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, June 3, 2018

Selling Out


                                  Product shot of onion rings for a TV commercial 
                                               Photo by Rossmoor Warren 

"The green reed which bends in the wind is stronger than the mighty oak which breaks in a storm."
Confucius
                                       
When I was in college during the late Pleistocene, a story made the rounds about a warning that supposedly hung above the entrance to the UCLA Film Department: 

"You've already sold out!"

This seems like a quaint notion these days, but the early 70's were still awash in the social, political, and cultural turbulence of the 60's, when going along with the mainstream in any way was seen as of buying into the establishment, bowing down to The Man, or -- in the vernacular of the day, "selling out." 

Mike Nichols summed up the mistrust and generational confusion of that era in this seminal scene from the The Graduate, a film that resonated with many of us at the time. The salient message, I suppose, is that it's never easy being young and facing the big decisions of life:  it wasn't then and isn't now.  

I had to plumb the depths of Websters to find the appropriate definition of the term "selling out," descending all the way to the second level of the intransitive verb form:

"To betray ones cause or associates especially for personal gain."

How this applied to the world of movies was uncertain, but unlike so many other fields of study offered by the university, film offered a clarity untethered to the mundane realities of making a living. There was a thriving independent scene at the time, but most of those filmmakers labored in the shadows of a world lacking the instant-access digital connectivity that defines modern times. For every John CassavetesRoger Corman, and George Romero -- each an indie giant in his day -- there were many more like the Kuchar brothersStan BrakhageScott Bartlett, and Bruce Conner, pioneers of experimental cinema whose efforts rarely lit up the cultural radar beyond a small circle of artists and the avant-garde.*

Although I found some of their experimental work intriguing (in particular, Bartlett's OffOn and Conner's A Movie), it was the classics of Old Hollywood -- films by Orson Welles, Howard Hawks, Anthony Mann, Budd Boetticher and others, along with the work of foreign directors like Jean Renoir, Marcel Pagnol, Louis Malle,** Jean Luc Godard, and Francoise Truffault -- that fully seduced me. I was never a fan of Fellini or Antonioni (for my money, Andrew Sarris earned a plaque in the Film Critics Hall of Fame for coining the term "Antoniennui"), but hey, different strokes for different folks. 

Although Hollywood was done making the kind of movies I'd fallen in love with, something even more exciting was happening: a new wave of raw, edgy films from a young generation of writers, directors, and actors. Easy Rider had been released a couple of years earlier, driving the first nail into the skull of mainstream Hollywood while opening the door for movies like The French Connection, The Last Picture Show (filmed in black and white, no less), Dirty Harry, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Play Misty for Me, and even LeMans, which -- with the brooding presence of Steve McQueen -- offered a gritty, decidedly unglamorous look at the world's most famous endurance auto race. 

All in all, 1971 turned out to be a pretty good year for movies.

I was hooked, and couldn't wait to get my hands on a Super 8 camera to start making films. The resulting efforts were nothing to write home about, but tapping into the energy of the creative process was high-octane fun. When the time came for my thesis project, I tackled a more ambitious challenge: a thirty minute documentary shot on 16 mm black and white film. That I had no real clue how to proceed or what I was doing didn't phase me, but such is the blissful ignorance of youth. I suppose that's what a college thesis is all about -- curing such ignorance -- and it certainly accomplished that task. Soon I began to learn the realities of making a real film the hard way. Getting it shot and edited for the college-mandated public screening took a lot longer than I'd anticipated, but once that was done -- and after a suitable period of post-collegiate procrastination -- I finally made the pilgrimage to Hollywood, a moth drawn to the cinematic flame. Like so many others who came from the outside, I got a start working on crappy low-budget movies, where I picked up the basics of gripping and juicing on set, and learned first-hand just how much of an intense, sustained effort was required of everyone on a crew to get a feature film made. 

It was a blast for a while. After fumbling my way through school, actually working on a professional set was a real thrill, but as the years passed, the grind of toiling on one lousy movie after another wore me down until the thrill faded to black. Three years of living hand-to-mouth while working so hard for such little money hadn't resulted in much apparent progress. Sure, I'd learned a lot, but the IA local I tried to join told me to go fuck myself, and without that union card, I saw no realistic prospect of making a living wage anytime soon, much less working on real Hollywood movies. What began as a great adventure was now mired in deep sand.  

Feeling as burned out as I was bummed out, the notion of making my own films was the farthest thing from my mind. At that point, I just wanted to make a halfway decent living.

My rising discontent came to a head one morning after a grueling week of day-playing on a highly forgettable low-budget feature called Fade to Black, which culminated in a movies-'til-dawn night shoot at the famous Grauman's Chinese Theater in the heart of downtown Hollywood. We shot a few scenes inside, then moved outdoors to film a stuntman do a high fall from one of the tall spires of the theater for a scene that would be the climax of the drama. We finished at dawn, then began the long wrap as the sun rose over Hollywood Boulevard. While carrying the last of the equipment to the truck, I stopped to chat with one of the LAPD cops who had been providing security -- and for reasons long since forgotten, mentioned that I was fed up with getting my ass kicked while making shit money on these low budget movies. He asked how much I'd made the previous year, so I told him. 

He just shook his head.

"Something's wrong if you're only making twelve grand a year in the movie business," he said."***

I knew he was right -- but what could I do about it?  

The early years in this business can test you, push you, and occasionally drive you right up to the lip of the abyss, calling into question who you are, why you came here, and what you ever hoped to achieve. There are times you'll have to make hard decisions and hope for the best... but every now and then an apparent miracle will materialize from the ether -- a bolt of alchemic lighting with the power to turn lead into gold.

Not long after that ugly morning on Hollywood Boulevard, a Key Grip I'd never met called out of the blue to offer me a commercial. He didn't care that I was more of a juicer than a grip at that point -- he just needed a Best Boy -- and thus began an eighteen month run doing commercials and occasional music videos for a new, young, hard-charging production company that was already making their mark in Hollywood. They worked a lot, and suddenly so did I: over the next year-and-a-half, my annual income quadrupled.

That, I liked. The hours were still long -- 14 to 18 hour shoot days were typical -- but we rarely worked more than three days in a row, after which I'd turn in an invoice for anywhere between $1200 and $1800. This was during the early 80's: in today's dollars, that would equal $3000 and $4500, respectively.  

