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, October 16, 2016

Time Traveler

                        "Music is the soundtrack of our lives." 
                                            Dick Clark

It happened again the other day. There I was, driving through the crowded streets of LA, minding my own business, when the opening guitar licks of an old hit song from the 80's poured out from the radio -- an irresistible force that instantly ushered me into the past.  Suddenly I was back in a passenger van packed shoulder to shoulder with a tired, grumpy grip and electric crew as we rolled down Mississippi State Route 7 early one morning in the spring of 1987, on the way from our hotel in Oxford to the filming location in Holly SpringsHalf way through a two month shooting schedule on a low-budget feature, we were all feeling the strain of working six day weeks, twelve to fourteen hours a day.  

The sleep-deprived PA at the wheel turns the radio up with that same song, sending the haunting strains of Under the Milky Way through the van. I've always been partial to minor-chord tunes, especially when physically and emotionally drained -- and if there's one thing a low budget feature is guaranteed to do, it's push every member of the crew right up to their own personal limits of resilience.  

I close my eyes and drift with the lyrics as the melody flows from from minor to major chords in the classic tension-and-release formula followed by musicians for centuries. 

"Wish I knew what you were looking for, might have known what you would find..." 

The words cut deep, evoking memories of a wardrobe girl I met on my last location feature, a voluptuous beauty who -- after a few months that seemed to hold the promise of so much more -- went off on another show, where she cut me loose without a word, or apparently even a second thought. It's a bitter pill to swallow, but such is life in a world where nothing good seems to last very long

Hey, it was fun while it lasted.  

Weary of wallowing in the darkness, I turn my thoughts to a certain cute extra on the show, wondering if the warm smile she's greeted me with the past couple of weeks means anything more than mere good manners. The young women of Ole Miss have been unfailingly gracious thus far, so I don't want to read too much into her smile or make unwarranted assumptions, but working such a tough location job generates a degree of emotional desperation in us all at some point in the process -- a sense of urgency that demands some kind of response to keep from wandering too close to the edge.

The song fades out, then a commercial blares from the radio... and I'm back at the wheel of my car in LA again, thirty years older, somewhat wiser, and considerably the worse for wear -- a time traveler returned home. The spell is broken, but I'm still thinking about her deep brown eyes.

Such is the power of music. 

Science tells us time travel is impossible, but I just flew back three decades on the wings of a song, if only in my mind. We all do it, of course, young or old, no matter what our jobs, careers, or lives might be. I suspect humans have been indulging in this sort of emotional time travel for as long as music has existed.

It happens to me all the time these days. One week it's Teach Your Children that takes me back to another van with another crew, watching a blood-red sun rise from the steamy North Carolina mist as we head east from our hotel in Tarboro to Robersonville for another fourteen hour day of miserably hot, sweaty toil. Then it's Red Rain and Peter Gabriel transporting me through time to the snowy landscape of Vermont, where I suffer through each hundred-plus hour, six-day work week, forced to get up early Sunday -- my one day off -- to navigate the ice-encrusted steps leading down to the laundromat to wash my work clothes before the rest of the crew shows up with the same thing in mind.  

On a job like that, you're either working or preparing for the next six-day siege of hard, cold labor -- there is no real time off.  

Another week passes and suddenly it's the summer of 1981, with Mick Jagger belting out She's So Cold as I ride in the passenger seat of the Gaffer's van, motoring down I-5 towards Hollywood from the sleepy little town of Piru, our location for the past week. Having just turned thirty-one, I'm working my first feature as a Best Boy, and with a fat line of cocaine stimulating the mesolimbic dopamine system of my brain, I sip a can of beer and tap my feet to the thumping beat of the Rolling Stones. Meanwhile, the Gaffer -- an immense falstaffian man with an unquenchable thirst -- drains a can every few minutes,  then smashes the empty against the console and bellows "BEER!" to the juicer in the back seat, who pulls a cold one from the cooler, pops the top, then places it in the gaffers outstretched hand. Fueled on coke, alcohol, and adrenaline, the three of us ride high on a magic carpet of post-work euphoria, feeling young, strong and immortal -- and in blatant violation of half the California Penal Code.  

"God takes care of fools and babies," the saying goes, and although we're well beyond that latter state of grace, we certainly fit the definition of the former. Gleefully oblivious to the punishing legal consequences should a cop pull us over right now, life isn't just good -- it's fucking great.

