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, December 4, 2016

One Step at a Time

                                   Yeah, you've seen this picture before...

Most of the real sound stages in Hollywood were built long ago, with an extensive network of wooden catwalks high above the stage floor that provide a place to run and drop in power cables or hang whatever needs to be suspended over the sets.*  Everything from green beds to BFLs to a variety of special effects gags can be hung from up high.

Although I've worked on a few stages in LA that have elevators to carry us up to the catwalks (and what a luxury that is), the usual route is to climb the stairs -- but the stage I'm working on now lacks an elevator or stairs. Instead, there are three steel ladders, each enclosed in a lattice-like tube designed to contain a falling body and prevent it from from hitting anybody else on the stage floor below. With no safety harnesses or other form of fall protection, you'd best pay attention when climbing up or down. I grasp each rung nice and tight, being sure that my boots make solid contact before moving on.

The combined effects of gravity and Newtonian Physics here could be lethal -- a slip would totally ruin my day -- so I take these ladders one careful step at a time,

                                 Forty-two steps up...

Each ladder is built in two sections -- one going halfway up to a platform that forms the base of the second ladder, which then takes you all the way to the catwalks. I assume this staggered construction is designed to give those of us who have go up high a place to rest for a moment, and prevent anyone who might slip from falling more than twenty feet at the most.

That might not sound particularly reassuring, but I can testify that it's a lot easier -- physically and psychologically -- to take the climb in two stages rather than one uninterrupted ascent.

I counted the rungs while heading up to our first day of work up high -- twenty steps straight up to the platform, then twenty-two more to the catwalks. When it was time for a coffee break, lunch, or the bathroom, there was only one way back down -- which is why you'll find so many water bottles half-filled with yellow liquid tucked away in dark corners up there.

                               and forty-two steps down...

I've never had a problem ascending or descending these ladders, but the very fact that they're the sole means of access to the catwalks raises the issue of safety. The film and television industry loves to huff and puff about its commitment to safety, but it's evident to those of us who do the heavy lifting, breathe the toxic air, and navigate such unforgiving ladders that the higher powers in Hollywood are a lot less concerned with actual safety on set than in avoiding any potential legal liability or having a production delayed due to injury -- situations that would cost them money and affect their bottom line.

Okay, I get that, and have learned not expect much from an industry that grows more corporate every year -- but what if a crew member suffers a heart attack, stroke or some other medical emergency up high that renders him/her unable to climb down a ladder?  On a stage with stairs, that person could be carried down to the stage floor and receive medical care fairly quickly, but given the physical limits imposed by these enclosed steel ladders, we have no safe method of rapidly transporting an injured or unconscious person down to the stage floor. We're juicers and grips, not paramedics, and lack the training and equipment required to deal with such a situation.  

A few years ago, a big, tall juicer I know hurt his back while working up high at another studio, and suddenly couldn't move. A team from the fire department had to come to the studio, climb up high, strap him into some kind of sled, then lower him with ropes to the floor -- and that took a long time. He recovered, but if he'd suffered a time-sensitive medical emergency up there, he might not have been so lucky.

So what the fuck is up with sound stages that have ladders but no stairs?  The studio I'm working at now isn't some cheap-ass warehouse facility in an industrial park, but one of the majors, a lot steeped in Hollywood history. This studio wants me to wear an utterly worthless "safety" harness while working in a single man-lift, but expects me to climb up and down a forty-two step steel ladder  -- where one simple mistake could result in a crippling injury or death -- multiple times a day without any safety protocol whatsoever.

It's bullshit, pure and simple, but the Industry and Hollywood have been hip-deep in bullshit ever since the lawyers came on board, and never more than nowadays -- so what else is new?

Still, I'm almost ashamed to admit a certain sense of perverse pride in using these ladders. Anybody can take the stairs, but not everybody is willing or able to climbing a forty-two step ladder three or four times every work day.  I'm fully aware just how stupid this sounds, but sometimes a guy really does need to feed the beast.

Anyway, back to the subject of steps...

One of the features of a modern smart phone -- which I now carry on my tool belt, just like everybody else -- is that it records my daily physical activity in terms of steps taken and miles traversed. Here's the story of my first week on this job:

Monday:           11, 404 steps     4.34 miles
Tuesday:            9, 574              3.68
Wednesday:     10, 246               3.71
Thursday:           9, 815              3.77
Friday:               9, 802              3.66

Total:                50, 841 steps    19.16 miles

Statistics don't lie -- that was a busy week -- but Saturday didn't offer much relief. After going to the post office to mail the bills, the bank to pay credit cards and withdraw cash, the laundromat to wash my work clothes, then two different grocery stores for provisions to get through the next week, I'd logged another 6000 steps on the first of my two days off.