That's nice work if you can get it.

My world turned on a dime. Work was fun again, even if I wasn't all that comfortable as a grip. I enjoyed the intensity of doing commercials, where we had to find a way to get the shot no matter what, where the catered meals were actually good rather than the cheapest swill a low-budget producer could find, and where the paychecks after each job were fatter than I'd ever dreamed. When it came time to go back to juicing, I remained in the world of commercials, working for a series of Best Boys, Gaffers, and DPs, and the good times just got better.

In my heart, I knew I'd sold out. Having come to Hollywood to make movies, I was instead helping manufacture glossy advertising for the shit-sandwich of television. But if "selling out" meant finally making a decent living while having a great time traveling all over the country, then sign me up and send my soul to Hell. Working on commercials might be morally bankrupt, but with their intense focus on extremely high production values, at least they strove for some form of excellence, unlike the schlock horror movies and sophomoric comedies I'd suffered through up 'til then.

It wasn't all sweetness and light, of course. Work is still work, and our total concentration on the visuals turned many of those jobs into tedious ordeals, particularly when doing "product shots" -- those glistening, painstakingly lit close-ups of whatever hamburger, candy bar, automobile, or bottle of beer the agency was trying to sell. The setup and tweaking of product shots often seemed endless, and the filming could go on even longer. One of the first commercials I did was for Chuckwagon Dog Food, during which we shot thirty-seven consecutive takes of a dog running across a kitchen floor set...and not until number thirty-eight was the director satisfied. Then came a particularly ennervating commercial featuring a tiny bottle of perfume that we spent hours lighting, bombarding it with high-intensity lamps, tiny bounce cards, and foco-spots. Once lit, we shot take after take after take as the bottle slowly rotated into frame -- and just as the camera rolled again for one more, that little bottle vanished before our eyes, having exploded from the heat.  

The art department had another bottle, of course, but by then even the agency and client understood that enough was enough. 

You have to take the bad with the good whatever your path in Hollywood, but the equation in commericials was favorable enough to keep me there for nearly twenty years.  I was a happy sell-out, and truth be told, would stayed right there if not for the seismic changes that rocked the industry in the late 90's. Long before New York, Louisiana, Georgia, and New Mexico began offering fat tax breaks to lure LA productions out of California, runaway production to Canada was already well underway as TV Movies, feature films, and finally commercials chased the government subsidies and favorable currency exchange rates across the Northern Border. One by one, all my commercial clients abandoned the US to film in Canada until the Hollywood well ran dry. Unable to land enough commercial gigs to survive, my DP took a job shooting 2nd Unit on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, while I put my light meters away, strapped on a tool belt, and took an opportunity to work in multi-camera sitcoms as a juicer. 

I wasn't happy about it, but when you decide to roll the dice in the free-lance jungle, you'd better be ready to roll with the punches -- or in the words of Confucious, be a "green reed which bends in the wind." And truth be told, it all worked out in the end. I had a lot of fun in sitcoms, where the hours were much shorter and the working conditions infinitely less abusive than in single camera work. My income took a major hit, of course, but toiling all those seasons in television enabled me to accumulate enough hours to qualify for the industry health plan in retirement (which has made a huge difference), along with an anemic but steady monthly pension check now that my days on set are over. 

Do I ever wonder what would have happened if that Key Grip hadn't called way back when? Sure. Another door of opportunity might have opened in Hollywood, but maybe not -- in which case it's possible I'd have left Hollywood and the film industry to do... what? God only knows, but there isn't much point in such speculation. What happened, happened, so all the what-ifs really don't matter.

Still, the question lingers: did that (doubtless apocryphal) warning at the UCLA Film School have it right: did I really sell out my cinematic dreams by fleeing feature films for the world of commercials? The earnest and enthusiastic (but naive and utterly ignorant) 26 year old who rode into LA on a motorcycle back in 1977 might say "yes" -- and he'd definitely be horrified to learn his fate was to spend the final fifteen years of his career in the world of multi-camera sitcoms.  

So maybe I did sell out. After all, I never made another film of my own after finishing that documentary in school... but "selling out" is such a harsh, unforgiving term. I prefer the word "compromise," which is something we all do to make the best of what comes our way in life.  As the Rolling Stones long ago put it"You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometime, you find you get what you need."  

In your early twenties, the idea of leading a life of artistic povetry (see: La Bohème)  can hold a certain romantic appeal, but that fades in the ensuing confrontation with reality. Forty-plus years later, I'm comfortable with the choices I made, and have no regrets about leaving feature films behind. Making films is just one of many ways to tell stories, and toiling in the vineyards of commercials and sitcoms allowed me time to scratch that itch that by writing -- a creative outlet considerably less economically and physically bruising than filmmaking. At the keyboard, I've got everything I need -- no cameras, lights, crew, or actors are required. 

Here, I'm the director, and I can live with that.


* And of course, the astonishingly prolific Andy Warhol, who seemed to have no interest in production value or quality acting, but pushed the boundaries of cinema in his own unique way.

**If you've never seen Murmur of the Heart, you've missed something special.

*** Around $30K in today's dollars.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Just for the Hell of It: Episode 47




I wore this hat when working on set the last few years while belly-crawling towards the finish line of my Hollywood adventure, and still do now that I'm retired. Hey, it's a good hat, and a fitting memento of my last fifteen years in the industry. The only person to take notice thus far was Matteo Troncone, who served as writer, producer, director, cameraman, editor, and on-screen talent for his wonderful documentary Arrangiarsi!. A few minutes into our conversation, I saw his eyes shift focus to the CBS Studio Center logo for a moment, then he smiled.

"You're in the business, yes?" he asked.

Well, yeah -- I was, anyway.

On a recent hunting-and-gathering expedition to the nearest Trader Joe's, I unloaded my basket at the check stand, whereupon the checker -- a robust middle-aged redhead with a big smile -- took one look at my hat and asked: "Hollywood or Studio City?"

My jaw dropped.

Turns out she worked as a production accountant in Hollywood for several years until her husband landed an offer he couldn't refuse in the SF Bay Area, where they moved and are now living happily ever after. While the rest of the customers in line tapped their feet impatiently, we compared notes as to the horrors of working for Disney and cheap-ass cable networks -- and for the first time in well over a year, I was on the same wavelength with somebody who understood because she'd been there.

