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, April 1, 2018

Arrangiarsi!



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well put, Stu.

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

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

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


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

Sunday, March 4, 2018

One Year Later


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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

"This is fucked!" he declared.

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

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

I miss those people, each and every one.

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Sweat the Small Stuff

                                             The big stuff...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I can relate -- every industry pro can.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oddly enough, that made me feel a lot better.

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

Consider the wisdom of Ben Franklin.

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

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


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

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Dreaming is Free


                                                 Photo by Lee Johnson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Just For the Hell of It: Episode 46

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


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



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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That hurts -- and is exactly what happened here.

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

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

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

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

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

So much for our "five year run."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Nights

                                        Image courtesy of Islay Stoutjesdyk 


Late May of 1988, Oxford, Mississippi, a little after 8:00 in the morning. I'm weaving down a red carpeted hallway of a no-tell motel on the edge of town with a can of Budweiser clutched in one hand, utterly exhausted after another full night of filming a low-budget feature called Heart of Dixie.  After more than a month of six-day weeks and fourteen-
hour days, we're now deep into the final three weeks of night work, reporting to the crew van outside the motel at 4:30 every afternoon, then returning well after sunup the following morning.  

A man walks towards me in the hallway. Freshly showered and shaved, he wears a beige off-the-rack suit, a crisp white shirt, and navy blue tie -- a 40-something cube farmer on the road to sell insurance, annuities, or office supplies to the locals. From behind a pair of bifocals, he eyes me warily as we approach, wondering just who and what the hell I am.

I don't blame him. He's rested, well-scrubbed, and ready to face another day, while I'm at the opposite end of the circadian cycle. In my dirty jeans, soiled sweatshirt and tattered work boots, I sway gently from port to starboard while navigating the narrow hallway, looking more like some homeless derelict who wandered in from the woods than a legitmate motel guest with a room key. 

I drain the last of my beer, then crush the can in my hand as he hugs the wall to slide past... and right then I offer a loopy smile -- the only facial expression I'm capable of summoning at the moment.

"How you doin'?" I ask, but it's not really a question. How he's doing is no concern of mine. I'm just trying to put this suddenly nervous civilian at ease.

He gives a quick nod, then is gone, doubtless heaving a sigh of relief on his way to the nearest Starbucks for a morning jolt of caffeine. He's got a big day ahead. There are hands to shake, backs to slap, bad jokes to tell, and with a little luck, a few sales to make. At the end of his day -- just about the time I'm settling back into the crew van with the rest of grip/electric for the drive to location -- he'll call the wife and tell her all about it.  

Well, good for him. Me, I'm heading for another beer and a hot shower, after which I'll do a face-plant on the bed and pray the motel maid honors the "do not disturb" sign I left dangling from the doorknob. First, though, I have to face the bathroom mirror and convince myself that this life I'm leading is normal, despite the evidence staring back at me.


                                      Image courtesy of Chase Northrip


But there's nothing "normal" about any of this, because no matter how you look at it, working nights is a bitch.

For grip and electric, nights are a massive amount of work. Every bit of illlumination each shot requires has to be supplied by us, and that means truckloads of lights and tons of cable. Shows with a decent budget have a rigging crew to lay down and pick up the cable before and after filming, but for this low-budget, non-union feature, it's all on us, and that means a maximum-effort push to get the lights up and burning when we first arrive at the location. Once that's done and the filming commences, we gear down a bit to deal with the coverage as director, actors, and camera grind through each scene. 

Absent rain, snow, strong winds, or some other meterological horror, the first half of working a night isn't so bad. In fact, it's kind of fun. Shooting days is usually a routine matter of keeping the light in each shot balanced and consistent so the image looks good on screen, but at night, lighting is everything -- without lights, as the saying goes, it's just radio. What we do makes all the difference, which is why a well-lit night scene is something to be proud of.  