But on Sunday, the seventh day, I rested.

Total steps: 46

And people ask me why I want to retire...

* With occasional exceptions, the major studios have good sound stages, as do some of the smaller independent lots around LA, but too many of the newer facilities are nothing more than a large empty buildings in industrial parks.  With concrete floors, no catwalks, and nothing more than a rudimentary pipe grid overhead, these stages are not good places to work. To be blunt, they suck.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Just for the Hell of It -- Episode 41

                                                       Uh, no thanks...

Back in the waning days of my career as a gaffer in the late 90's, I did a commercial for State Farm Insurance on location near Sacramento, California. The spot stared a professor of entomology from the University of California at Davis who had synthesized honeybee pheromones and figured out how to use them to manipulate the behavior of bees to a remarkable degree -- which this commercial allowed him to demonstrate.

That old spot is probably out there on Utube in one form or another, but I couldn't find it. The photo above, however, is very much like the "money shot" at the end of the commercial, with the professor playing the State Farm theme song ("Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there") on his saxophone -- having dosed his face, neck and chest with pheromones that attracted a huge mass of bees. He looked a bit like an older version of a very modern hipster sporting the most extreme urban-Amish beard imaginable -- a living, pulsing beard of bees.

It was a truly surreal image.

Given that we spent three days filming in disturbingly close proximity to a very active bee hive, I learned a few things -- like what a "bee line" actually is. A bee hive is a lot like an airport, with heavy traffic of incoming and outgoing bees following distinct, well-delineated flight paths to and from the hive. Once you identify those bee-lines, it's relatively easy to stay out of their path and thus minimize your chances of being stung.  But whatever you do, do not breathe hard when you're in close to a hive. Thanks to eons of ursine predation, bees have evolved a sensitivity to carbon dioxide exhaled by bears that were chewing their way into hives in search of honey -- so when bees sense CO2, they attack en masse.

As my mom used to say, "No good can come of that."  

But if you stay out of the bee lines, move slowly, and don't breathe too much, you should be okay.  

Truth be told, I was worried going into this job. Having read perhaps a bit too much about "killer bees," the idea of aiming big hot lights at an active hive for three long days seemed like a sure way to get stung repeatedly... but we followed the advice of that old entomologist and nobody on the crew got stung. It certainly wasn't a fun job, but at wrap, the professor gave us each of us a jar of honey from his hives. 

It was the best honey I've ever tasted, before or since.


Now for some good podcasts while you lie on the couch in a post-Thanksgiving reptilian torpor. First up, a terrific interview with Francis Ford Coppola telling about his battles with Paramount Studio before and during production of "The Godfather." We live and work in a very different era nowadays, but these stories of the inside struggle to get a film classic made are very much worth hearing.

Next, Elvis Mitchell talks about directing and other things with Ben Younger, whose new boxing film Bleed for This is now in release. This is Younger's third movie, which went into production after his decade-plus haitus from features, which means he's still very much in touch with the reality of being a new director. In this interview, he discusses what it was like to freeze up -- absolutely locked solid -- on his very first day on set as director of a feature film. Imagine that... sixty professional crew people and actors standing there watching and waiting for you to say something to get the filming underway, but being seized by the sudden paralytic grip of an anxiety attack that leaves you unable to speak.

Yikes. That's the stuff of nightmares.  I break out in a cold sweat just thinking about it...

Once you've digested those offerings, here's the usual pithy commentary from veteran writer/producer Rob Long's Martini Shot, very much in the spirit of the digital season.

That's it for this week -- hope you all had a great Thanksgiving...

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Once More unto the Breach*

                                        The dust is everywhere... 

The bucket of a man-lift was my office all last week, where -- eighteen feet above the stage floor -- my job was to bolt a stirrup hanger to the pipe grid, attach a lamp to the stirrup, power that lamp, mark it with the appropriate dimmer channel number, then fasten both safety cables and rough-in the aim.

Then it was on to the next, and the next, and the next... day in and day out, Monday through Friday.