That last memory is particularly poignant, a moment when all was right with the world and everything seemed possible. Thirty-five years later -- the adventure nearly over, youth having long since slipped through my fingers, and my great friend the Gaffer now twenty years cold in his grave -- I know better. 

There's still beer, of course, but it doesn't taste quite the same anymore. 

This is all a function of age -- I understand that much. With a lot more behind me than on the road ahead, the past in all its technicolor glory shines a lot brighter than whatever the future might hold. At this point, any distraction from the harsh realities of these troubled times is welcome. 

Apparently I'm not alone in that, either, with three new shows coming to the Toob this season weaving their dramatic narrative around the theme of time travel. I suppose this all stems from the very human desire to go back and fix mistakes made in years past -- the yearning for a do-over -- or simply to address one mankind's oldest desires: to be young again. 

None of that will happen, of course. There's no going back in life, no do-overs, no recaptured youth. What's done is done, what's gone is gone, and we just have to make the best of it.

But there's still the magic of the radio whenever it's time to travel back in time a few decades, and until physicists find a way to break the rules, that'll just have to to do.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Other Halves

                                              Local boy makes good!

Making an independent feature is a lot like reading Moby Dick, learning to play a musical instrument, or losing that ten pound spare tire that's been taunting you and the bathroom scale every morning for the past five years: lots of people talk about doing it, but very few actually get it done.

That's because -- like so many laudable goals -- making a film is hard. Really hard. It's always been that way, if for different reasons. Back in the cinematic Stone Age, it took me two weeks to shoot several thousand feet of 16 mm black and white film, followed by two years of editing to whittle it down to a watchable thirty minute documentary. Granted, editing was a primitive, extremely labor-intensive process back in the day. Rather than download digital files into a computer, then cut a film together using keystrokes in front of a nice bright monitor, I had a coded work-print struck from the negative, then physically cut each shot out and filed it in the editing bay -- which happened to be my bedroom at the time -- and only when the entire film hung there in pieces like some giant nightmarish celluloid centipede could the assembly and editing begin. Cutting one shot to another required splicing the film with tape or cement, then looking at the results on a hand-powered Moviescope. Once the rough cut was assembled, I lugged the picture and sound reels up to the college film lab to watch the results on an ancient, clattering upright Moviola,* then made notes as to where further cuts could be made to improve the flow. Once those changes were made, I'd view it again, which would lead to more, ever-smaller cuts, and so forth.  

When the rough cut was finished, I brought the original negative out of safe storage and conformed it to the work print, making those hundreds of splices all over again -- but this time while wearing white cotton editing gloves to keep the negative clean, and triple-checking every code number before making each splice. Since the film needed a number of optical dissolves, I had to A and B Roll the entire negative, which meant running three big rolls of film -- the work-print and two checker-boarded negative reels -- together through a film synchronizer to keep everything lined up properly.  

Needless to say, this absurdly cumbersome, mentally exhausting, and almost unbearably tedious ordeal slowed the creative process to an absolute crawl. Shooting and editing this film was the single hardest thing I'd ever done up to that point in life.

It's all a dusty memory now, long since gone with digital wind, but although ours is a very different world these days, making a feature film remains an epic undertaking for any director, whether he/she is working in big-budget Hollywood or the low-budget indie world. Sure, anybody with a good idea and sufficient motivation can go out and shoot a feature with their iPhone -- and for the right project, that's a valid (and maybe the only) way to go -- but if you want your film to look like a real movie, then it'll take more time, effort, help, and money.

Which brings us to Other Halves, a new feature film directed by a former production assistant I bumped into a few years back. Matt Price paid his dues working as an office and set PA for many years, but like all young people who come to Hollywood, he had big dreams. His goal back then was to become a writer, and I figured he'd probably make it one day.  What I didn't suspect is that he had the gumption and drive to co-write, produce, and direct an indie feature that's finally ready for release

But that's how it is in Hollywood, where nobody will deliver your dream job on a silver platter -- if you want to do something, you have to get off your ass and make it happen. That's a lot easier said than done, even with a little help from your friends.

