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)

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Just for the Hell of It -- Episode Twenty One

Mad Max

                              Here he comes again...

From the opening of Mick LaSalle's review of Mad Max: Fury Road:
“This is how bad things are: "Mad Max” makes sense again. Thirty-six years after the original debuted during the height of the 1970s malaise, when the future looked bleak and resources were scarce, another installment of “Mad Max” has arrived, subtitled “Fury Road,” to remind us of two things: (1) Things always seem really horrible before they get even worse; and (2) The dystopian future always looks like a desert. In the future, there are no flowers."
"Directed by George Miller, who has directed every previous “Mad Max” feature, the film takes the parched atmosphere of the previous entries and amps it up, so that “Fury Road” plays out in a nightmare world in which a gang of powder-faced, skin-headed thugs control the water and own other human beings. Max (Tom Hardy) is a living blood bank, forced to hang upside down with a tube coming out of one of his veins.”
"Other unfortunates include women used for milking, women used for breeding and an entire population of filthy, toothless peasantry, who limp around in rags, hold empty bowls and wait for the massive water spigots to turn on. And you thought the life of a movie extra was glamorous.”
I had mixed feelings upon hearing that another Mad Max movie was in the works.  The second -- and by far the best -- of George Miller's original trilogy was The Road Warrior, which hit me with all the force of a cinematic sledgehammer.  With no internet to fan the flames of pre-release publicity back then, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior arrived in theaters without much fanfare, but a gaffer I knew at the time -- the fattest and smartest man I've ever worked with -- raved about it, and I'd learned to respect his opinion. So I went, hopeful but not at all sure what to expect. The first few minutes -- in muted color, then morphing to black and white  footage in the not-quite-square format of the really old days -- weren't particularly impressive, but the rough, weary voice-over that accompanied those images was pure, dark poetry:

"My life fades, the vision dims.  All that remains are memories.  I remember a time of chaos, ruined dreams, this wasted land.  But most of all I remember the Road  Warrior, the man we called Max. To understand who he was, you have to go back to another time when the world was powered by the black fuel and the deserts spouted great cities of pipe and steel.  

Gone now, swept away.

For reasons long forgotten, two mighty warrior tribes went to war and touched off a blaze that engulfed them all. Without fuel they were nothing. They'd built a house of straw. The thundering machines sputtered and stopped.

The leaders talked and talked and talked, but nothing could stem the avalanche. Their world crumbled, the cities exploded.  A whirlwind of looting, a firestorm of fear. Men began to feed on men.

On the roads it was a white-line nightmare. Only those mobile enough to scavenge, brutal enough to pillage, would survive. The gangs took over the highways ready to wage war for a tank of juice. And in this maelstrom of decay, ordinary men were battered and smashed.

Men like Max, the warrior Max.

In the roar of an engine, he lost everything and became a shell of a man -- a burnt out, desolate man, a man haunted by the demons of his past.  A man who wandered out into the wasteland… and it was here in this blighted place that he learned to live again."

Abruptly cutting to full-wide screen color, the camera then descends through the smoke to swoop low onto a straight-as-an-arrow road slicing through the desert -- and suddenly everyone in that theater was riding along with Max and his dog in the midst of a high speed, life-or-death chase set in this nightmarish, adrenaline-fueled future.

I'd never seen anything like it. Nobody had. This was something new, bold, and infinitely  more dynamic than any previous post-apocalyptic drama. Miller's use of the wide screen was brilliant -- the shot compositions letter-perfect -- and his violent, mechanized update of the cinematic conventions that popularized Hollywood westerns back in the 40's and 50s so deftly done (and so deliriously over the top) that I was instantly hooked.

The Road Warrior -- I loved it.    

With all this as context, you might understand my skepticism towards a modern re-boot three  decades later.  During those intervening years, I had time enough to learn the hard way that Thomas Wolfe wasn't kidding when he said "You can't go home again."*

Because you can't.  That's over and done.

But it doesn't mean you can't revisit familiar themes --  otherwise we'd have stopped writing new stories after the Greeks -- and with the old master George Miller again at the helm, I wondered if Mad Max: Fury Road might be worth seeing after all. The preview was impressive, raising the art of dystopian automotive mayhem to operatic heights, but unconvincing.  It was only after reading/hearing a few short interviews with Miller (along with this excellent LA Times piece about the making of the movie) that I came all the way around. 