Our goal the first week was to get the main lights up and working in each set. The real lighting will come later, as our DP and Gaffer react to the blocking laid down by the director, then adjust each lamp accordingly. If past is prologue (and it usually is...), we'll add more and more lights until we finally run out of power, then tweak everything until it's time to shoot -- and once that's done, we'll tear it all down.

There's a reason the myth of Sisyphus resonates so deeply in the world of film and television, where we feel a real kinship with that poor bastard. Still, no matter how good, bad, or ugly a show might be, it's a temporary gig. There's always light at the end of the darkest production tunnel.

Sisyphus wasn't so lucky.

Lighting is a big part of every show, because (as the saying goes) "without lights, television is radio." But we need sets to light, and thanks to the top-down budgetary imperative to minimize costs in every possible way, we invariably end up doing much of our work while the construction crews are still finishing those sets, which makes the whole process infinitely more difficult and unpleasant for everyone.

Sometimes I think the dust is the worst -- a fine, delicate powder that rises from the endlessly moaning power sanders used by the painting crew, then is blown to the farthest reaches of the sound stage by huge industrial-sized fans and jets of air from from a compressor hose. But before the dust came the toxic reek of Bondo, used by the painters to fill holes and cracks prior to sanding. The chemical stench causes my throat to constrict involuntarily, because some part of my brain recognizes this stuff as dangerous to breathe. After the filling and sanding comes the spray painting, as respirator and goggle-clad painters blast a high-pressure colored mist on set walls, tables, trellises, and whatever else is in front of them. Tiny particles of paint fly everywhere -- on my clothes, in my hair, in my nose and lungs.

I'm happy to go up high and sling cable or hang lamps in a man-lift until my back, arm, and leg muscles are screaming -- that's the life of a juicer -- but having to breath such heavily polluted air while doing all that heavy work just pisses me off.

The painters can wear respirators to protect their lungs, but we really can't. Hanging lamps to light a set is a call-and-response activity that unfolds as part of an ongoing conversation between the DP, the Gaffer, and juicers.  A truly effective respirator precludes such back-and-forth, and I've yet to find a suitable respirator that will work with glasses -- and without those glasses, I can't clearly see what I'm doing.

So, no respirator. All we could do was make sure both of the big elephant doors on stage were wide open while we worked to allow fresh air to circulate, and hope for the best.

The irony is that the industry pays lip-service to the cause of on-set safety in a reflexive manner -- it's become their default setting -- right up to the point where taking meaningful steps would cost actual money. For instance, the studio where I'm working now has a strict rule that those of us who work in a man-lift or scissor lift must wear a safety harness attached to the lift. The stated policy is that anyone caught in a lift without a harness will be fired on the spot. Although there's some logic to using a harness in scissor lift -- which one of my fellow juicers learned the hard way a few years ago when she fell 30 feet from her scissor lift to the stage floor -- it's impossible to fall out of a single man-lift unless you climb up on the rails (strictly against the rules), which means there's no valid safety reason to wear a harness in a single man-lift. This isn't a matter of comfort or convenience -- that harness so severely restricts my mobility that it's almost impossible to perform much the rigging I'm paid to do.

So I don't wear one. Again, I just have to hope for the best and keep my fingers crossed that the studio Safety Officer won't come on our stage while I'm up in a lift. If he/she does, I'll be shit out of luck and probably out of a job.

If the Industry, producers, and studios actually gave a damn about crew safety, they'd require all set construction activities be completed before anybody else sets foot on stage. That way none of us would be exposed to all that toxic crap that comes with building and finishing sets -- but such a rule might force the carpenters and painters to work at night, or the production companies to budget for an extra week to ten days of stage rental... and that would cost money.

Which means it'll never happen.

But what the hell -- it's certainly my last job at this particular studio, so I'll work it on my own terms.  I've never yet had to tell a Gaffer or DP that I can't move or adjust a lamp thanks to some pointedly idiotic "safety" rule, and I'm not going to start now. I'm not a fool -- I won't do anything truly dangerous -- but I will ignore the sclerotic "safety" bureaucracy whenever necessary. ***

If I get fired, so be it. 

* A line from Shakespeare, of course.

** Yes, my little Droogies, I'm officially a geezer now -- hand outstretched for my monthly dole, with one foot on a banana peel and the other in the grave...

