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, May 22, 2016

Just for the Hell of It -- Episode 34

                          The Prop Department, of course...

With Hollywood adrift in the Horse Latitudes between pilot season and the summer gear-up for the Fall television frenzy, it's time to take a deep breath, look around, and do a little housekeeping here at BS&T. As I wander the web, I collect links to reviews and articles that strike a resonant chord, then pass them along in these "Just for the Hell of It" posts. Otherwise, they'll accumulate -- and clutter up -- my computer until it finally implodes from the sheer mass of all that accumulated detritus.

No good can come from being a digital hoarder, so it's time to offload.  

First up is a thoughtful "retro-review" of William Friedkin's To Live and Die in LA, one of the most interesting and moody films he made back in the 80's, after lighting up the Hollywood firmament like a meteor with The French Connection and The Exorcist.  I only saw Live and Die once, when it first hit the theaters, but this review makes me want to see it again.

Next, two items from Tim Goodman, chief television critic for the Hollywood Reporter, in which he discusses when and why to stop watching a show, and a nice homage to Garry Shandling, whose untimely death -- like so many this year -- came as a real shock. Tim is a very smart guy and a terrific writer, and although it occasionally takes me a while to come around (I resisted his glowing review of The Walking Dead, and thus didn't tune in until Season Two), his analysis of television is spot-on.

Here we have the origin of The Studio Zone -- or as we who live and die work in LA know it,  "the Zone" -- a thirty mile radius within which no travel time or mileage need be paid to those who do the heavy lifting of filming movies and television. The map therein demonstrates why the hapless grip, juicer, or camera assistant who lives in Simi Valley, then must then drive all the way to Anaheim and back for a day's work -- truly a voyage of the damned -- will be in such a foul mood by the time he-or-she finally gets home.  

KCRW's The Business recently ran a very lively and entertaining interview with Richard Donner, who directed the Christopher Reeve "Superman" movie -- which Wikipedia calls "the first modern superhero movie."  

In the words of the podcast promo:

"Filmmaker Richard Donner recounts his experience directing Superman, from the minute he first got the call (while he was sitting on the toilet hung over), to the casting of Christopher Reeve and working with Marlon Brando (who initially wanted his character to look like a donut and refused to memorize any lines). Donner also reflects on the current trend of superhero movies and why he thinks it may be time for audiences to "grow up."

Donner is a no-bullshit guy, which makes this one very much worth your time -- trust me.  

Attentive readers might (or might not) recall my recent mention of a comment from a young film school grad who found Citizen Kane to be "boring," and merely "a dude movie about dudes." As I've noted before, personal taste is just that -- personal -- and thus requires no further explanation. Still, a reader took umbrage at that comment, and sent in two pieces that address a modern viewer's response to old movies in general, and Citizen Kane in particular. Both are good, so here are excerpts from each, with links to the original (complete) posts.*

The first comes from someone who calls himself "Dark Lord Brannon" -- quite the lurid moniker, that -- and includes these passages: 

"I saw this movie for the first time when I was about 20, and even then, without much knowledge of the period or the subject matter, it was clear to me that the movie was a great work of art and a masterpiece. I was entranced by its quality and how it seemed so superior to other great movies of same area, like Casablanca, in depth and acting. I was just flat out ignorant of a lot of the context, but my quality detector was fully functioning. I've long had an awareness that there is greater world of art out there that I'll gradually be learning about, so I wonder if the problem is that a lot of people simply don't have this ability? We run into this problem a lot with literature, where the books that most critics praise, old and new, are unknown and unread by the general readership in favor of mild entertainments with little depth." 

"One closing thought I had was on the constant, banal, critique that people use for "old things" the world over: It's dated. Oh, really? Something created in 1941, firmly set in the era of 1941, including the politics, doesn't fully reflect 2015? What a meaningless critique. What this really is, is an example of people trying to make a virtue of their own ignorance of history and inability to comprehend context and universality."

Well said, Dark Lord. Old films have to be viewed in the context of their time, and that takes some effort. When watching old movies, you can't just lean back and hoover up popcorn while slurping down a 64 ounce Diet Coke and waiting for another car chase or humongous explosion to light up the screen. The general movie-going public can be forgiven for ignoring this -- hell, they're just there for some entertainment -- but film students have no excuse. Lean forward and pay attention, kiddos, and you just might learn something.

(You can read the entirety of Lord Brannon's post here.)

