Andrea Sachs is much more comfortable controlling the spotlight than she is underneath it.
She had a hand in the light that dappled the frogs in the series of mid-'90s Budweiser ads, and in the soft, eerie glow that perpetuates Diana Ross' music video "Pieces of Ice."
Sachs is a gaffer, the head of the lighting department on a film set. She currently works on Carls Jr. commercials.
Even when she was very young, Sachs knew where she belonged, despite what others told her. She became fascinated with lighting as a child, when she traveled with her mother and stepfather, both touring musicians. Her mother tried to get her singing, but she was more interested in gazing at the light in dust particles than she was in having other people gaze at her.
In high school she wanted to learn mechanics, but was only allowed to take sewing and typing. "They said, you're probably going to be a mom by the time you're 18 or 20," she says, "And I said, 'Well, shit.'"
When she first came to California in 1990, she says there were no other women working in set lighting, and she was intimidated. She worked through it. "I didn't have this feminist attitude. I just really loved being on set," she says. "It's kind of the idea of dying with your boots on. I wanted to go down with my boots on."
Gender roles are not as rigid as they used to be, but Sachs, now 56, says that women still tend to be timid when it comes to using tools and doing physically demanding work. "It boils down to confidence," she says. "It's not that we're not capable." This might help explain why even now, there are only 74 women who belong to IASTEC 728, the Hollywood set lighting union, which has 2470 members altogether.
Michael Taylor, a juicer and IASTEC 728 member, questioned whether women could handle set lighting work before he had the opportunity to work with them. Juicers do the heavy lifting in set lighting. More senior positions, like "best boy" and gaffer, are less physically demanding, but working as a juicer is a right of passage to get to those positions.
"I was skeptical at first," says Taylor. "I wondered if women would have the strength to pull their full weight on the crew."
Women who work on set sense this skepticism, and often work extra hard to fight it. "As a girl you do try to prove yourself," says Trish Herremans, who has established herself as a "best boy" after years of doing heavy lifting. Recalling her first jobs in Los Angeles, she remembers throwing one 85-pound cable over each shoulder of her 5'4" frame and walking across set, enjoying her coworkers' astonished looks.
Taylor says that after working with women in set lighting, he now admires their "courage to walk into what was for so long a man's world - a hard, crude, unwelcoming world at that - and carving out a place for themselves." He also respects their professionalism: "The presence of a woman on the crew - assuming she has that all-important good sense of humor - helps tone down the crude talk and behavior that often comes with an all-male crew."
Film sets are famous for their macho environments, battling egos and crude jokes. Herremans says that she tends to listen more than she talks on set, but she feels right at home in the crossfire of on-set banter, "When I first moved to L.A., I was working on a show with a group of guys. And I was a new person, little quiet, did what I needed to do," she says.
The first time she said something unprintable into her walkie-talkie, the director of photography was shocked. For a moment, Herremans thought that her mouth had gotten her in trouble, as she says it often does, but "then he was like, 'I had been holding my tongue for two weeks because I thought you didn't swear. And I didn't say anything nasty over the radio!'"
Dessie Coale, another IATSE 728 member who has worked on films including The Fast and the Furious, also enjoys the rough vibe on set. She is more offended by the idea that she can't take a joke because she's a girl than she is by sexual humor. "Whatever you're gonna say to me, I'm gonna say it right back, probably," she says. She thinks her skin is thick because she is a "minority of a minority" as one of the only lesbians in the union. "You think you might meet a lot of gay women that work at this job. But no. It's totally weird."
Thriving in this atmosphere has given Herremans the opportunity to succeed in a way she never thought she could. "It's a good living," she says, "As a single girl in L.A., I don't have any wants. I have a comfortable life, which is never what I thought I would have coming form a small farm in Michigan."
Coale says that working in set lighting has led her to discover physical potential she didn't know she had. "I never thought of myself as having the potential to be very muscular. And all of a sudden I'm building all of these crazy muscles, and it was nice. I'd just discovered my body, which I'd never paid attention to before."
The years working in set lighting also helped Sachs discover multiple sides of herself. At work, she is expected to downplay her gender. "Your feminine thing is always going to be there but you can't throw it in somebody's face," she says, as she explains the way she dresses - jeans and a baggy t-shirt, no jewelry, no makeup. For many years, she felt pressured to cater to these standards all the time, and it wasn't until she was established in an authoritative position that she realized she didn't have to. Now that she has gained confidence in her identity on set, she feels more free to let go of it once work is over. "I really love doing this because I can go out tomorrow and feel totally comfortable in a gown and heels," she says. "You can go 360. It took me a long time to learn that."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Hannah Harris Green on Twitter:
Public Spectacle, L.A. Weekly's arts & culture blog, on Facebook and Twitter: