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 14, 2014

This is the End...

… of the year post.

                            Who says this town doesn't look good in snow?

I’ve done my share of bitching about the show ever since we came back for our fourth and (probably) final season late last summer.  Not without good reason, mind you.  Back in Season One, we made the first thirty episodes working for a 22% pay cut from full union scale, then got a raise for the next fifty episodes to a dollar/hour under scale, and now -- after delivering 80 episodes over three-and-a-half seasons (don’t ask...), we finally made it all the way up the mountain to full union scale.  

It’s about time.  Until this season, I’d put in less than a dozen days at full scale over the past three years, out of somewhere around five hundred days worked.

But good news always seems to come with a caveat in Hollywood, and this time the kicker was a compressed schedule (essentially mandated by this corporate asshole), which shortened our schedule by a full five weeks while requiring that we make the same twenty-two episodes.  And wouldn't you know -- over the course of the season, this works out to a 22% pay cut.

Same as it ever was. Welcome to life on the Mobius Highway, where no matter how hard and fast you run, you always end up right back where you started -- older, wiser, and deeper in debt.

Still, this being the holiday season, I'll resist tapping into that same deep, dark well of bile one last time. It's not healthy to obsess on the negative, and this being the final post of 2014, I want to wind up the year on a positive note.

This season brought about several welcome developments, although one is bitter-sweet.  Our 1st A.D. since Season One is no longer with us, which bummed everybody out. He was a great A.D. and a terrific guy, and his presence on set has been missed.  But there’s a good reason for his absence: after getting an occasional shot at directing shows over the past several years, he finally made the jump to directing full-time.  It’s been going very well for him -- like a caterpillar who morphed into a butterfly, he’s flying high now and having a great time. As luck would have it, he’s directing our final three episodes of the year heading into the Christmas break, and fortunately, he’s just as good a director as he was an A.D.  It’s great to have him back. Now we can forget about the money-grubbing cheapassery of our network-mandated schedule (along with all those bend-over-and-spread-'em shows we’ve been doing...), and just have a good time making these three episodes.

With the 1st A.D. slot open, our 2nd A.D. finally got the opportunity to move up -- a step he was more than ready to take, but couldn't until his boss moved on.  As our new 1st A.D., he's done an excellent job of steering us through the rough waters of a very challenging season, aided by a lovely and extremely competent young woman who completed her DGA training on our show during Season One, and has now returned as our 2nd A.D. for this final season. It's our good luck to have her back. 

The Set PA for the past several seasons has been working towards becoming an AD for a long time now, but that’s not an easy door to open. The DGA trainee program is rough, sending young trainees on show after show for fifty days at a stretch until they’ve accumulated 400 working days. Then -- and only then -- are they allowed to write a big check to the DGA and join the guild.  During the training period, they're at the beck and call of the DGA, with no idea when or where they'll be sent next.  When times are slow, they might not get another assignment for months on end, but they just have to sit tight and wait for the call to come. A trainee can take non-industry work to make a living in the meantime, but must be ready to drop everything (including whatever job they've taken to pay the rent) on very short notice to head for their next DGA assignment.  It can take years to accumulate those 400 days and earn a guild card, at which point they’re at the bottom of the list taking whatever miserable, long-hours gig they can find.

Personally, I don’t understand why anybody would actually want to be an assistant director -- no way could I do that job -- but I’m glad they do, because a good AD is worth his/her weight in gold.  We really couldn’t make movies or television without them.

Among his many other duties, our Set PA has helped a series of DGA trainees who came to our show, put in their time, then went on their way, all the while wondering if he too should apply for the grueling program.  Being in his mid-thirties, he’d need to do it soon, but it’s a hard program to get into -- and if accepted, he’d have to quit the show he’s been working on all this time to spend the next three or four years living on a very short DGA leash.  

Still, a PA job doesn’t pay a living wage for a married man with rent, groceries, and health care to pay for.  So what to do?

Whatever his plan really was, he finally got a break this season. A few weeks in, the production company filled out the paperwork necessary to bump him up to Second-Second A.D. status -- and he got his DGA card a few weeks ago.*  This was huge for him, and couldn’t have happened to a better guy.  Having watched the way he's worked the set these past two seasons, I have no doubt he’ll make a great A.D. 

This game of musical chairs worked out very well for the entire on-set production department. Personally, I find it reassuring that good things still do happen to good people every now and then -- something that's easy to lose sight of in a world that's fucked-up in so many ways. It's been very gratifying to see them all succeed like this, so I lift a cup of Christmas cheer in a toast to Robbie, Dean, Linde, and Sharkey.  Long may you ride.

Besides, when the AD's are happy, the rest of us on the crew have a much better chance of being happy too... 

On this rare cheerful note -- in tune with the season -- I'm signing off for 2014.  I wish you all, near and far, a great holiday season.  As always, thanks for tuning in.

See you in the New Year.

* God only knows how the DGA came up with such a ridiculously awkward title as "Second-Second A.D."  To my ears, "Third A.D." sounds better and makes a lot more sense but the DGA didn't ask me.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Just for the Hell of It: Episode 14



                                              Oh, Mrs. Robinson...