Here's the story in Matt's own words:

"I co-wrote and directed the film, which we made for less than $50,000. A big part of staying under budget was that our main location (a start-up in San Francisco run by some old friends of mine) came free of charge, which saved us a ton of money that otherwise would have gone to location fees and set decoration.  

We raised the money the typical way: family, friends, and a few industry connections. We tried our best to be professional about the process, combining a budget, schedule, and design sketches into a pitch packet that outlined our production, post, and sales plan, and how any money would be divided once it came out.

We only had ten days to shoot, which is where my TV experience came in handy. I've never directed television, but working as a Set PA over the years gave me an opportunity to observe more than a hundred different directors shoot an average of eight pages a day without compromising the quality of the show. With a ninety page script, we averaged nine pages per day, although one day we shot fourteen pages. The only way to do that was by shooting with three and occasionally four cameras. That drove our sound guy nuts, and the DP had a heck of a time lighting for so many cameras, but again, that's how we got the number of setups we needed.

Post production went relatively smoothly. Our on-set sound mixer also did the mix in post, so he guided the audio aspects of the film from beginning to end. The editor was on set, to cut together some security camera footage that played life. Our DP was also the colorist.  Basically, everyone wore a couple of hats, so it wasn't so much a hand-off from shoot to post as a bunch of people shifting mental gears.

Our biggest issue was the fact that the film has lots and lots and lots of computer screens. We thought it'd be a good idea to make them green screens and deal with the content later, but that turned out to be a mistake. There were just so many screens that our editor didn't have time to replace them all. We had to hire some VFX artists at the last minute, which turned out to be our only cost overrun." 

You can watch the trailer here...

… or here -- and if you like what you see, can rent or buy a digital version for a pittance. Given my piss-poor internet data plan (which dings me fifteen bucks for every gigabyte over the monthly cap), I'll have to wait for the DVD version to become available, but when it is, I'll buy a copy to see the movie and because I know damned well how hard it is to make any kind of film, much less a feature. So I tip my cap to Matt Price, who figured out a way to make his own dream come true. Not many people manage to do that in this town.

I have the feeling we'll be hearing a lot more from him in the years to come.

Flatbed editing machines were an unaffordable dream at the college I attended...

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

One Year Later

Photo courtesy of Ellen Deutsch

Note: There are no insider stories of Hollywood in this post -- nothing snarky, witty, or in any way insightful as to what it's like to live and work in an industry town. I wrote this one because I'd been thinking a lot about Penny lately, and when that happens it means I have to sit down at the keyboard just to get it off my chest. It's all part of the process, I guess. If you want to read it, fine, and if not, that's fine too. 

It's been a year since Penny Nichols passed away, but I still feel a dagger in my heart every time I drive by her old apartment, which -- due to a quirk of urban geography -- happens to be on my way home from work. That means I pass by her building several times a week, and the world gets a little darker every damned time.

You don't get to my age without losing a lot of people along the way. Such losses are the awful price of living. Most of the departed were older than me -- although some not by much -- but more than a few were younger. Penny was one, which makes her death all the more wrenching. She was a truly lovely woman who should have had another thirty or forty years on this planet doing what she did best: making everyone around her smile.

This photo tells all you need to know about Penny -- that sly grin, the playful tilt of her head, the script which she'd been studying right up until the photo was snapped. Always a diligent pro, Penny was a delightful person who brightened every day on set.

I'd give a lot to be able to meet her again at our local Astroburger for one more long, talkative lunch, but those kind of second chances only happen in the movies.

This last year has been a nightmare for her family back in the midwest, of course. Their daughter left home determined to make it in Hollywood, where she enjoyed some success* -- but instead of returning  in a limo, she came home in a pine box, and they've been through Hell trying to deal with the awful reality of that loss. Like too many others, I know what it's like to be a member of a family that has suffered such a crushing blow, and it's something mere words can't convey.

I miss you, Penny. Everyone who knew you does...

* Not nearly as much success as she deserved, of course, but Hollywood can be one cruel bitch when it comes to being fair...

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Just for the Hell of It -- Episode 38

                                          Now that's old school...

