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, February 2, 2020

Just for the Hell of It -- Episode 56

                                    Canvas backing used on "Sound of Music"


Back in the early 80s, I did a fair amount of work at Paramount and Warner Bros (a.k.a. "TBS" at the time - The Burbank Studios) as a permit grip. Among our many tasks was to retrieve painted canvas backings and trans-lights (the latter essentially a giant photographic slide) from the scene dock, then roll or carrying them to a sound-stage, where we'd go up high, drop ropes, and pull the backdrop up into place. There, they'd serve as a background outside a window, or open door (or whatever) to match the scene being filmed by the 1st unit show crew.  I was still young enough to have a romantic view of the movie business, and those old backings seemed laden with cinematic history. Since I'd doubtless seen many of those very same backings in the movies and TV shows of my youth, working with them made me feel that I'd finally become a part of Hollywood. 

Some of those old canvas backdrops are still being used in the multi-camera world, where smaller budgets preclude doing much filming on location. Canvas backings are relatively cheap to rent, and good enough for sitcoms, where high production values are not nearly as important as good casting and clever, funny scripts.  

Back in the day, every studio had its own scene dock full of hand-painted backings, but with features and episodic television (particularly the streaming dramas) now filming more on location or using green/blue screen technology for a hyper-realistic look or to create fantastical backgrounds, there's not much demand for the old canvas backings, and many have gone into the trash.

In December, the LA Times ran a terrific piece on a long overdue effort to save a few of the old painted canvas backings.  Some real artistry went into them, and now some are being preserved.  That's a good thing.



Still, it's sad to think of all the skill it took to create those large scale paintings dying out.  There are still a few of these artists around, but their numbers are shrinking.  As the saying goes, "All things must pass."

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On that note - unfortunately - the bell has tolled for Modern Props. With it's distinctive logo and sophisticated, terrific-looking props (which at the time represented the ne plus ultra in modernity), Modern Props quickly became a major presence in Hollywood during the 80's.




But nothing lasts forever in LA, and Modern Props has gone the way of so many legendary institutions that once supported the industry, marching into Hollywood history.

I still have a piece of Modern Props, a sweatshirt the art department snagged for me back when I was gaffing commercials thirty years ago. Here's the image from the front of that shirt. (Thanks, Bob!)



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While we're on the subject of Hollywood passings... Buck Henry, a low-key, very funny guy with one of the more unlikely names in Hollywood.  Tagged with a name like "Buck Henry," he should have been one of Hollywood's loud, rugged, hard-drinking, two-fisted manly-men -- a bigger, brawnier Sean Penn, if you will, but with a sense of humor. Instead, he was a quiet, bespectacled, supremely talented writer, actor, and occasional director who let his work speak for itself. He had a hand in many films that made a big impression on me over the years, from The Graduate, to Heaven Can Wait, to The Player, and was universally liked and respected. When working below-the-line, much can be heard about many of the big names in the film and television industry -- talk that's rarely flattering -- but during all my years in Hollywood, I never heard a bad word about Buck Henry.  For a taste of his quiet wit and humor, here's a brief on-stage interview he did with Terry Gross, originally broadcast on her show, "Fresh Air." 

I hate it when we lose another of the really good ones. 

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Despite all the box office/ratings success of movies and television these days, the business is in turmoil, from the streaming wars to the ongoing struggle between the Writers Guild and agents.  A few months ago, the WGA ordered its members to fire their agents, which most of them did, over something called "packaging."  This has to do with agents moving beyond their singular role of representing clients - striving to get the very best deal for the writers they've signed - to playing both sides of the field in order to make a lot more money. None of this made much sense to me until I read this, by David Simon, an ex-newspaper man turned writer turned show-runner of some truly great HBO shows, including The Wire, Treme, and The Deuce.  Simon knows of what he speaks, having come to the television industry assuming - as once was the case - that an agent would fight hard with the network executives to get the best deal possible for his client. What he learned as the scales fell from his eyes during that process is detailed in the article, which is eye-opening, and definitely worth a read if you're a young writer striving to succeed in Hollywood.

The streaming wars are going strong these days, with another new, oddly-named streaming entity (Quibi, anyone?) popping up every few weeks. God knows where all this will end, but remember: early in the 20th century, there were more than a hundred small automobile manufacturing companies in the U.S. alone. Fifty years later, only a handful of large survivors remained, and those numbers have continued to shrink since then. Over the next decade or so, a similar winnowing will probably take place in the rapidly-expanding universe of streaming entities, as the weaker fail and/or are absorbed by their larger, more fiscally stable competitors. Which will remain standing is unclear, but all will become clear in the fullness of time. Meanwhile, here's a piece that helps explain what's going on.