                           The Quote of the Week

“There is no getting around food, the fun necessity, the allowable indulgence, the forgivable sin, and more than ever a national pastime.  What is travel but going really far out to eat?”

Robert Lloyd, TV critic for the LA Times, in his review of a new food show.  The show he reviewed didn't interest me at all, but I do love his way with words. 

Onward...

Mike Nichols was certainly one of the more interesting directors of his era.  Google the name and you’ll turn up a long list of appreciations and obituaries detailing the story of his professional rise from radio satirist to A List Hollywood director. If you aren't familiar with his career, that's worth doing.  As a kid, I used to listen to his short, dry and very funny radio pieces with Elaine May for several years, then lost track of them both.*  After a successful stint in theater, he turned up as a film director in Hollywood.  If he’d done nothing else, The Graduate would be enough to carve his name into the filmic history books -- and whatever you may think of the movie, it captured the hearts, minds, and confusion of that generation like none other.** 

But Mike Nichols did a lot more than The Graduate.  With the World War Two film Catch 22, Nichols did something I’d thought impossible: he made a movie that was -- in its own way -- every bit as good as the book it was based on. The movie wasn’t the same as the book, but stood right alongside it.  

That’s a rare accomplishment.  The only other time I’ve seen it happen was with  Slaughterhouse Five, George Roy Hill's adaptation of the novel by Kurt Vonnegut.

The public radio program “Fresh Air” ran an old interview with Nichols shortly after his death.  Not only could the man toss off a word like “concatenation” without batting an eye (yeah, I had to look it up too), but he offered a clear guide to the process of shooting a film.  Responding to a question as to how he came up with the iconic shot of Dustin Hoffman’s character framed within the crooked leg of Anne Bancroft, he said this:

“You just look for the shot that most clearly expresses what’s happening.”

There you have it, film students and future wannabe directors/cameramen the world over -- how to choose your shot in a dozen words.  Not that following Mike Nichol's advice is easy, mind you, but it's a good thing to keep in mind whenever you -- or your cameraman -- get all hot and bothered while devising with some very complicated, expensive and ego-driven cinematic tour de force.  

Do you really need all that, or can you move the story along with a simpler, smarter, cheaper shot?

**********************************

Our dimmer op called me up to the booth last week to show me this on his laptop, a very funny, dead-on rip of the advertising industry by Jerry Seinfeld, who took the stage to accept his Clio Award, then gave the assembled ad execs a dose of the cold, hard truth.  In the process, he refers to a near-riot that happened at the Clio ceremonies back in the early 90's. I was still working as a gaffer doing television commercials at the time, and heard rumors of the Clio debacle -- but with no internet available, there was no way to confirm or deny the story.  

It's a great bit, and only four minutes long, so do yourself a favor and check it out.

**********************************

Here's another terrific post from The Big Waah discussing actors, entitlement, and just how fucked up this industry can sometimes be. I don't know for sure, but I believe The Big Waah is written by the same female sound-person (and occasional documentary filmmaker) who used to write BTL, an excellent below-the-line blog that hasn't been updated since 2010.  Either way, The Big Waah is a really well-written blog that digs deep into many of the issues affecting our business. If you like good, thoughtful writing by someone with a lot of experience in the biz, take a look.

**********************************

Last up, some sad news. According to The Hollywood Reporter, veteran stuntman Kim Robert Koscki died of a heart attack last month.  He was only 51, leaving a wife, two daughters, and an impressive resume of stunts performed on all kinds of productions over the years. The name rang a bell... and when I checked my old "Stunts" post from 2008, there he was, having left a very gracious comment.

I never did get to meet him, and I'm sorry for that -- it's my loss -- but because he'd read the blog and reached out to me, I felt as if I did know him in a way.  Maybe that's why the news of his death hit home to me. Kim Robert Koscki died much too young, and the irony is that after cheating death so many times on set, it finally caught up with him while he was taking a bike ride near his home.  

I can't help thinking about his family now, and the looming, suddenly pointless ritual of Christmas they'd probably rather forget.  But ignoring the massive commercial machine that is "Christmas" isn't really possible anymore unless you go way off the grid.  I just hope they manage to get through this holiday season and on to the New Year without too much pain.  Easier said than done, that.  

Sometimes life really is a bitch.  

Too many good people are dying these days. Kim Robert Koscki was one.

Rest in Peace, Kim.  


* If you follow that link, you'll learn that Elaine May went on to a successful career as a screenwriter, then tried her hand at directing with mixed results.  As she -- and the rest of Hollywood -- learned with Ishtar, not every good writer makes a good director.  A long time ago I heard an astonishing story about Elaine May and that movie… maybe I'll tell it to you sometime.

** Having seen it only once back in 1967, I have no idea how it holds up after all these years.   Rotten Tomatoes had this to say, but as a product of its time, I suspect a modern audience might find The Graduate a bit creaky nearly half a century after its release.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

"Safety"


               Warning label in a single-man lift



"The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers."
Dick the Butcher, from Henry the Sixth, Part 2, Act 4, by William Shakespeare

Ever since the Sarah Jones tragedy earlier this year, a renewed sense of safety-consciousness rippled through the film/televsion industry in Hollywood and beyond.  That’s a good thing.  How long it will last is anybody’s guess, but we can only hope such a stupid, senseless tragedy will never again hit a film crew.

Yeah, I know --  call me a dreamer.

Still, there’s a difference between working safely on set (something most industry veterans are very familiar with) and the top-down “safety” mandates ordered by faceless corporate drones who wear suits and ties all day, don’t know what it means to get their hands dirty at work, and have no fucking clue what any of us -- grips, juicers, props, set dressers, sound or camera -- actually do to earn a living.  But whenever somebody on one of their shows stubs a toe on set, another legal hack up in the studio cube-farm responds with a new “safety” rule for everybody to follow.  Apparently they think those of us who do the heavy lifting on set are wide-eyed, slack-jawed droolers too stupid to avoid hurting ourselves at work without guidance and protection from above.

I’ve written about this kind of thing before, so if you’re tired of hearing it, just click on over to 

The Anonymous Production Assistant

Totally Unauthorized

The Hills are Burning

Dollygrippery

Shitty Rigs,

or any of the other informative and entertaining industry blogs on the right side of this page -- because it's a safe bet most of them are in a better mood that I am right now.*

For years I've heard horror stories from crews who work at up-tight, terminally constipated studios like Warner Brothers -- where you can't even ride a bicycle across the lot without applying for and receiving a permit (which can take a month to get), and where every worker using any sort of man-lift absolutely MUST wear a “safety” belt hooked to the lift itself. One reason I made a certain small studio in the Valley my “home lot” more than ten years ago was the refreshing absence of such top-down formality.  So long as I did my work in a timely manner without hurting myself or anybody else, breaking any equipment, or pissing in the sink, everything was fine. There have always been rules on my home lot, of course, but so long as I didn’t fuck up or make a public spectacle of flaunting them, I wasn't expected to follow the absolute letter of the law -- because my immediate superiors (people who actually know what they're doing on set) fully understood just how stupid those rules really were. 

I’ve been working on that lot ever since, doing whatever was necessary to get shows  powered and lit.  As a juicer, that's my job.  Only once did I get hurt -- just a flesh wound -- while wrapping a stage that would soon become the permanent home of the unfathomably popular "Big Brother.”  There wasn’t much head room up on the green beds, and after ten successful trips lugging cable from the waterfall to the drop zone, I stood a bit too tall and nailed one of the pizza-cutter sprinkler heads of the fire-suppression system. That little metal wheel sliced my scalp open like a razor blade, but a few stitches were all it took to plug the leak, and -- since it happened on the day before a major holiday weekend -- I was back on the job the following Monday.  

Other than that, nothing. Since then I’ve become comfortable working on the very top step of ten, twelve, and fourteen step ladders, using the middle and top rails of man-lifts as a work platform, and doing the occasional EVA  out onto the pipe grid when necessary.  I did -- and do -- none of that lightly, but remain focused on exactly what I’m doing and how I’m doing it, because at my age a fall from that height would in almost certainly end my career in a crumpled heap.  At worst, it could sentence me to a wheelchair for the duration.

I don't want any part of that.

As a short-timer now -- the clock ticking at under two years and counting -- I'm not about to do   anything that might ruin whatever years I have left once my tour of duty in Hollywood is over.  The Home Planet is calling, and I intend to return in one piece.  

But I also want to do my job the way I see fit, without being tied down like Gulliver by brain-dead corporate Lilliputians and their thousand-and-one stupid, suffocating rules dreamed up by nervous white-collar drones who live, work, and worry in a very different environment than mine.  With 36 years toiling on set under my belt, I know damned well how to do the job in a safe manner.  The way I go about it might look dangerous to the average stick-up-his-ass studio suit -- the kind of well-manicured tool whose idea of a serious physical challenge is teeing up a golf ball on Sunday -- but it isn't.  Not if you do it right.

I make a point of doing it right.  Given what's at stake -- my livelihood and future hanging in the balance -- why the hell wouldn't I?  

But now the smothering bureaucratic blanket of Total Control has descended upon my home lot.  The latest load of bullshit hit the fan a few weeks ago when a grip on some unnamed show fainted while in a scissor-lift, then -- because he hadn’t bothered to fasten the safety-chain across the entrance/exit gate -- he slipped out of the lift and fell ten feet to the stage floor.  He wasn’t badly hurt, but the incident had the effect of a fully-charged Taser dart fired straight into the dark, suppurating corporate amygdala of studio management.  Once their eternally paranoid hearts finally stopped fibrillating, the lawyers drafted a New Rule for All to Obey.

Namely, that everyone on the lot is now required to wear a bulky, restrictive, and utterly cumbersome "safety" belt whenever operating a man lift -- even while driving it across the stage floor before heading up. And the penalty for ignoring this edict from on high?  Lifetime banishment from the studio.  If that’s not enough, the studio brass have promised to fire any Best Boy who allows this “safety” rule to be broken.** 

What a ginormous steaming pile of cover-your-ass corporate crap. The studio couldn't simply require that everyone working in a scissor-lift fasten that safety chain across the gate -- which anybody smarter than a brick does as a matter of routine -- but they had to issue a blanket regulation that will fully shield the studio from any potential legal liability like an Ebola-proof Haz-Mat suit.

It’s hard for the uninitiated to fully grasp what a problem this poses.  The process of lighting a sit-com set requires making endless adjustments to accommodate changes in the blocking -- we have to move or add lights to keep the actors properly lit wherever they go on set -- and that’s not so easy after twenty-odd lamps plus the usual array of grip equipment (meat-axes, flags, and teasers) have been carefully rigged and adjusted.  At that point, there’s never enough open space for a man-lift to approach the pipe grid -- where any changes have to be made --  which is why I take the lift right up to the existing lamps and grip equipment, then climb up on the rails to reach the pipes and do my work.  Wearing that absurdly restrictive "safety" belt makes it impossible to climb beyond the middle rail of a man-lift, and even that is strictly against the rules.  Wearing the belt, my only choice is to move every lamp and piece of grip equipment in my way, then take the lift up to the pipe grid to complete my work, and THEN put everything back -- or rather, replace and re-adjust the lamps before turning the man-lift over to the the grips so they can re-set all of their equipment.  

And when the director changes the blocking, we have to do that all over again.

Following this new rule would cause us to burn through hours accomplishing work that could easily be  done in minutes, perfectly safely, by experienced technicians who know what they're doing. In a business where time really is money -- and especially with our new compressed schedule this season -- this kind of brain-dead bureaucratic stupidity is not only counter-productive, it's utterly infuriating.

Worse, although the “safety” belt might prevent me from falling out of a lift (along with preventing me from doing my job), being strapped securely into the bucket will certainly result in serious injury or death should the lift itself fall over.  Granted, that’s unlikely to happen, but if it does, your only hope is to jump free of the damned thing before it hits the floor -- and the “safety” belt won’t allow that.  

Stop for a moment to ponder the irony of being doomed to near-certain death by a “safety” device...

This is an impossible situation, leaving no reasonable way out.  So whenever the situation arises,  I look around to make sure the studio “safety” monitor isn’t on set, then unhitch the "safety" belt and climb up on the rails to do my job -- and hope for the best.

But wait, there's more.  Ever since the advent of small hand-held laser pointers, gaffers have used them to direct the placement of lamps on set.***  Not all gaffers are good at explaining exactly where a lamp needs to go -- they know what they want, but have trouble communicating the specifics to the crew. I can't count the times I've followed a gaffer's instructions to the letter, only to have him frown, shake his head, then explain that the lamp was supposed to go on the pipe behind or in front of where I hung it.  

Communication is a two-way street, and some of this confusion is doubtless my fault, but I do my best to pay close attention.  Still, if a picture is worth a thousand words, the hot little dot of a laser is worth at least a paragraph.  To avoid endless blather and needless confusion, the gaffer simply aims that dot exactly where he wants each lamp, and we get work.  

We've been working this way for years with no problems, but a couple of weeks ago our gaffer received an e-mail edict from They Who Must Be Obeyed in the production company  banning laser pointers from the set.

Why?  No explanation was forthcoming, but I'm sure the parent company's paranoia about potential legal liability is behind their ceaseless efforts to baby-proof the workplace, taking yet another safe and efficient tool out of our hands and making our lives on set all the more difficult.  

This kind of fear-based micro-managing bullshit drives me up the wall. The corporate Scrooges and their lawyers persist in trying impose a top-down grid pattern on an industry that makes custom-made products in a hands-on, time consuming process that can't be reduced to the dull and predictable rote of an assembly-line. Paying close attention to safety is a good thing -- a lot of people would be in a much better place today if the Midnight Rider producers had given just a little thought to keeping their crew safe -- but attempting to idiot-proof every last thing we do on set is as impractical as it is impossible. The best way to keep everybody on a production safe is to hire good, experienced people who know what they're doing, then let them do their jobs.  But since the lawyers don't understand anything about the down-and-dirty process of making film and television, they instead try to construct a legal Maginot Line of suffocating rules and regulations designed to keep their clients safe from liability.  

It won't work.  If they want to idiot-proof their sets, they'll just have to be careful not to hire idiots.  It's that simple.

Where's Dick the Butcher when we really need him?

There's only one positive thing about all this -- it'll make it a lot easier for me to hang up the gloves for good when the time comes.  

Nineteen months to go, now.  The clock is ticking...


* Unless, of course, you're reading this on a smart phone, in which case (or so I'm told, since I have yet to join the smart phone army), you won't find a blogroll on this page.  Listen, people, using a smart phone to read a blog is like taking a sponge bath instead of a shower -- it'll get the job done, more or less, but the experience isn't nearly as fulfilling.

**  At my home lot, Best Boys are employees of -- and paid by -- the studio, not the production company.

*** On sound stages, for the most part. I haven't found as much use for laser pointers on location jobs.



Sunday, November 30, 2014

Cancelled


                                The ax man cometh…


After all the hard, bruising work of getting a television show up and running, the production has generally settled into a solid groove by November. With eight to ten shows in the can, the crew has bonded, the kinks that inevitably crop up early on have been smoothed out, and the day-to-day operations are rolling along like a well-oiled machine. But just as it starts to feel like a real show, when -- if there was any justice in this cruel, cruel world -- everybody should be able to relax just a bit, a dark shadow falls over everyone from the executive producers all the way down to the Production Assistants.  

Turkeys aren’t the only ones with good reason to worry as Thanksgiving approaches, because this is the time of year shows get cancelled.

Cable networks long ago broke with the traditional Fall season kickoff out of necessity.  Unable to compete head-to-head with the much bigger broadcast networks, they adopted the classic hit-'em-where-they-ain't strategy employed by underdogs since the beginning of time, launching their new shows whenever opportunity arose -- winter, spring, or summer.  Although the media has been blathering about the "year around schedule" for a while now, the mainstream broadcast networks still debut most of their new shows in the Fall, typically with an order of 12 episodes.  A new show able to draw decent ratings has a good chance of landing the “back nine,” adding up to a full season of 22 episodes.  But television has always been a business without mercy, and shows that can’t attract a large enough viewing audience don't get picked up.  

“Not getting picked up” might sound better than “cancelled,” but it means the same thing and hurts just as much. That's one big, cold lump of coal in your Christmas stocking.   

Occasionally a new show is such a bomb -- delivering horrendously bad numbers -- that the plug is pulled after only one or two episodes air, putting the entire crew out of work with the season well underway and every other show fully crewed-up. All they can do is file for unemployment, then scramble for whatever day-playing gigs might pop up until another show comes along.*  

It's brutal.

At the other end of the spectrum is a show that immediately catches fire as the season’s first big hit -- something like “Desperate Housewives” or “Glee.” The fortunate crew of such a show is guaranteed the back nine, and if ratings hold up through their sophomore season, maybe a nice five-to-eight year run.  But while the bombs and breakout hits get all the press, most new shows fall somewhere in the middle, with many hovering “on the bubble,” delivering viewer numbers that are neither terrible nor great. For them, the weeks leading up to the holidays are a slow ride up the escalator of anxiety.  

I have no idea what the internal machinations are like in the executive suites during this crucial period, but having been on the receiving end of the bad news more than a few times, I know what a blow it is to those who work below decks. That the call typically comes with the holiday season looming is particularly awkward.  It's hard to be thankful or feel the glow of Christmas cheer when your show just got cancelled and you'll be facing the New Year unemployed.

Still, the funding for those twelve episodes has usually been committed, so even if the dreaded thumbs-down call comes a week before Thanksgiving, there's another three or four episodes to shoot before Christmas. That means three or four more paychecks, plus the wrap week. It's not aways easy to bring a good attitude to the set every day once you learn the show is doomed, but that’s where you have to be a professional. You do your job the best you can until the gig is over because that's what you're paid to do. Besides, how you perform under such depressing circumstances will be noticed, so it's important to finish strong every time, no matter what.  

The ax has been falling all over Hollywood the past few weeks, and it dropped hard at my home lot, where a big broadcast network sit-com midway through its second season was abruptly cancelled shortly before what would be their final shoot night. Despite being directed by the legendary Jim Burrows (a man who usually gets whatever he wants**), The Millers won't even receive a goodbye kiss in the form of those last few episodes before the Christmas break -- that show is just gone. I imagine the lead actors will get paid off for the entire season thanks to their iron-clad SAG contracts, but the grip, electric, props and set dressing crews got hosed into the gutter and onto unemployment like yesterday’s garbage. Camera and sound crews only work two days per week on most multi-cam shows, and thus need a second show to make a decent income. Losing this show won’t leave those people totally unemployed, but most will be living on a very tight budget until the pilot season arrives late next winter. 

In essence, what they got from the network was a "Merry Christmas and fuck you very much" worthy of Ebenezer Scrooge himself. 
But while most shows end with a resigned sigh, at least this crew got to exit with a bang. From what I hear, the cast went all out that night doing their final show in front of the live audience, cutting loose with some very blue, decidedly unscripted, and extremely funny ad-libs that had everyone on that sound stage howling -- a show the audience will never forget and the viewing public will never see. I'm sure the experience was cathartic for everyone involved and helped ease the sting at the moment, but as good as that must have felt, they still had to wake up the next morning knowing their show was dead and gone.  

I know some of that crew -- they're good people who are very good at their jobs -- and I hate to see this happen.  All is not all doom and gloom, however, and if the Gods of Hollywood taketh, so do they givith.  Many of the new shows did manage to land their back-nine pick-up, including this one -- which was welcome news for some good friends of mine.***  

My show is in no danger of getting the ax.  With only another seven or eight episodes needed to carry us over the finish line into syndication, there’s no way the cable network (tightwad, low-rent, cheap-ass mother-f******s that they are) is going to kill off the golden goose.  Besides, they don’t have to.  Having fulfilled its purpose in finally achieving syndication, our show will almost certainly expire of natural causes at the end of this season.

