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, August 4, 2019

Apollo


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Hidden Talent: Part 2


                                             Downtown LA at dusk
                                                  Louie Escobar

I've said it before and I'll say it again: there's a wealth of talent working below-the-line in Hollywood.  This is not to say there aren't creative people toiling in cube farms, big box stores, fast food franchises, and driving garbage trucks, but all I really know is the film and television industry, where the itinerant nature of free-lance life attracts many who pursue some aspect of the arts in their off time. Over my forty years in Hollywood, I worked shoulder-to-shoulder with more musicians, singers, writers, artists, and photographers than I can count.

Now that I no longer live and work in LA, I don't get to meet these talented people face to face, but social media helps fill the gap. It works even better in some ways, since they can share their work with the world -- like the photo above, by Louie Escobar, a hard-working Local 80 grip with a great eye for color, composition, and mood. Louie has managed to land several DP gigs over the years, shooting commercials, music videos and short films, and long ago put together a sizzle reel shot with then-current, now obsolete video technology. The image resolution doesn't compare to modern cameras, but it's abundantly clear that Louie knows what he's doing behind the eyepiece of a motion picture camera.

Getting your first paid DP gig is no easy task, thanks to the conundrum of Catch 22: you won't get hired without professional experience, but can't get professional experience until somebody hires you.  Saying "no" comes easy for those who do the hiring, because saying "yes" demands the balls to roll the dice on somebody new -- and most producers are loathe to take a chance. Even when you do manage to land that first DP gig, there's no guarantee you'll keep working enough to make a living.

An old saying from the world of baseball applies here: "Getting to the major leagues is one thing -- staying there is another." Every DP needs a web of contacts to keep working, and such a network doesn't materialize overnight... but while you're waiting for the next DP gig, the phone will keep ringing with offers to work at your old job -- gaffer, grip, whatever -- and the temptation to take those jobs can be overwhelming.  It's never easy to make a living in the freelance jungle below-the-line, where the Gods of Hollywood demand periodic sacrifices from us all, but none so much as those with ambitions to move up.  So long as you hedge your bets by taking gigs in your old, comfortable job, those Gods will not smile upon you.

It was easy enough for Alexander Bell to say "When one door closes, another opens," but it's a very different matter when you must consciously decide to close a door on a solid career path in the hopes that a more satisfying and lucrative door will open. Unless you're independently wealthy, the rent must still be paid and food put on the table, which is one more reason moving up is hard.

Still, people do it. During my last good run on a sitcom, our first AD had begun to do some directing on other shows. He wanted to direct full time, of course, but with a mortgage to pay and kids to put through college, he couldn't justify leaving a relatively steady job to test the uncertain waters of a new career. He straddled the line for a few years, until one day his agent sat him down to deliver this message: "If you want to be taken seriously as a director, you'll have to quit working as an AD."  So he did, leaving our show before the final season, and it worked out. He made the leap of faith, stuck the landing, and has enjoyed a very successful career as a director ever since.

Every career unfolds at its own pace, and success doesn't always come early.  When not gripping on features, episodics, and commercials, Louie Escobar has been doing volunteer work teaching art, photography, and still photography to young people at Inner City Arts in downtown LA. He's still pushing to become a full time DP, and if there's any justice in this world, will make that jump sooner rather than later. Some of the best DPs I worked with over the years began as grips or juicers, where they received an education that allows them to know exactly what's needed to get a job done without flogging the crew, working excessively long hours, or running the budget into the red. When Louie makes it -- and I think he will -- he'll be a very good DP.

Meanwhile, check out his website, where he's compiled a remarkable portfolio of terrific photographs. Unlike so many who toil below the line, this man's talent is anything but hidden.


Sunday, June 23, 2019

Getting Started Redux: Thoughts from a Long Time Reader


                               Bebee Nightlight working in San Francisco

Back when I was still working in Hollywood, an occasional post would strike a resonant chord and generate comments from readers. Nowadays, not so much, which is no surprise given that the readership here plummeted after I retired and went to posting once a month. Before that, a good post might attract a couple of thousand hits over the course of a few weeks, along with several comments -- a mere hiccup on the internet, but this has always been a niche blog aimed at a relatively small audience.  Nowadays a post might collect  a hundred hits, and what few comments arrive usually come from spam-bots hawking one website or another.

Those, I delete ASAP.