Still, the crew dinner six hours after call comes as a welcome break, then it's back to work again... and that's when the going gets tough. All too soon we enter the Dead Zone, a period between 3:00 a.m. and dawn when everything slows down and time itself stretches out like salt water taffy. My brain dulls, my hands are clumsy, my boots seem to weigh ten pounds each.

Deep in the Dead Zone, it feels like this night will never come to an end.

Everybody gets through it in their own way. Some guzzle a coffee at the craft service table, while others resort to an occaisonal snort of cocaine -- and back in the 80's, there was always cocaine to be had on night shoots. Whatever your poison, a little pick-me-up could help get through the Dead Zone, but you had to be careful. Used sparingly, stimulants weren't usually a problem, but over-indulgence in either could compound the sleep-deprivation over the course of a week -- and by that sixth night, you'd be a wreck. 

Drugs or not, working all nighters induces a strangely altered state of reality. While the rest of the civilized world is sleeping, we're working, so the set becomes a world unto itself, further strengthening the bonds that keep a crew tight. The sense of being in a cinematic circus, a tribal unit apart from the rest of society, is strengthened by the rigors of night work.  

Finally, just when the night is beginning to feel like an endless purgatory, the eastern sky starts to morph from black to gray with the approach of dawn. But this is no time to relax, because the pressure is suddenly on to get the remaining shots done with darkness -- and time -- running out fast... and in the worst-case scenario, this can lead to the absolute last thing any crew wants to hear:  

"Tent it in, boys." 

That command means the grips then have to surround the set, part of the set, or the actors with as many blacks as necessary to block the offending rays of sunlight, thus preserving the illusion of darkness while leaving enough room for the camera and our lamps to do their work. I only had to suffer this a few times over my career, but friends who worked on Titanic reported that tenting-in as dawn broke was routine on that shoot. Jim Cameron was determined to get his shots no matter how much the crew had to suffer.  

Auteur or asshole?  You decide -- but sometimes there's not a dime's worth of difference.

Other than extending an already too-long work night on into the day, the worst thing about tenting-in is that it robs the crew of the one true joy that comes from working nights -- the endorphin rush that comes with sunup, the second-wind surge of energy that carries us through the wrap, and the crude humor and laughs that result... and of course, the relief at finally heading for home. I can't really explain that -- it's something you have to experience to fully understand and appreciate.  

The last all-nighter I worked came after a week of day-playing on an episodic called Criminal Minds. The days started early and ended late, usually running 14 hours, but that was okay. Unfortunately, the price for that week was a 4:30 p.m. call on Friday afternoon at Knott's Berry Farm in Anaheim, fifty-five miles from my apartment. That meant a two-and-a-half hour drive to location through some of the worst traffic in America, then a long night of punishing labor, followed by a huge wrap and an hour drive home. That really was a bitch, but by the end of it, we were all laughing in the warm rays of the rising sun.

Although I'm happy to be done with all that now,* I do miss the communal spirit and giddy, joyous relief that comes with having endured such a grueling ordeal with a good crew. There's nothing quite like it, and I'll never experience that again. If all I have now is good memories of those times, that'll just have to do -- and maybe it'll enough.

I can only hope so.


* Retirement has turned out to be a lot more work than anticipated, but at least I get to set my own hours...

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Just For the Hell of It: Episode 45


                                 Ashtray outside Stage 26, Paramount Studios


Other than a couple of years in the fast-food business when I was fresh out of college, all I've known is the film and television industry, so I can't say if there are more smokers working below-the-line than in other occupations -- but as you can see from this photo, smoking remains a powerful addiction in Hollywood, particularly among the rank and file.

Smoking is strictly prohibited on sound stages nowadays, most of which were built seventy to eighty years ago from wood that has born the brunt of withering heat from thousands of incandescent lamps ever since. After so many years, that wood is now as dry and ready to burn as Donald Trumps parched and shriveled soul... but rules are made to be broken, and if you go up high on any stage in Hollywood during the ongoing run of a show, you'll find a few cigarette butts here and there.* This drives production managers crazy, but human nature is a difficult beast to subdue.