Next, the thoughtful perspective of "Cowman" -- a rather prosaic linguistic avatar that does no justice to his sharp reasoning and analysis.  

"It's a difficult undertaking for someone of my generation to watch a film like CITIZEN KANE. Not because it's "too old" or "too boring", but because it has been hailed-- almost  universally--as the single best motion picture ever made. And while the anticipation of seeing a film with such overwhelming acclaim may be quite exhilarating, actually watching it is ultimately an intimidating and somewhat disappointing experience."

"This isn't to say that I thought CITIZEN KANE was a bad film; in fact, I thought everything about it was downright brilliant. From the enchanting performances right down to the meticulously planned camera movements and clever lighting tricks, there isn't a single element of CITIZEN KANE that isn't a stunning achievement in all areas of filmmaking."

"But no matter how great of a movie CITIZEN KANE really is, it can never live up to one's expectations. Although I do feel that it is deserving of its acclamation, the constant exposure to its six decades worth of hype and praise will invariably set most modern viewers' standards at a height that is virtually unreachable--even if it really "is" the best movie of all time."

Agreed. Back when I regularly went to see movies in theaters, I hated to go bearing the weight of great expectations. A review that proclaimed the movie I was about to see as the best thing since sliced bread was invariably a curse. The trick, I learned, was to read just enough of a gushing review to decide that the film was worth seeing, but not so much as to fooled into expecting a transcendental cinematic experience. No movie can live up to being trumpeted as "the greatest of all time," a label that does no favors to Citizen Kane or those who come to it for the first time. I can understand why kids nowadays watch it, then wonder what all the fuss was about -- which is why they really have to watch it again, later, after they've seen lots of other movies from that era, and learned a more about film history. Context is everything.

(The rest of Cowman's post can be found here, dated May 2, 2004, a third of the way down the page) 

Enough of this seriousity -- a term I can finally use now that Kay Reindel has extinguished her blog by that name. Too bad, though -- I liked her slash-and-burn, take-no-prisoners writing style.

The final offering is another gem from Martini Shot, wherein veteran writer/producer (and sometimes director) Rob Long discusses the vast gulf between actors and writers, among other things. It's a good one, and at only three minutes long, allows this post to end on a pleasantly humorous note.  

Check it out -- you'll be glad you did.

As for me -- whew -- my computer now feels pounds lighter…

* Thanks, Anonymous K...

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Pilot Season, Part Eight -- Wrap

Bathrooms -- and who gets to use them -- are in the news a lot these days. The tug of war in that cultural-political kerfuffle lies far beyond the reach of this blog, but it does provide a roundabout point of entry to this post. Our main stage on the pilot includes two small bathrooms, which meant none of us really had to exit the stage when Nature called... but I did anyway. To me, those cramped bathrooms were for our young actors, the AD crew, and other production personnel whose job requires them to remain on set. With three juicers working the floor on our crew, any one of us could leave the stage for a "10/100" (or whatever…) at pretty much any time without causing a problem. If the grip and electric crews were to use those easy-access stage facilities on a regular basis, the actors and on-set production personal might have to leave the stage to answer The Call, which would only slow down the pilot machine -- and that's the last thing any of us wanted.

Besides, I like to get off stage whenever possible just to see the sky, feel the sun on my face, and remember that there's a real world out there beyond the hermetically sealed, air-conditioned, hurry-up-and-shush of life on set. 

But now it was wrap, and with the actors, cameras, and production personnel long gone, there was no reason not to use that on-stage bathroom -- but once was enough. The large, rather disturbing poster mounted directly above the solitary urinal was sufficient to discourage further visits. 


This just isn't  the kind of image I want to stare at while performing an essential bodily function, but that's how it goes during wrap, when we have the luxury of being irritated by things we'd pay no attention to under the pressure of the shoot.

Lighting all those sets was a slow, painstaking process that took two weeks and required constant adjustments to make sure each of the two hundred-plus lamps was exactly right on every set before the cameras rolled -- but wrap was the exact opposite. We tore it all down as fast as possible, then reassembled the component parts into a very different order to do inventory and keep the boys on the lamp dock happy.  

               First the lamps come down, are carefully organized and counted

                ...then they're loaded onto carts and hauled back to the lamp dock…

                          ...where somebody else puts them away.