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A good director puts a lot of thought into the art direction, wardrobe, and shot selection of his/her movie, all of which help support and flesh out the unfolding narrative. Noah Baumbach is a very good director, and if you've seen Marriage Story, this half hour discussion between Elvis Mitchell and director Baumbach is definitely worth a listen, offering a fascinating look at the process. Any of you budding directors out there can learn a lot from him.

A further education in the finer points of filmmaking is in this seven minute clip, wherein various distinguished DPs discuss how they "grade" a film after the picture is locked in the editing process. Grading involves the final adjustments to color and contrast from shot to shot, to give an overall "look" to a movie. Another clip, titled Fuck the Numbers, discusses the difference between those who use their eye and knowledge of art to capture compelling images, and those who, in effect, paint by the numbers. Both of these clips are from a fascinating series put out by the people at Cooke Lenses  (you can subscribe to the whole series), and were brought to my attention by retired DP/director Peter McLennan, who made a memorable contribution to this blog a six years ago with this wonderful two-part post

If you never read those posts, I urge you to do so. You'll be glad you did.

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Finally, here's the year-in-review show from KCRW's The Business.  A lot happened in the film/television industry during 2019, so check it out.  

That's all for this month. The way 2020 has unfolded thus far, I suggest you buckle up your seatbelts, kiddos -- we've got eleven more months to go, and it promises to be a bumpy flight.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

The Universal Cure



                                                               It's magic...


It happened on nearly every film gig I worked throughout my career, be it a feature, television show, commercial, industrial, or music video. We'd be in the midst of the long days grind, slogging though shot after shot, when someone would crack the perfect joke at just the right moment, and the whole crew would break up in a belly laugh. 

Moments like that -- such as captured in this photo on the set of Stanley Kubrick's 1964 classic Dr. Strangelove -- are pure magic. In an instant, all the stress, tension, and tedium that has built up over the course of the day suddenly vanishes into the ether. With everybody from the director on down to the Set PA sharing a good laugh, the entire crew relaxes, making everyone feel better -- and then they all get back to work with a smile. They say laughter is the best medicine, but more than that, it's the ultimate cure for the malaise that sooner or later infects every set.

Now nearly three years out to pasture (and yes, I have a hard time believing that too...), these shared moments of levity are among the things I really do miss from my Hollywood years. With retirement being a relatively solitary endeavor, I don't get much of that anymore. Instead of walking onto a set five days a week to work with anywhere from twenty to sixty people, I have to push myself out of the nest to meet, mingle, and share any kind of laughter... and although that's always nice, it's just not the same.  

So much of life pivots around the eternal cycle of tension and release. Whether it's sports, drama, comedy, sex, or work, the jaw-clenching tension as you push towards whatever the goal might be is what eventually leads to the sweet explosion of release. To paraphrase Rick James, "Endorphins are a hell of a drug."  Now that I no longer have to get up with the alarm clock before dawn, then work all day and/or deep into the night, the stresses I experience are my own, not shared with a group, and thus take more of a conscious effort to shake off.

There's much to bitch about in the film and television business: the long, hurry-up-and-wait hours punctuated by last-second changes that turn an orderly set into a rugby-scrum of frantic, elbow-flapping confusion, or having to work for cheap-ass, money-grubbing motherf*****s like Disney, or dealing with the massive, don't-you-know-who-I-think-I-am egos that can afflict those who float in the rarified air above-the-line... but moments like the one pictured above go a long way towards easing the pain.  

Look at that picture again. Despite his undeniable comedic genius, Peter Sellers was infamous for being anything but warm and fuzzy, yet here he is with a big grin on his face, sharing a laugh with all the supporting actors and crew.*  For Sellers, and other similarly tortured souls, working on set might be the only place they felt truly comfortable -- a sanctuary of sorts. 

The only person not laughing in this photo appears to be the focus-puller, who seems worried he might have buzzed a mark on the previous take. Given the demanding perfectionism of Kubrik, maybe that man had good reason to worry.

So, here we are in the first new year of a brand new decade. I don't know if turning a calendar page will make much difference, but I'll raise a glass to the hope that it does, and that all of you can find whatever it is you're looking for in the year to come. Meanwhile, enjoy those precious moments of shared laughter on set: they just might be what make working in this business worthwhile. 

Well, that and the paychecks...