And I have to tell you, that felt good...

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

So I drive into town the other day to pick up the mail at the post office and buy some groceries, and what do I see but a film crew set up and workng in front of the only book store in this tiny little town.  They had all the basics -- lights, cameras, equipment trucks, a couple of dollies, and a decent sized crew, complete with two Highway Patrol cars blocking off the street out front and a small army of earnest young PAs. I introduced myself to one of the juicers, a lanky, pleasant young man who told me it was a Netflix show called The OA.  I suspect he was about to give me the "It's a mayonaise commercial" brushoff, but he perked up when I mentioned I'm a recent retiree from 728. Turns out we knew a few of the same Bay Area crew people from my days working up here back in the late 90's -- some of whom are still working. Yes, it is indeed a small world.

I watched for a while with the rest of the curious civilians as those juicers and grips stood by their gear in the late afternoon sun, waiting for an order to crackle over their walkies... but that was enough. I was glad to be able to climb back in my car and drive on home rather than be one of them grinding out the long day. Been there, done that, and I neither need nor desire to do it again.

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

Another blast from the past arrived in the form of this meditation on what was once an essential tool for everyone working in movies, television, commercials, or industrial films in LA: the Thomas Brothers Guide -- a map book that could get you all the way out to East Bumfuck and back. In the good old/bad old days, any freelance Hollywood Work-Bot without a well-worn Thomas Brothers in his/her car wasn't worth hiring... but then came the internet, GPS, smart phones, WAZE, and all the other digital hula-hoops modern society has embraced like manna from heaven. That's not all bad, mind you -- I'm not going to start waving my cane and shouting "Get off my lawn!" just yet -- but I can't shake the feeling that we're losing something with such utter dependence on satellites, wireless everything, and the increasingly interconnected digital technology that's just one malicious-or-accidental electromagnetic pulse or solar shitstorm away from vanishing into the ether.

Then what?

Although I don't have WAZE, I've used my phone to guide me through unfamiliar landscapes more than once, but I still feel more comfortable with a good old Thomas Guide. The one time I used WAZE  in LA was while driving from a rental yard in the far hinterlands of the San Fernando Valley over to Pasadena for a crew lunch at the Pie 'n Burger, where the burgers are great and the pies are better.*

So there I was at the wheel as one of my younger, vastly more tech-savvy crew mates rode shotgun, eyes glued to his trusty smart phone. The tinny voice of WAZE guided us unerringly through a dense labyrinth of unlikely alleys and side-streets in a neighborhood that may as well have been Novosibirsk for all I knew -- and lo, suddenly we were on the 134 heading east.

I'll admit, I was impressed.  But a few miles later, the little WAZE voice became frantic.

"Turn right! Turn right!! Turn right!!!"

Visibly distressed, my young compadre squirmed in the seat, staring at his phone.

"Mike -- we have to turn right.  It says to turn right. We're gonna miss the ---"

"Relax," I said, cutting him off with a wave of my hand, keeping a steady course.

His shoulders slumped as the offramp WAZE insisted we take veered off to the right, then vanished. Apparently the old fool at the wheel was even dumber and more out of it than he thought. Why the hell hadn't he decided to go in one of the other cars...

Ten minutes later, I pulled up to the Pie 'n Burger and parked. WAZE might not know the way, but I did -- after all, I'd been there the week before to pick up a pie. Hey, I may be old, but I can still find the North Star without a smart phone, which might come in handy some day as I roll my walker across the ruined landscape of the post-digital apocalypse.

Or not...

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

Next up, a lively and highly entertaining interview with Danny Trejo, who -- last I heard -- had opened a vegan burrito stand somewhere in Hollywood, among other things. With a cratered face that is the stuff of nightmares, Trejo has become something of a legend in Hollywood, and for good reason -- which you'll understand when you listen to his story.

It's a good one, kiddos, so check it out.

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

Back when I was still flapping my newbie wings trying to get a career off the ground, Michael Cimino was hard at work shoveling dirt on his Oscar-winning resume with Heaven's Gate -- at the time, one of the biggest flops in Hollywood history. As usual, there's more to the story than a high-flying ego that traced the arc of Icarus, leaving only buzzards to circle over the charred husk of a once glittering career. Shit happens, and it happened to him -- but if this piece of revisionist history is to be believed, maybe Cimino got a bad rap on that one.

I don't know. I saw the original, cut-to-the-bone theatrical release, and although it certainly didn't slay me, it wasn't all that bad. Haven't seen the restored version, so I can't say if it's a masterpiece. Maybe one of you will see it and tell me what's what.

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

For another fascinating interview, listen to newbie director Jordan Peele (now an Oscar-winning screenwriter) discuss how he embraced fear to make the surprise hit of 2017, Get Out.  I've always liked Peele since the days of Key and Peele, and this interview only increased my respect for the man. Intelligence, creativity, and doggedness -- along with a great sense of humor -- are one hell of a package.

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

Last but not least, here's another of Rob Long's Martini Shot commentaries on modern digital technology, actors, and exactly what sort of faces we'll end up seeing on the big and small screen of the future -- which is almost here. At three minutes and counting, this one is well worth your time.

And now a brief addendum for those of you who might have, once upon a time, signed up for automatic e-mail delivery of these posts directly into your e-inbox. I did too, just to make sure it was working every week, which it did... until it didn't -- after which some of you probably assumed the blog had retired along with me. Not so. Granted, I'm posting just once a month now rather than every Sunday, but I plan to keep at it until the well runs dry or the book (yes, I'm back to working on the blog-book again) is done.

It seems that Google (which runs Blogger, the host site for this and many other blogs) had changed their software that controlled the automatic post delivery, but they didn't bother to tell anybody -- or at least they didn't tell me. Suddenly I'm reminded of the secret Doomsday Machine in Dr. Strangelove...

At any rate, I signed up again just to see if Google's new software works -- which it doesn't, so fuck it.  I guess you'll just have to click on over here on the first Sunday of every month after 12:01 p.m. Pacific Standard Time.

Same as it ever was.


* If you live in LA and haven't yet made the pilgrimage to the Pie 'n Burger, do so.  You won't be sorry.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Arrangiarsi!



                               
Although I now live far from Hollywood, I keep stumbling across filmmakers up here in the woods north of San Francisco. The local community center put on an evening in honor of John Korty
not long ago, showing clips from many of his low-budget independent films, with Korty at the microphone telling stories and answering questions. I've heard his name for decades, but knew nothing about him -- and now I run into the man and chat for a few minutes every couple of weeks at the local post office.*

Then there are the Hollywood ex-pats the locals keep telling me about -- a retired editor here, an ex-sound man there, and recent Oscar winner Frances McDormand, who has been popping up in local venues over the past couple of years. Brad Pitt was in these parts for a week or two last summer directing a movie, and of course, the legendary Walter Murch lives a few miles down the road.

I haven't met any of these people, mind you, and probably never will, which is fine. My days of rubbing shoulders with Hollywood are over.

Despite the rural atmosphere, this little coastal backwater is fairly sophisticated when it comes to film. While making my usual grocery/post office/hardware store rounds recently, I was puzzled to spot the image at the top of this page stapled to a telephone pole, headed by the word Arrangiarsi!*

The poster advertised a new film by that name being presented in a single screening a week later, but having no clue what the word meant, I went on with my business. A few days later, I noticed a weathered VW van downtown with Arrangiarsi! spray-painted in big letters along the side -- and as I  passed by, out stepped an intense but friendly man who looked to be in his early 40s. I asked him what it was all about, whereupon he introduced himself, kicking off a fifteen minute conversation during which he explained that "arrangiarsi" is a term used by the people of Naples to describe the creative manner in which they've learned to deal with the vicissitudes of life. Whatever fate hands them, be it good, bad, or ugly, they find a way to work with it and make the best of things.

For a more thorough and much more satisfying explanation, you'll just have to watch the film. Intrigued by what he had to say, I went to the screening... and was blown away. I loved it.

Matteo Troncone embarked on this project armed with some experience as an actor, but he'd never made a film of his own. He worked on a shoestring for seven years to make this movie, learning as he went along, spending five of those years living in that Volkswagon -- essentially homeless. That, my little Droogies, is true grit. He managed to wangle several trips to Italy, dealing with lost footage due to camera issues (Cannon does not come off well in this...), numerous personal setbacks, and the seemingly impossible challenge of making a feature-length film on pocket change and favors.

I could spend a couple of weeks trying to write a review that would fully express the lyrical beauty of his film, but my efforts wouldn't equal this one by "Stu," one of eleven reviews posted thus far on the Arrangiarsi IMDB page.

"For someone who loves Italy and pizza as much as I do, the slightly cryptic title of this film was intriguing.  While I wasn't familiar with the term 'arrangiarsi,' I somehow expected the usual well-worn combination of travel and food documentary: the familiar shots of glorious rolling Tuscan hills, mouthwatering pasta, and endearing gesticulating local characters.  What I wasn't expecting was not only all of that, but also a cultural and gastronomic history lesson, personal roots exploration, and spiritual odyssey."   

"Troncone, a San Francisco native, is of Neapolitan extraction, and after an epiphany into his deep emotional connection with the land of his forebears, he embarks on a personal and at times quixotic pilgrimage to explore what it means to live life like a true Neapolitan, embracing the Naples spirit of making the most of the situations life hands you (the arrangiarsi of the title), documenting his sometimes arduous personal journey along the way." 

"The result is a fascinating blend of three constantly intertwining themes: an alternative and partisan history of southern Italy, which served as a welcome counterpoint to the conventional narrative; an unabashed celebration of the divine creation that is true pizza Napolitano and the labor involved in its deceptively simple ingredients (if you've never seen a self-massaging buffalo, well you're in luck); and above all Troncone's own pilgrim's progress in his quest for spiritual balance through acceptanc of his ancestral and internal north-south divide.  The conclusion is deeply satisfying and packs a surprising emotional wallop."  

"One lesson that emerges from his travels is that true acceptance doesn't mean blandly looking on the bright side, or enduring a mindless fatalism.  He reminds us that while it is easy to feel joy when fortune smiles on you, we only fully experience life when we embrace all situations, positive and negative, head-on.  As if to emphasize this lesson, Troncone bravely lets all his angels and demons have their moments on screen, both in his moments of pizza-devouring bliss, and the times when he (as he puts it) is 'about to go full Italian', equanimity be damned." 

"True to the spirit of arrangiarsi, Troncone literally and radically rearranged his life to realize this film, and the result is a one-man tour-de-force.  Practically every aspect was crafted single-handedly with the passion of a real aficionado and that love shines through.  And damn, that pizza looks good."

Well put, Stu.

Matteo is now on the road showing his film, selling out every screening thus far, including the most recent in San Diego, with future dates in Palm Springs, Tucson, Sedona, and Santa Fe -- and after that, the world, because why not? Having come this far on a wing and a prayer, Matteo Troncone is not about to quit until everybody has a chance to see Arrangiarsi!

That's a very good thing, and so is his film.

When he brings Arrangiarsi! to a theater near you, go see it -- you really will be glad you did.


* For more about John Korty, here's an article about his work in "Film Comment," and a great story about how he influenced Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas when they were still pups...

Sunday, March 4, 2018

One Year Later


                            It ain't easy, but at least it's not 4/0...

Tempus fugit, the ancients warn us, and I'm here to tell you those wise old graybeards got that one right. Your mileage may vary, but I find it hard to believe that it's been a full year since I blew one final air-kiss to Hollywood, then watched LA disappear in my rear-view mirror. Truth be told, it's been more than a year now (54 weeks, not that anybody's counting), and I really don't know where the time went. All I can say is that it went by fast -- very fast. Apparently all the clichés are true, especially the one about time flashing by at an increasingly rapid clip as the years pile on.

No shit, kiddos -- that one's for real.

So what's changed, you might ask, what have I accomplished, and what have I learned?

Not that anybody did ask, mind you... but given that this blog served as a chronicle of my last decade working in the film/television industry, it seems fitting to walk the same path now that I've exited the business. This may be of no interest to anyone other than me at the moment, but since most of you work in the industry (or want to), someday you too will age out, then hang it up and head out to pasture. Whether my experiences are relevant to what you'll encounter on that far disant shore is an open question, one that only you can answer when the time comes.