After that, who knows?  I still need to catch one more decent wave (or several smaller ones)  to surf my way out of Hollywood onto the sunny beach of retirement.  But juicers my age aren’t exactly in high demand -- or any demand, actually -- so there’s no guarantee of another wave rolling my way.  

Whatever. I'll drive off that bridge when I come to it.

Television remains an unstable business in the best of times, and for those of us who toil deep in the belly of the beast, life is akin to that of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, constantly hunting for the next woolly mammoth to kill and eat paying gig. After several lean years wandering through the day-playing wilderness, I was fortunate to get a cable show that kept chugging along over four seasons despite less-than-stellar numbers -- but that’s one of the few advantages working in cable has over the big-bucks, high-pressure world of broadcast television. Our viewer numbers would have gotten us the hook a week into Season One on a broadcast network, but cable shows don’t need eight million pairs of eyeballs per week just to survive. They can get by on less -- a lot less -- so although working lower down the food chain of television has some serious drawbacks, it isn’t all bad.  

As it turns out, the sharp blade of the Hollywood ax cuts both ways -- and during this Thanksgiving week, that’s what I’m thankful for. 

* Generally a mid-season replacement that will shoot from ten to twelve episodes, or a lower-paying cable show with the same basic schedule.

** Here's a little story about how that works

*** Congratulations, Bryan, Kevin and the boyz -- you earned it!


Sunday, November 16, 2014

Such a Deal


  Two for the price of one is great when it comes to hot dogs, but TV shows?  Not so much


I was going to lead off today's post with a familiar photo of a blank billboard (if you've been around here long enough, you know the one I mean) signifying that I've got nothing… but then I got to thinking about the past five days, and that as much as I like the notion of getting two hot dogs for the price of one, I'm not so fond of having to make two television shows for the same deal.

The cable network I'm currently slaving for thought it was a great idea, though, and for good reason: they only had to pay for one episode this past week while we delivered two. The normal multi-camera show schedule is one episode every five days --  but even though we made two complete episodes in that same span of time, our paychecks next Thursday will reflect only five days of work.

Which means the network got the hot dogs while the crew got the shaft.

The new CEO of the network doubtless considers this a win/win -- a radical increase in "productivity" that will please the shareholders, who will then be more likely to let him keep his highly-paid job. For the crew, it was just another old fashioned ass-fucking worthy of the Bad Old Days before the advent of labor unions.  Unfortunately, there's nothing in any of our collective bargaining agreements to deal with this kind of situation.

Granted, we'll get paid for three 12 hour days instead of the usual two, so an additional four hours of overtime will pad my next paycheck, but the net savings to our corporate overlords amounts to forty hours of straight time plus four hours of overtime for each the full-time crew.*

Any way you look at it, that's one hell of a deal for the suits.

It wasn't so great for the writers, though, who had to deliver 44 minutes of scripted comedy by Friday rather than the usual 22 -- or the actors, who had to learn and perform the scripts for two complete shows rather than one.  As a result, many cue cards were employed, something I haven't seen on a sit-com for a very long time.

And here I thought having to make one-and-a-third episodes per week was bad…

We pretty much got our asses kicked, and although it's not particularly hard to kick my aging butt these days, the rest of the crew was feeling it too. There wasn't much time for anything but work and recovery from work, which is why I was thinking about using that blank billboard photo again today.

Still, the week wasn't all bad.  I received an e-mail notification that a revised version of an old post called Stunts has been accepted for publication by a small literary magazine up in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Not that anybody will mistake The West Marin Review for the much older and vastly more influential Paris Review, mind you, but I'm happy to strike some sparks beyond the hermetic hothouse of the film and television industry. Besides, it's one of only fifteen prose pieces selected from a hundred and twenty-five submissions, and that feels pretty good.

There's no money involved, of course.  It's just a pat on the head, which -- along with five bucks -- will buy me a small cup of Starbuck's finest, but that's better than the proverbial sharp stick in the eye. And after the beating meted out at work last week, I'll take any little ray of sunshine I can find.


*  Grip and electric.  Set dressing and props are full-time as well, but I have no idea what their usual hours/overtime/money situation is.  This week was good for camera and sound, who enjoyed three full days instead of their usual two, and God only knows what kind of deal the people in production got.  


Sunday, November 9, 2014

The View from Europe


                            "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."
                            A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens


A reader who goes by the moniker "McFrog" recently left a comment with the provocative heading, "Post this if you dare…"  

It's not my habit to respond to dares, but I thought the rest of you might be interested in what McFrog had to say. If you manage to plow through his post -- and my response --  feel free to toss your two cents into the comment pot. 


"As a European subjected to a daily onslaught of American entertainment output I have a few observations. While much of American output is good and ground breaking far too much of it is afflicted with some or all of the following traits:

The voices. Predominantly young women with high, strangled voices speaking too quickly. The words get chewed up somewhere between the larynx and the nasal passages making them sound unpleasant and unintelligible. Listen to the greats like Bette Davis, Helen Hunt, Meryl Streep and learn how to speak. It’s not difficult.