Happy New Year!


* I believe that's Kubrick on the left, with his back to the lens.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Bon Voyage, Mr. Goodman





“Every time you think you’ve found your way, your life changes.”
Ursula LeGuin


As a longtime fan of Tim Goodman -- chief TV critic for my hometown San Francisco Chronicle for six or seven years before stepping up into a pair of much bigger shoes at The Hollywood Reporter for most of the past decade -- I've devoted a fair quantity of digital ink to his work in this space. With a savage wit and smart, take-no-prisoners prose, Goodman met the challenge of analyzing and deconstructing television in an era of rapid, unprecedented change. The "digital revolution" is just that -- a revolution -- and as such, grabbed television as we knew it by the ankles, turned it upside down, and shook hard. Very hard. Hollywood, and the industry as a whole, continue to reverberate from these tectonic changes.

I introduced Goodman to my then-miniscule audience here at BS&T in this post eleven short years ago, then reminded the slowly growing readership here a year later, and prodded them again in 2010.  A link to his THR reviews -- aptly named The Bastard Machine -- has lived over there on the right side of this page ever since. For those who'd rather cherry-pick from a distillation of Goodman's trenchant observations, there's this compendium of snarky quotes compiled by a crazy Irishman.

I love good movies and TV shows, but most of all I love good writing, which Tim Goodman delivered in spades. It was Goodman who gave me a shove to start this blog, first by commissioning my one and only paid writing gig* for the Chronicle, then encouraging me to write more about the underbelly of the film and television industry. All this came about after he'd fired a barrage of critical arrows into the soft white underbelly of Good Morning, Miamithe show I was then working on. Pissed at reading such a brutal review, I sent him a rather caustic e-mail response. Good Morning, Miami wasn't a great show, but it wasn't all that bad either -- it was just an average laugh-track sitcom. More to the point, it was my show, paying my rent, putting food on my table, so I took umbrage at a review that seemed hell-bent on getting it cancelled.  

Tim responded with good humor, which began a back and forth that continues, however sporadically, to this day. As time passed, he began a couple of blogs, started one of (if not the) first podcasts about television, and for the last few years has co-hosted a terrific podcast with Bay Area tech guru Jason Snell, discussing what's new on the Toob, and analyzing how the industry struggles to cope with the reality of internet streaming, the new (and soon to be dominant) mode of delivering/consuming television. The TV Talk Machine has been an  entertaining and informative listen for anyone curious about what's new in the industry. Among recent offerings,Tim detailed why he finally cut the cord in cancelling his cable service and going all-in on streaming, then explained exactly how to do it for those who remain dazed and confused by the rapidly evolving technology. 

Sadly, I must employ the past tense here. There's a reason I wrote the following line in the very first BS&T post back in 2007: "Nothing good seems to last very long on this thin strip of sun-baked earth trapped hard between the desert and the sea."  Alas, that still holds. Early in November, Tim announced the end of his storied career as a TV critic. Officially done with all that, he left the The Hollywood Reporter, and is now off on some mysterious new quest, the nature of which he has yet to reveal.  

Wow -- I sure as hell didn't see that coming. Granted, it's a show-biz axiom to "leave 'em wanting more," but how many actors, writers, directors -- or television critics -- ever manage to go out on top?  Most hang on until it's glaringly obvious that The Industry no longer requires or desires their services -- but not Mr. Goodman, who apparently heard the Song of the Sirens, then tore himself loose, jumped ship, and swam off into the mist to answer the call.  

You can tap into the TVTM archives -- there's a lot to choose from -- and as of three weeks ago, Tim promised Jason that he'd do a few more episodes to wrap things up... but after the New Year, it's anybody's guess what will become of it.  

Needless to say, this does not make me happy. Not only was I counting on Tim and Jason to keep me apprised of (and entertained by) the latest happenings in the world of television, I assumed he'd be writing -- and I'd be reading -- his THR reviews and columns on into the foreseeable future.  

Well, you know what they say about assumptions.

"The only constant is change," Heraclitus tells us, and as usual, the ancient Greeks nailed it. We don't have to like it to accept it, and although Tim's leap into the void is a rather bitter pill to swallow for those of us who enjoy his writing, such is life. I don't know how long -- or if -- THR will maintain his archive of reviews, so you might want to click on over to The Bastard Machine to read them while you can.

Meanwhile, all I can say is "So long, Tim -- it's been a blast."

That it has. 

Thanks for everything, and good luck on your new path.