As to those three questions I posed -- everything has changed. Now that I don't live by the alarm clock or report to set every day at a given call time, I no longer must cope with the tedium of a long day on set by hitting craft service every half hour, there to wallow like a hog in the warm figurative mud of the See-Food Diet -- and voila, fifteen pounds mysteriously melted from my frame. I wasn't trying to lose weight, but apparently it makes a difference to have total control over one's diet, and to eat out of hunger rather than simply to ward off successive waves of boredom. The craft service table was a refuge, and in many ways I miss it -- but I certainly don't miss lugging around those fifteen extra pounds.

As to what I've accomplished... that's less easy to quantify. Unpacking and finding places to put all the crap I brought from LA provided a challenge I have yet to fully meet. I was pretty much exhausted after the big push to pack up and leave, and couldn't get much of anything done for a while. About the time I did start making some headway, the rains stopped, and I had to turn my attention outside, where a mountain of weed-whacking, brush clearing, chain sawing, and all manner of deferred maintenance awaited. I won't bore you with the bloody details, but it was a chore akin to the fifth task of Hercules (cleaning out the Augean Stables), except I lacked the convenience of a nearby river to run through it. As summer turned to fall, the wood-splitting and stacking chores commenced, a truly back-breaking job. Being fully occupied outdoors, I had neither the time nor energy to chip away at the chaos indoors, which is why deep into the Fall of 2017, the front bedroom of my small shack in the woods still resembeled the warehouse scene at the end of Citizen Kane.



Still, progress has been made, and if I'm way behind where I thought I'd be by now, at least the end is in sight -- there's now a faint glimmer of light at the end of this long, dark tunnel.

So what have I learned? Looking backwards through time (and now that the pain is forgotten, with the aid of increasingly rose-tinted glasses), I can see the entire arc of my Hollywood career much more clearly: an enthusiastic young man who knew nothing gradually becoming a worn-out old man who knows a lot, yet remains accutely aware of just how much he has yet to learn. But as I replay in my head the many varied jobs I've had, all the amazing people I met, and the adventures we shared on location and stage sets over the decades, I have a much greater appreciation for how much fun it really was. Yes, there was pain, yes, there was suffering -- and yes, I'll carry the scars from all that into my grave -- but there were always laughs along the way.

I recall a particularly dismal night-exterior shoot in Griffith Park during a very heavy El Niño winter back in the 90's. We got the first setup lit by dusk -- a 12K and operator high up in an 80 foot condor, HMI's everywhere lighting the background, with tungsten units hitting the foreground and actors, every lamp covered with a rain hat... and then came the deluge. Oh Lord, did it rain, a hard, driving downpour that simply would not let up. We kept filming, of course, relighting as needed from setup to setup, but before long we were all drenched. The rain gear I had at the time was no match for El Niño. As the Gaffer, I didn't have to run cable or man the HMIs, but I still got totally soaked -- and I mean totally, right down to water squishing up between the toes inside my boots.

Right about then the D.P. looked up from the camera eyepiece with an expression of utter and complete disgust.

"This is fucked!" he declared.

Something about the complete absurdity of that moment and the look on his face (this from a famously stoic D.P. who rarely complained about anything) just cracked me up, and I doubled over with laughter. Granted, that wasn't much consolation ten hours later as I helped my crew wrap hundreds of feet of muddy cable at 3:00 in the morning, but you take your moments of levity when and where you can.

Perhaps the only true blessing of getting old is being able to relive these memories for the best they offer, reliving the joy while no longer feeling the pain. The past year has taught me what a gift this is, and that for all the frustrations, indignities, and humiliations that accompany aging, I'm fortunate to have made it this far. Too many of my industry friends didn't -- good people cut down in mid-life, who never got a chance to look back and enjoy the long view. One of them died last week of a heart attack, just three months from filing his retirement papers.

I miss those people, each and every one.

Such the cruelty of life. If you live long enough, everyone and everything you know and cherish will be taken from you. We lose it all in the end, every last shred, and are left standing naked and shivering on the crumbling lip of the abyss awaiting our turn. But if there's no escaping that grim fate, there's no point dwelling on it either. The hard truth is, all any of us has is the moment -- this moment, right now -- and as I sit here one year later, warding off the winter chill in the flickering light of a blazing fire, things are all right.

That's just about all I can reasonably ask for.

Most of you are a light years from any of this. You're still working hard to build, maintain, and advance your career, and have neither the time nor inclination for such cud-chewing rumination. Being in the middle of it now, with the end nowhere on the horizon, you're living in the moment -- as you should be. Still, it's worth pausing every now to look around at where you are, what you're doing, and at people you're working with who help take the sting out those long hours on set. Without them -- and all the laughs -- working below the line wouldn't be much fun at all.

But if for whatever reason you're not having fun, not working with people you enjoy, and not laughing at some point every day... then it's definitely time to make a change.

It's your life, kiddos, and you only get one shot -- so make it count, and appreciate what you've got while you can. Time, precious time, will slip away faster than you think.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Sweat the Small Stuff

                                             The big stuff...

There's an old saying that makes the rounds from time to time: "Don't sweat the small stuff -- and it's all small stuff."

I must have heard that one hundred times over my career in Hollywood, usually uttered by people for whom I had (and have) the greatest respect. At first glance, it makes a lot of sense. After all, we're just making movies and television here, not  -- to mangle yet another worn-out cliche -- performing brain science or rocket surgery. Although every big job is daunting at the beginning, once you start breaking it down, that Large Problem turns out to be made up of many smaller problems, each of which can be solved once the department heads and crew put their minds to it -- and by the time that process has run its course, the Large Problem is no more. Still, many people (especially newbies) can be overwhelmed by the scale of a given project, be it a huge set, a difficult location, or a series of exceedingly complex special effects, and that causes them to lock up, paralyzed by uncertainty. When this happens, those soothing words can serve as a pat-on-the-back to help bring them back.

The message -- don't freak out, stay calm, and carry on -- certainly rings true when pondering the cosmic big picture. Even if we manage to avoid blowing humanity to Hell with nuclear weapons, then find a way to slow and reverse the pace of global warming enough prevent massive sea level rise, ocean acidification, resource depletion, and the inevitable geopolitical conflicts that will erupt when millions of climate refugees flee the inundated coastal regions in a human tsunami, we're still doomed. At some point in the distant future, our sun will enter its death throes and begin to expand.  In the words of a noted British astronomer, the fierce heat from that growing thermonuclear furnace will boil the oceans dry, then "lick the earth clean," reducing this lovely blue pearl -- where all the dramas of human and pre-human life have played out over billions of years -- to a charred black cinder drifting through the frozen void of space.