I'm don't know exactly where or when this shot was taken, but it might have been during the filming of Grand Prixthe epic car-racing movie of its time. Indeed, no other racing film even came close until Steve McQueen's passion project Le Mans hit the big screen five years later. They're very different movies, but both are admirable in their real-world, pre-CGI approach to filming a tricky and dangerous subject.*

Nowadays this shot would be done with a car-mounted camera, probably on a wireless hot-head, but back when film technology was still crude (and before lawyers sank their fangs deep into the jugular of the film industry), they did it old-school -- just strap the guy on and let 'er rip.

Not that I'd want to be running that camera, mind you, or this one, for that matter.

This isn't "old school," but no-school. Although their judgement is questionable, you really have to admire the enthusiasm, commitment, and ingenuity of these filmmakers -- and the courage of this camera operator is undeniable.

I just hope he still had functioning elbows once this shot was in the can...


Warner Herzog has been in the press a lot lately with two new films -- Lo and Behold, a typically immersive and oblique look at the birth, growth, and future of the internet, and Into the Inferno, a cinematic meditation on volcanoes. I've only seen a couple of Herzog's films over the years (Fitzcarraldo and Grizzly Man), but those were enough to make me appreciate his unique approach and all-consuming passion for filmmaking. There really is nobody else quite like him, and although I don't go to theaters much these days, I'll be adding both to my Netflix queue.


If you're a fan of Louis C.K. (and for my money, how could you not be?), follow this link to an hour-long video interview he did recently with Charley Rose. I think Louis is one of smartest people working in any aspect of our culture these days, with such good instincts and spot-on observational insights about the movie/television business, comedy, the modern human condition, and life in general.

This is a good one, so check it out sometime when you've got a spare hour to kill -- you won't be sorry.


Here's another piece by Mike Birbiglia, who seems -- in his own unique way -- to be following the path blazed by Louis C.K. in working on his own projects, making, marketing, and distributing them well outside the industry mainstream. His Six Tips for Making it-Small-in-Hollywood is short, sweet, and laden with hard-earned wisdom that will be helpful for any serious newbie writer, filmmaker, comedian, or whatever. Much like Louis C.K., Birbiglia is especially trenchant on the value of learning from failure.

Read it. He's definitely on to something.

In the same vein, here's Part One of a four part series (relax, my little oh-so-busy, no-TIME-for-this-Droogies -- each segment is only ten minutes long) by Ira Glass, the creator of This American Life, a radio show from Chicago Public Media that has run on NPR for the past twenty years. Ira has learned a lot about how to tell a story in that time, and shares the essence of his accrued wisdom in these four brief video clips. If you like the first one, there are links to the rest.

He can't teach you how to tell your stories, but he can point the way to the road upon which you'll learn all you need to know. That journey won't be quick or easy, but hey, welcome to The Joe Frazier School of Higher Education, where where the tuition is paid in blood, sweat, and tears -- and the lessons learned stick with you for life.


Next up are two excellent interviews, first with one of the producers of the Netflix show Narcos, then a re-run from 1997 with Curtis Hanson, recently departed director of LA Confidential, among many other films.

Hanson was one of the good ones, and will be missed.


I'll wrap up Episode 38 with the good news that "D" has resumed posting on Dollygrippery after a long layoff due to excessive work. When you live in a state that offers fat tax-subsidies to producers, and are good at your job, you'll be busy -- which he has been for quite a while. This been good for him but bad for us, because that kind of schedule (including a steady diet of weekly Fraturdays) leaves no time for much beyond meeting the most basic of human needs.

Being that my own long-ago experience as a would-be dolly grip was a rather humiliating blend of inexperience and incompetence, I don't claim to understand everything "D" talks about in his most recent post, which offers a pointed lecture for the less-than-professional wannabe dolly grips working in his part of the country. I'm a juicer, not a grip, but I know a professional when I see/hear/read one, and that alone makes his post worth reading, because the core point holds for everybody working in the film and television industry, no matter what their job -- learn your craft.

There's just no substitute for that.

*   I'm talking about the late, legendary actor and King of Cool -- not the undeniably talented new-kid-on-the-block director of the same name…

Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Critical Eye

        Alas, poor Malcolm -- like the TV critic, he can't look away...

Critics are an essential part of every art form -- and yes, the best of television does qualify as a collaborative art form worthy of intelligent criticism. We may not always like what a critic has to say, but a smart review can steer us away from the bad and towards the good -- and if we're lucky, the writing in those reviews will be worth reading for its own sake. 