* Which the Chron's editor butchered, BTW, cutting out a full third of the piece -- so don't hold the choppy nature of the result against me...


Sunday, November 3, 2019

Just for the Hell of It: Episode 55

                                                       Intolerance, 1916

After a long absence, "D" put up a new post over at Dollygrippery a while back, discussing some of the problems created for first-unit filming crews by poor set design -- and if you haven't read it, you should.*  Although I know nothing about the intricacies of designing sets, I certainly share his frustration at the hurdles erected by too many set designers who go about their business never bothering to consider the needs of those who will eventually have to work on that set, whether it's a feature, episodic television show, or multi-camera sitcom.

To be clear, I'm talking about sets built on sound stages, not massive exterior sets like the one D.W. Griffith's crew built in the photo above.  Such outdoor sets are usually limited in size only by the  budget, while sets on a soundstage must be crammed into the confines of the four-foot fire lane around the circumference of that stage. In their efforts to cram twenty pounds of shit into a five pound bag, set designers often seem to forget that we actually have to light their set and the actors... or maybe they just don't care. I'd really rather not assume the latter, because it makes me want to pick up the nearest two-by-four and beat some sense into the next set designer I see.

Fortunately for them and me, those set designers are all four hundred miles away. Besides, I'm retired -- they can't hurt me anymore.

Designing a set that looks great and will allow a director to shoot everything he needs is no easy task, but that's the job of a set designer -- and why he/she gets the big bucks -- which means any set designer worth his/her salt (I was going to say "worth a shit," but I won't...) should understand and appreciate the issues a first unit crew comes up against when filming in that set.

I've often wished that each member of a film crew could spend a few days working in every other department, above and below the line, where they'd get a taste of what the rest of the crew has to deal with. Then, maybe a set designer wouldn't build his/her set right out to the four-foot line, where the grip/electric crew has to sweat bullets to put the lights in the proper place -- and dolly grips wouldn't have to contend a thick rug on a set... a rug that will never be seen by the camera.

Yeah, I know -- dreaming is free.  

Anybody interested in set design would do well to click on over to Artdepartmental (a truly great name for a blog, BTW) and take a good look. There's a lot to see there, and it's well worth your time.

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I started out as a PA, albeit for a blessedly short span of time. After two low-budget movies, I bumped up to grip, then juicer, and never looked back. Still, I had first-hand experience in  the indignities of PA work, and read about many more over at The Anonymous Production Assistant's blog over the years... then I stumbled across this horror story from John August's blog, and my jaw dropped. Read it and weep if you're planning to start your career as a PA. If you've already moved past PA-dom, just be glad this wasn't you.

Who knew writers could be such assholes?

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Here's a rather bizarre tale that emerged during the making of James Cameron's Titanic. Working for Cameron is tough enough under normal circumstances, but doing so on PCP?  No thanks. 

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Next up, veteran writer/producer Rob Long explains why science fiction movies about aliens will never be the same again.  Apparently real-life UFOs aren't what they used to be... but then, what is?


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If you're looking for a long, loose, anything-goes podcast from the lower depths of the film industry food chain, check out Failing Hollywood.  They post very lively interviews, discussions, round-robins -- you name it -- with all kinds of industry pros, and if you've got the time, it can be very entertaining.  

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The legendary producer Robert Evans died this week. Here's his obit from the Hollywood Reporter, and a thirteen minute interview he did with Terry Gross that was re-broadcast on NPR, in which he tells some great stories. If you've never seen the documentary based on his book, The Kid Stays in the Picture, you really should -- it's terrific, and a real slice of Hollywood history.  I never met the man, never saw him, and never worked on any of his projects... but I did enjoy this post-wrap embrace with one of his many future ex-girlfriends, Melissa Prophet, the night we finished shooting "Van Nuys Boulevard," a low-budget feature in which she co-starred.



People who know say that Evans saved Paramount back when it really needed saving, and as the producer of The Godfather and Chinatown -- two of the late 20th century's true cinematic epics -- Robert Evans deserves a big gold plaque in the Hollywood Hall of Fame... if there was one. Hollywood owes him that much. I suppose I owe him something too, given that seeing Chinatown had a lot to do with me riding south to tilt at the windmills of Hollywood way back in 1977.

So thanks, Bob.  They really don't make 'em like you anymore.  Rest in Peace.


* "D" works mostly in the world of big features, with occasional sojourns into episodic television, both of which are all-consuming, and leave little time or energy for writing blog posts.  The sole reason I managed to publish so many posts here over the last ten years of my career is because I was working almost exclusively on multi-camera sitcoms by then -- and multi-cam shows don't abuse their crews like the Death March of single-camera shows.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Rule Number One



                                             The hard way IS the easy way...

