Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Sunday, April 26, 2015


                                The road not taken...

While wandering the wilds of cyberspace the other day, I came across this item, which sent my mind spinning back into the past. That's been happening a lot lately, which means either I'm getting too goddamned old, or it's time to go back to work.  

I don't much like the sound of the former, so I'll just wrap myself in the warm blanket of denial in choosing the latter… 

Well before I fell off the turnip truck and rolled into Hollywood, Noel Marshall and Tippi Hedren embarked on what would be a long and grueling production of an independent feature called Roar.  As the title indicates, the drama had a lot to do with big cats -- very big cats.  On their desert compound north of Los Angeles, Noel and Tippi had assembled an army of more than 130 lions, tigers, panthers and jaguars to use in this very expensive home movie.

Since every one of those big cats was real -- no CGI back in those days -- this was an exceedingly dangerous project. By the time it was over, seventy people on the cast and crew had been injured, including Tippi’s daughter (the young Melanie Griffith) and cinematographer Jan de Bont, who was nearly scalped by a lion that inflicted a wound  requiring two hundred stitches to close.

Between the ever-diligent legions of PETA and modern set safety protocols, I don’t think it would be possible to shoot a film like Roar in California these days. For better or worse, those were simpler times.

Noel and Tippi persevered through all the trouble, halting production when necessary, then gearing up again.  A violent storm ripped through the compound one night, releasing many of the big cats into the surrounding desert community north of LA. Several were shot by police in the chaos that followed. The storm also wrecked the crew housing facilities, dealing a one-two punch to the production. Given the start-stop nature of the job, crew members came and went, which is how half of non-union Hollywood ended up working on the movie at one time or another.

Meanwhile, I'd come to town and -- after a couple of months staring at the smog and wondering what the hell I'd gotten myself into -- I began working and gaining experience. By the time the Roar production got around to calling me, I'd left the PA ranks for good and was working sporadically as a grip-trician. I’d heard rumors about the movie, of course, and was intrigued by the idea of working around all those big cats, but the deal was lousy: $250 for working a six-day week.* That would have been tolerable if they'd provided me a place to stay out there while working, but with no crew housing left, my choice was to stay in a hotel on my own nickle -- which would eat up half my paycheck -- or make the 120 mile commute every day. Driving would be marginally cheaper (my car was a wheezing Oldsmobile V-8  that got 15 freeway m.p.g. on a good day), but adding two and a half hours of drive time to each twelve hour (or more) work day seemed like a deal-breaker.

Despite all that, I might have taken the job if they'd asked me to be a grip or juicer -- working with a new crew and gaining experience could have been worth it -- but instead they wanted me to run the generator, which meant I wouldn’t even be on set. Instead, I’d be stuck next to the genny breathing diesel fumes all day long.

Then there was the minor detail that I knew nothing at all about running a generator at the time.**

Still, I struggled with the decision. The deal sucked, but hell, it was a job on a movie... so I called a key grip for advice -- a very experienced guy I'd worked with and for whom I had a world of respect.  His reply was blunt, without a trace of ambiguity or hesitation.  
“Only an asshole would take that job.” 
I turned it down and moved on. My phone rang with other jobs, and slowly I gained experience, eventually moving up the ladder from juicing to Best Boy, and finally Gaffer.  As luck would have it, my Best Boy by then turned out to have been one of the many who’d crewed on Roar, and he had some great stories about that job. Some of his stories seemed a little too good, though, so I listened with a proverbial grain of salt. Sensing my skepticism, he brought a videotape to the set one day.  We were working long hours, and I told him I didn’t know when I’d have time to sit down and see the movie.
“You don't have to,” he said, with a knowing smile. “Just watch the first half hour.”  
So I popped the cassette into the VCR when I got home, then poured myself a stiff drink and settled in. The opening sequences in Africa were interesting, but nothing unusual, then the action moved to the main set, a big, rambling two-story house where the family lived.
My jaw dropped. I’d never seen so many big cats on screen before -- there were dozens of lions in front of the house, lying on the porch, inside the front door, all over the first floor, crowding the stairs and on up to the second floor. The actors waded right through that sea of lions as though they were just overgrown house cats. 
My eyes took all this in, but my brain could hardly believe it. Everything my Best Boy had said was true, and then some -- if anything, he’d understated how many lions were on that set.  
Needless to say, his credibility rose considerably after that.  
There's lots of information on the web about Roar, including this hair-raising account by a young camera assistant who worked for six months on the movie in 1978, an eye-opening piece on that shows just how casual the entire Marshall/Hedrin family was about living with those huge cats, and a terrific post on Black Hole Reviews with photos from the set, including a gruesome shot of Jan de Bont's head after it was stitched up.
The New York Times weighed in with a brief review, and clips of Roar can be found on Utube -- the real action starts about seven minutes into the Part One, but you'll have to go on to Part Two to appreciate just how many of those big cats were on that set.
At this point -- thirty-five years later -- I still have mixed feelings about passing up my chance to work on Roar. I didn't know enough back then to understand that I could have worked my way off genny duty and onto the set as a juicer or grip -- especially once the production realized I had no idea how to run and service a generator. No doubt I'd have been scared as hell in such close proximity to so many big cats, but that was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and part of me will always wish I'd experienced it.
So it goes. Choices are inevitable in life, and none of us can do it all. Still, Roar is not dead and gone, but will soon be back in theaters. Although I can't really recommend it as a cinematic drama, it really is one hell of a spectacle, especially when you know the behind-the-scenes backstory.
Which you will, once you follow all the links in this post…