The production company wanted us to do the whole wrap in only three days, but our Best Boy wanted five -- so he fought the good fight and settled for four. Hey, you can't win 'em all, and down here in the gutter of low-budget shows, you take what you can get, then move along.

Which is what I'll be doing now: moving on. To what, I have no idea. If this pilot gets picked up, maybe I'll have one more cheap-ass, cable-rate wave to ride all the way onto the (hopefully) sunny beach of retirement -- but if not, I'll day-play for whoever will have me until it's time to push on through the exit door. As always, what comes next is up to the Gods of Hollywood.  

All I know for sure is that I've done my last pilot -- and that's okay. Back in this old post, I mused that come retirement, I'd really miss the intense, uphill struggle of doing pilots, and in some ways I probably will. But that was 2008, and the intervening years have taken a toll, and pushing that big rock up the steep hill of pilot season holds very little appeal for me now. 

Enough is enough.

(In the event you somehow stumbled upon this post out of the cyber-blue, and are wondering what the hell I've been blathering about here -- this will take you back to the beginning…)

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Pilot Season, Part Seven

                                                     Don't ask…

Chimps, kids, cats, and a donkey -- this pilot had them all. As discussed last week, working with chimps (or monkeys) is rarely a pleasant experience, but the kids and donkey were great. Seriously. Like most of the very young actors I've worked with on shows over the past few years, our young cast was polite, well-mannered, respectful, and very hard working. If their thespian skills remain in the formative stages, hey, they're performing a script written in the broadest of comedic brush strokes, designed to appeal to young children. 

All in all, they did a terrific job.

As will be no surprise to industry veterans, the cats were considerably more problematic. We've all had occasion to work with cats, during which the reality underlying the expression "like herding cats" was starkly evident. Still, the feline factor is rarely a problem so long as whoever draws up the shooting schedule takes it into account. For a commercial I did many years ago, the production company wisely scheduled two full days to get a single shot involving twenty-one cats.  For once, the Gods of Hollywood were with us, and we got that shot by the end of the first day, but I've done other jobs involving just one or two cats that went off the rails and piled up some serious overtime.*

In the words of the late, great Chief Dan George, "Sometimes the magic works, and sometimes it doesn't."

The magic worked pretty well this time, as the wranglers coaxed all four cats to perform on camera in a very un-catlike manner, and although it took a while, we finished more or less on schedule. The cats didn't really slow us down.

For my money, though, the donkey was the star performer of this pilot. He remained calm and astonishingly patient while enduring all manner of ludicrous, noisy on-camera indignities in front of a green screen. This donkey was a real trooper, and all in the name of art, comedy, and commerce… or more likely, alfalfa. 

We'll never know. Playing his cards close to the vest, the donkey returned to his trailer without discussing motivations.

The rest of the three day shoot went fine, including the audience show. The big dance number came off without a hitch, with all the goddamned Moving Lights doing exactly what they were told.** A lot of preparation and man-hours went into putting this show together, and it paid off over these three days. Personally, I was heartened to see the Techno-Jib flying a camera out above the audience for a few shots, which meant my long hours of suffering to re-rig the front pipe were not -- as is often the case -- wasted effort. 

You might assume I'll be irked if those sweeping audience shots from the magical Techno-Jib don't make it to the final cut of the pilot, but that won't bother me at all. I'd only be pissed had the director not taken advantage of all the extra head-room we worked so hard to provide in order for him to get those shots in the first place. Giving the director whatever he thinks he needs is our job, whether or not he actually needs it.  

Other than keeping an eye out for B.O. lamps -- which tend to go at the worst possible time -- there wasn't much for us on the set lighting crew to do during the audience show. We only had to run for a lamp once, when the director decided to place an actor in a dark hole on set, but that was an easy fix. 

For all practical purposes, our work was done -- all that remained now was to remain vigilant until the director and his bevy of writer-producers had what they wanted. When that blessed moment finally arrived, it was time to go home and rest up over the weekend before the next (and very physical) phase of the pilot: wrap.

Next -- Part Eight:  Wrap

*  A single relatively simple scene involving a cat or two can be hard enough, so imagine doing an entire feature film built around a cat.

**  I'm not sure which I dislike more -- working with monkeys or Moving Lights...

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Pilot Season -- Part Six

Some pictures really are worth a thousand words…

When the first scene of shooting a pilot features a monkey wearing a dress, you know you're in for a long day. Actually, it was a chimpanzee -- three of them, all told -- each of which was  outfitted in human garb, then paraded before the cameras one at a time.