So you can imagine my surprise at finding a series of five long, detailed comments on Getting Started, all from a long-time reader who lives and works in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Austin first started reading this blog while still in high school, and has since made the bruising journey from young wannabe to industry pro carrying an IA card.  Having learned a lot over the last seven years, he wanted to pass on some of that hard-earned knowledge, and put some real thought into his comments. Given the reduced readership around here nowadays, it seems likely that most people have already read that post, and thus won't see those comments.  Since I agree with most of what he said, I'm publishing what he had to say as a guest post.

I did a bit of editing, of course -- at this point, I can't help myself -- but tried to keep a light hand, aiming only to smooth out the narrative flow without diminishing Austin's distinctive voice in the following paragraphs.


Almost 7 years ago (yikes) I was the "anonymous" commenter that inspired this post

I’d like to thank you for taking the time to write that post way back then, and I thank your blog for preparing me for the realities of life while working below the line in the film industry. Heck, you could even call me stupid for going through with it! It hasn’t been easy and there have been many unexpected challenges. I can’t say that I’ve ended up where I thought I would (new member of IATSE Local 695) and I don’t know what will happen next.  Still, while there certainly are easier and more stable ways to make a living, I can’t imagine wanting to do anything else, and in the meantime I’ll keep trying my best.

I won’t go into my own long-winded story, but want to share some of what I’ve learned since I began taking permit grip and electric calls in the San Francisco Bay Area a few summers ago, in the hope that other young grips/electricians may find it useful.

First off, work very hard, even when you think nobody is watching. 

Have a good attitude, and don’t complain. Don’t get discouraged even if you’re working harder than you every imagined.

Be respectful and nice to everybody —  above the liners/cast (if and when you interact with them), department heads, fellow crew, PA’s, drivers, the caterers & crafty, extras, the public, etc. Just because you work on a Big Show doesn’t mean you should have an inflated ego. Nobody is below you. As they say, the PA you were a total dick to yesterday might well be a producer tomorrow, and will never forget what you said.

Pay attention, always. I can’t stand it when people say film sets are boring. There is always something to learn. By keeping an eye on the gaffer (when you can), you not only learn how to light a set, but you also learn to anticipate what they need when and why, which can be very gratifying.

Put your damn phone away: I made a point of leaving my phone in my pocket at all times when I started getting the opportunity to work on big sets - and the Best Boy noticed, as other folks sat at the carts glued to their screens.  In time, I learned when it was appropriate to take a peek to see if anyone was offering me more work or if a loved one was in distress.

There’s always work to be done. Sweep the truck. Organize carts. Cut and label gels. Small repairs. It’s work nobody wants to do, but if you show yourself as someone willing to do the dirty work, they will want to have you around. THERE’S NEVER AN EXCUSE TO SIT ON YOUR ASS AT THE CARTS, especially as the new guy/gal.

If you really don’t have anything to do, are on stage, and the set is lit for a 6 page dialogue scene, go over and start LEARNING as much as you can about those fancy LED lights — go through the menus, settings, etc.

When starting out as a day player, you’re there as an extra hand not to be one of the main grips or juicers on-set.  Know your place — don’t try to be the hero or step on one of the core crew’s toes. Once they get to know you, maybe you’ll get the chance to be the gaffer/key’s “pocket” on-set person for a bit. If it’s your first time working with that crew, take time to learn their workflow and how they work with each other when lighting the set.

Don’t act like you know everything already (even if you think you do). It’s an easy default to try to fit in and “act like you belong,” but by doing so, you shut yourself off from learning and accepting help from more experienced veteran electricians and grips who would probably be more than happy to teach you the technical skills and tricks of the trade. Even if they try to teach you basic stuff, smile and thank them - they’ll like you more and WON’T THINK YOU’RE A DICK! 

Watch other people’s backs and they’ll hopefully watch yours. Don’t be afraid to ask, or offer, help.

Have a sense of humor. I took a lot of shit from the other guys when I started out, and made sure to laugh my ass off and have a good attitude about it. As it turned out they were testing me.

Show up early (I try 45 mins before call) and don’t seem like you’re in such a rush to leave.

Thank the best boy at the end of the day for bring you out. If they like you they will call you again.

Get Condor/Aerial Work Platform certified! When a Best Boy calls the hall for 3 additional condor certified electricians for that big Friday night exterior, this will increase your chances!

Don’t be afraid to ask for people’s contact info!  Although I’ve never been a fan of social networks, and am not on them, there’s no denying how much easier it is to network and stay in contact with various people you meet on shoots if you follow them on facebook or instagram afterwards. 