*** I intend to walk away from Hollywood, not roll away in a wheechair.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Just for the Hell of It -- Episode 40

This photo presents an object lesson for sit-com writers to be a little more careful about the ideas they fight for in the Writer's Room. The window (one of the few in the WR on the show I did last year) was right above the head writer's desk -- the equivalent, I suppose, of the corner office in a corporate cube farm. The script he and the staff writers came up with for this episode called for the young heroine of our show to discover that pitching a baseball isn't quite the same as throwing a football -- a lesson learned the hard way when she surrenders a monster home run.

Remember, the target audience for this show was young children, so the writers had to keep it simple. Trouble is, their idea worked a bit too well when the stunt woman at the plate hit the ball a lot farther than anybody in the Writer's Room or production staff thought possible... and after sailing in a majestic arc through the blue skies above Los Angeles, that ball blew right through the window like a little white comet flung from the Oort cloud in the far reaches of our solar system, spraying shattered glass all over the head writer's desk.

It's a safe bet he'll think twice before writing another script involving a batted ball.

Or maybe he'll just move his desk...


Remember Crew Call, a series of half-hour podcast interviews with a wide variety of below-the-line crew members produced by The Anonymous Production Assistant a couple of years ago?  It was -- and remains -- a great resource for film students and young wannabes curious to learn what really goes into doing the many different crew jobs on and off set.  If you want to know what it takes to be a Location Manager or Dolly Grip, or hear from the veteran grip who invented the ubiquitous Cardellini Clamp -- a beautifully elegant piece of equipment employed on sets all over the world -- the first season of Crew Call has all that and more.*

Although TAPA made a stab at a second season of Crew Call via crowdsource funding, it didn't work out, but good ideas don't just disappear, and now a site called Shortwave Radio has picked up the ball for Crew Call: Season Two.

As you'll see, one of the leadoff interviews is with director Matt Price, who -- after years of working as a PA, writing, and making short films -- directed his first feature last year. Matt was very clever in finding ways to make the most of a very limited budget, so if you're dreaming and scheming of ways to make your own feature someday, check it out. You just might learn something from his experience.

* Including the reality of being a juicer... 


A random post on Facebook led me to this excellent interview with veteran camera operator Patricia Hill at a blog called The Roadless Traveler. In a casual and disarmingly straightforward manner, Patricia tells how she moved from a nascent career as an actress into the camera department forty years ago -- which was pretty much an all-male bastion at the time -- then worked her way up all the while butting her head against the Glass Ceiling of blatantly sexist attitudes that have held women down for such a long time. But that didn't stop Patricia, who tells some eye-opening stories about the realities she had to deal with throughout the early stages of her career. In time, she was able work with film world legends Sven Nykvist and director Ingmar Bergman (among other industry notables) before settling into the world of multi-camera sitcoms, where she operated camera for several hit shows, including Cheers and Frazier. That really was a golden era when sitcoms were rolling in money and life for the crews was very sweet indeed.

I got a brief taste of that on my first multi-cam show -- a glimpse of Rome prior to the barbarians storming the gates -- but it wasn't long before the decline set in as cable television became a force, budgets were slashed, and the metastasizing multitude of "sidebar deals" so thoroughly Balkanized "union scale" that the term doesn't mean much anymore.  

Now, the gates long since breached and barbarians everywhere, chaos rules the realm...


I recently stumbled across a terrific public radio program called Bullseye, which -- in this show -- hosts an interview with director Paul Schrader and actor Willem Dafoe talking about their recent film, Dog Eat Dog. But that movie is just the start of a fascinating, wide-ranging discussion that covers a lot of ground in just thirty minutes. Definitely worth your time… and if you're interested, you can stick with it for the second half of the show, a thirty minute conversation with David Crosby.  As a founding member of Crosby, Stills, and Nash back in the day, David Crosby was a big deal in the when I was still young and plugged in. I enjoyed the interview, but as always, your mileage may vary.


I try to keep politics out of this space, leaving the spotlight where it belongs in an industry blog -- focused on issues relating to film and television. Still -- and wherever you stand on the red/blue spectrum -- we experienced a collective seismic jolt in last week's election, and at this point it remains unclear as to what the ramifications may be or if we're in for more aftershocks. Given that Trump revved up his national brand over the past few years as the star of a "reality" show on television, I could justify using this space to bloviate on his campaign and subsequent election, but people a lot smarter than I'll ever be have so thoroughly plowed this toxic field that there's nothing I can add.