* Roughly $700 in today's funny money.

** A few years later I’d Best Boy a non-union feature in the snows of Vermont, where my men-and-equipment duties included running the genny and doing periodic maintenance -- changing the oil, filter, and fuel filters to keep the beast humming through those cold days and nights -- but all that lay in the future.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Warren Oates

        The late, great Warren Oates: July 5, 1928 -- April 3, 1982

(Note: Being that I haven't worked since my show died and went to Hollywood Heaven, I don't have much to say about life on set at the moment -- so pardon me while I digress.)

Every journey begins with the first step, so they say, and the genesis of my own Hollywood adventure traces directly back to a single class I took on a lark during the final quarter of my first year at a real college. After dutifully fulfilling the requirements of my local home-town J.C., I transferred to the university as a junior, and managed to get through the first two quarters without being kicked out. But as spring quarter rolled around, only two of the classes being offered applied to the major I'd chosen at the time, leaving a blank spot on my curriculum.  

At liberty to take any class I wanted, I chose one called "The Screenplay," which  sounded like fun.  More than fun -- and I had a blast -- that class marked the turning point in my young life, setting me on the path to Hollywood.

We saw dozens movies I'd never even heard of (everything from Pierrot le Fou  to The Lady from Shanghai), then read and discussed a number of screenplays.*  As a final project, we each had to write the first twenty pages of our own original screenplay. 

During the course of that quarter, Esquire Magazine (which was a big deal back then) came out with a sensational issue that instantly became required reading for the class. On the cover was the starlet of a yet-to-be-released movie called Two Lane Blacktop, written by Rudy Wurlitzer and directed by Monte Hellman, staring two very popular musicians of the time -- James Taylor and Dennis Wilson -- and a young model-turned-actress named Laurie Bird. Hailing the film as "movie of the year," Esquire printed the entirety of Rudy Wurlitzer's screenplay in this issue.

                                  Esquire Magazine, April 1971

For a mainstream-media magazine to print the screenplay of a low-budget movie yet to hit theaters was unheard of -- I'm not sure it's happened before or since -- and better yet, the screenplay was a terrific read. I loved it, and couldn't wait to see the film.

But the trouble with great expectations is that they seldom survive the difficult transition to reality, which can lead to a huge letdown. That's what happened with Two Lane Blacktop. The movie was gritty and bleak, all right -- that much I liked -- but James Taylor was hands-down the worst actor I'd ever seen in a Hollywood movie, and although Brian Wilson wasn't nearly so bad, that's mostly because the script didn't allow him to say much.** Laurie Bird -- who would come to a sad end eight years later -- didn't exactly light up the screen either, but  seemed to have been cast for her waifish, petulant-tomboy looks more than anything else.  I never quite understood her appeal, but the youth-oriented counter culture back then was infatuated by an emaciated, sexless vision of femininity best exemplified by Twiggyone of the top models of the time. 

Put it this way: as an actress, Laurie Bird was a great model.

Esquire's enthusiasm cooled considerably once the film was released. "The screenplay was wonderful," the magazine said, "but the film was vapid."

I wish I could argue with their assessment, but I can't.

Still, there was an actor in Two Lane Blacktop I'd never seen before, a young man named Warren Oates, who stole every scene in which he appeared. Whether he was really that good or simply seemed so in comparison to the three cigar-store Indians sharing the screen is unclear -- I'd have to take another look at the film to make that judgement -- but Warren Oates turned out to be the best thing about that movie. He single-handedly saved it from being an unwatchable mess.

Oates enjoyed a solid if unspectacular career in television before jumping to features, where he lit up the screen in some seriously strange but interesting movies over the next decade -- several directed by the legendary Sam Pekinpah, including the indisputable classic The Wild Bunch

Yeah, I know -- it's a western, the very notion of which doubtless bores the pants off a generation weaned on movies laden with routine interstellar space travel, exploding planets, and hideous alien monsters from distant worlds. Hell, there aren't even any cars falling out of airplanes, computer graphics, thunderous soundtracks, Hip-Hop stars or Scientologist actors in it.  