Besides, I love Miller's approach to this movie:  

"We don't defy the laws of physics.  It's the real world.  It's analog versus digital."

That, dear readers, is music to my ears.

What the hell, I work in the film and television industry, which means that deep inside this gray-haired, beat-down, ready-for-the-glue-factory exterior hides a pimply-faced adolescent who loves carefully crafted cinematic crash-and-burn as much as the next maladjusted, hormonally-addled teenager -- and with Fury Road, that kid just might get to come out and play.

So yeah, I'm looking forward to this one

*  Thomas Wolfe might not have been a rosy-cheeked optimist, but he was one very smart guy.  Check out some of these.

(Update:  Since this post first went up, I was directed to a fascinating interview with Fury Road DP John Seale in Filmmaker Magazine, detailing how he lit and shot the movie using a truckload of cameras.  Thanks, Heather!)

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Day Playing, Again...

                                 It keeps me hanging on…

Sometimes you just get lucky. After two months out of town -- a precious few days back on the Home Planet wrapped around a long stretch of hard domestic time at the ancestral family abode -- I took a few days to plow through the mail and bills that accumulated in my absence, revive the nearly-dead house plants, restore the apartment to some semblance of order, re-stock the fridge, then get my head back in the Hollywood game.  Two months without a paycheck left me in need of work, and soon.

The first call was to the head of set lighting at my home lot, but all that yielded was an answering machine. No surprise there -- the family situation that called me away happened just as the regular television season was winding down and the balls-to-the-wall frenzy of pilot season was gearing up.  But that's all over now, as Hollywood hibernates in the doldrums that follow pilot season and the network upfronts as surely as day surrenders to night. For the eight to ten weeks between now and the kick-off of the new Fall television season in mid-July, work will be scarce at all the studios around town.*

This is where the intangibles of Hollywood luck came into play. My second call was to a Best Boy who had offered me a slot on his crew while I was away (which the family issue precluded me from accepting), and as it happened, I'd called at the exact right moment. He needed a juicer to replace one of his regulars who was leaving the show for a week to take a more lucrative gig on a commercial.

So once again I found myself walking onto an unfamiliar set of a show that had already shot more than half of their scheduled episodes.  Although I'd never worked with the DP or Gaffer before, my two fellow juicers turned out to be familiar faces -- one from a crew I joined for a week of night-rigging on Mars Attacks, and the other who toiled shoulder to shoulder with me lighting effects-shots for the computer-controlled cameras at the Digital Domain studio on The Fifth Element.

I hadn't seen either of them in the twenty years since, so we had some of catching up to do.

The re-entry to work after an extended period off doesn't always go smoothly. Rust sets in fast, and it usually takes me a couple of hours to get back in the grove on set -- but not this time.  For whatever reason, I hit the ground running and didn't look back. Still, coming on to a show in mid-season is always a bit awkward. The routines of hanging, powering, and adjusting lamps are essentially the same, but the personal dynamics of every crew are different, and since this DP and Gaffer were new to me, I had to adapt to their mode of working.  But there's a fine line between leaning forward to do a good job  and being the too-eager, run-for-everything-first "super-juicer" who just pisses everybody off.

I couldn't always toe that line in my younger days, when I tended to push too hard in an effort to prove myself worthy, which could alienate my new co-workers. Not a good thing, that. But having been around the block a few times by now, there were no such problems on this show. The hardest thing for me was locating the three equipment carts on a daily basis. Being on wheels (and on a stage jam-packed with eight sets), those carts were constantly being moved from one set to another. Whichever cart I happened to need at any given time never seemed to be where I'd last seen it. But what mattered -- and proved surprisingly satisfying -- was having the rest of the crew relax and accept me as one of their own after a couple of days as I matched their working rhythm on set. Work is always work, but this one turned out to be a fun gig.