During my forty years working first as a grip, then juicer, best boy, gaffer -- then juicer, again -- my daily motto was: "Make the boss look good." Once I strapped on my tool belt, everything I did on set until wrap was finally called flowed from that one central idea, because if I made my boss look good, he/she was a lot more likely to hire me on the next job.

In that sense, it was pure self-interest.

This didn't mean endlessly backslapping and flattering those above me on the crew food chain, or telling everybody else how great my immediate boss was -- hey, I worked for Best Boys, Gaffers, and Directors of Photography, not Donald Fucking Trump -- but it did mean doing every aspect of my job in a thorough, professional manner to make sure nothing could come back to bite me or my department on the ass. When I started out as a grip, sandbags were liberally and properly employed, as a juicer, loose connections were tightened, excess cable was tied up and out of the way, lamps that didn't work quite right were repaired or sent back and replaced with good ones. As a Best Boy, I kept a constant eye on the genny, diligently checking the frequency (there were no "flicker free" HMIs back then) and the amp load on each leg of the cable run. As a Gaffer, I took copious notes during location scouts, and more than once went back to a potentially tricky location on my own time just to make sure I understood exactly what we'd need for the job -- then I triple-checked my equipment orders before sending them in. All this was aimed at making sure nothing under my control would go wrong at a bad time -- and although there's no good time for something to go wrong when dealing with electricity, there certainly are worse times. You really don't want a lamp to fail or a loose connection to start smoldering, melt down, and catch fire when a big, expensive star is on set working in front of the cameras... or during a show being filmed in front of a live audience.*

Absolute perfection is unattainable, of course -- film and television being a human endeavor, things will go wrong from time to time -- but the idea is to minimize the chances of that happening. Although other departments might never notice when things go smoothly on your crew (they're busy dealing with their own challenges), a good, experienced director, producer, UPM, or AD certainly will, because they've all been on shows where that wasn't the case, and they understand how much care, effort, and professionalism is required to keep everything on a set running smoothly.

Shit will occasionally happen no matter how careful you are, though, and usually when you least expect it. So long as it's a rare occurrence, this shouldn't be a big deal, but if lamps failing and connections melting down becomes a regular thing, that will be noted -- and even though the direct fault may lie elsewhere, the Best Boy will come under scrutiny from the gaffer for hiring such a sloppy  crew, while the gaffer receives a raised eyebrow from the DP, and the DP suffers a skeptical glance from the Director, UPM, and Producer for the same reason.  Recurrent problems in any one department casts a negative light on everyone involved, and if not rectified quickly, heads will roll. A Gaffer or Best Boy who hires a lousy crew is putting his/her own job and career at risk.

That's why it's important to do things right, which means avoiding the quick-and-dirty easy way. Your reputation is built on doing a consistently good job, not simply getting it done as fast as possible, and having to backtrack to fix a screw-up means doing it twice -- once the wrong way, then again the right way. Not only does this double your work, but it leaves you feeling like an idiot. Most veterans of the industry have been there, including me, which is how I came to understand that very often, the hard way is the easy way.

This doesn't mean being stupid, of course. The idea is to work smart, not unnecessarily hard, and working smart means doing the job right the first time.

This being a time = money industry, we don't always have the luxury of doing everything by the book, which is where experience makes all the difference. When the DP needs it done ASAP, we sometimes have to resort to a fast bubble-gum-and-baling-wire rig -- and we've all dealt with that situation -- but this should be the exception rather than the rule. The key is knowing how to do a quick rig in a way that minimizes the chances of anything going sideways. Still, sometimes you'll just have to say "No. We need a few minutes to do this safely," and again, experience will be your best guide to making this decision. When that happens, be sure to emphasize the word "safety," which will usually silence a director, DP, or AD who's trying to rush things along. Big trouble awaits anyone in a position of authority on set who ignores a safety warning before something goes wrong.

Given the long hours we work, it can be easy to fall into bad habits, which is another reason to make doing it the right way your default setting. I've run across a few grips and juicers over the years who were lazy slugs, always looking for the easiest, quickest way to accomplish every task. You might get away with that approach for a while, but sooner or later it'll catch up to you -- and that will make your boss look bad. Keep it up and your phone will stop ringing. The Freelance Jungle is a Darwinian world in which only the reliably competent can survive and prosper.