The scene was designed to be a hilarious laugh-riot for the young children of the target audience for this show, but I've never seen much humor in chimps dressed as people. It seems more pathetic than anything else... but we do what we must to get through each work day.

Veteran readers of this blog know that I'm not particularly fond of our hairy primate cousins. They're fine romping about in the wild, where they belong -- with a wide, deep ocean between them and me -- or behind the unbendable bars of a zoo, but absent some impregnable intervening barrier, being in close proximity to monkeys or apes holds no appeal whatsoever. I've worked with them on set before, and didn't much like it. 

Perhaps I'm in the minority, but the phrase "more fun than a barrel of monkeys" has never made any sense, and I strongly suspect whoever coined it never actually had to deal with these beasts up close and personal.*  

Then, of course, there's the matter of Monkey Butt -- which has nothing to do with this post other than the word "monkey" -- but maybe that's the point: I don't like much of anything about monkeys.

Each successive chimp was older and larger than the last, with the final one bearing a disturbing resemblance to King Kong. Even the wranglers were nervous about handling that big ape, as was made abundantly clear when the camera assistant -- unable to get a head slate before the shot -- darted in front of the cameras to grab a tail slate once the director yelled "cut!"

"No!" hissed the head wrangler, frantically waving the assistant away. "Not with this one!"  

His voice carried an urgency we hadn't heard all morning. I felt the hair on the back of my neck rise as the assistant retreated, eyes wide. 

So what's the big deal, you might wonder. Why be so skittish about a playful chimp?

Adult chimps may appear playful, but they're extremely dangerous, and if for whatever reason one should take a dislike to you, you're in Big Trouble. Take a good look at  the hairless, heavily muscled chimp at the top of this page, and if that picture doesn't speak loud enough, check out this, and this, and this -- and if you still want to work around uncaged chimps, good luck. 

Just make sure your health and life insurance policies are all paid up. The phrase "better safe than sorry" comes to mind, but anyone unfortunate enough to be in the path of an angry chimp certainly won't be safe -- they will, however, be very sorry for the rest of their blighted lives. 

I have no idea what the person who scheduled this scene was thinking, but maybe he or she will think again the next time a scene calls for three chimpanzees... because we were two full hours behind by the time those chimps were back in their cages. And that's why -- despite plowing through the rest of the shooting schedule at a brisk pace -- it took fourteen hours to "make our day."

So it goes. Sometimes you just have to grin and bear it, then take the fatter paycheck bought by all that overtime. At this point, I'm just trying to get through these last few months of my working life without falling off a twelve step ladder -- or having my face ripped off by some deranged Hollywood ape.  

That's not too much to ask… I hope.

* Then again, who knows?  After all, it was a long time ago

Next -- Part Seven

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Pilot Season -- Part Five


I parked in the Gower structure, then crossed the street to enter Paramount Studios, pausing -- as always -- to glance over my left shoulder at that big white Hollywood sign high in the parched brown hills above Los Angeles. There's no escaping the sense of cinematic history here at Paramount, which always has a fresh coat of paint, but never went in for the massive steel-and-glass reboot of the sort that turned so many other major studios into cold, modern, corporate entities.* The echoes of movie history surround you at Paramount: walking down those narrow alleys between the production and casting offices, you can feel it, with the buildings named after luminaries of our cinematic past -- the Gloria Swanson Building, Marx Brother's Building, Bing Crosby Building, Bob Hope Building, the Joseph Von Sternberg Building, and more, including this one:

Like I said, history.

Squinting against the blinding LA sun, I pushed through the heavy double doors into the cool, dim sanctuary of Stage 25, where -- after a moment for my eyes to adjust -- I beheld a scene as old as Hollywood itself: seventy young male and female dancers warming up and stretching out their muscles in the audience seating area. The sight of so many lovely young women clad in form-fitting dance outfits stopped me in my tracks. One in particular caught my eye -- a classic hollywood beauty with wavy blond hair and a taut, athletic body that just wouldn't quit.

The blazing fires of youth may be but a distant memory for this aging juicer, but the embers still smolder -- hey, I'm not quite dead yet.