Given the glut of programming these days, few people have time to check out every potentially good show on The Toob, but critics are there to guide us through the labyrinth. One of my long-time favorite critics is back in mid-season form… but if I was on the crew of ABC's drama The Family -- not-so-recent target of Tim Goodman's critical eye -- I'd be pissed.*

As a matter of fact, I was a bit pissed early in this ugly new millennium when Tim unleashed a barrage of flaming arrows into the soft underbelly of my show at the time. Granted, he was writing for the San Francisco Chronicle back then, so his influence wasn't what it is now as chief TV critic for the Hollywood Reporter -- but the very last thing any new show needs is to be the target of an articulate, persuasive, and lethally snarky critic.

A good review is a godsend for a new show, buying time to find an audience and deliver good "numbers" -- ratings. If a show can hold and increase the ratings, a successful season may result. The flip side is that however accurate a slash-and-burn review might be from the critic's perspective, it can smother a new show in the crib, discouraging potential viewers from tuning or giving it a fair chance to succeed. That matters to those of us who toil deep in the belly of the Television Beast, because ratings are the life blood of every show, upon which the continued employment of the cast, crew, and the entire production team depends.

Not only can bad reviews turn off potential viewers, they also make the network suits very nervous, especially if a show has yet to produce the expected ratings. Bad leads to bad when it comes to the ratings game, and thus begins the death spiral. 

Still, it's difficult to quantify exactly how influential critics really are in helping the viewers separate the wheat from the televised chaff. Among the viewing audience beyond the media centers, how many people actually read or pay attention to critics and their reviews? Many of us who work in Hollywood do, but that's because we're part of the fabric of an industry town. Personally, I read certain TV critics to find out what new shows might be worth my time, and because I love to read well-written reviews for the sheer pleasure of smart, snappy writing.  

For the most part, the television marketplace is a zero-sum jungle where only the fittest can hope to survive, with critics serving as apex predators picking off the sick, lame, and weak to serve the greater good and overall vitality of the herd. In theory, smart, persuasive critics help see to it that only good shows survive -- but theory and reality do not always align in the television world. Some shows, it seems, are review-proof. The viewing public likes what it likes, which is how a show can be extremely popular without being particularly good. That said, every successful show must be doing something right to gain and keep an audience. You didn't have to like American Idol to understand that it appealed to a huge audience, and thus had a profound influence on the media landscape. 

No matter what the critics might think or say, the numbers don't lie.  

Having been on the receiving end of a few negative reviews (not me personally, but shows I  worked on at the time), I'm well aware how it feels to take those hits. When your own little tribal enterprise comes under assault, it doesn't really matter that the attacker might be technically correct in pointing out that the show really isn't all that great. The situation is a bit like pulling an oar below decks on an ancient Roman warship, where your own survival and that of your crew-mates means a lot more than whatever the officers are arguing about up on deck.The bottom line is the same in both cases: your survival (be it physical or economic) depends on the ship (or show) remaining afloat through the coming battles.   

Back in the day, a new show wasn't expected to deliver monster ratings right off the bat, but in our multiverse of seemingly infinite channel-choices -- along with an internet streaming landscape expanding by the week -- the increasingly intense competition for eyeballs jacks up the pressure for every new show to achieve instant success. Even if most viewers don't bother to read reviews, the networks do, and a seriously negative review from an influential critic can inflame the already twitchy trigger-finger of the average overpaid, highly-caffienated, running-scared network executive. 

If the network mandarins responsible for Seinfeld reacted like their modern counterparts, that show would have been tossed out with the contents of the corporate chamber pot the next morning. It got off to a very slow start, but the suits (and some fortuitous circumstances) allowed Seinfeld time to find its comedic legs and an audience. 

The rest is television history.**  

Huge hits like that don't come along very often, but you'd think the networks would have learned something from the experience, and allow new shows a little more leash. Television is a dark art, not a science, which means you just never know. As NBC president Bob Greenblatt put it to the assembled scribes of the Television Critic's Association press tour last summer, "One man's practical joke is another man's hit show."  

Professional critics watch television for a living -- it's their job -- so they operate at a higher frequency than the rest of us who stagger home after a hard days work, collapse on the couch with a cold beer, then grab the remote hoping The Toob will transport us far away from the daily drumbeat of normal life until bedtime.