Remember this once you rise to a position of hiring a crew: they can make or break you. A Best Boy or Gaffer is only as good as his/her crew, and hiring a sloppy crew is a good way to curtail your own future job prospects. When I first started gaffing, a veteran gaffer I'd BB'd for gave me a very good piece of advice: "Hire guys who are better than you."  At first -- being justifiably insecure in my new role as a Gaffer -- I wasn't quite sure what to make of this, but in time I understood. When I landed my one and only gig as a Lighting Director on a commercial (it was a total fluke that I got the job, but the rate was $200/day more than I'd been getting as a gaffer), I hired that same gaffer to run the crew. It was a sizable rig that had to be done right, with forty chicken coops hung above a huge silk, and a row of cyc-lights arrayed all around to illuminate a big white three-corner cyclorama. There were no sets, but the commercial featured three elephants, two adults and a baby, and the lighting had to be smooth and bright... which it was. With the crew's hard work (and a few key suggestions he quietly whispered in my ear), that Gaffer made me look good.

Hey, sometimes you really do have to fake it 'til you make it -- and that's when a really good crew can save your ass.

So do it once, do it right, and remember: always make your boss look good...


* Or rig these lamps that fell and nearly clobbered a future President and First Lady on national TV...



Sunday, September 1, 2019

Just for the Hell of It: Episode 54

                            "Bruce," the mechanical shark from Jaws, 1975


Even in those primitive days before the digital magic of CGI changed Hollywood forever, enough money -- and the right people -- could create almost anything a director wanted. When Steven Spielberg needed a mechanical Great White shark for Jaws, his FX crew built three, each named "Bruce." Forty-plus years later, it's easy to look back and sneer at how crude those mechanical sharks were, but they worked well enough to scare the crap out of me and several million other movie goers that summer. I don't know about you, but every time I dive into the ocean (or as Jacques Cousteau put it, "enter the food chain"), that film's ominous sound track is always running through my head.

Nowadays, computer-aided artistry really can create anything: dinosaurs, aliens, superheros able to perform impossible feats of strength and skill.  All it takes is time and money.

Student films are typically short on both, and are thus forced to improvise from start to finish. Back in school during the early 70's, I helped a classmate shoot a twenty minute dramatic short film on 16mm color film, which was an expensive undertaking in those days. We both learned a lot on that project (mostly how not to do things), but received at least one useful lesson on the value in -- when necessary -- ignoring the rules of playing nice and doing things by the book. Sometimes it's simply neither feasible nor affordable to obtain official permission and pay for permits, and when that happens, either you change your plans and shoot something else, or just go for it, fingers crossed, hoping for the best.

After a week of day/night filming in houses, around neighborhoods, and one long miserable day out on a cold, windy breakwater in Santa Cruz, we still needed a shot of the female lead on a train as it emerged from the darkness into the light. As it happened, San Francisco had its brand new Bay Area Rapid Transit system just 90 miles away, with a train that ran through a dark tunnel under the bay before rising up into the sunlight on dry land.

My friend approached the BART bureaucracy about doing this shot, but they were less than helpful. Sure, we could film on one of their trains, but only if we first purchased an insurance policy worth two million dollars.

Fat chance of that happening.

We made a couple of test runs to get the timing down and take light readings, then a few days later gathered at the BART station on Market Street in San Francisco with our actress, a sound man, and a camera tucked inside a canvas bag. We bought tickets, took our seats, and the train began to move, finally leaving the last station and descending under the bay.  At that point we unpacked the camera, convinced a few passengers to move so we could put our actress in the proper seat, then waited until the train began to head back up.  I framed the shot and turned the camera on, then a few seconds later we rose into the light as the director did a nice F-stop pull.

Either we had it or we didn't -- in those days, there was no way to know until the film was developed and printed -- so we packed up the camera and caught the next train back to San Francisco. A few days later we screened the dailies, and the shot was perfect: exactly what our intrepid director wanted. It looked great, and truth be told, might have been the best thing in an otherwise forgettable short film.

I was reminded of all this while listening to an interview on NPR with three young musicians who call themselves "Bandits on the Run," as they told how they'd shot their first (and thus far only) music video of song called Love in the Underground in a New York subway station. They went in late at night, guerrilla-style, and set up to shoot. An MTA official began flapping his elbows and squawking that they needed a permit, but when he left to call the cops, they went ahead and shot fast.  By the time the police arrived, they had the video in the can.

Nicely done.   