Galvanized by a sharp command from the choreographer, the dancers filed out of the grandstand onto the stage floor, where they continued to limber up, all the while talking and laughing with each other. None of them seemed to have a care in the world, but like so many things in this town, that was an illusion.  However genial this group seemed, they were about to engage in a series of elimination rounds to determine who among them would make the cut for the shows one big dance number. With seventy dancers competing for just fourteen spots, the vast majority of these smiling, enthusiastic young people would end this day on a sour note of disappointment -- and they all knew it.

The zero-sum equation of show business is undeniably cruel, but it forms the foundational pillar upon which our industry stands: many knock on the door, but few get in. It's the nature of the beast.

Soon they broke into sections of twenty or so, each group preparing to perform for an audience of three who held the power of decision. It wasn't quite Busby Berkeley, but still very impressive -- these kids could really move.**

I've never been a big fan of dance, modern or otherwise, but when any activity is done exceptionally well, it's obvious even to those not predisposed to appreciate it. These young people -- "hoofers," in the archaic jargon of Old Hollywood -- were dancing their hearts out to win a job. Watching them work so hard, I could feel the presence of a bygone era when mastering the skills of dance was essential for those who hoped to climb the ladder of success in Hollywood. It's not that way anymore, but watching these skilled young dancers go through their paces served as a tangible reminder that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Unfortunately, that brief glimpse was all I had time for -- duty called on Stage 26, where the lighting for three more sets needed attention. On my way out, I passed a couple of young female dancers waiting their turn.

"Good luck," I nodded, and meant it. In a fair, just, and happy world where unicorns frolic across rainbows, they'd all win spots on the show -- and Busby Berkeley himself would emerge from his desert crypt to orchestrate another kaleidoscopically hypnotizing routine -- but ours is not such a world. All too aware of that, the young women offered quick smiles in return, then went about the serious business of warming up.

Because that's what this is -- show business -- and nobody knew that more than these young dancers.

We toiled late into the night before heading home. Arriving back on stage the next day, I ran into the 2nd AD, and asked how the winnowing process had gone.

"It was tough," she said, shaking her head. "We had thirty in final group, and they were all just terrific. Any of them would have been great for the show, but decisions had to be made -- then I had to deliver the bad news."

On the main set, the lucky fourteen -- a diverse group of white, black, brown, and asian men and women -- were busy working out the kinks in the big show-closing number under the critical eye of the choreographer… and there among them was that stunning blond from the day before. I wasn't surprised that she made the cut -- the combination of beauty and talent has always been a winner in Hollywood.

Some things really are eternal.

Still, I couldn't help thinking about all the other dancers who didn't make it. They were probably back at their day jobs, working as waiters, waitresses, or Uber drivers, the heady excitement of yesterday's mass audition just a memory now. But losing out on a job -- and learning to handle the disappointment -- is all part of the process. They'll be scanning the trades and checking their phones soon enough, ready to hit the next audition -- and the one after that -- hoping for their chance to break through. Because once that happens, who knows what might come next? After all, this is Hollywood, where hope springs eternal and the sky's the limit.

But that was enough philosophical musing for one day. With yet more lights waiting to be hung, powered, and adjusted, it was time for us to get to work.

On with the show.

Next: Pilot Season, Part Six

* For the most part, anyway.  The old Western Street back lot has long since been replaced by modern office buildings -- but the entire west side of the studio is pretty much as it was fifty years ago.  

** If you've never seen Berkeley's epic Gold Diggers of 1933, you've missed out. Is it corny as hell?  Of course -- hell, it was made more than seventy years ago -- but it's also utterly astonishing…

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Pilot Season 2016 -- Part Four

Rig to Wrap

                    "They call it Stormy Monday, but Tuesday's just as bad…"
                    Stormy Monday, by the late, great T-Bone Walker

It was a Monday, all right -- one of those ugly first days of the week that comes wrapped in barbed wire, when every seemingly straightforward task veers off track into a bloody slog through the logistical underbrush.  

I haven't had to work a pilot start-to-finish for four years now, which was long enough to forget just how challenging the process really is. Not all pilots go that way, of course -- the six sweet-and-easy days I put in on another pilot last month were proof of that -- but those were exceptions to the rule. Wading through deep, shifting sands is standard operating procedure during pilot session, where the constant evolution from first draft all the way through final edit is a process of endless change. Some of those changes are easier to deal with than others. While it's simple enough for the writers to cut or add a few lines, or a director to adjust the blocking of a scene, adapting to those changes often means a lot of hard, physical work for the lighting crew.