Besides, I'm a juicer, not a political pundit or cultural analyst, so I'll stick to what I know.

I will, however, reprint the following meditation by Liesl Piccolo, a writer I occasionally see on Facebook, which speaks to where we find ourselves in the wake of this election. She makes some good points, and if I can't fully embrace everything she says here (I really don't feel like bowing and offering gratitude right now, nor am I in favor of racists letting their freak flag fly...), she might be on to something in a Big Picture sense. 

Or maybe it's just another load of ethereal, touchy-feely, high-minded blather.

I really don't know, but am putting this out as food for thought, that's all, for you to read or not -- your choice. I'm definitely not interested in starting a political discussion here, because we've all suffered a toxic overload of that already.

So here it is, for better or worse.

"It is looking bad. I know everyone is freaking out, and I know how backwards and fucked everything looks right now, but no matter the outcome, I see this all as an important step, an opportunity even, and I want to bow and offer gratitude for all of it. This entire election I've been saying that Donald Trump is the spiritual teacher we need right now. It is gnarly and uncomfortable but everything about him that we reject, we need to look for inside ourselves. The bigotry, the ego, the fear: we are guilty of it too. Donald Trump has given a voice to a part of America that has been with us since inception, but operating largely underground for the past decades: rampant xenophobia, sexism, racism, classism all being pushed forward in our country's laws and policies under the guise of politics. Now it is out in the open again and, honestly, thank god for that; now we have something to actually work with. Go be a racist, let your freak flag fly, if that's what you believe. And for the rest of us, we deserve this. We have grown this. If we are willing to see our own complicity in this, for allowing it to exist right under our noses, all this time, we have work to do. And, I believe, we can own it and rise above it, if we are willing to look this teacher and everything he has gifted us in the face, and make decisions about who we want to be moving forward. Feel your feelings, grieve the losses you need to grieve, and then gather your energy and get ready to stand up for your fellows. I'm not afraid. Do not be afraid."

That's all for this week.  Hang in there, kiddos...

Sunday, November 6, 2016

So it Goes


Sometimes you just never know. I really thought this job would be my last go-around in Hollywood -- a nice little two-day-a-week gig at full union scale on a network sitcom to carry me onto the sunny beach of retirement… but I should have known it wouldn't work out so neatly.

The job evaporated due to circumstances as old as Hollywood. After working the rig and the first few weeks of the show -- earning my slot as the "extra guy" -- the phone stopped ringing. Although the Best Boy had assured me the job was mine for the duration, he works at the pleasure of his department head, the Gaffer, who has final say on matters concerning the crew. I've know this Gaffer for several years now, and he's a good guy -- I've always liked him -- but at some point he decided to give my job on this show to one of his old pals.*

So there it was, one last knife in the back from a smiling face. Lulled into a false sense of security, I didn't see it coming -- but then neither did Julius Caesar, whose dying words still resonate.

Still, that's the way it goes in a business where the tribal bonds of blood and friendship dictate who sits by the campfire and who remains out in the cold. The Gaffer was just helping out an old friend, which meant somebody -- me, in this case -- would end up the odd man out. Although I don't have to like it, I certainly understand. Having been the beneficiary of such tribal bonds in the past, I'm in no position to bitch about drawing the short straw this time around.

Wiser heads than mine tell me that it all evens out in the end, and maybe they're right. Besides, I've got a ton of work to do sifting wheat from chaff as I pull up forty years worth of LA roots and prepare to load the ship for my final return voyage to the Home Planet. Deciding what to take and what to leave behind isn't easy, a task made all the more difficult by the emotional land-mines I keep tripping over -- letters from old girlfriends and photos from the past of better times when we were all younger, full of hope and laughter. Then there are the photos of friends who disappeared into their own far-flung lives, never to be heard from again, or slipped into the grave -- dusty images from another world I once knew so very well.

But that's life, kiddos. Stick around long enough and it'll strip you bare, take away everything and everybody you ever cared for, then kick your sorry ass into the dark abyss of eternity.

I'm not quite there yet, of course, which means I still have to make what money I can before setting sail into the Horse Latitudes of fixed-income life. With that sweet "extra-guy" gig gone with the wind, the job on my plate is -- wouldn't you know it -- yet another insultingly low-budget, 20% under-scale cable-rate beat-down.  Rather than a juicy steak hot off the grill, there lies a cold, soggy melange of kale and turnips that will keep me alive until I hit the "eject" button in January, but sure as hell won't go down easy.