The promised five days came and went: a lighting day, a block-and-shoot day, a live-audience shoot night, then two more lighting days the following week… at which point the juicer I'd replaced decided to stay home for the remainder of the week, so I got another lighting day, another block-and-shoot, and another audience show night. Eight days of work at a buck-under-scale won't make up for missing the full run of pilot season, but those two paychecks will beat the hell out of what I'd have recieved from the California Unemployment Department.

I filed for unemployment the day after this gig ended, of course.  Performing the ritual Rain Dance is essential to appease the Gods of Hollywood and -- hopefully -- allow my phone to ring again, because as a man without a show, I'm now back to what I've been so many times before: a Day Player.

* Network shows, anyway. A few cable shows will doubtless get underway -- since cable marches to it's own calendar drummer -- but with more than half the town unemployed, there will be ten Work-Bots vying for every job on those crews...

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Just for the Hell of It -- Episode 20

                                           Louis C.K.

Anyone who’s been following this blog for a while knows of my admiration for Louis C.K.  His comedy specials are terrific, but the real genius surfaces in his eponymous show on the FX network -- the new season of which is currently underway. Louis C.K. is no mere comedian, but an honest-to-god filmmaker who studied the craft long enough that he's willing and able to tackle subjects that are way out on the thin creative ice where few dare to venture. But Louis C.K. goes there on a regular basis -- and more often than not, his efforts pay off.  And given that he writes, directs and edits every half hour show, he's as close to a true auteur as you'll ever see.  

The man is pure magic.
Here’s a recent interview he did for the public radio program Fresh Air. You could just read the highlights of the transcript, but that would only cheat yourself out of the experience of listening to the whole show. Although there's humor in this interview, it’s not terribly funny -- nor is it meant to be -- but there’s so much smart, raw truth about the realities of modern life in this podcast.  It’s fascinating, entertaining and illuminating all at once. Carve out an hour when you can, then sit down and listen -- you’ll be a better person for it.
Still, the director isn't always right... not even when that director is Louis C.K.  This thoughtful, well-written post -- by a sound boom operator who worked on one of his shows and (apparently) was the subject of a snide comment by Louis in a public forum that took place later -- offers a different perspective.  It's worth reading.
For a clear, thorough explanation of what a gaffer does on set -- and how he does it -- read this blog interview with Hollywood veteran Chris Strong.  Having been a gaffer for a dozen years (although never at the level achieved by Chris), I can testify that he tells it like it is.


This week's offering from The Business -- KCRW's half hour show/podcast dedicated to exploring the film and television industry -- features an interview with veteran producer Brian Grazer.  Rather than describe his career, here's the podcast blurb:
“Oscar-winning producer Brian Grazer’s movies range from the story of a mermaid in Splash, to astronauts in crisis in Apollo 13, to a schizophrenic mathematician in A Beautiful Mind.  But they all have some things in common: a deep soul, a focus on identity, and real movie stars. Today, it’s tough to get studios to make movies like that. Grazer tells us why.  He also talks about his increased focus ontelevision and how hundreds of conversations with all kinds of people led to his new book, A Curious Mind."
It's a fascinating interview covering a wide range of subjects, that could easily have gone on another half hour without boring anybody.  But you take what you can get in this world, and this one is worth a listen.
Last up today is Rob Long's most recent Martini Shot commentary, a meditation on the importance of resisting the urge to "be smart" in Hollywood -- because if change often seems oh-so-attractive to the point of being almost inevitable, change for the sake of change is seldom a smart idea.  
It's a good one, and only three minutes long, so check it out.

That's all for this week.  Keep the faith, people -- because if you don't, who will?

Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Lady from Shanghai

          Rita Hayworth stars as the blond bombshell from Shanghai

Orson Welles would have been a hundred years old this week, had he not shuffled off our mortal coil at age 70 from (among other things) the endless complications of morbid obesity.  Given that I am once again adrift on the Horse Latitudes of unemployment, today's post will digress from the usual subject of life on set to appreciate one of his brilliant, flawed, and very much under-appreciated movies -- a film that had a massive impact on me during a crucial part of my young life.  

There's a useful term to describe a book that's unlikely to win accolades from the wine-sniffing snobs of the literary upper-crust or top the must-read lists at the Iowa Writers Workshop, but tells an interesting story that sets the hook early and won't let you go until the last page has been turned. 