Another key piece of advice, perhaps the most serious: below the line work, especially grip and electric, is very physical work.One thing I loved about being a Set Electrician was that it offered the perfect combination of excitement in working on a big set, understanding the artistic side of cinematography, technical skill, working as a team, and working with my hands -- well, mostly with my back.4/0, Bates cable, 5 wire banded, 18Ks and camera dollies are all seriously heavy. Your most important tool for a long fruitful career doing this work is your body, so take it seriously. If you have time/money, go to a gym, get a personal trainer and get strong. Learn how to take care of your back, knees, and shoulders, and how to lift things properly: back straight, knees bent, lifting with your legs.  Have good posture.  Use wheels whenever possible when moving gear and heavy loads over long distances or across the stage.  Ask for help when you need it, don't try to be a hero.  If extra hands are available, use five people instead of three to head up that 18K. Also, watch the older workers on set to learn to work smarter, not harder -- rig to wrap, avoid handling the same gear twice.  Work in a way that will enable you to last. 4/0, Bates cable, 5 wire banded, 18Ks and camera dollies are extremely heavy.  Your most important tool for a long, fruitful career doing this work is your body.  Take it seriously.  If you have time/money, go to a gym, hire a personal trainer, and get strong.  Learn how to take care of your back, knees, and shoulders and how to lift heavy objects properly: back straight, knees bent, lifting with your legs. Maintain good posture. Use wheels whenever possible when moving gear and heavy loads over long distances or across the stage.  Ask for help when you need it, and don't try to be a hero.  If extra hands are available, use five people instead of three to head up that 18K.  Watch the older workers on set to learn how they work smarter, not harder.  Rig to wrap, avoid handling the same gear twice when possible, and work in ways that will enable you to last.

Don't give up. Seriously.  Even if you think you're down and out, if you really want it, stick to your guns and take advantage of any opportunity you can. If there's a local rental house in your area that offers gear demos, go and learn.  If you keep trying, good things will happen for you! There's probably other stuff I'll think of later, but those are the things I'd tell any young person who's interested in joining the union and working on big shows, whether in LA, New York, Boston, Pittsburgh, Chicago, or New Mexico.  One more thing: learn and observe good walkie-etiquette so you can communicate clearly and succinctly. I blabbed like an idiot on the walkie my first night, and the gaffer was pretty annoyed.  Thankfully, I was given a second chance.*

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

There's much wisdom here for young people who hope to enter the industry. Getting started and making progress is difficult, but it certainly isn't rocket science -- there's no real mystery to the process anymore -- but it won't happen unless you're committed to making a serious, sustained effort.

As Austin said: "Work very hard, even when you think nobody is watching."

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

WTF?

                        


Any of you who long ago signed up to have new posts of this blog delivered into your e-mail box might have received a surprise earlier this week. Blogger (the host of this and many other blogs) offered the service as part of the package, which seemed like a good idea... and for a while, it worked.  I even signed up just to make sure those posts were delivered as promised every week, and they were -- until they weren't.  I don't recall exactly when that happened, but at some point three or so years ago, the posts stopped coming.  Oh, I kept writing and posting them, but Blogger no longer delivered.  By then I was too busy winding up the last few months of my career and making an exit from Hollywood, so I didn't inquire as to why this happened or how to fix it... and once I left LA, then went to once-a-month posting, it didn't seem to matter anymore.

So imagine my surprise when the latest post arrived in my e-mail on Monday morning, along with links to the last two years worth of posts, as if Rip Van Blogger had awakened from a years-long slumber, realized his mistake, and was trying to make up for lost time.

WTF, Blogger???

Anyway, I just want you to know that I had nothing to do with this surprise package.  Most of the blunders here at BS&T over the years have been my doing, but this one's on Blogger.

All right, then -- onward...

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Getting Started


Update: Since this post went up four days ago, Local 728 in LA announced a class that will run on July 7, designed to teach wannabe set lighting technicians how to join the union.  Information on that class is here.  Oh, how things have changed since I first tried to get into 728 back in the late 70's.  I walked in and found a fat slob wearing a wife-beater siting behind the desk - and when I told him I wanted to join, he proceeded to laugh me right out of the office. It's a different world now...

Whether you arrive in Hollywood with ambitions to jump-start a career above-the-line, or are more interested in doing the heavy lifting on set, getting started in the film and television industry will not be easy -- it wasn't when I first knocked on Hollywood's door forty-plus years ago, and isn't now.  Those with ambitions to be writers, directors, producers, or actors will have to look elsewhere for guidance, but down below decks in Grip and Electric, the basic equation hasn't changed that much. One way or another, you'll have find a way to get thirty days of IA work over the course of a year, at which point you'll be eligible to join the union. Once you've passed muster with Contract Services and paid a stiff initiation fee (plus your first quarter dues) to get your card, the rest is simple: work hard, pay attention, maintain a good attitude, and don't be a dick.