                                                  The Wild Bunch

Bit it does have Ben Johnson, Warran Oates, William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Edmond O'Brian, and the great Robert Ryan, among others, all of whom deliver indelible performances in a film so tightly constructed that there's not an ounce of fat anywhere. Sam Pekinpah was at the peak of his creative powers when he directed The Wild Bunch, and if you haven't seen it, you owe it to yourself to do so. It's a  great film.***

And part of what makes it great is Warren Oates.

Oates made some bizarre movies, perhaps the most extreme being Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, in which he spends a good portion of the movie driving through Mexico mumbling to himself with a severed head in a gunny sack sitting next to him on the front seat of the car. But in whatever roles he took, Warren Oates owned the screen -- when he was up there, you could not look away. He was a compelling actor. As film writer David Thomson said: "It's hard to think of Oates playing an unqualified optimist. There's something in his face, the way he looks at things, that suggests a readiness for failure or darkness." 

That's classic British understatement, because however much a viewer might like the characters Oates inhabited -- and his specialty was playing the troubled-but-charming rogue -- there was seldom any doubt things would go badly for him by the end of the movie.

The best way to appreciate Warren Oates is to see his films, but if you're wavering on that, check out this website -- then click on over to Across the Border, a documentary about Oates narrated (and partially produced, I believe) by Ned Beatty.  It's less than an hour, but will give you a good sense of  who and what Warren Oates really was -- a uniquely gifted actor.

After that, rent The Wild Bunch. Anybody who claims to have studied film, but hasn't yet watched that movie, has an incomplete education at best. Not only will you get to see a terrific movie (and in the process learn something about constructing tight, suspenseful scenes without space ships or computer graphics), you'll experience the incandescent glory of Warren Oates on the big screen. 

He died much too young -- and his death came as a shock.  Warren Oates was only 53, and if that seemed a bit old to me then (being that I was a callow 31 the day he died), the subsequent thirty-three years changed my perspective. Hell, he was just getting started, but the heart attack that killed him cheated all of us in the movie-loving world out of another two decades worth of memorable roles. Such is life, I suppose, where the good die young and the rest of us shuffle off this mortal coil in our own sweet time. 

Warren Oates was an American original, and something very special.  Do yourself a favor and check out some of his moves.  You won't be wasting your time.

(Not everybody shares my opinion of Two Lane Blacktop, and truth be told, I really should watch it again before passing judgement -- and maybe I will.  Meanwhile, for an interesting spectrum of different views on that film, check out  these websites.)

Selvedge Yard
Rotten Tomatoes
Looking for Two Lane Blacktop
New Yorker Movie of the Week

*  I'll have more to say about Lady from Shanghai next time.

** To be fair, James Taylor was not an actor -- he was a very good, gentle, sensitive folk/pop musician -- so it was entirely unreasonable to think he could deliver an acceptable performance as a tough-talking, hard-ass drag racer.  Bad casting will kill you every time.

*** Don't believe me? Then read this, then make sure you see the studio version.  For all the crap Sid Sheinberg took from the creative community (and Sam Pekinpah) for overruling the director and making a few small-but-crucial cuts, his version of "The Wild Bunch" works better than the Pekinpah Director's Cut.  Hey, everybody needs an editor… 

Sunday, April 5, 2015


                              Prometheus unchained…
                (photo by Ellsworth Chou -- lightning scissors by Don Tomich)

Civilians, film students, Hollywood newbies, and any juicers who entered the business during the last fifteen years can be forgiven for wondering what the hell is going on in this photo -- a man clad in shorts and a T shirt (standard uniform for electric and grip here in LA) wearing a welding helmet while operating some crude-but-infernally bright device hidden behind that reflector board. This juicer looks like he's channeling the power of the sun in the dark of night. 

Prometheus indeed -- on steroids -- because what you're looking at here is the creation of simulated lightning on set, old-school style.

Along with earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, and tsunamis, lightning is one of Mother Nature's most spectacular and dangerous phenomena. Watching a lightning strike from afar is impressive, but experiencing one up close is something you’ll never forget.  During a round-the-country motorcycle trip in my pre-Hollywood years (it was the summer of 1970, a year after “Easy Rider” came out, and I couldn’t resist), I took shelter from a sudden downpour under an overpass in New Orleans moments before a blast of lightning struck very nearby. I use the word “blast” on purpose, because at that moment I really thought a bomb had gone off -- the blinding flash and end-of-the-world-thunder-clap were simultaneous, meaning it probably hit within a hundred feet of where I stood. 