Such a book is called "a good read" -- and that's the kind of book I like.

I wish there was a cinematic equivalent: a phrase or term for a well-crafted movie with an involving plot, terrific cinematography, and is perfectly cast with compelling leads and  supporting actors -- a movie that keeps you glued to the screen all the way through the end credits.* Those movies don't always win Oscars, since the little golden men are destined for trendier, edgier, more popular and/or larger grossing features -- but as far as I'm concerned, they're what make going to the movies worthwhile.

The Lady from Shanghai is that kind of movie.

Yes, it was made way back in1948, and shot in black-and-white. There are no hair-raising CGI - enhanced car chases, no comic-book heroes with extraordinary super-powers, nor any huge explosions. Although there's plenty of sexual tension and intrigue, there are no steaming hot sex scenes, and what violence occurs is brief and exceedingly tame compared to the routine blood-letting of modern films. The special effects are clunky by current standards, and some of the shot transitions feel awkwardly abrupt -- whether due to budgetary limitations, confusion on set during the frenzy of filming, or chopped-up prints being all that's after nearly seventy years, I can't say.  

Given all that, I doubt many readers of this blog would be interested in seeing it. But that's a real shame, because as older movies go, Lady from Shanghai is absolutely terrific: in literary terms, it's a really good read. Orson Welles made this movie -- he wrote it (with some help), produced, and directed -- and just about anything Welles did is worth seeing.

As I heard the story back in school, Welles owed a movie to Columbia Studios and the legendary Harry Cohn to fulfill his contract, but was way overdue in meeting that obligation. In response to an angry telegram, he called the studio on a drugstore pay-phone from somewhere in the mid-west, then had to come up with something on the spot to placate the executive on the other end of the line --  a man who insisted on knowing exactly what the film project would be. Looking around for inspiration, Welles supposedly spotted a potboiler titled "The Lady from Shanghai" on the drugstore book rack, and blurted out the title, promising that the script would soon be on that executive's desk.  

Maybe that story is true and maybe not, but such a spontaneous decision by Welles might explain the convoluted plot of "Lady from Shanghai," which creates more questions than it answers.  Still, the genius of Welles was such that it just doesn't matter. The movie he delivered is so visually stunning, and the characters so vivid -- in one notable case, bizarre** -- that you just hang on tight and go along for the ride. There's a little bit of everything in this film, including a courthouse trial scene unlike any you've ever seen. After building a career on her trademark long red hair, Rita Hayworth blew everybody's mind at the time by appearing as a very sexy, short-haired blond -- a stunning transformation that really worked. This is not some B picture melodrama, but a fascinating, inventive, and highly entertaining movie that's an absolute blast to watch.  I pop my copy in the DVD player every couple of years, and it never disappoints.  

             Glenn Anders as "Grisby" in Lady from Shanghai

It helps that the well-oiled studio system was still going strong in 1948, when "Lady" was made. The high standards of craftsmanship in casting, wardrobe, set design, set dressing, lighting, camera, and locations (a significant portion of the film was shot in Mexico, on a yacht, and in San Francisco) -- shines through every frame.  

The New York Times review at the time noted the movie's virtues: 

"For the idea, at least, is a corker and the Wellesian ability to direct a good cast against fascinating backgrounds has never been better displayed.  It's the story of a roving merchant seaman who falls in with some over-rich worldlings and who almost becomes the innocent victims of their murderous hates and jealousies.  And for its sheer visual modeling of burning passions in faces, forms and attitudes, galvanized within picturesque surroundings, it might almost match "Citizen Kane."

Still, the Gray Lady's film reviewer was only half right -- he didn't care for the courtroom scene or much else after the first half hour.  Well, fuck him.  For me, the weaknesses of Lady from Shanghai are minimal compared to its cinematic strengths -- and there the U.S. edition of Britain's The Guardian has my back.

