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Unrest in the West

Jun 13, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Some of the Native Americans who worked on TNT’s 12-hour miniseries “Into the West” allege they faced harsh working conditions, were frequently underpaid and that the production violated child labor laws.

The charges emerged from numerous interviews with Native American extras and crew members. Many of the background performers drove across the country to participate in a miniseries executive produced by Steven Spielberg and dramatizing their cultural history, only to be overworked and undercompensated, sources said.

“They weren’t being abused, but they were being undermined, underpaid and being taken advantage of,” said one casting department crew member and cultural liaison who quit in protest over the extras’ working conditions.

In response to TelevisionWeek’s questions about the allegations, TNT and DreamWorks issued a joint statement: “‘Into the West’ employed more than a thousand film professionals and the production treated everyone with care, respect and concern for their well-being. We take these specific complaints seriously and will look into them immediately.”

“Into the West,” which was scheduled to premiere last Friday night, is the most expensive production in TNT’s history and executives have said they envision the miniseries as “the television event of the year.” Some reported estimates put the total cost of producing and marketing the miniseries at more than $100 million. The first three parts of the DreamWorks Television production were shot in Canada. The latter three parts were shot in northern New Mexico, outside Santa Fe.

By all accounts, the four-month New Mexico shoot was grueling for cast and crew. Recent stories in Entertainment Weekly and The Boston Globe quoted actors detailing the harsh weather conditions. The New Mexico winter broke rainfall records, and the production endured snow, rain, mud and freezing temperatures.

But those working on the production claim the weather conditions were only one of the problems the Native American extras faced. Though many of their complaints are common for on-location shoots and were often shared by the non-Native American extras, the allegations are problematic for a miniseries that TNT counted on the Native American community embracing.

“It was the worst conditions I have ever worked under,” said Marcos Akiaten from Orange County, Calif., who has appeared as an extra in several productions. “Not just weather conditions, but the treatment of us and the accommodations.”

For example, sources said underage performers were worked as long and hard as their adult counterparts-up to 15 hours per day-and were typically not provided with tutors, contrary to applicable laws.

Roberta Trujillo said the production promised that tutors would be provided for her son Kyle, 16, who was cast as a featured extra. As weeks passed, Ms. Trujillo said no tutors were available and crew members gave her varying excuses.

“They told us when we first signed up, they said if he can get out of school, then they’ll have tutors,” Ms. Trujillo said. “By the last week they said they didn’t have tutors unless you had a principal role. Now he’s flunked and has to go to summer school and it’s going to cost $700 that I don’t have.”

The casting liaison confirmed the lack of tutors: “On [episode] four, tutors were provided, but none for five and six.”

According to the New Mexico Department of Labor, children ages 9 to 16 working in the entertainment industry can work nine hours, but three hours must include tutoring. Children under nine can only work three hours per day, between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. New Mexico background performers are not covered by a union.

Payroll problems were another common complaint. Extras were paid $6 an hour; $8 if they rode horseback and received time-and-a-half after eight hours. But the Native American extras-many of whom were living hand-to-mouth-said their paychecks were often delayed or reduced from what they were promised.

Some, like Shayai Lucero, were promised “stunt bumps” (added compensation for falling down, tumbling off a horse, etc.) that never materialized, she said.

“I was excited to be there, but from talking to people there were a lot of promises made that weren’t fulfilled,” Ms. Lucero said.

Nigel Harvey drove to the production from Arizona and typically slept in his car during his four months on the shoot. He claims he still hasn’t received some of his pay and stunt-bump fees.

“We were throwing ourselves off horses, jumping off horses. It was maybe 25 degrees out,” Mr. Harvey said. “The stunt coordinator said we’d get paid an extra hundred [for stunt bumps]. … I still haven’t been paid for stunts.”

Shelter and compensation for travel were typically not provided for the extras, who often had to choose between banding together for a motel room (at a $30 discounted rate arranged by the production) or sleeping in their cars despite the freezing temperatures.

One veteran New Mexico-area casting director familiar with the situation said many of the lodging and payroll problems faced by extras on “Into the West” are common. But the casting director said productions typically attempt to compensate those who are adversely affected.

“There’s always an uphill battle in the world of casting extras,” the casting director said. “And it’s always a budgetary concern. But there needs to be adjustments made when there’s horrible inclement weather for long periods of time. You need to take care of people properly who’re working hours and hours with no food. On this particular movie [the casting directors] had to be human rights advocates.”

Non-Native American extras on “Into the West” faced many of the same difficulties as the Native extras. The key distinction was that Natives included family members of all ages who traveled long distances and were lightly dressed compared with the heavily costumed non-Natives portraying cavalry soldiers.

“A lot of Natives took pride in what this movie was going to be about, so they drove a long way,” Mr. Harvey said. “There was never a good day there.”

Shelley Morningsong said she drove from California with her husband to join the shoot. Though she has background performer experience, she said “Into the West” was a unique situation.

“We thought it would be really fun,” Ms. Morningsong said. “But they were very disrespectful to us. It was freezing conditions and rain and they did not provide a warm place for us, and we had a lot of elders and small children. After begging them, they brought one heater out.”

One oft-cited January incident occurred when busses left extras behind on the set during a storm. “It was raining and really cold, the women and children had to walk back to the tents, and when they got back their hair was frozen together, some got sick,” Mr. Harvey said. “That was pretty messed up.”

Meals were another point of contention. Extras typically received breakfast and lunch, but sometimes the shoot ran into the night and the cast and crew were served dinner while the extras watched.

“We would sit there watching the crew eat dinner,” Ms. Morningsong said. “But if we left and they needed us, we lost a whole day’s pay. The few people who spoke up were told to leave.”

After some background performers took extra food from a craft services table, they were told they “abused their privileges” and extras were no longer allowed near food setups , sources said.

“That sounds horrendous if they weren’t allowed to have an extra meal,” said the veteran casting director. “That’s not typically the way you do things.

One casting crew member said that despite all the hardships, she was very proud of the extras.

“The extras sacrificed more than anybody who’ll ever watch this movie will ever know,” she said. “And the fact of the matter is, they couldn’t have made ‘Into the West’ without them.”

Natalie Verdugo contributed to this report.