That's the nature of the job, but if solving the many problems required to light (and re-light) a show can be satisfying, that doesn't mean this was one of those a whistle-while-you-work Mondays.

Far from it.

My personal bete noir turned out to be the front row -- 90 feet of two-inch steel pipe running the entire distance above and in front of the audience grandstand. From that pipe were hung the big flat-screen monitors and speakers that will allow the audience to see and hear what the cameras and microphones record, but since this was a sketch comedy pilot rather than a normal sit-com, we added a dozen 1000 watt par lamps and six 2000 watt soft-lights -- the former to add a few spots of color to the scene, and latter to illuminate the audience, who would be part of the show.

I hung the pars and soft lights last week, but was called off to do something else, so one of my fellow juicers ran the circuits to power them... but Monday brought changes. It was decided that a few shots of the audience using a camera mounted on a Techno-Jib would spice up the show, but since the center section of the front row pipe was too low to allow that, so grips would have to raise a thirty foot section by six feet -- which meant I had to free up many of those carefully rigged power cables. That was no big deal, but another decision from on high turned this ordinary Monday stormy. The pars had been gelled and circuited with three colors so that each color could operate independent of the others -- but now we were to shift to two different alternating colors, which meant re-circuiting the entire rig, and with the juicer who did the original rig running power up high in the catwalks, I was saddled with this unhappy task. It wouldn't have been so bad if I'd had two hours of uninterrupted and unimpeded access to the pipe, but other more pressing issues kept arising, and I was repeatedly pulled off away to take care of something else. 

So it went, all day long. I'd get back to that cursed pipe for twenty minutes or so -- five of which were squandered while I tried to remember what I'd already done and what remained -- before I'd have to leave to help somebody else with a more important job. Other than the constant interruptions, two things made the pipe job such a bitch. The juicer who circuited those lamps is a very meticulous guy who did a really great job, with all the power cables  tied neatly and tightly to the pipe, which is exactly the kind of job you want when rigging for a full season run of twenty shows -- but a pilot is just one show shot over three days, after which it's all torn down. Standard practice on a pilot is "rig to wrap," meaning do every job safely, but quick and dirty, because there's so much to be done and not a lot of time to do it all.

Rather than follow this first rule of pilot season, my fellow juicer had tied every cable and taped every connection to survive a 9.0 earthquake -- there was no slack at all -- which left me no choice but to pull most of his beautiful rig apart and start all over again. A few cables could remain, but even those had to be traced down, re-marked, then patched into new circuits. 

The second problem was that the audience seating below the center section of pipe had  been enlarged to make the most of the Techno-Jib shots, which meant the only way I could get to that part of the pipe (to change the gels and re-rig all the cables) was to take my lift up, fully extend the "porch" over the added seating, then lean out as far as humanly possible, at which point I could just barely reach the pipe, lights, and cables. Not only was this difficult, painful, and somewhat dangerous (it's not all that hard to fall out of a lift in those circumstances), but it made for an extremely slow and tedious process. 

And that's how series of seemingly innocent creative decisions on the part of several different departments can combine to turn a relatively simple task into an all-day logistical nightmare -- and then some. Much to my frustration, the constant interruptions prevented me from finishing the job by the time wrap was called late Monday night, which meant I was right back at it again first thing Tuesday, still stiff and sore from the previous day's isometric exertions.

By then I'd abandoned the scissor-lift in favor of working atop an eight step ladder in the grandstand, which --  thanks to the ladder having to be placed right at the lip of a two foot drop-off amid the audience seating -- was no less difficult or dangerous, but at least it kept that big lift off the main set, where it would have been in the way of everybody else.  

Once this onerous job was finally done, I climbed down off that ladder and was immediately assigned another task, because such is the nature of the pilot season beast -- pushing the big rock up the steep hill, all the way to the top.

I'll be glad when this one's over…

Next: Pilot Season, Part Five

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Pilot Season -- Part Three

                                               Back to the Gulag

Paramount. I was thrilled to walk through the gates of this historic studio for the first time back in 1980, but that job only lasted four days. Two decades later, I returned for a longer stay, but after doing three shows over the course of five years, it was time to work elsewhere. Other than a brief return to load in and wrap out a couple of short location shoots doing pickups for an episodic drama, I haven't been back since -- and truth be told, wasn't looking forward to another stint at this venerable studio.