This was nothing at all like the lightning I’d seen from a distance back home in California, and it was utterly terrifying. I'd had no clue that an electrical bomb of such incredible force was about to go off. 

I gained a massive respect for Mother Nature’s electricity that day.

Lightning has played a big role in movies since the early days of Hollywood, from the putative life-giving properties of sparks from the sky in Jame’s Whale’s “Frankenstein” to malevolent aliens riding lightning bolts beneath the earth in the most recent cinematic incarnation of “War of the Worlds.”

For many years, there was only one way to create state-of-the-art lightning effects on set -- using a crude device called "lightning scissors," comprised of two six-foot long two-by-fours joined in the middle by a single metal bolt like a pair of giant wooden scissors.  At the business end (hidden by the reflector board in the photo) were two tightly-bound bundles of seven positive arc carbons -- one bundle wired to each board so they could be brought together by working the handles at the other end.*  Heavy electrical cables (4/0, if I recall correctly) ran to each bundle of carbons, one positive leg and one negative, feeding back to a D.C. generator.  Given the enormous and sudden demand created by lightning scissors --which essentially created a controlled dead-short in the circuit), we had to rent a second generator strictly for the lightning effect.  If we'd tried to use the same genny that powered the set lighting lamps, the whole set would likely have gone dark. 

When those carbons were brought together, an enormous flaming spark would erupt, allowing an experienced operator (and it had to be done right) to create a convincing illusion of lightning.  The instant that spark flared, the genny would start rocking violently from side to side as it the Devil himself was in there, desperate to get out. The flame was like that of a giant arc welder, and looking at it with unprotected eyes would do serious damage to any viewer -- thus the welding helmet for the operator, and the reflector boards placed to save the retinas of crew and bystanders.

During my Best Boy and Gaffing days, my source for Lightning Scissors was the Paramount Pictures lamp dock.  While ordering a set for a commercial one day, I asked the head man at the dock what would happen if I hooked it up to A.C. instead of D.C. power.  

There was a slight pause.

"Do you own a house?" he asked.


I was about to ask what that had to do with anything when the old phrase "D.C. burns, but A.C. kills" came back to me -- and his point sank home.  "Don't do it," he was warning, because the legal liability if something went wrong would rest squarely on my shoulders.  

And if I owned a house, I might well lose it in the subsequent legal shit-storm.

But once on set, I tried it anyway, taking hold of the scissors myself after making sure all my crew were well out of the way.  I won't deny that I was a bit nervous… but the results were both anti-climactic and disappointing.  Nothing blew up, but the A.C. spark between those carbons didn't provide anything like the effect of D.C. -- it was more like a giant 4th of July sparkler rather than a lightning effect -- so we went back to D.C. to film the scene.

Another company eventually came up with a more sophisticated D.C. rig involving a spring-loaded plunger inside a big plexiglass box, which was more contained, safer, and less likely  to blind hapless innocents on set... but it wasn't nearly as much fun to operate.

I first saw "lightning shutters" in the late-80's -- a frame mounted on the front of a lamp with a row of sturdy metal "venetian-blinds" that could be rapidly flipped open and closed to create a lightning effect.  Most of the shutters I used were hand-operated, which invariably created difficulties when more than one had to be used in a shot.  Given that most juicers march to their very own drummers, getting two or three of us to operate our shutters in unison was always problematic. To solve that, somebody came up with an elaborate system of shutters operated by electric motors, thus allowing multiple units to operate in sync without fallible humans getting in the way.  This seemed like a great idea until we actually tried to use it on set.  

Like all lightning shutters, these worked like a charm at room temperature, but when mounted on a big hot lamp, the metal in those shutters would heat up fast -- especially when in the closed position, where they had to be during the beginning of a shot.  If they remained closed for more than thirty seconds, they'd usually stick and jam in a half-open position. All we could do then was turn the lamp off, open the shutters,  and wait for them to cool before trying again.

An imperfect technology for a highly imperfect world.

All these devices -- lightning scissors, plungers, and shutters -- are gone now, joining so many other good-ideas-at-the-time on the ash-heap of Hollywood history, and all because of one man.  In the early 90's, David Pringle started making the rounds with a brand new lamp he called Lightning Strikes. Developed in China, these high-output A.C. bulbs could emit a tremendous blast of light in a much more contained and controllable manner than the crude D.C. methods, and they only needed a 100 amp power supply.  No separate (and expensive) genny was required.  In the early days, David would bring the Lightning Strikes unit to the set personally, then wait until we'd finished -- not because he thought we'd steal the technology, but because those bulbs had a habit of burning out, and he kept a supply of spares in the trunk of his car.  Eventually the bugs were worked out, and the technology applied to a wide spectrum of lamps to meet the needs of large and small budget productions.  