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Sometime back in 1968, I happened to be slumped in front of my family's ancient Cathode Ray Gun when the local PBS station ran a program of short student films. First up was a crude sort of music video filmed to Day in the Life, by The Beatles, shot in a cheeky, breezy style reminiscent of Richard Lester's A Hard Days Night. Really, it was just a few kids having fun with a camera, but it was clear they were having a blast -- and although I'd shot plenty of 8mm film of home-built rockets (as discussed in last month's post), it had never occurred to me that making a film might be fun.

Before I could ponder the import of this revelation, the next film rolled, a grimly futuristic science fiction drama made the year before by a student at USC. There was no dialog, just a stream of electronically altered voice-overs providing a disjointed but coherent narrative context to the images on screen, picture and sound conveying a simple but moving story. I'd never seen anything quite like it - it's safe to say that short film blew my mind - but I had no clue at the time that it marked the launch of a Hollywood legend, along with a multi-platform cinematic juggernaut that's still going strong fifty years later, having grossed somewhere in excess of sixty-five billion dollars. 

Although I didn't realize it then, those fifteen minutes altered the course of my life. It would be seven years before I actually headed to Hollywood, but the hook had been set by the young George Lucas with his terrific student film THX 1138 4EB

Four years later, Lucas expanded the story into his first feature, which doubtless seemed like a great (read: bankable) idea at the time - and to be fair, it managed to gross three times the budget, which means it probably broke even. That's light years from tentpole territory, but not bad for a director's very first feature film. Trouble is, a story he'd already told in fifteen lean minutes felt awfully thin when inflated to feature length. The end result was a tedious, bloated, lugubrious eighty-one minutes of my life that I'll never get back... but hey, everybody gets a mulligan, and Lucas scored a huge hit with his next feature, American Graffiti, then went on to secure a place among cinematic/marketing royalty with the first three Star Wars movies.  

And the rest, as the saying goes, is history.  

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Now for some good listening.  First up, a New York Radio Hour interview with Emily Nussbaum -- TV critic for The New Yorker magazine -- followed by... another interview with her on Fresh Air.  She's a smart, articulate critic, and such people are always worth hearing. 

Another gem from Fresh Air is this interview with Bill Hader, co-creater, co-writer, and director of HBO's Barry. I recently plowed through Season One of Barry, and it's great -- funny in ways that made me squirm, with a surprisingly heavy emotional punch. The last episode of that season hit me hard, in every way. Hader began as a production assistant, worked his way up to being on Saturday Night Live, where he suffered on-air panic attacks, and finally got a deal with HBO... but had no idea what kind of show to make.

Needless to say, he figured it out.  Listen to that interview -- it's really good.

If you don't have time for any of that right now, click on over to the following short (three and four minutes, respectively) commentaries from veteran TV writer/producer Rob Long: Face-App, and Flywheel.  The former muses on how streaming is altering the long-established business model of television, and bringing older viewers back into focus, while the latter analyzes why success simply cannot be predicted in Hollywood. As usual, Long informs and entertains in equal measure.  

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Finally, some eye-candy.  A post a couple of months back profiled Louie Escobar, a grip who -- when not working on set -- is a terrific photographer. Today the BS&T spotlight turns to a DP I used to work for back in the day, first as a Best Boy, then as a Gaffer, a guy named Michael Duff.  As related here a while back, Mike had the good sense to fire me after I'd proven rather conclusively that I wasn't yet up to the task of being a gaffer. I won't deny that it hurt at the time, but that's how we learn here in the Joe Frazier School of Higher Education, where the bitch-slap of failure can help spur a drive to succeed. It did for me, anyway, and our friendship survived. Years later -- after I'd put in the effort to become a halfway decent gaffer -- we worked together again on several commercials, and it was great.

Mike has long since retired from the biz, and now devotes his creative energy to photography. He was always a gifted DP, and as you can see here, is just as good with a still camera.  

See -- there really is life after Hollywood...

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Apollo


                                       "Fickt nicht mit dem Raketemensch"                
                                      From Gravity's Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon

Anyone not holed up in a dark, remote cave for the past few weeks has been reminded -- repeatedly -- of the first manned moon landing that took place fifty years ago. Some great documentaries were broadcast in the week leading up to this anniversary, most notably Chasing the Moon, a riveting six hour film produced by the team at American Experience for PBS.

