us to think, nor are we as powerless as they’d hope. It’s time we realize that, collectively, we’re the engine that keeps this industry going, not some psychotic Scientologist LARPing as a job creator.