Lightning Strikes works wonderfully well, and has been the state of the art in simulated lightning for many years now, but the last time we needed to create lightning on set, we employed an RGB LED lamp, and it worked fine. I'm not sure LED technology is ready to supplant Lightning Strikes in all applications just yet, but that day is probably coming soon… at which point there will be one more addition to the pile of discarded lightning technology.

And although I've had my fun over the years using Lightning Strikes units, there was nothing quite like operating those old D.C. lightning scissors.**

That was a blast...

 A picture would be worth a thousand words here, but I couldn't find one on the internet.  If any of you can, please send it along so I can amend this post -- and I'll give you credit

** Yeah, the post this link takes you to is called "Grips: Part One" -- but trust me, it contains a story about the wildest time I ever had using Lightning Strikes.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Just for the Hell of It -- Episode Nineteen

Not an April Fool's Joke
         (Photo courtesy of Bobby Ellerby at Eyes of a Generation)

Although I'm a big fan of the highly inventive bubble-gum-and-baling-wire rigs featured at Shitty Rigs, it's always interesting to see how the pros get it done when money, expertise, and equipment are not limiting factors.  This camera rig (from a pilot called Game of Silence) is impressive, with a driver box up top -- where the real driver will control the car -- and at least four cameras rigged to get simultaneous coverage of the actors in the front and back seats. After the passenger side cameras get what the director needs, they'll probably be flipped to the driver's side for the reverse angles.

That's how the magic is made in the dream factories of Hollywood.*

Whether any of this will make for a good show remains to be seen - NBC hasn't exactly distinguished itself by airing good programs the past few years, but neither have the other broadcast networks.

As usual, the really good stuff is still on cable.


Next up, the latest column from Tim Goodman, head TV critic for the Hollywood Reporter, dissecting the shit-storm Trevor Noah (due to replace Jon Stewart on "The Daily Show") recently kicked up.   Comedy, it seems, is an edgy art that does not always translate well to twitter.

As Goodman put it: 

"Twitter, unfortunately, is an imperfect bridge between these worlds. Ply your work there at your own peril. Because the nature of the user experience goes beyond people merely unfollowing you. It allows for them to call you out and highlight jokes as emblematic of your beliefs and as indications of your personality in a way that no one in a comedy club could. For comedians on Twitter, the opportunity to have your jokes "land wrong" is ever present. And the viral nature of the social media platform can distort things very quickly"

Indeed.  Goodman's columns are always worth reading. 

Last, another gem from Gavin Polone, veteran producer, television director and former talent agent -- in other words, a guy who has been around the Hollywood block enough times to know what he's talking about. In his most recent guest column for THR, he discusses the harsh economic realities of "packaging fees."

No, I'd never heard of a "packaging fee" either, but according to Polone, it's "a large upfront payment and an even larger back-end participation that talent agencies receive for doing exactly what they were supposed to do for the regular 10 percent commission they charge their clients."

Yeah, I know -- this stuff is so far above-the-line that it doesn't have much to do with the realities we face on a daily basis below-the-line, but I found it interesting to learn just what greedy scumbags agents and their agencies can really be.  When one of their own spills the beans, it's usually worth listening.

And from what Polone says, agents are almost as bad as the crooks on Wall Street.

That is all...

* I use"Hollywood" as a generic term here, meaning wherever television and movies are made...

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Just for the Hell of It -- Episode Eighteen

                               Photo of the Week

                  "Molefay on a combo roller on top of a jeep"
                                  Courtesy of Shittyrigs

(Note:  Today's offering is a real grab-bag (or potpourri, if you prefer twenty-five cent words) of disparate items that didn't really fit anywhere else -- which, after all, is the raison d'etra of these JFTHOI posts.)* 

Sometimes you just gotta do what you've gotta do to get a shot, so you have to admire the pluck, determination, and inventiveness of the crew that came up with this lighting rig, complete with branch-a-lorus throwing a nice plant-like shadow on the background, providing a lovely simulation of light filtering through that palm tree.  

Half the fun of this business is making it work with what you've got -- that's what gets the monkey-brain inside all of us really cranking -- so if you haven't stopped by Shitty Rigs lately, you're missing out.  


                                 Quote of the Week

"I'm looking forward to looking back on this"

Jersey Bob,  Digital Imaging Technician **

I have no particular reason for posting that quote, but Bob was a consistent source of snappy one-liners during the run of my now dead-and-gone-forever show -- and like that job, he will be missed.  

By me, anyway.


Here's a very short story I heard the other day that's enough to make any industry veteran cringe.

“Years ago my brother was building sets on a Harrison Ford movie and lost his pager. While Harrison was filming a scene, a pager went off inside a wall. They had to stop filming and cut a hole in that wall to get it out to resume filming.” 