Ah well, it's just one last bitch-slap from the Gods of Hollywood, and yet another reminder that the only thing you can count on in this business... is that you really can't count on anything at all. Sometimes a bitter pill is all that's left to swallow -- or as the last line from my favorite movie of the 70's sums it up:

"Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown… 


* This put the Best Boy -- a great guy I've worked with for a long time -- in an impossible situation. Not wanting to embarrass or put him on the spot, I made a few discreet back-channel inquiries to suss out what was going on, then let it go.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Just for the Hell of It -- Episode 39

                                       Yeah, I had to look it up too

 First up, the Quote(s) of the Week

"People in the broadcast television business have heard – and greenlit – so many patently stupid ideas through the years it's as if they are inured to even the blandest, most transparently terrible copy of previously terrible ideas. It's a special kind of industry ouroboros of insipidness.”

Writing like that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I've been such a fan of Tim Goodman's television criticism since he first hit the pages of my hometown paper back near the beginning of this ugly new millennium. Now writing for the Hollywood Reporter, Tim crafted that short paragraph for his recent review of a new show called Conviction, which, it seems, is not really worth watching.

No surprise there -- after all, it's a broadcast network drama on ABC, which is pretty much the kiss of death. Not since the days of Lost have I succumbed to the lure of a BCN drama, and I'm still not sure why that show managed to suck me in... but it did.  Since then? Nothing.  When it comes to dramatic shows, it's cable or bust on my TV -- and if the day ever comes when I get a truly decent internet connection, I may leave cable behind too.

But you've gotta give Goodman props for daring to use a word like "ouroboros" in a review of a TV show -- a term I'd never heard of until now.  

Geeze, television actually can be educational -- who knew?

Here's a paragraph from Brightness Falls, Jay McInerney's* 1992 novel in which the lead character -- a young and very ambitious literary editor on temporary exile in LA from New York -- offers his perspective of those who live and work in Hollywood. 

"For all the hours of work, the community was infused with a sense of its own glamour. The end product of all their labors cast a reflected glow back onto the meanest laborers in the industry. The typist was animated by the consciousness that her drudgery transmitted lies that might be spoken by stars on screen, while agents and producers, driving their expensive cars to important meetings were understandably tempted to believe that they were the stars of the real drama, of which the public saw only the puppet version."

It figures that McInerny -- a creature of Manhattans upper west side who has almost certainly never dirtied his hands on or off set -- would consider a typist to be one of Hollywood's "meanest laborers."

Jay, dude -- if you think sitting at a keyboard is tough, try wrangling a truckload of 4/0 sometime…

Still, there's some truth in his paragraph. Although we who work deep in the belly of the Hollywood beast know all too well the down-and-dirty reality behind the gleaming veneer of glamour the public perceives, most of us are aware of that "reflected glow" radiating off the big and small screen. We're loathe to admit it, of course, hiding behind a crusty mask of been-there/done-that, show-biz-is-no-big-deal cynicism, but there's a real difference between driving home dirty and sweaty after a day on set and returning home in a similar state from another day at the plant toiling for the Department of Water and Power. 

Granted, the work done by the DWP plays a vastly more crucial role in the daily life of our society than anything extruded by Hollywood. Although it might seem that everyone these days requires a daily dose of screened entertainment as much as they need oxygen, just try doing without electricity, drinkable water or waste disposal services in a big city for a couple of weeks -- then tell me what really matters.

Life looks a lot different when the toilets don't flush anymore.

Besides, while they'll never bask in so much as a shred of that oh-so-ephemeral and illusory glamour (reflected or otherwise), DWP workers make good money, enjoy great benefits, and unless they seriously screw up, are pretty much guaranteed lifetime employment until retirement rolls around. Meanwhile, the free-lancers of Hollywood -- which is most of us -- remain hunter-gatherers scratching for our next meal out on wilds of the celluloid/digital veldt.


Next up, a fascinating interview with Peter Berg, director of Deepwater Horizon, a film that -- although sniffed at by the critics -- paints a visceral picture of just how wrong things can go when the pressure to save money from on high overrules common sense and real-world experience. The oil companies in the gulf were not at all interested in cooperating with Berg on his project, which makes the movie all the more intriguing. This interview is definitely worth a listen.  