I was a pack-a-day smoker when I rode into LA back in 1977, where the long hours and stop-and-go nature of working on set ramped up my consumption in a big way. While working on a Brothers Johnson music video a few years later, I burned through three full packs of Marlboros in a single long day -- all the while toiling in a thick haze created by a member of the Art Department, who carried a 35 mm film can full of some mysterious flaming white powder around the set every couple of hours, producing a harsh, acrid smoke that made that stage (and my lungs) feel like we were in the midst of a raging forest fire. Then, after twenty straight hours of this pulmonary abuse, I drove home through the smog-thickened atmosphere of Los Angeles... which is when it finally occurred to me that I really ought to stop smoking at some point.

It would take a while to summon up the discipline necessary to quit this nasty habit, and in the meantime I took a job on a one-day shoot starring the late Tony Randall, who -- when it came to smoking -- was every bit as prissy and neurotically fastidious as the Felix Unger character he portrayed in The Odd Couple.  While he was still in wardrobe and makeup, the crew on stage was warned not to smoke, because Randall simply would not tolerate the scent of a burning cigarette.**

"What an asshole," I thought, being young and entirely too full of myself.

So when he finally emerged, all buffed, puffed, and ready to dazzle the camera, I retired to a dark corner at the far end of the long stage, where I sat down and lit up. Moments later, Randall stopped what he was doing, cocked his head, and looked up.

"I smell a cigarette," he said, in a whiny Felix Unger voice.

"C'mon, guys," sighed the First A.D.

I took one more drag, then stubbed it out and slogged through the rest of the day, grumbling everytime I had to walk off stage to service my addiction. A year later I hit the ripe old age of 30, and leveraged the occasion to quit smoking for good. It was a struggle, but I did it -- and once I'd shaken that nicotine monkey off my back, I never smoked again.

Did I miss it? Sure, for a couple of years during which I had lots of dreams about smoking. But after that, not at all. Quitting smoking remains the smartest thing -- maybe the only truly smart thing -- I ever did...

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Football has been in the news of late, and not for the usual reasons. I won't delve into the kneeling-during-the-anthem kerfuffle -- you can get your fill of that on social media -- but it seems to have distracted people from the more lethal issue of CTE destroying the brains and lives of so many players after they've left the game. Ex-agent, producer, and occasional director Gavin Polone recently weighed in on the issue, discussing the reality of the situation and his own apparently unavoidable complicity. I suspect he has a lot of company in this. Whatever you think of Polone -- and more than a few industry people don't much care for him -- his columns are worth a read.

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In other news --it seems film isn't quite dead after all.  A number of accomplished directors still use their clout to shoot film rather than digital, and that's a good thing. The steady march of digital technology will never allow film to occupy more than a niche in the cinematic world, but I'm glad it continues to survive.  CD's were supposed to consign LPs to the dustbin of cultural history, but vinyl continues to thrive among those who appreciate its qualities, so maybe film too will survive the digital revolution.

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The internet blew up last week over the comments of an actress who dared admit to the Emmys that she prefers reading books to watching television. I have no idea who Shailene Woodley is or what show she's in, and I literally could not care less about the Emmys, the Oscars, the Grammies, or any of the other bloated, meaningless award shows the entertainment industry bestows upon itself. Other than the fact that this young woman was nipping the Hollywood hand that feeds her, I fail to understand what's so terrible about prefering books to television. Books were TV before there was TV, except the show played out inside the readers head rather than on screen. Besides, reading books exercises a persons mind and makes him/her think in a way that very few  television shows can. 

If Shailene Woodley was just blowing smoke -- inventing her preference for books over TV in an attempt to appear smart to a jaded audience of agents, managers, writers, directors, and fellow thespians -- that's another matter... but in the absence of evidence to the contrary, I'll assume her comments were sincere. So good for you, Shailene. Keep on reading.