Given that Harrison Ford started out building sets, I can only imagine how this went over…


I do love the eloquent, thoughtful prose of Mick LaSalle, film critic for the San Francisco Chronicle.  Here's a nice example from his recent review of “Jupiter Ascending.”
“Almost every movie about the future is really about the present. In “Star Trek,” the universe of competing powers — the Federation versus the Romulans and Klingons — was really just a blown-out version of the Cold War, with NATO pitted against China and the Soviet Union.  Nearly 50 years later, Andy and Lana Wachowski make entertainment out of a host of modern anxieties in “Jupiter Ascending,” envisioning a future universe in which a handful of elites control technology and can live indefinitely. Meanwhile, the great masses of people live short, manipulated lives of meaninglessness and doom.”
The future?  "Great masses of people living short manipulated lives of meaninglessness and doom" sounds a lot like our world today -- but maybe that's just here in Hollywood.
And last but not least, a video treat from the good people at HBO, called Talking Funny, a roundtable discussion on the subject of comedy with Louis CK, Jerry Seinfeld, Ricky Gervais, and Chris Rock -- four guys who know a little something about the subject. It's not short -- something over half an hour, as I recall -- but definitely worth your time.  

Especially if (like me), you're not working these days.
Check it out…
* That'll be fifty cents, please.

** To learn more about what a Digital Imaging Technician does, click this.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Part Five: Long Night's Journey into Day

Leaving Las Vegas
                                     Lessons learned…

(This is Part Five of the series -- the finale -- which means you really should read the other four parts first (starting here), lest this tale of youthful blundering and ignorance make no sense at all…)

Staring at the wrecked generator on the freeway in the dark Utah night as the occasional semi roared by… what to do next?  Being deep in the pre-digital Analog Age of the late 1970's -- no cell phones, internet, or any of the other digital baubles so essential to modern life -- our only recourse was to wait.

So we waited, pondering the string of near-disasters that had led us to this point.  This was bad, for sure -- a busted-up genny and no way to haul it back to LA -- but compared to what could have happened during any one of our three fateful encounters with reality this day, we'd escaped with the cosmic equivalent of a bitch-slap. The Gods of Karma threw just enough trouble at us to get our full attention, providing a vivid demonstration of how quickly the shit can hit the fan when an easily avoidable problem is ignored and allowed to metastasize -- but that's all.  

Maybe those Gods actually did have a heart, or at least a sense of proportion. 

It wasn't long before a Utah Highway Patrol cruiser pulled over to see what was going on. The officer surveyed the situation, then radioed for a tow truck to get the genny -- nothing but a road hazard now -- off that highway. Twenty minutes later the tow truck was dragging it to a barren field on the outskirts of a nearby town as we followed in the five ton. While unhooking the wreckage, the driver mentioned that he knew a guy with a forklift who could probably be persuaded to help us out.

"There's a U-Haul yard in town," he said. "If Vern can shoehorn this thing into one of their trailers, you just might get it back to LA."

That sounded like a plan. We found a hotel for the night, then got up bright and early the next morning to call Vern the Forklift Man, who agreed to meet us at the genny and see what he could do -- for twenty bucks. Then we hit the Uhaul office to rent a small trailer, and headed for the field. 

Vern turned out to be a genial, taciturn, and very capable fellow -- the kind of guy who says "no problem" to whatever the situation requires, then gets the job done without making a big deal out of it. He maneuvered the forks under the genny and lifted it into the air... but it was just a little too wide to fit inside the trailer.

"No problem," he said, then unbolted both wheels from the genny and easing it into the trailer, thus earning every penny of that twenty dollar bill. We shoved the wheels and what was left of the tongue in with the rest of the wreckage, and were more or less good to go. 

Granted, we were bleary-eyed with fatigue, running low on cash, and considerably more humble than we'd been just 24 hours before, but it was time finish this long, troubled journey.  

I'd been at the wheel most of the way thus far -- why, I really don't know -- and all that driving finally worn me down. Crashing hard from the combined effects of adrenaline, Jack Daniels,  amphetamines, and very little sleep, I surrendered the wheel to my partner in crime, then slumped in the passenger's seat to watch the scenery go by as we crawled through Utah into Nevada, and finally Las Vegas. Following orders dictated in Sun Valley ("Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke," were the Gaffer's exact words), we returned those thirty-six expensive FAY globes to the rental house in Las Vegas without mentioning that every single one was now burned-out and useless. The Gaffer would have to deal with the family shit-storm once his rental-house relatives figured it out -- which they would -- but our only concern now was to get this truck back to LA.