Compared to that bleak cosmic inevitability, our little problems here in the film and television industry really are "small stuff."

But that'll be then and this is now -- besides, we don't live and work in the context of the cosmic big picture. Instead, we grind it out one day at a time, and given that forgetting to pay your rent, mortgage, credit cards, and/or traffic tickets on time can result in significant personal and financial repercussions down the road, details are important.

I got to thinking about all this after reading a couple of comments here.  The first came from "D," a veteran dolly grip with thirty years of experience under his belt, who runs the excellent industry blog Dollygrippery.

"I knew when I started having "work dreams" that I was actually a member of the "industry."  Now I have dreams all the time.  Usually involving not being able to lay track.  Last week I had one in which I got fired because I coudn't do a relatively simple dolly move.  In the dream, the DP said, "You're just not good enough."  Funny after almost 30 years, my insecurities bubble up in my dreams." 

The second was from a veteran sound mixer I've known for decades, who retired two years ago.

"I still have work dreams.  They usually hearken back to my days as a production mixer.  In my dreams I am on the set and they are shouting "Roll Sound" and I realize I left the recorder at home or there is no tape in the recorder and none on the cart."

I can relate -- every industry pro can.

I doubt many of us are truly able to shake our insecurities regarding work during the course of our careers. I'm past that now, but certainly suffered a plague of insecurities during my early years as a Best Boy, then Gaffer -- where a bad decision on my part could cost my employers a lot of money, make my department head look bad, and maybe cause those who hired us to reconsider the wisdom of that decision. I never slept well the night before starting a new job, chewing the worry-bone wondering if I'd overlooked something that might bring the shoot to a screaming halt  the following day.

It's hard to get out from under the shadow of such worries -- all the stress and hard work of getting (and keeping) a career going drives them deep into our emotional aquifers, there to bubble up whenever we let our guard down. That pressure has to be relieved sometime, and it often happens in our dreams.

Worrying about details -- the small stuff -- wasn't any fun at all, but it kept me on my toes. That's a good thing. Experience helped, of course, and I calmed down somewhat after a few years, but the steady drumbeat of those anxous work-dreams served as a warning not to get too comfortable. Although I can't speak for anyone else, my feeling was that being totally confident and utterly untroubled about anything that might happen on the job was a sign of pride -- "one of the seven deadlies," as a grizzled character in Urban Cowboy uttered way back when -- and it's axiomatic that pride goeth before a fall.

A department head has to project confidence, of course, whether or not he/she really feels it. You can't allow your crew to get the idea that you don't have your shit together on set -- and a big part of making sure that you don't get caught with your metaphorical pants down is to look at the job from every angle to anticipate what could go wrong, then make sure your ass is covered.

I recall the exact day it hit me that I'd never be able to fully relax as a gaffer. We were in a van scouting locations for a commercial to be filmed in and around San Francisco: the Director, Producer, DP, Art Director, and the Key Grip, Steve Cardellini. Yes, that Steve Cardellini, inventor of the eponymous clamp that soon became standard issue in grip departments all over the world. I always enjoyed working with Steve, who was a great guy, a terrific grip, and a gifted inventor -- the man could rig anything, anywhere, with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of utility.*

As we rolled across the Golden Gate Bridge on our way to the next location, he confessed to having awakened at 3:00 a.m. the previous week, worried that he might have forgotten to order a particular piece of equipment for the next day's shoot. He hadn't, of course, but the nagging worry was still there... and that's when I realized that if Steve Cardellini -- a much better Key Grip than I was a Gaffer -- still suffered from these middle-of-the-night terrors, there was no hope that I'd ever shed them.

Oddly enough, that made me feel a lot better.

Hey, we're all human, and every one of us screws up from time to time. The important thing is to minimize your mistakes, and one way to do that is to pay attention to the details. Since every Large Problem is made up of many smaller problems, "the small stuff" turns out to be very important -- and if ignored, one little problem has a way of snowballing into something much worse.

Consider the wisdom of Ben Franklin.

"For the want of a nail the shoe was lost,
For the want of a shoe the horse was lost,
For the want of a horse the rider was lost,
For the want of a rider the battle was lost, 
For the want of a battle the kingdom was lost,
And all for the want of a horse-shoe nail."

Ignoring the details might not lose a kingdom in our business, but it can damage your good reputation -- and once lost, that's hard thing to recover. The details matter, so if you want to have a long and successful career, you'd better ignore the warm and fuzzy comfort of shopworn clichés, and make damned sure you sweat the small stuff.


* Steve is still with us, of course -- alive, well, and happily retired for the past ten years.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Dreaming is Free


                                                 Photo by Lee Johnson

Forty years is time enough for a young man to grow old, for him to accomplish a few goals along the way even as so many others melted into the ether, and for a vague dream to morph into a hard reality he could never have comprehended when this long strange trip first began. In other words, it's life -- a rough and tumble journey we all experience in our own ways while riding a roller coaster of ups and downs that inevitably leads us all to the same grim fade-to-black.

But that will be then, and this is now, so Death can just go to the back of the line and wait its turn.

A lot was burned into my brain over that span, with an intensity I'll never forget, so it seemed a bit odd that I didn't have any work dreams during my first eight months of retirement -- not a single one. Granted, I've been busy, leaving little time to ruminate on the past, but I'm not sure if that explains it. All I really know is that in the ninth month, the work-dreams commenced, and night after night, they just keep coming.

This isn't a bad thing. In most of these dreams, I'm on set doing my job with a familiar cast of characters -- the crews I worked with over those final years leading up to my exit stage left. These aren't the anxiety dreams of my younger years, wherein I inexplicably showed up at work an hour late, found myself at the wrong location, or suddenly realized I was standing in the midst of a crowded set wondering why I'd neglected to put any pants on before driving to work. Instead, these dreams are pleasant meanders down memory lane. There's usually a bit of confusion, of course, but a certain degree of confusion comes with every day of working on set. Still, the lamps and cable aren't heavy in Dreamland, the ladders are easy to climb, my back doesn't hurt, the producers are competent, and the directors know what they're doing -- unlike certain legend-in-their-own-mind hacks so many of us have had to endure.