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

Tim Goodman, chief television critic of the Hollywood Reporter, posted a good column on the value of a show having a great cast recently.  It's worth reading the whole thing, but here's the salient quote: 

"When a cast can overcome either sloppy writing or writing that's been pushed and bent into untenable directions by, say, a broadcast schedule that ridiculously calls for 22 or 24 episodes, you really have something special.  Actors are fascinating.  They can elevate words and they can destroy words.  Beyond that, I've always keenly enjoyed the fact that acting is a sort of artistic witchcraft, where a person leaves their body (while still in it, but you know what I mean) to become someone else.  A known quantity -- an actor or actress you've seen for ages, populating all the late night talk shows, etc. -- suddenly morphs into something completely other and you believe it. Like Hugh Laurie.  You know Hugh Laurie.  Well, none of us do, but we think we do (except for stupid Americans who never learned he was known for comedy before House).  Anyway, if Hugh Laurie stands in front of you, you know him.  And then he does The Night Manager.  And then he does Chance.  And you can't shake that transformation -- particularly if you've seen A Bit of Fry & Laurie, Blackadder, Jeeves and Wooster and yes, Stuart Little and House and Veep and maybe a piano player on jazz album you once heard -- and you think, "My God, this man is not the man I thought I knew; this man is a chameleon, transformative, abnormal. And you would be right because he's an actor.  Same for Helen Mirren. And countless others,"  

Agreed.  I've said it before and I'll say it again: actors have the hardest and most important job on set.

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

Those who have been stopping by here for a while might recall this two-part guest post by Director/DP Peter McLennan (now retired), describing a stomach-churning day he suffered through while shooting aerials in a helicopter. For months afterwards, those two posts were among the most popular on the blog, and were shared all over the internet. Peter is very good at telling a story, and has some good ones to tell -- I encouraged him to start an industry blog of his own, but he had better things to do. Our loss, that. Still, every now and then he sends me a little gem, and did so recently with a vivid description of his adventures chasing the total eclipse that was the big story of the summer before all the hurricanes, earthquakes, and nuclear saber-rattling shoved it off the front page.

Like all of Peter's writing, it's a good read, so do yourself a favor and check it out.

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

As the world knows by now, Hugh Hefner passed away last week. Like most young men back in the day, I was well acquainted with Playboy magazine, leafing through new issues in a hormonal haze, propelled by five hundred million years of Darwinian evolution and an enduring fascination with the female form. A few years after landing in Hollywood, I got a job wrangling lights for a shoot at the Playboy Mansion. There it all was -- the grotto, the koi pond, the underground aviary, the tennis courts and of course, the mansion itself. The shoot was all exteriors, so we never got in the front door, but with dozens of extremely attractive scantily-clad young women gliding in front of our lights and camera, that really didn't matter.

While we filmed a scene in the grotto, Hefner strolled out to watch the action -- the man himself, looking exactly as he did in the magazine. It suddenly felt as though I was visiting some strange X-rated Disneyland, with Hef appearing as another iconic character -- but instead of a Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, or Goofy costume, he was clad in his own trademark silk gown, puffing on the everpresent pipe.  

All in all, a strange but memorable day. Four decades later, after living a life millions have envied but none could really imagine, Hugh Hefner has gone the way of all things. Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

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

Here on the home front, I've been busy dealing with thirty years of deferred maintenance on my shack up here in the trees. When you occupy a wooden dwelling, in the woods, amidst millions of tiny creatures who evolved to eat wood for a living, unfortunate and expensive consequences are inevitable.

Ah well, it's nothing cubic dollars and endless toil can't fix, and absent the former, I must endure the latter. As numerous people warned me when I pulled the plug on Hollywood: "Being retired doesn't mean you'll stop working -- you'll just stop getting paid."

At the time, I thought they were kidding, but they weren't.  

Live and learn...


* Stages are usually swept clean at the season's end, or whenever a show wraps.

** It was still legal to smoke on stage back then.