There's nothing wrong with that. Indeed, an argument can be made that the overarching purpose of television, movies, and books (other than to reenforce socio-cultural norms while the advertisements attempt to separate viewers from their money, of course) is to distract us from humdrum reality through comedic or dramatic means. If some useful life lessons are passed on along the way, so much the better, but the prime directive of television is to entertain. As the lead character in Preston Sturge's wonderful Sullivan's Travels learns the hard way, whatever takes your mind off the very real troubles that plague us all in life serves a good and useful purpose. So if tuning into Survivor or Duck Dynasty (shows I could watch only if strapped down with my eyes pried open ala the hapless Malcolm in Clockwork Orange) helps you get through another long night, more power to you. Other shows do the trick for me, but to each his/her own.  

As the wisdom of the ages tells us: de gusitbus non est disputandum. There really is no accounting for taste.  

I never did see The Family -- not because of Goodman's burn-down-the-house review, but simply because I rarely watch broadcast television anymore. With very rare exceptions, the broadcast networks don't seem to have a clue how to make a truly good drama these days.***

Not to this non-critics critical taste, anyway…  

Note:  Here's some insight on how television critics do their work, and a nice column by Goodman about Garry Shandling, and the influence he had on television.  

* I started writing this post six months ago, but for one reason or another didn't get around to finishing it until now.

** Seinfeld is generally acknowledged to be the most successful multi-camera sit-com ever made.

*** I liked You, Me, and the Apocalypse enough to watch the entire season -- but that was a British/American production, and the Brits always bring a touch of class to these things.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Winds of Change

The "Extra Guy"
                                       Pay phone just off Hollywood Blvd

Autumn leaves have begun to fall, as much due to five years of sustained drought as the subtle shift of seasons here in Southern California. Still, it's a lovely time of year, when the clear, hard light of the low-hanging sun, cool breezes, and deep blue skies herald the coming of change. Summer isn't quite done with us yet, of course -- October will bring back the heat with Santa Ana winds howling down from the rugged mountains along our northeastern flanks. Then will come the fires, great raging infernos driven by those fierce winds to a blowtorch intensity that will incinerate hillsides, homes, and anything else that happens to be in the way.

It's happened before and will happen again. Such is the cost of living in this crowded entropical paradise, and the price of change, which -- according to the wisdom of the ancients  -- is our one true constant in life.

Change is in the air, and as the "extra guy" on the show I helped rig a few weeks ago, my new role is to wait for the phone to buzz with an incoming text message whenever they need a little help. It's rarely a last-second thing -- if they want me on Monday, I'll usually get the text on Friday -- but unless and until I hear from the Best Boy, I don't know if the next week will bring any work at all.

In this oh-so-tribal business, I'm now a man without a tribe -- and that's a very strange feeling.

It's ironic that after nearly 40 years in the biz, my mode of securing employment is much the same now as when I first started out, except in those days the work calls usually came via an answering service staffed by actual human beings. Back then, I'd hand out business cards with my home phone and answering service number to anybody and everybody who would take one -- if I was out when someone called, they'd dial the service and leave a message. When on a job, I'd call the service from a pay phone (back when they were plentiful, clean, and actually worked) to see if any messages were waiting, then I'd call in again after getting home. At the time, this was standard operating procedure for free-lance workbooks trying to stay alive and get ahead in Hollywood.

Needless to say, the world -- and this town -- moved a lot slower in those days.

The advent of telephone answering machines in the early 80's sent those answering services the way of the Dodo Bird and Passenger Pigeon, then along came pagers and flip-phones to shove answering machines to the back shelf. Now those too have a been relegated to the trash heap of techno-history, supplanted by the ne plus ultra in 24/7 personal and professional connectivity -- smart phones.

I'm not sure any of this marks actual progress, but what I think doesn't matter. The new reality just keeps steamrolling along, leaving those who refuse to adapt behind to fight off the buzzards, hyenas, and other carrion-eaters.

This show usually gives me two days a week -- the heavy-lift of Monday and the show-wrap on Friday night. Things are busy enough in town these days that I could probably fill up my weekly dance card by calling the local and going "on the books," which would doubtless generate calls for all-night condor duty, ball-busting 6:00 A.M. rigging calls (at cable rate), and whatever other scraps fall from the employment table of Hollywood.