In these dreams, I get what my post-work life has yet to offer: a comfortable sense of shared purpose, of belonging, while working with a group of people I like in a place -- on set -- that feels like home. Sometimes I wonder if it's the only place I will ever truly feel at home, which is a rather disquieting thought. Retirement has turned out to be a much more solitary journey, where the endless toil required to keep this small shack in the woods warm and dry leaves little time for much else. Perhaps it's the internal monologue looping endlessly through my brain while wielding a chain saw, axe, and wood-splitter that spark these work dreams -- I don't know, and suppose it really doesn't matter.

Thirty years of benign neglect and deferred maintence comes at a cost, and I'm now making up for all that, but at some point (I hope...) the work load will diminish, and maybe then I'll begin to find out what the next chapter is all about. Meanwhile, my non-waking hours remain a trip into reality-based fantasy land -- the stuff dreams are made of -- and as the stunningly beautiful Debbie Harry reminds us from the golden, gauzy past, dreaming is free.

"I sit by and watch the river flow, I sit by and watch the traffic go. Imagine something of your very own, something you can have and hold.  I'd build a road of gold just to have some dreaming."

I worked three days in January this year, and that was it. Although I was offered more, it was time to go, plain and simple. Professional athletes often speak of "knowing when it's time" to hang it up, and if the comparatively mundane careers of those who work below-the-line are considerably longer than the average athlete enjoys, it all comes down to the same equation in the end. You just know -- and nothing that's happened since I left Hollywood has changed that. The year that subsequently unfolded was good for the film and television industry, generating lots of employment for industry work-bots all over the country, and hopefully that will continue on into the New Year.

On every other front, though, 2017 was a true annus horribilis.  If 2018 follows suit -- and there's every reason to believe it could be even worse -- dreaming may be as good as it gets for most of us in the year to come.

Let's hope not... and on that admittedly sour (if realistic) note,  I wish you all a Happy New Year.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Just For the Hell of It: Episode 46

                               Old juicers never die, they just fade away...*


No, this is not a photo of me up here on the cold, damp, windy ridge, staring into a half-empty bottle while remembering the good old days in Hollywood. For one thing, I never wear bow ties, and seldom don a sport jacket -- and nobody would ever mistake me for Humphrey Bogart. Not that I didn't do my share of staring into bottles in the wake of romantic disasters back in my younger days, mind you... but I just like the photo -- and love the movie from which it came, which is why I bought this book.



As silly as it might sound, it was movies like this that sparked my initial interest in film as a young man, and eventually led to me to Hollywood. In my youthful naivete, I assumed that the classics of Hollywood's Golden Age must have been blessed right from the start, each with a great script, director, producer, actors, and crew all pulling in the same direction, secure in the knowledge that together they were crafting a cinematic masterpiece.

It wasn't like that at all, of course. Like so many movies, Casablanca was beset by the ego battles, personality conflicts, and logistics that plague most productions -- but out of that boiling cinematic cauldron emerged an enduring classic.

A much darker tale unfolds here, a story of careers and lives upended by the Black List and those who enabled it in an era of maximum paranoia -- a time that holds disturbing parallels to our current socio-political mess.



This book is a fascinating read that takes you deep into a very troubled time, and demonstrates how  --  because of and in spite of the Black List -- a truly ground-breaking classic can materialize from paranoia and chaos.  The movie  High Noon serves as a warning of the dangers that arise when a culture becomes so fearful that it looks inward, then begins to eat itself alive.  The book explains how that all came about.

Both of these books offer another object lesson -- that in Hollywood, those who deserve the credit for a job well done don't always get it, a lesson we seem to re-learn with every generation. Both are good reads, so put them on your wish list to Santa.

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

I really didn't want to wade into the tsunami of rage that has inundated Hollywood and beyond amid the ongoing, metastasizing revelations of Extremely Bad Behavior on the part of men towards women. That Harvey Weinstein turned out to be a ruthlessly self-serving pig was hardly a surprise, but I was taken aback to learn that Kevin Spacey -- an actor I've always admired -- has also been drunk with the power of celebrity, and pretty much out of control for so many years. After that, the big rock of Hollywood was turned over, and all kinds of dark, nasty things came wriggling out into the light. That men like Bret Ratner and James Toback would abuse their power didn't shock me. Big time Hollywood players usually get what they want, and they tend to want a lot, but the extent of their abuse -- the sheer numbers of women they've preyed upon -- was jaw-dropping.

Do these guys have any conscience at all?  Apparently not.

At that point, I began to wonder if it might be easier to point out those few who haven't commited such egregious sins in Holllywood rather than those who have... but I really wasn't prepared to hear that Louis C.K. was among the disgraced elite of this business, having forced his onanisic transgressions on women who wanted only to meet a man they'd admired so much.

What a miserable day those each of those women must have had, through no fault of their own. There's no excuse for such blatantly aberrant, abusive, bullying behavior -- I can't even understand it, much less try to explain why any man would want to do such a thing. It's unfathomable.

That said -- and this is where the fire arrows of rage may rain upon me -- I don't think FX was right to kick Louis C.K. off the air altogether, ending his participation in the four shows he's been involved with. Suspend him for a season, fine.  Give him a long time-out to ponder the many profound consequences of his actions, absolutely.  Make him understand in no uncertain terms that any repeat of this bizarre behavior will result in a permanent severing of network ties... but don't nail him to the cross of banishment forever.

I don't say this simply because -- as any long-time readers of this blog know -- I've long been a fan of Louie and his shows, which are among the smartest, most aware, and painfully honest comedic dramas on television. But if we are ever to rise above and beyond the tawdry behavior currently being unearthed all across the cultural and societal spectrum, we'll need the smart, aware, and (hopefully) chagrined voices of people like Louis C.K. to help lead us out of the swamp -- people who have been there, have witnessed the damage done, and are determined to do their best in making things right.

I'm assuming, of course, that Louis C.K. would in fact choose that path, and put his shoulder to the wheel by using his considerable creative skills to explore and expose the true dimensions and impact of this issue, which has blighted and blunted the lives and careers of so many women for so long.

I could be dead wrong about this -- maybe a leopard really can't change his spots -- but if anybody can, I'm betting it's Louis C.K. If so, we'll all be better off by his participation in the cultural conversation. If not, he'll wind up in exile on his own little Elba, a lonely prisoner on an island of his own making.

