Filming takes place over a ‘shooting day,’ which is whenever shooting is scheduled for, regardless of whether it’s light or dark. The ‘lunch break’ is called, usually by the assistant director, halfway through whatever period has been set for filming. That means that you could be having ‘lunch’ at 3:30 in the morning, or 7:00 at night.
On larger sets in the US, there’s often a rule of ‘last man through,’ which holds that as soon as the last union member of the crew on set is through the lunch line, whoever is keeping track calls out “Last man through!,” at which point there are 30 minutes for everyone to eat and finish lunch.
While US film sets will usually set aside large areas with tables for mealtimes, meals in the UK are often eaten in retired buses due to space restrictions, particularly on heritage sites used for historical dramas or in urban settings such as central London where it’s simpler to park up a bus rather than haggle for valuable square footage.
Dining buses like this one will serve lunch on the folding tables which cast and crew will then carry into the bus to eat.
Besides the peculiarity of the timing, there’s an accepted etiquette and countless rules, spoken and unspoken, surrounding lunch. Among the unspoken, for example, is the expectation that, while the director has every right to jump to the head of the queue at mealtimes, they’d better not if they don’t want to upset the crew.
Breaks are so sacred on set that organisations such as the UK’s Advertising Producers’ Association has codified penalties for missed or curtailed mealtimes, including penalties and allowances to be paid for missed breaks. Production companies will also agree to provide meals in hard-to-reach places, such as wilderness or desert.
There are also ‘walkaway lunches,’ which offer a small amount of cash to cast and crew to literally walk away from the set, purchase lunch, and return within an hour. Dinner doesn’t exist - instead there’s the ‘second meal,’ which is called six hours after the end of lunch (‘first meal’), which follows much the same rules. Crews can stipulate rules for meals, such as ‘no sandwiches,’ or ‘no Chinese twice in a row.’ It’s generally understood that a good way to ensure a smooth production is to keep the cast and crew fed on time and within a set’s peculiar idea of good form.
Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart making sandwiches at lunch on the set of 'The African Queen' (1951), much of which was filmed in Uganda and what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Catering required an entire raft of its own. “All I ate was baked beans, canned asparagus and Scotch whisky," Bogart later recalled.