My misgivings were unfounded. A lot has changed at Paramount over the past decade, mostly for the better. That came as a welcome surprise, because you just can't beat the history of this place. Inside the Gower Street entrance  -- past the guard desk and through the metal detector -- hangs a huge blow-up of this production still featuring Orson Welles and Joseph Cotton in Citizen Kane, one of the greatest movies to come out of Hollywood.*

And it was made right here on these sound stages back in the days of RKO Pictures.

I'm not really sure why this means so much to me -- maybe because I came to this town nearly forty years ago, drawn by the history of Hollywood and determined to get into the movie business. I did that, but the era of classic films was pretty much over by then, so I moved in a different direction.  Maybe that's just as well, but if dreams spun from the holy trinity of naive hope, enthusiasm, and youthful ignorance seldom come true, those dreams never completely die --  they just find expression in other ways. Although I only worked on one truly good movie in all those years, I did get to see Orson Welles in the flesh (however oblique that encounter was), and had the priceless opportunity to sit across the crew dinner table from Joseph Cotton in the wee hours before dawn during three nights of filming a miserably crappy low-budget feature. To his credit, Cotton did not allow the obviously low quality of the production to affect his performance.  He was a total pro, and very generous with his time, telling us some great stories about working with Welles in the Golden Era of Hollywood.

I can't adequately express how very cool that was.

But that was then and this is now, and here I am back at Paramount for one last pilot season go-around. The first three days were lost to a sudden, intense illness that struck out of the blue, but I reported for duty early the following Monday.  That entire week was a bitch: up at 4:30 every morning for a ten hour beat-down hanging, powering, and adjusting hundreds of lamps. I've worked tougher pilots in the past, but was younger then -- and at this point, each additional year is another stick on this aging camel's back

I've written about the rigors of pilot season before, and won't rehash all the details here. Each phase of a pilot moves to a distinct rhythm, presenting its own set of challenges. The first phase is the heavy lift of getting the lights up and burning on the main and swing sets. There's so much to be done -- and the pressure is on -- but there's also a certain freedom, since the director, actors, and A.D. crew haven't yet laid claim to the stage. We have to work around the construction and set dressing crews, of course (and when I'm up in a man-lift, there always seems to be something in my way), but at least we're left to solve our problems as we see fit. That first week is relentless march of physical toil, each day punctuated by three breaks: morning coffee (actually a breakfast break), followed by an hour off for lunch, then another short break in the afternoon. Our days are measured by those breaks, starting at 7:00 each morning and working until after 5:00 each afternoon, which means that for the seven days that make up Phase One, a pilot feels a lot like a normal construction job.

Everything will change once rehearsals start, because Phase Two is all about the actors, director, and AD crew, who occupy the stage during the morning and early afternoon hours while we shift to late afternoon calls. But since rehearsals follow an open-ended schedule, we often have to wait a while -- up to an hour or two -- as the director and actors work out the kinks. So although we'll get to sleep late during Phase Two, we'll also start and finish late... sometimes very late.

Then comes Phase Three, when the show is filmed over the course of two or three days, with the final performance in front of a live audience. By then, most of our lighting work is over. Our job then is to make sure the lights keep burning where and when they're supposed to, and make any last-minute adjustments to accommodate the creative whims of the producers and director. That can happen with no warning at all, which means the pressure will not dissipate until the filming has been completed.

After that, it's Phase Four -- the wrap -- four days during which we'll return to the daily schedule of Phase One, but with the end goal of leaving a clean, empty stage once all our lighting equipment has come down, been sorted, counted, and returned to the lamp dock. This will be another intense siege of physical toil at a time when everyone is tired and beat-up from the previous two weeks of effort…but wrap also means there's light at the end of the tunnel, each day another step towards freedom -- and sleeping in for a week.

We finished pushing the big rock up the steep hill of Phase One -- and although lighting all those sets is a punishing, tedious ordeal, we made big progress every day. There's a real sense of satisfaction in that, which -- given we're working for cable-rate peanuts -- just might be as good as it gets on this job.

Meanwhile, I'll sing along with the late, great Merle Haggard in Working Man's Blues while we move on to Phase Two…

Next: Pilot Season Part Four

* In a recent Facebook discussion about this classic, a young woman who declared that she has "an expensive film and television degree," stated that she found Citzen Kane "boring,"and that "it's just a dude movie about dudes." My jaw dropped at that one.  To each his/her own, I guess...