Rob Long poses a salient question on the subject of old Hollywood men and attractive young women in a recent Martini Shot commentary, but neither his nor my thoughts on harrassment can be as relevant as those of a fellow juicer who happens to be female. She's been there, and knows how it feels in ways I'll never be able to fully grasp.

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

Enough with the heavy stuff -- here's a fascinating interview with Pamela Adlon, whose brilliant Better Things truly is one of the best shows on television these days. Adlon directed every episode of this season, and her work has a raw, sensitive, oh-so-human touch that reminds me a bit of the best French cinema. I haven't seen anything else like it on TV, other than (ahem...) the five seasons of Louis C.K., where Pam Adlon played a prominent role. Without Louis, she'd never have landed a deal with FX in the first place -- which just goes to reinforce the point I tried to make in the item above.

At any rate, Season Two of Better Things just finished it's run on FX, and I'm already looking forward to Season Three.  The first season is availabe on Hulu, and I'm not sure where or when this second season will again be available for viewing -- but check it out when and where you can.

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

I recently stumbled across a new (to me) industry blog by a smart young production assistant on his way to much bigger and better things. Sean Baran's Film Tool Kit offers an informative primer on many film industry basics that will prove useful for newbies and anybody else curious about the realities of working on set. Forewarned is forearmed, as the saying goes (or for you sticklers out there, praemonitus, praemunitus, according to the ancient Romans), because it really does help to have some idea what to expect when you go into a new situation -- and walking on set for the first time is very new and different experience. Sean is a good writer, with a casually breezy style that belies the hard work he's put into this blog, so check it out. You'll find a permanent link over on the Industry Blogroll.

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

From the "now it can finally be told" file...

As any veteran of the TV wars will attest, landing a show that sticks for more than half a season isn't easy. Many try, but few succeed, which makes it all the more galling when a show that did well enough in that first half to have all the signs pointing towards a pick-up of ten more episodes is instead abruptly cancelled with no explanation.

That hurts -- and is exactly what happened here.

At the time, none of us who worked on Ruby and the Rockits understood what went wrong. Granted, it was a low-budget cable show, but that meant it was relatively cheap to make, so the viewership didn't have to be huge for the network to make a profit -- and our numbers were decent. Rather than wrap the sets and stage, then return all the lights and cable after the scheduled ten episodes were in the can, we were told to do a "fold and hold," meaning the stage doors were locked and we walked away to await the networks final decision. All the sets and lighting equipement remained in place, ready to resume filming whenever the decision came down.

A thirty day fold-and-hold doesn't happen unless the network is serious about ordering more episodes,  so I was pretty sure we had another three or four month's work coming. After all, our only big-name star had turned to us on set one day with a big smile, then declared: "We're looking at a five year run, boys." Since his brother was the line producer, and another brother was a core member of the cast (with yet another brother working in the art department), I figured this was a done-deal.

But when the phone finally rang, the news was bad: our show had been cancelled. We had three days to wrap the stage.

At the time, I chalked it up to the perfidious nature of the Gods of Hollywood, who possess a decidedly cruel sense of humor... but later learned the truth, or what I have to assume is the truth. After we'd shot the last episode, that big-name walked into the network office to demand a huge pay raise for himself and his brother, then insisted that their mother be added as a core member of the cast for the second half of the season -- an act of astonishing arrogance untethered to the actual reality of the situation. He acted as if the show was a monster hit pulling in twelve million viewers a week, thus giving him serious clout, but our numbers were considerably more modest: maybe a million per week, which isn't nearly enough to make a network executive fall to his knees and open his wallet.

And that's how David Cassidy overplayed his hand in a very big way, and in the process, cost a hundred and fifty people their jobs -- including me.

So much for our "five year run."

I'm not bitter about it. Sure, I was pissed at the time, but that's how it goes in Hollywood, where big egos drive off the cliff to crash and burn with some regularity.  We bounced back to land another pilot the next year, which was picked up for an initial run of ten episodes, then twenty more were added in the second half. By the time Melissa & Joey finished it's run,  we'd shot over a hundred episodes -- so in the end, we got that five year run after all.

David Cassidy didn't. Instead, he dropped out of sight, his face appearing in the news only when he was nailed for another DUI as his life descended into chaos. He rode the roller coaster of a classic boom-and-bust, penthouse-to-outhouse Hollywood life, one that ended last month at age 67.

The wise men tell us not to speak ill of the dead, and I won't. The David Cassidy I saw in action wasn't a bad guy -- he had some talent, and certainly didn't lack for confidence -- but that kind of confidence doesn't always come with common sense, and for that he paid a heavy price.

RIP, David.  I hope you're now in a better place.

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

Some of you long-time readers (assuming any are still around) might recall this long-ago post about Evel Knievel, who I watched perform two live motorcycle jumps many years before I headed to Hollywood -- where I finally met the man himself while working on a commercial in which he starred. Although Evel managed to safely complete most of his jumps (including the two I witnessed), his image was seared into the public mind by two infamous failures -- being tossed about like a rag-doll when he landed short and lost control after jumping the fountains of Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, and for drifting down out of the blue Idaho sky in a steam-powered rocket called the "Sky Cycle," which didn't make it across the Snake River Canyon thanks to the early deployment of a parachute.

When I first saw him in 1968, he was already promising to jump a motorcycle across the Grand Canyon, which sounds as ridiculous now as it did back then. I don't doubt that he'd have tried if the U.S. Government had bestowed their blessing, but it didn't -- so he found another canyon to jump.

It didn't work out, although Evel survived, and I figured that was that --  surely nobody would be crazy enough to try that again.

Wrong. Maybe I should have remembered the words of recently departed Charles Manson, who said "You know, a long time ago being crazy meant something. Nowadays, everybody's crazy." And so it was that in 2016, a stuntman named Eddie Braun built his own steam powered rocket that successfully and safely carried him across the same Snake River Canyon.

We'll never know if Evel would have made it, absent his parachute malfunction -- although the two test flights of the Sky Cycle did not end well -- but Eddie Braun showed it could be done... so maybe Evel wasn't so crazy after all.

That's it for this month.  I wish you all the best of the holiday season.


* With apologies to the long dead General Douglas MacArther...