I have to thank old friend and fellow juicer Matt D. for sending me a link to a piece written for Film Comment by writer/director Larry Cohen, with the provocative title: I Killed Bette Davis  -- and if that's not enough inducement to read it, nothing I could add will do so.

My very first feature as an honest-to-God juicer was a picture by Larry Cohen called Full Moon High, which we shot over the course of a couple of months in the summer of 1980. The production was non-union, of course, and low budget in every sense of the term, with all the abusive absurdity that entails, but at the time I was thrilled just to be working on a movie.   

Larry was a trip. When we broke for lunch on our first day of filming, waiting for us was a table with paper plates, cold cuts, Wonder Bread, and a few condiments with which to make our own sandwiches. That seemed a bit much even to me, with my very limited experience -- but the DP  -- a screamer from Day One -- went full ape-shit ballistic. 

Needless to say, that never happened again.

Still, Larry Cohen wasn't an asshole, but just a very enthusiastic, energetic writer/producer/director -- a one-man-band playing as fast as he could to make his movies with very little money. In some ways, he followed the footsteps of Roger Corman, but without  the low-budget factory infrastructure Corman created to crank out a seemingly endless series of D movies. Larry made a minor splash with his 1974 horror film It's Alive  (which totally sucked, I'm told, but the TV trailer was pretty good for its time), establishing him as a guy who could make a movie with bubble gum and bailing wire -- and people like that do tend to be a bit obsessive.   

While shooting a long day of pick-ups for his then-latest move Q: The Winged Serpent, at Larry's house in Benedict Canyon -- a rather tony neighborhood not far from Beverly Hills -- I noticed a PA rolling blue paint on a large piece of canvas in the backyard. Later that day, the grips hung this makeshift blue screen up on high rollers, then Larry put David Carradine in front of it and filmed him as he unleashed long bursts of machine gun fire towards the LA sky.  

The gunfire echoed through the canyon, after which I waited for the LAPD to show up, guns drawn... but they never came. Simpler times, I guess. Nowadays we'd all end up splayed on the pavement under the guns of a SWAT team for the evening news.

As you can see from this trailer, the movie -- like all of Larry Cohen's efforts -- is a real mess, but you have to give the man credit for finding a way to get them done in the first place, and managing to make a living doing something he clearly loved.  

In some ways, he's still at it. Years later -- many, many years later -- I took a three day gig helping to shoot pickups for a movie called Captivity.  I knew nothing about it, but soon discovered the movie was a cheap knock-off of the bloody Saw franchise -- in other words, torture-porn. That was a god-awful experience, so I bailed once I'd fulfilled my three-day commitment… but while researching this post, I discovered one of the co-writers of that pile of sadistic celluloid crap was none other than Larry Cohen.

The things we do for a paycheck...


Last up, another short Martini Shot commentary from veteran writer/producer Rob Long, revealing his own deep-rooted fear that arises every time he approaches the gates of a studio -- a fear I totally understand.

That's it for this week.

* Jay McInerney blazed across the literary firmament with his debut novel Bright Lights, Big City back in 1984 -- a date which once symbolized the Big Bad Scary Future to those of a certain age, but is now just another year back when we were a lot younger and life was considerably simpler. It was a good book for its time -- one that made a big enough impression to drive me to the keyboard after years of thinking about it.  

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Time Traveler

                        "Music is the soundtrack of our lives." 
                                            Dick Clark

It happened again the other day. There I was, driving through the crowded streets of LA, minding my own business, when the opening guitar licks of an old hit song from the 80's poured out from the radio -- an irresistible force that instantly ushered me into the past.  Suddenly I was back in a passenger van packed shoulder to shoulder with a tired, grumpy grip and electric crew as we rolled down Mississippi State Route 7 early one morning in the spring of 1987, on the way from our hotel in Oxford to the filming location in Holly SpringsHalf way through a two month shooting schedule on a low-budget feature, we were all feeling the strain of working six day weeks, twelve to fourteen hours a day.  

The sleep-deprived PA at the wheel turns the radio up with that same song, sending the haunting strains of Under the Milky Way through the van. I've always been partial to minor-chord tunes, especially when physically and emotionally drained -- and if there's one thing a low budget feature is guaranteed to do, it's push every member of the crew right up to their own personal limits of resilience.  

I close my eyes and drift with the lyrics as the melody flows from from minor to major chords in the classic tension-and-release formula followed by musicians for centuries. 