The scriptwriting. Lazy, unresearched and formulaic. The word ‘need’ constantly misused. You don’t ‘need’ this or that or the other. You would like, want, desire but not ‘need’ everything. Cars do not go out of control when the brakes fail. Take the foot off the accelerator, pull on the parking brake and you will stop – not go faster. Basic physics.

The Irish Catholic. Always a favourite. Catholics make up fewer than 24% of the American population so how come in almost every film and television programme we get treated to the priest and a lot of people crossing themselves? Lazy scriptwriting.

And now for the biggy: every conflict, every situation is resolved by violence. Guns or better yet, an enormous black gun, is the problem solver. Mr. Freud might have a word or two to say on that subject. Is this how life really is in America? No. So why show it like that? Lazy scriptwriting with bad grammar, bad English and just plain old bad writing. And just so you lazy, unintelligent scriptwriters understand it, a human cannot outrun a bullet – ever. And, bullets do pass through car doors. Please stop writing this drivel.

Look at ‘House’, ‘As Good As It Gets’, ‘House of Cards’ and dozens of other products. Excellent examples of good scriptwriting, good production and great talent. It can be done.

What causes these ailments? American colleges and acting schools are failing the students of these schools. The training is poor in some areas and clearly woefully inadequate in others leaving students ill equipped to do the job. But worse, the decision makers are afraid of the money men. Whatever is fast, easy and cheap is the order of the day. Is that really how such an important part of the U.S. economy should be run?

America, before it is too late, get-your-house-in-order and stop the drivel. Please."

Oh, McFrog, where to begin?  You'd best settle into a nice comfortable chair, because this could take a while.
Yours is a howl of pain from the television wasteland.  Although I can’t speak to the vocal deficiencies of American actresses (I haven’t noticed a preponderance of “high strangled voices,” but apparently we’re not watching the same shows), I do have some thoughts on the other issues you raise.
That doesn’t mean I’m right about any of what follows, mind you, but trying to parse right from wrong is pointless when it comes to matters of opinion, because opinions really are like assholes: we’ve all got one. These are just my personal views -- your mileage may vary.

First, remember the old maxim that "90% of everything is crap." This holds true in much of life, and certainly describes the output of the American film and television industry. If anything, the percentage of crap is higher when it comes to Hollywood.
I have no idea what’s being piped into Europe from the New World these days, but I’ll bet the bulk of what appears on our televisions in the U.S. is considerably worse in all the aspects you mention... unless, of course, you too are subjected to crap like “Duck Dynasty,” “Storage Wars,” or anything involving the odious Kardashian clan. And that's in primetime -- daytime television in America has always been a barren desert devoid of intelligent life. 

American television suffers from the curse of the broadcast networks, which are owned lock, stock, and barrel by huge, soulless corporations that labor under tighter content restrictions than their more nimble free-range cable competition. Broadcast networks produce a vast quantity of mediocre programming designed to appeal to the widest possible viewer base, and thus maximize their advertising revenue. For that reason alone, expecting a broadcast network to produce something as brilliant as “Breaking Bad,” "The Wire," or "The Sopranos" is an exercise in futility.  

You may as pray for a chicken to give birth to a live elephant. 

Then again, broadcast network television (BNT) rarely comes up with anything so vile as Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.  If the very best of American television comes from cable networks these days, so does the very worst.  Meanwhile, BNT walks the middle road, rarely approaching the giddy highs or bottom-of-the-barrel lows routinely reached by cable networks. 
1)  Lazy, badly-written, formulaic screenplays?  Check.
2)  Cars going out of control on screen when the brakes fail?  Check.
3)  Humans able to outrun and/or dodge bullets? Check.
4)  Car doors that stop all forms of deadly ordinance -- including machine-gun fire -- thus protecting the humans crouched behind them? Check.
I’ve got a few more for you. Nearly everyone on a BNT show is ridiculously attractive -- the women stunningly sexy babes, the men ruggedly handsome (yet sensitive) hunks -- with an occasional skinny tech-nerd or fat schlub thrown in for comic relief.  Even the bad guys look the part, gleaming with the dark burnished glow of evil. And how about cars and helicopters that invariably explode when they crash?  On one of the many shows I did that involved a helicopter, the pilot stood up at the morning crew safety meeting to explain that real life is not like the movies, and if his chopper were to fall from the sky, the likelihood of any explosion was remote.
I found it interesting that he had to remind a crew of Hollywood professionals of this, but maybe we're all prisoners of our collective assumptions.

Then there's the use of music in the typical BNT one-hour drama, where the soundtrack is almost invariably too loud, overly intrusive, and all too often telegraphs whatever is about to happen on screen -- or worse, strives to manipulate our emotions about what we're watching at the moment, because the writing, dialog, acting, and visuals aren't doing the job. Producers use music as lipstick on a pig in their effort to fool the viewers into thinking they're watching something decent.  It never works.

