In the business of filmmaking, film crews routinely work 15 to 20 hour days. The cost of overtime is relative to the big picture—and all too often not to the health and well being of crews. Labor rights were the lifelong concern of Oscar winning cinematographer and documentarian Haskell Wexler. Illuminating the risk of work-induced sleep deprivation, coupled with travel to and from location, became one of Haskell's personal missions when, in 1997, after a 19-hour day on the set, his assistant cameraman Brent Hershman fell asleep behind the wheel, crashed his car, and died. Haskell, a veteran of the McCarthy era blacklist that kept him from working in America from 1950–1958, and a stalwart of Viet Nam era activism responded politically, but even his union was unsupportive. He then used his skills as a cinematographer, director and activist to reach out to our field. He attended the 2003 Chicago APSS, subjected himself to a MWT in my lab, and interviewed experts in the sleep field including Bill Dement, Darrel Drobnich, and Nelson Powel. He interspersed those vignettes with interviews from luminaries from the film world including Julia Roberts, Billy Crystal, John Sayles, and Conrad Hall. Who Needs Sleep? premiered at Sundance in 2006. Today, this film describes what many outside our field understand the importance as well as the science of sleep. The camera was a tool that became alive in his hands, and today there are many lamenting his loss. While Haskell received many awards for his work in film, he continued with his interest in sleep, working with us until the last few years on visual consciousness and the role of dream content as an origin for story. In 2013 he was finally able to push his union (IATSE) into limiting absolute work hours to 12 on 12 off. But, this battle is far from over.
Sleep Medicine is an insular field. It is unusual for anyone famous and celebrated for their accomplishments outside of our field to achieve a new gestalt, doing something so unusual as to extend our understanding of the social and physical implications of business/government approved sleep deprivation. Haskell was remarkable, and we as a field are more than blessed to have had his attention.
Who Needs Sleep? is currently available at whoneedssleep.net.
Pagel JF. Haskell Wexler: who needs sleep? J Clin Sleep Med 2016;12(3):457.