That final three hundred miles was one long, ugly grind. I slept much of the way, occasionally coming to in the endless dark, then falling back asleep. I finally awoke for good as we passed through the barren desolation of San Bernardino, watching the sky brighten as we rolled into LA. 

In contrast with Day One of our return journey, Day Two ended not with a bang, but a quiet whimper. The owner of the rental house  -- old, fat, and sullen -- stood on the loading dock with a few of his warehouse crew, watching in silence as we pulled into the yard, parked the truck, pulled our bags from the back, then threw them in the car.    

Nobody said a word: not us, not him, not them. That UHaul trailer hitched to the back of the truck -- where the generator used to be -- said it all. 

We were beyond caring at that point, hollow-eyed with exhaustion and done with this job in more ways than one. Fuck the genny, fuck the truck, and fuck the Uhaul trailer -- somebody else could deal with all that.  And apparently someone did, because I never heard another word about it.

It took me years to realize it, but I'd learned more life-lessons on that first distant location job than during my previous two-and-a-half decades on earth. This was only the start of my post-graduate education, of course -- the lessons would keep coming, one after another, as the years piled on. Truth be told, I'm still learning on set to this day, thirty-odd years later. If you're paying attention, the learning never stops.

We met the Gaffer for breakfast at a Denny's in the valley a week later, where he paid us each $750 in cash for those two hard weeks.  Fully rested and recovered by then, I was thrilled. Up to that point, the most I'd made in Hollywood was $65 a day on a cheap commercial for "Lee's Bar Stools," featuring a guy with a chainsaw sawing (what else…) a bar stool in half on camera to prove it was made of real wood.  

Classy, huh?  But you take what you can get when you're starting out, and back then, $750  was a king's ransom to me.**

I never heard any blowback about the generator we destroyed or the great FAY globe burn, and can only assume that the Gaffer and his relatives settled things their own way, within the family.**  Whatever -- that was their business, not mine -- but the lessons I learned on that Sun Valley adventure formed the foundation upon which my Hollywood education would subsequently take shape, and they've served me well ever since. Those were lessons learned the hard way, the kind you don't forget. Ask any industry veteran: one way or another, we've all been there at some point in our careers.  

I went on to work dozens of distant locations over the next twenty years (before retreating to the world of multi-camera shows on stage) and although each was challenging in its own way -- for very different reasons -- there's only one first time for everything.  

Sun Valley was my first, and like the song says, "there's nothing like the very first time."

I wouldn't want to do it again, but I'm glad I did it then -- and survived.

* Roughly $2,200 nowadays.

** A little google research and an inflation calculator revealed that the cost of those blown FAY globes back then would be well over $4000 in today's money. That's quite a burn.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Just for the Hell of It -- Episode Seventeen

A Few Random Musings on Writing -- One Juicer's Opinion*

"'s just me writing about what I know the best way I can, answering to no one."

Richard Price

Other than a brief stab at writing a screenplay forty years ago in a college class -- an exercise I thoroughly enjoyed at the time -- I've never been particularly interested in the craft of screenwriting.  Not that writing for movies or television isn't an exceedingly difficult, highly skilled and eminently respectable endeavor here in Hollywood (and quite lucrative for those who succeed at it), but I've never found reading a screenplay to be much fun.  

And if reading it is no fun, then how much fun can writing a screenplay be?

A screenplay is a blueprint for a movie.  If you're lucky enough to sell your script, that blueprint can then be subjected to the abuse of half a dozen writers the studio will hire to "fix it," then the producers, a director, and one or two of the "A List"  stars cast in the film will have their say as to how your story should unfold. That's how the system often works --  as an escalating hierarchy of involuntary collaboration where the person swinging the biggest stick at the end has the final say.  And that means what winds up on the big screen (assuming it actually gets filmed) often bears scant similarity to the script -- the blueprint -- crafted by you, the original screenwriter.  

But hey, as long as the check clears, no problem, right?  By definition, a screenplay is a product designed and manufactured to sell, because if it doesn't, only a dozen people will ever read or appreciate all the work and creative genius you poured into it.  And absent a sale, you the screenwriter will not be compensated for all that labor.

The same can be said of prose, of course, but with one big difference: prose is the end product.  Yes, there are usually editors to contend with -- I've had two experiences fighting with editors thus far, and both were stressful -- but in the end, what's on the page was mine, for better or worse.  To me, a good book is magic -- in essence, a movie that plays out in my mind's eye, something I can hold in my hands that doesn't require a screen, batteries, software, or anything but a little imagination and enough light to see the page.  

Given how hard it is to write in the first place (which nobody ever believes until they actually try it), and the overwhelming odds against selling any form of writing at all, tilting at the windmills of screenwriting never made much sense to me. My feeling was -- and is -- that if I'm going to endure all the pain and frustration of writing in the first place, I'll damned well suffer in the service of a story I want to write rather than something I think, hope, and pray somebody else might be willing to buy. My aim is to write the kind of stuff I'd like to read, and if other people like it too, so much the better.