A prime example is NBC's popular The Blacklist.  After reading positive reviews by critics I respect, I tuned in the pilot episode, and although it exhibited fewer of the standard BNT maladies, the thundering, ham-fisted soundtrack killed the show for me. James Spader was good, as usual, and the story was serviceable, but all those too-beautiful people and the godawful music ruined it.  I didn't go back for more.

BNT comes at the viewer like a sledgehammer, offering very little subtlety, sophistication or respect for the intelligence of the audience.  

You're dead right about the excessive violence in the American media. The usual excuse  trotted out is that our nearly four hundred year national history is so steeped in violence that we've developed a collective cultural taste for it -- and we do have a bloody past.  Having killed vast numbers of Native Americans to steal their land, our ancestors then started a war with Mexico to "liberate" the southwest and west coast, vastly increasing the territorial reach of the United States.  We then entered into the American Civil War and slaughtered more than six hundred thousand of our fellow countrymen. The legends of the Old West subsequently emerged during a rough-and-tumble era when competing groups -- sheepherders vs. cattlemen, outlaws vs. settlers, miners vs. claim-jumpers -- settled their differences with six-guns in the absence of strong law enforcement.   

The long and bloody expanse of American history gave rise to the myths that formed our modern cultural foundation, and those myths still feed directly into the echo chamber of movies and television. Now we're caught in a self-perpetuating cycle where the more violence we see on screen (movies, television, and video games), the more we accept it as normal behavior.  

Or so the argument goes, anyway.  Whether it actually holds water, I have no idea, but I'm not sure the "why" of our violent media even matters anymore.  What counts is that violence sells, so it's no surprise to find so much of it in our popular entertainment. 

What puzzles me is that the history of Europe is vastly longer and considerably more blood-soaked, but your cinematic offerings don't celebrate violence with anything like the orgiastic glee of American movies and television. Why?

I can't explain it. You tell me, McFrog.

Anyway... back to your litany of cinematic ailments.  American colleges and acting schools aren't “failing the students” (our elementary and high schools are, but that's another story), but the decisions in Hollywood are made by committees of money men: corporate drones who run the film and television industry with no clue as to what constitutes a truly good movie or television show. Their only goal is to make money for the shareholders -- succeed at that, and the corporate hack gets to keep his job. Fail, and he's out the door. Given that the upper echelon of Hollywood is a fear-based culture, it’s no wonder the industry mainstream remains pathalogically averse to taking creative chances.  
The wrong people are in charge, that's all -- thus the endless parade of formulaic dreck on television, and comic book/super-hero/“Transformers” crap in theaters.  
Is this any way to run such “an important part of the US economy?”  Probably not, but don’t hold your breath hoping the situation will change anytime soon.  Some critics are convinced that broadcast television as we know it is doomed to crumble any day now, but the ramifications remain unclear.  There's no reason to assume that the fragmentation or collapse of what once was a monopoly for the Big Three founding-father networks will result in better television.
Remember the words of the legendary promoter P.T. Barnum:  “Nobody ever lost a dollar by underestimating the taste of the American Public.”  Proof of that can be found every night on the Toob in the form of "Reality Television."  Should the great ship of BNT hit the economic rocks and sink, don’t expect a sudden burst of cinematic creativity to bubble up from the wreckage.  Things could even get worse -- more live sports on the Toob, more “reality television,” more talk shows, and more garbage like “Big Brother.”  

And if this is a harbinger of what might be coming to our television screens, prepare to run screaming into the night... 

Whatever happens, you can count on the drivel continuing to emerge from Hollywood into the foreseeable future.  There will be no getting our house in order.  The self-serving, myopic corporate roots of American TV will see to that.

But do not despair, McFrog. You can shield yourself from further viewing trauma by choosing with care.  When it comes to episodic dramas, keep an eye on the cable offerings and ignore anything produced by an American broadcast television network. There are occasional exceptions, but the last worthy broadcast network episodic I saw was a terrific LAPD drama called Southland.* Although NBC deserves kudos for green-lighting the show in the first place, then producing  a half-seasons worth of episodes before and after the WGA-strike shortened 2008 season, they freaked out and cancelled the show before it had a chance to win over an audience.**
But at least NBC had the good sense to sell the show cheap to TNT, which (operating on a much lower budget) kept the core cast together and completed a good run of five excellent seasons
It's possible BNT will come up with another decent show someday -- even a blind pig stumbles across an acorn from time to time --  but you can't go wrong sticking to cable networks when watching American dramas.***  And if for whatever reason you haven’t yet seen all of “The Wire,” “Deadwood,” “The Sopranos,” “Mad Men,” or “Breaking Bad,” you’re in for a treat.  Yes, big black guns will appear in those shows from time to time, but always for a reason. 

I’ll say it again:  90% of everything is crap, and there's no reason to expect that will ever change.  If you're continually disappointed in what's on in theaters or on the Toob, turn the damned thing off and pick up a book.

You’ll be a better man for it.


* For more on the story of Southland, click here.

** This was back during the Jeff Zucker years, when he was busy running NBC into a ditch. 

*** Comedies are something else altogether.  With occasional exceptions (Monty Python being a prime example), drama tends to translate across cultural borders more easily than comedy.