"Wish I knew what you were looking for, might have known what you would find..." 

The words cut deep, evoking memories of a wardrobe girl I met on my last location feature, a voluptuous beauty who -- after a few months that seemed to hold the promise of so much more -- went off on another show, where she cut me loose without a word, or apparently even a second thought. It's a bitter pill to swallow, but such is life in a world where nothing good seems to last very long

Hey, it was fun while it lasted.  

Weary of wallowing in the darkness, I turn my thoughts to a certain cute extra on the show, wondering if the warm smile she's greeted me with the past couple of weeks means anything more than mere good manners. The young women of Ole Miss have been unfailingly gracious thus far, so I don't want to read too much into her smile or make unwarranted assumptions, but working such a tough location job generates a degree of emotional desperation in us all at some point in the process -- a sense of urgency that demands some kind of response to keep from wandering too close to the edge.

The song fades out, then a commercial blares from the radio... and I'm back at the wheel of my car in LA again, thirty years older, somewhat wiser, and considerably the worse for wear -- a time traveler returned home. The spell is broken, but I'm still thinking about her deep brown eyes.

Such is the power of music. 

Science tells us time travel is impossible, but I just flew back three decades on the wings of a song, if only in my mind. We all do it, of course, young or old, no matter what our jobs, careers, or lives might be. I suspect humans have been indulging in this sort of emotional time travel for as long as music has existed.

It happens to me all the time these days. One week it's Teach Your Children that takes me back to another van with another crew, watching a blood-red sun rise from the steamy North Carolina mist as we head east from our hotel in Tarboro to Robersonville for another fourteen hour day of miserably hot, sweaty toil. Then it's Red Rain and Peter Gabriel transporting me through time to the snowy landscape of Vermont, where I suffer through each hundred-plus hour, six-day work week, forced to get up early Sunday -- my one day off -- to navigate the ice-encrusted steps leading down to the laundromat to wash my work clothes before the rest of the crew shows up with the same thing in mind.  

On a job like that, you're either working or preparing for the next six-day siege of hard, cold labor -- there is no real time off.  

Another week passes and suddenly it's the summer of 1981, with Mick Jagger belting out She's So Cold as I ride in the passenger seat of the Gaffer's van, motoring down I-5 towards Hollywood from the sleepy little town of Piru, our location for the past week. Having just turned thirty-one, I'm working my first feature as a Best Boy, and with a fat line of cocaine stimulating the mesolimbic dopamine system of my brain, I sip a can of beer and tap my feet to the thumping beat of the Rolling Stones. Meanwhile, the Gaffer -- an immense falstaffian man with an unquenchable thirst -- drains a can every few minutes,  then smashes the empty against the console and bellows "BEER!" to the juicer in the back seat, who pulls a cold one from the cooler, pops the top, then places it in the gaffers outstretched hand. Fueled on coke, alcohol, and adrenaline, the three of us ride high on a magic carpet of post-work euphoria, feeling young, strong and immortal -- and in blatant violation of half the California Penal Code.  

"God takes care of fools and babies," the saying goes, and although we're well beyond that latter state of grace, we certainly fit the definition of the former. Gleefully oblivious to the punishing legal consequences should a cop pull us over right now, life isn't just good -- it's fucking great.

That last memory is particularly poignant, a moment when all was right with the world and everything seemed possible. Thirty-five years later -- the adventure nearly over, youth having long since slipped through my fingers, and my great friend the Gaffer now twenty years cold in his grave -- I know better. 

There's still beer, of course, but it doesn't taste quite the same anymore. 

This is all a function of age -- I understand that much. With a lot more behind me than on the road ahead, the past in all its technicolor glory shines a lot brighter than whatever the future might hold. At this point, any distraction from the harsh realities of these troubled times is welcome. 

Apparently I'm not alone in that, either, with three new shows coming to the Toob this season weaving their dramatic narrative around the theme of time travel. I suppose this all stems from the very human desire to go back and fix mistakes made in years past -- the yearning for a do-over -- or simply to address one mankind's oldest desires: to be young again. 

None of that will happen, of course. There's no going back in life, no do-overs, no recaptured youth. What's done is done, what's gone is gone, and we just have to make the best of it.

But there's still the magic of the radio whenever it's time to travel back in time a few decades, and until physicists find a way to break the rules, that'll just have to to do.