Some of you have probably seen the famous final scene -- a shootout filmed in a funhouse hall of mirrors -- but I'm not going to post it for one very good reason: once you've watched that scene, you'll think you've seen the best of Lady from Shanghai, and are likely to blow off viewing the entire movie.  That would be a mistake, because as good as the final scene is, there's so much more great stuff leading up to it -- and that build-up is part of what makes the finale so impressive and satisfying. Watching the clip would be like flipping to the end of a good book to find out how it ends rather than do the very pleasurable work of reading the damned thing. Do it right -- watch the movie. Those who take the Utube shortcut will only cheat themselves out of a very good experience.

Last week's post related how my first film class turned the course of my life towards Hollywood, and in retrospect, it's clear that seeing Lady from Shanghai played a big part in that. The movie simply blew me away -- I'd never seen anything like it.  Until then, I'd had no idea an old black and white movie could be so good. The next two years of school taught me what I'd been missing out on: a generation of great movies.

Quite an education, that.

With pilot season grinding to a halt soon, and features yet to return to LA en masse, we'll all have some time on our hands before long.  If you haven't seen it, do yourself a favor and carve out ninety minutes some evening to watch Lady from Shanghai  -- you'll have a great time, and it just might open your eyes.

Now that I think about it, it's time I watched it again...

* If there is such a term, I'm not aware of it, but there may be.  In that case, please enlighten me…

** I won't even bother attempting to describe Glenn Anders' astonishing performance in this movie -- you'll just have to see it to believe it.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Pulitzer Prize for Television Criticism

                                       Pulitzer Gold

"During the 18th century, a fashionable pastime among London’s rich and royal was to visit Bethlem Royal Hospital, most commonly known as Bedlam, and watch the antics of the mentally ill.  In the 21st century, it is the rich and famous who are gaped at, their habits and habitats reveled in and reviled through the lens of reality TV.  What started as an aspirational experience, epitomized by the gushing “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” has become a cottage industry of class schadenfreude, the crown jewel being the “Real Housewives” franchise. Just look at the size of their closets and their neuroses, see how their children sass them and their “friends” disrespect them, how their marriages rot in front of our shocked and grateful eyes.”
(Mary McNamara, LA Times, from her review of “Beverly Hills Nannies”)  

That kind of writing, ladies and gentlemen, deserves to win a Pulitzer Prize -- and it finally has. Mary McNamara bagged journalism’s highest honor last week, winning the Pulitzer gold for her years of brilliant television criticism.* 
In my humble opinion, it’s about time. I’ve been reading her work in the LA Times for many years now, from the days of her “Drive Time” column covering the social impact and reverberations of our life-in-cars here in Southern California, to her move into critical analysis of our other great cultural obsession, television. No matter the subject, Mary’s writing has been consistently excellent, a heady blend of deep insight, scalding humor, and dazzling prose -- the kind of writing that invariably leaves me shaking my head wishing I could write like that.
But I can't, and neither can anybody else. To hell with that medal -- Mary McNamara is the real prize here.   
None of us can watch everything on television, nor would any sane person want to. Despite the emergence of a second “Golden Age” during the the last fifteen years (which -- ahem -- I wrote about long before most high profile television critics deigned to state the obvious in print), television remains for the most part a vast wasteland. The old adage still holds -- “90% of everything is shit,” including TV. True, there are many more good shows on nowadays, but those represent the gleaming white tip of the television iceberg -- the other seven-eighths of programming is still fetid garbage lurking in the murky depths below, largely unwatchable by anyone with a functioning brain.
The job of the television critic is to serve as a scout -- to venture into the wilderness ahead in search of metaphorical water, food, and shelter, while keeping a sharp eye out for the deadly mind-numbing quicksand of crappy programing. The critic digests and analyzes the pleasure and pain of new programming, sorting out the wheat from the chaff so that we can make an informed choice about which shows to settle in with after a hard day’s work. Our off-time is precious, and nobody wants to waste it on some stupid formulaic piece-of-crap that looked appealing in the network’s flashy bait-and-switch previews.  
And so the critic watches, ponders, and reports back to us -- and if we’re lucky, that critic is Mary McNamara, which means reading about those shows is more informative and often much more entertaining than the actual programming.  She’s a treasure, and those of us who read the LA Times are lucky to have her.
Congratulations, Mary.  Thanks delivering so many years of great reading with my daily paper. 
Long may you write.

