Film Set Medics Mind, Mend Local Crews
The hard-working local members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) have more than a few things in common. Not only do they service the film and television industry and help ensure film works in L.A., they’re also a pretty humble bunch.
In fact, whenever we visit with IATSE members and shamelessly gush about how cool we think their jobs are, everyone’s quick to redirect the spotlight to someone else. Last week, we sat down with IATSE Local 767 member Lance Mancuso to learn more about his work, and the contributions he and his fellow set medics make to California’s signature industry.
IATSE Local 767 dates back over 70 years, with set medics tracing the beginning of their profession back to the swashbuckling days of Douglas Fairbanks. Fairbanks was the first to insist a nurse be employed on every one of his action-packed productions. Today, Local 767 has about 200 members, making it the third-largest provider of Emergency Medical Services (EMS) in greater Los Angeles. Only the city and county fire departments represent bigger pools of labor.
So how do set medics find work in the industry? Film or television projects with crews of 200 or more are required to hire no fewer than two set medics under union rules and Cal/OSHA regulations. For smaller productions, only one medic may be required. With the rapid loss of California-based feature film production, set medics’ job prospects have been particularly hard-hit. “On a typical television show,” Mancuso explains, “there could be 40 drivers and 50 grips, but only one set medic. The bigger-budget films employing more than 200 people — and therefore more than one set medic — almost never shoot in California anymore.”
Mancuso’s industry career started after he joined the US Air Force, in which he served until 1981. Like many who work in Hollywood, Lance always had a desire to be a part of the film business and, after serving his country, he worked for a few years as an actor. One of his acting roles on the hit daytime soap General Hospital must have given him an itch, because in 1988, Mancuso left Hollywood temporarily to become a firefighter for the Los Angeles County Fire Department and San Bernardino County Fire Department. Then, in 1992, a friend working as a background actor asked Lance if he would be interested in being a set medic. Lance took the job and, just like that, Mancuso’s second career in Hollywood began.
For the first several years, Lance worked as a set medic for non-union shows, accruing valuable experience while making connections and learning what he calls “the language of sets.”
“We aren’t just medics, we are SET medics,” Mancuso stresses, underscoring the importance of knowing the business of making films and television shows. Mancuso became a member of Local 767 in 1995 after getting his first big break on the Universal Studios feature Ed.
After 1995, Lance’s set medic career took off, taking him all over the world to follow work where he could get it. “You never know where you are going to be tomorrow,” Mancuso explains, “One day you might find yourself on the unemployment line, or you might be on the chow line of a big picture.” The unpredictability of the work means a career as a set medic isn’t for everyone.
Film Works staffers interviewed Lance on the production stages of CSI: New York, which recently wrapped production for the season. Even though only a small crew of five was left taking down sets, Mancuso had enough medical equipment and supplies at his station to treat a fully-staffed crew. Lance said he’s used to sitting on the sidelines for hours on end, joking that he feels “like a school nurse with nothing to do.” But at any given moment, all hell can break loose.
“People can — and do — die working on film sets and serious injury is always possible,” Mancuso explains. When something does go wrong, like a heart attack in a distant location or a severed finger during set construction, set medics are the first responders on the scene.
An illustration of why set medics are important happened in 2010 in New York on the set of Black Swan. While filming a rigorous dance sequence, actress Natalie Portman dislocated one of her ribs. She recounted the experience on The David Letterman Show and expressed concern that the production had failed to hire a set medic for the shoot that day.
“I don’t even think that’s legal!” Portman said. “Before you take away a medic, take away my trailer!”
The very next day, Portman’s trailer was gone, but a set medic was on hand. Representatives from Local 767 sent Portman a large bouquet of flowers and showered the actress with praise for speaking out in support of their jobs. To the set medics, Mancuso mused, Portman came out looking like a hero.
Here at Film Works, and on behalf of film crews around the world, we’d like to salute some other heroes: our set medics.