This was a mesmerizing walk down memory lane for me, but I can understand how those who weren't around in the 60's might have a hard time understanding just how momentous the events of the late 60's really were. They've grown up with those grainy images of astronauts walking on the moon as part of the cultural background noise -- in essence, wallpaper -- along with the assassinations of JKF, his brother Robert, Martin Luther King, the four students killed by National Guard troops at Kent State, race riots that torched large sections of many American cities, and of course, Woodstock.* Those were all major events in my world at the time, but I don't suppose any generation can fully grasp the tectonic impact of history that unfolded before they were born.**

The mid-to late 60's sure as hell weren't "a more innocent time," not with four hundred young Americans coming home in body bags every week from Vietnam. There was a very real sense of tumult in the air, of the old order being challenged by the new. In many ways it was a dark, chaotic, bloody era of societal, cultural, and political upheaval, but there was some good as well. Although the lows were gut-wrenching, the highs were spectacular, as best exemplified by the music and the space race.

Having come of age back then, I've always felt bad that the kids who followed didn't get to experience those moon landings first-hand. Sure, they had the space shuttle, a wonderful versatile  craft designed to help construct and support the International Space Station, but traveling to, landing on, and returning from the moon was something very different, especially with the relatively crude technology of the 60's. It was an astonishing, thrilling era to live through. Although it's become something of a cliché, the world really did feel different for a few days, with millions of people around the globe united by watching (on live television) the jaw-dropping spectacle of a human being -- one of us -- walking on the moon.

At the time, I had no inkling I was destined for Hollywood.  Inspired by the early days of the space race, I was fascinated by rockets, and soon began building my own -- not the safe-and-sane prefab model rockets that would later become available at hobby stores, but rockets made down in the basement from steel and aluminum tubes, powered by a variety of fuels.  Ever-hopeful that I might be on the road to becoming a scientist, my dad supported these projects, buying the chemicals I needed: powdered zinc, sulfur, and potassium nitrate, among others.  Some of those rockets were duds, while others blew up, but a glorious few flew straight and high into the sky, which was satisfying beyond words.  For several years I corresponded with rocket clubs all over the country via snail mail, exchanging photos and stories of our successes and failures. In some ways, that might have been the most exciting and creative period of my life.

So... you're probably wondering what the hell does any of this have to do with life in Hollywood or working on movies and television?  There's a connection, however oblique. While pouring over the few books on rocketry in my elementary school library, I came across accounts describing how UFA (one of the German production companies) hired rocket expert Hermann Oberth to help design of the moon rocket for Fritz Lang's film Frau im Mond (Woman on the Moon).


There's a history of rockets and space travel in the silent film era, offering futuristic (albeit highly fantastical) visions of how space flight might work. Later films would portray more sophisticated versions of space flight, and by the time 2001: A Space Odyssey hit theaters in 1968 -- just one year before the first moon landing -- the space race had infused us with a sense of what was possible. The notion that humans might someday travel to other planets no longer felt like a Buck Rogers fantasy.

I followed all the moon missions: the second lunar landing with Apollo 12, the harrowing near-catastrophe of Apollo 13,  then Apollo 14, 15, and 16, during which NASA sent cars to the moon with the astronauts -- essentially, high tech dune buggies that vastly extended the range of their lunar explorations. Although imminently practical, this was also as purely American as you can get: flying a quarter million miles through space to land on another world, then hop out and drive around in a car.  Amidst all that, along came Alan Shepard and his infamous lunar golf shot.

With the Apollo program ending in 1975, and the first space shuttle launch not due until 1981, there were no more televised launches for a long while. Although two Viking spacecraft would successfully land on Mars in 1976 (I still recall seeing that newspaper headline), public attention moved on. I was busy too, finishing up my thesis film, chasing pretty girls around the sleepy little college town of Santa Cruz, and preparing to embark on a journey of my own -- one that would land me on the decidedly alien world of Hollywood.

You know the rest -- and if you don't, it'll all be in the book.

The Apollo 11 lunar landing was the most astonishing thing I ever witnessed. Maybe I'll live long enough to see people walk on Mars, and maybe not, but it will probably happen anyway, generating an unforgettable moment for the young generation of the day. Still, there's only one first time -- you can't catch the same magic twice. Landing on Mars will be something very special, but I doubt it will equal the global moment humanity shared when the first man set foot on the moon.


* Well, not so much Woodstock. We heard about it out here on the Left Coast, of course, but with no internet or instantaneous social media reporting at the time, none of us could fully appreciate that legendary happening until the documentary finally hit theaters. Instead, I went to Altamont, which was supposed to be a West Coast bookend to Woodstock, but ended up a very different experience...

** I touched on some of this in another post a few years ago, after the death of Neil Armstrong.