* The ten columns submitted to the Pulizter committee by Mary's editors at the Times can be found here, so do yourself a favor and click on over to read a few.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Crew Call, Season Two

The Anonymous Production Assistant is gearing up to produce a second season of interviews with a wide variety of working professionals in Hollywood, and to fund the effort, has launched another Kickstarter campaign.

Yeah, I know -- Kickstarter is yesterday's flavor du jour, no longer the bright new bauble on our collective cultural radar screens.  But that doesn't mean it's a bad idea.  Quite the opposite. Season One featured interviews with -- among many others -- an editor, production designer, prop master, animator, Line Producer, Second A.D., stuntwoman, casting director, transportation coordinator, a veteran dolly grip, a very experienced location manager, a smart young camera assistant, and a certain juicer. There's even a fascinating interview with Steve Cardellini -- and if you don't know who he is, or what a Cardellini Clamp is, then you're probably a film student who has yet to learn anything truly useful about the down-and-dirty business of film and television production.

But hey, ignorance is not only forgivable (so long as unaccompanied by the fatal sin of arrogance), it's curable -- and curing ignorance is what Crew Call is all about.

I pledged my fifty bucks (and it's been two months since I've seen a paycheck, kiddos), because I think what TAPA is doing here is worthwhile. Most kids coming out of film schools or otherwise drawn like moths to Hollywood's bright and alluring flame have no idea what they're getting into.They think they do -- after all, four years of college ought to teach you something -- but most of that very expensive education will prove utterly useless in the real world of film and television production. In discussing the craft with TAPA, these professionals provide an up-close and personal window on what it takes to work in one of the myriad fields required to make any film production.

That's a good thing, because while they're in the warm, comfortable, nurturing womb of school, film students tend to assume they'll somehow end up as successful writers, producers, directors or cinematographers -- and for most of them, that's not gonna happen. As even a cursory glance at a call sheet will reveal, there are very few slots for those high-end jobs, and only the most talented, driven, determined -- and lucky -- will make it.

The rest will have to find something else to do, and if they decide to stick with the film industry (rather than go to MBA school to become Wall Street Scum), listening to those Crew Call podcasts might help clue them in to them in to all the other options -- Plans B, C, and X.

And let's face it -- we've all been in dire need of a Plan B at one time or another.

There are only ten days left for TAPA to meet the Kickstarter goal, and the last I checked, it wasn't even close, so if you can help out at all, please click on over and give what you can.  Five bucks here and five bucks there just might make a difference.

And thanks...

Sunday, April 26, 2015


                                The road not taken...

While wandering the wilds of cyberspace the other day, I came across this item, which sent my mind spinning back into the past. That's been happening a lot lately, which means either I'm getting too goddamned old, or it's time to go back to work.  

I don't much like the sound of the former, so I'll just wrap myself in the warm blanket of denial in choosing the latter… 

Well before I fell off the turnip truck and rolled into Hollywood, Noel Marshall and Tippi Hedren embarked on what would be a long and grueling production of an independent feature called Roar.  As the title indicates, the drama had a lot to do with big cats -- very big cats.  On their desert compound north of Los Angeles, Noel and Tippi had assembled an army of more than 130 lions, tigers, panthers and jaguars to use in this very expensive home movie.

Since every one of those big cats was real -- no CGI back in those days -- this was an exceedingly dangerous project. By the time it was over, seventy people on the cast and crew had been injured, including Tippi’s daughter (the young Melanie Griffith) and cinematographer Jan de Bont, who was nearly scalped by a lion that inflicted a wound  requiring two hundred stitches to close.

Between the ever-diligent legions of PETA and modern set safety protocols, I don’t think it would be possible to shoot a film like Roar in California these days. For better or worse, those were simpler times.

Noel and Tippi persevered through all the trouble, halting production when necessary, then gearing up again.  A violent storm ripped through the compound one night, releasing many of the big cats into the surrounding desert community north of LA. Several were shot by police in the chaos that followed. The storm also wrecked the crew housing facilities, dealing a one-two punch to the production. Given the start-stop nature of the job, crew members came and went, which is how half of non-union Hollywood ended up working on the movie at one time or another.