Fortunately, the film and television industry is full of very smart, incredibly creative people who are terrific at writing screenplays -- and more power to them. If not for such hard-working writers, there would be no "Sopranos," "The Wire," "Breaking Bad," "Mad Men," "Walking Dead," or any other quality shows.  Those who appreciate good movies and television should be eternally grateful that so many people out there continue to strive hard for the brass ring of Hollywood writing success. 

Another thing: without those writers, I wouldn't have a job.  Details...

I very rarely talk about writing on set or anywhere else (except here, of course), because really, what's the point?  Either you write or you don't, and if you do, your writing pretty much speaks for itself -- or it should.  But on the odd occasion when the subject comes up, someone invariably asks the obvious question: why don't I write scripts?  

I've never been able to come up with a good answer. I just prefer the flow of good prose in reading and writing, that's all, which puts me outside the industry fence.  Screenwriting has always been the default setting in this town, where every waiter, waitress, PA, stand-in, and half the studio security guards are busy chasing the dragon of screenplay success. I admire their energy, pluck, enthusiasm, and commitment, but for so many of them, no other form of writing even seems to exist.  Jack Warner may have said "Writers are just schmucks with typewriters," but the screenplay remains the only form of writing Hollywood values or is willing to acknowledge.**  

Here, nothing else matters. 

Maybe that's why I was so heartened to hear the following quote from novelist and screenwriter Richard Price during a recent Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross.*** 

"GROSS:  So you've been quoted as saying what you really want to do most - that you write for TV, you do movies, but what you really want to do is write novels. And I'm thinking much as I love your novels, why would you be so insistent on writing novels in an age when fewer and fewer people, sadly, read them?"

"PRICE: Well, it's all that crap. The novel is dead. You know, cable took over the novel's purpose. It's just a bunch of nonsense. You know, the novel will outlive us all, will be at our funeral."
"And of all the art forms for a storyteller, everyone that pays better - screenplays, TV - there's a committee over your head that determines what you're supposed to do. You are basically writing for them to feel like, yeah, this is marketable. We can get a maximum audience for this. When writing my books, nobody tells me anything. You know, if I trust my editor and have a rapport with my editor, I listen. And with my current editor, John Sterling, I listen very hard. He was the editor for me for "Clockers" and "Freedomland." But I'm free. I'm to write what I want. I don't have to worry about whether people in Montana, you know, are going to tune into my novel. You know, it's just me writing about what I know the best way I can, answering to no one."
Read that last sentence again -- the same sentence at the top of this page. To me, that's the distilled essence of writing: following your own personal muse, doing the best you can, answering to no one, and hoping what you write might connect with a few readers.

Granted, this is all very easy for me to say, because I enjoy the luxury of not having to write for money. I'm a guy who lifts heavy objects for a living, which makes this screed just one juicer's opinion -- and thus as meaningful as a single grain of sand out on the vast expanse of Zuma Beach.  All those screenwriters with mortgage payments, families, and private school tuition to pay every month are in a very different situation. They absolutely must write to sell as a matter of survival, and for that they have my full respect and profound sympathy -- and because they do what they do, I get paid to light sets.

So God bless you screenwriters, one and all.

If screenwriting rings your buzzer, then by all means swing for the fences -- but first, you might listen to some sage advice from the writer/creators of South Park.  Theirs is an elemental lesson, but those are the most important kind.

Prose may rule in my world, but all prose is not created equal, and -- hard though it may be to believe -- there are a few misguided digi-nerds out there attempting to program computers to write in a creative manner.  "Bot authors," they're called, and the propeller-heads in charge of this benighted effort seem convinced it'll happen one day and maybe they're right.  I hope not, but sooner or later computers seem destined to do everything for us, at which point there will be no further need for humanity.

Then again, read the example of computer-generated prose (ostensibly the best "short story" a computer has yet come up with) in this transcript, and you'll understand why Richard Price won't be losing sleep over the prospect of cyber-competition anytime soon.

That said, I wonder which major studio will be the first to buy and produce a robo-screenplay?
And of course, every story needs an ending, no matter the genre, but finding a good ending can be elusive.  Beginnings are all fun and games, endings not so much.  Here, in another pithy Martini Shot commentary, veteran writer/producer Rob Long discusses the eternal problem of endings.

And speaking of which, we've arrived at one. 

* Yeah, that's a blatant rip-off of George Putnam, all right…

** Then again, maybe he didn't...
*** Go on, click that link under the photo and read about Richard Price. Once you see what an accomplished writer he really is, you'll understand why his words carry such weight.