Twenty years ago, I'd have done exactly that, but not anymore. My days as a front-line soldier in the Set Lighting infantry are over and done -- like an old mule, I'm too old and broken down for really heavy lifting now -- so I just take two of these every night…

…. and wait for those Mondays and Fridays.

This is as good a situation as I'm likely to find at this point , and if three days a week would be a whole lot better, two days will have to do. After all these years in LA, I've got plenty of wheat to sort from chaff as I consolidate what should accompany me north in my post-Hollywood life, and what will have to find another home.

That takes time -- time that I now have.

Still, such a limited work schedule takes some getting used to, and I'm not quite there yet. As the eight-hour guy (meaning that's both the least and the most I'll be paid for on any given day), I come in with the rest of the crew for the Monday afternoon lighting call, where it's up-ladder, down-ladder, move-ladder-and-repeat as we rough in the lighting for two or three swing sets. Although we rarely work the full eight hours, we don't stop for much, either -- the work is steady, fast, and hard. By the time I get home -- and the next morning -- I really feel those Mondays.

Friday -- show day -- is very different. I'm there to help the two juicers and Best Boy with the post-show wrap, and nothing more. That means taking a late afternoon call rather than coming in at 10:00 in the morning with the rest of the crew. But since Friday traffic in LA is absolutely brutal, I'm always early.* One benefit is getting to partake in the pre-show crew dinner, but by the time I arrive, only a few stragglers remain.

The food is good, but eating alone at the table, I'm again reminded of my tribe-less status.

After dinner, I find a place to read for a while (note to self: always bring a book on Fridays…), then wander over to the stage between five and six p.m. The show is well underway by then, but the core crew has it covered -- they don't need or want me out on the floor, so I watch from the shadows for a while, then head back to the Gold Room and wait for wrap. When it finally comes, we'll kick in the afterburners until the Best Boy tells us all to go home.

I look forward to that -- working hard with the team to get the job done -- but sitting around doing nothing has never come easy for me. Still, it's all part of being the "extra guy." I'm here to serve the needs of the lighting crew in whatever capacity they require, not lead the charge up Mt. Suribachi as a first-string juicer anymore, and if I'm not entirely comfortable with that role, tough shit.

They're not paying me to be "comfortable," but simply to do my job.

This is just one more transition as I move towards a very different life, a time when the ground is shifting under my feet on all fronts. The bell tolls louder with each passing week bearing a message impossible to ignore -- and suddenly I understand why so many of my former crew-mates were reluctant to retire when the time finally came. They talked a good game beforehand about how great it was going to be once they quit, but as the day drew near, it was obvious they had mixed feelings.

Me too. It's no easy thing to walk out a door that I worked so hard to kick open forty years ago.  Whatever path you choose in Hollywood, it's always difficult for an outsider to break in -- and once you do, you still have to work your ass off every single day to prove that you really do belong. The paying of your dues never stops, because it's all part of earning -- and keeping -- your tribal stripes.

A sustained ovation from the audience signals the curtain call, and the end of tonight's show. I strap on the tools of ignorance and head out onto the stage floor, where I run into one of the make-up girls -- a woman my age who I haven't seen for a while. We worked together on some god-awful low-budget, non-union features way back in the good old/bad old days, and now she too is preparing to retire. A stunning blonde beauty back then, she remains so today -- and how she manages to look so good, I'll never understand.

I look in the mirror these days and don't even recognize the old man looking back.

It's good to see her again, and remember the days when working on crappy movies was fun and everything seemed possible. Now that all of our youthful energy and enthusiasm has long since crashed and burned on the hard rocks of Hollywood reality, it's nearly time for her to retire with her third husband to the Carolinas, and me to my shack in the woods.

"Tempus fugit," the Roman poet Virgil warned -- and he was right.

But her work day is over, while mine has only begun. With one last wistful smile, she turns and is gone. I pull my head out of the technicolor past, then don my gloves, grab a ladder, and join the rest of the crew wrapping those swing sets. Getting the work done is what matters now -- and for the first time all day, I'm finally back in my comfort zone.

Maybe some things don't change after all...

* As the extra guy on Will&Grace for the final two seasons, it once took me 90 minutes to drive six miles to the studio one Friday night -- so I don't take chances anymore