Meanwhile, I'd come to town and -- after a couple of months staring at the smog and wondering what the hell I'd gotten myself into -- I began working and gaining experience. By the time the Roar production got around to calling me, I'd left the PA ranks for good and was working sporadically as a grip-trician. I’d heard rumors about the movie, of course, and was intrigued by the idea of working around all those big cats, but the deal was lousy: $250 for working a six-day week.* That would have been tolerable if they'd provided me a place to stay out there while working, but with no crew housing left, my choice was to stay in a hotel on my own nickle -- which would eat up half my paycheck -- or make the 120 mile commute every day. Driving would be marginally cheaper (my car was a wheezing Oldsmobile V-8  that got 15 freeway m.p.g. on a good day), but adding two and a half hours of drive time to each twelve hour (or more) work day seemed like a deal-breaker.

Despite all that, I might have taken the job if they'd asked me to be a grip or juicer -- working with a new crew and gaining experience could have been worth it -- but instead they wanted me to run the generator, which meant I wouldn’t even be on set. Instead, I’d be stuck next to the genny breathing diesel fumes all day long.

Then there was the minor detail that I knew nothing at all about running a generator at the time.**

Still, I struggled with the decision. The deal sucked, but hell, it was a job on a movie... so I called a key grip for advice -- a very experienced guy I'd worked with and for whom I had a world of respect.  His reply was blunt, without a trace of ambiguity or hesitation.  
“Only an asshole would take that job.” 
I turned it down and moved on. My phone rang with other jobs, and slowly I gained experience, eventually moving up the ladder from juicing to Best Boy, and finally Gaffer.  As luck would have it, my Best Boy by then turned out to have been one of the many who’d crewed on Roar, and he had some great stories about that job. Some of his stories seemed a little too good, though, so I listened with a proverbial grain of salt. Sensing my skepticism, he brought a videotape to the set one day.  We were working long hours, and I told him I didn’t know when I’d have time to sit down and see the movie.
“You don't have to,” he said, with a knowing smile. “Just watch the first half hour.”  
So I popped the cassette into the VCR when I got home, then poured myself a stiff drink and settled in. The opening sequences in Africa were interesting, but nothing unusual, then the action moved to the main set, a big, rambling two-story house where the family lived.
My jaw dropped. I’d never seen so many big cats on screen before -- there were dozens of lions in front of the house, lying on the porch, inside the front door, all over the first floor, crowding the stairs and on up to the second floor. The actors waded right through that sea of lions as though they were just overgrown house cats. 
My eyes took all this in, but my brain could hardly believe it. Everything my Best Boy had said was true, and then some -- if anything, he’d understated how many lions were on that set.  
Needless to say, his credibility rose considerably after that.  
There's lots of information on the web about Roar, including this hair-raising account by a young camera assistant who worked for six months on the movie in 1978, an eye-opening piece on that shows just how casual the entire Marshall/Hedrin family was about living with those huge cats, and a terrific post on Black Hole Reviews with photos from the set, including a gruesome shot of Jan de Bont's head after it was stitched up.
The New York Times weighed in with a brief review, and clips of Roar can be found on Utube -- the real action starts about seven minutes into the Part One, but you'll have to go on to Part Two to appreciate just how many of those big cats were on that set.
At this point -- thirty-five years later -- I still have mixed feelings about passing up my chance to work on Roar. I didn't know enough back then to understand that I could have worked my way off genny duty and onto the set as a juicer or grip -- especially once the production realized I had no idea how to run and service a generator. No doubt I'd have been scared as hell in such close proximity to so many big cats, but that was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and part of me will always wish I'd experienced it.
So it goes. Choices are inevitable in life, and none of us can do it all. Still, Roar is not dead and gone, but will soon be back in theaters. Although I can't really recommend it as a cinematic drama, it really is one hell of a spectacle, especially when you know the behind-the-scenes backstory.
Which you will, once you follow all the links in this post…

* Roughly $700 in today's funny money.

** A few years later I’d Best Boy a non-union feature in the snows of Vermont, where my men-and-equipment duties included running the genny and doing periodic maintenance -- changing the oil, filter, and fuel filters to keep the beast humming through those cold days and nights -- but all that lay in the future.