Do that, and you'll be fine.

I could bore you with a long-winded account of how I finally got my Local 728 card... but I won't. There's no point, because that's all ancient history now, pretty much irrelevant to what newbies need to know today.* Although you still have to get your thirty days -- some things are eternal -- the quantum leap in digital communications technology over the past twenty years has permanently altered the way wannabe grips and juicers get work in Hollywood.

Example: when I was working as a young non-union griptrician, the standard ritual on every job was to hand out business cards with two phone numbers: my home phone and an answering service. There were no phone machines back then, so I paid a monthly fee for a service to handle incoming calls when I was out of the apartment.  I'd check in with the service from a pay phone (which were everywhere back in the day), then respond to any work calls. The world spun a lot slower in those days, so even if I didn't call back for several hours, I still had a decent shot at the job.  The advent of cheap phone machines put the answering services out of business, then pagers came along to kill off phone machines, then cell phones arrived to make pagers redundant, and then smart phones and texting came into being, which pretty much rendered talking on the phone obsolete. Nowadays, a Best Boy who needs manpower typically sends out a mass text to everyone on his work contact list, and the first to respond gets the job.

It's a different world now -- remaining glued to your smart phone and having a quick pair of thumbs is crucial these days -- which is why I turned to a couple of young below-the-liners to share their respective journeys from non-union newbies to union members. Their experiences will be a lot more relevant to newbies than the dusty ruminations of a burned-out ex-juicer like me.

First we hear from "Mike," who not so long ago was struggling to find film work in Hollywood, but is now a card-holding member of IATSE Local 80.

"I did a brief stint working in the industry when I was 24, than had to go back home for personal reasons, but constantly thought about making my way to Hollywood.  A year and a half later I booked a one-way ticket for LA with no real plan on how to fulfill the dream.  I had no contacts and nowhere to live, but all that could be figured out when I got there." 

"After a few days scrolling through Craigslist, sending resumes to anyone and everyone looking for grips or electricians, a director of photography emailed me back. She needed a crew for her thesis film at AFI.  I signed on as an electrician, but later she asked if I'd be willing to work as the key grip on another thesis film she'd be gaffing for a friend.  One thing led to another, and I met a lot of people who became close friends during my year of working freebies, and all whom have since managed to join Local 80, 728, or 600." **


"The downside of volunteering on every thesis film is that neither I nor my growing list of contacts were getting paid, so I had to find a flexible part-time job to pay the rent. I wound up at a Shake Shack, where I'd out in my 12 hours on set before going to work as a line cook for up to 8 hours, then do another 12 on set. I got my first paid job thanks to a recommendation from a DP I'd met at AFI.  Production was looking for someone from the school willing to work for $100/day for a three day job, and I got the call.  I was able to bring along a friend to help out at the same rate, and we both thought we were rich when we got our $300 checks at the end of the shoot." 

The gaffer from that short film turned out to be a well-known gaffer in Local 728, and he hired the two of us to work on a few non-union music videos.  I was still checking Craigslist and working at the burger shop a couple of days a week, but then I discovered Facebook groups for job postings and grip/electric discussions.  I was itching to quit that part time job and start working my way up, but first had to meet the right people."


"One of those first jobs I got from Facebook landed me a spot working with a grip crew that helped start a chain reaction leading to where I am now.  The first was a four day short that paid more than I'd make in a month at the Shake Shack, then the key asked me to cover him on a different short film the next week that paid even more.  I knew this was the moment I'd been waiting for, so I quit flipping burgers and dove straight in. The key from that second short film would later offer me my first three days of work on a union set a few months later."


"I set up my phone to get every notification from one of those Facebook pages, so when someone posted anything at all, I knew about it.  A union best boy grip put up a post looking for a rigging grip, and permits were okay.  I sent him a message within 20 seconds of that post going up, and two minutes later was hired. Thanks to that Facebook page, I was then able to get the additional twenty seven days I needed to join the union." 


"Right now I'm finishing wrapping up a TV show with the same grips. Since I started working with these guys, we've done three TV shows, one feature film, promo spots, music videos and commercials.  My buddy that helped me on the initial $100-for-12 hours short was the first one in our group of friends to make it into the union. He landed a full-time spot on a network show and was able to get me on as a regular dayplayer.  The key grip that gave me the two short films that enabled me to quit the Shake Shack job has come out to push dolly for me on a movie, but he's also traveled the world pushing dolly since making it out of the freebie days -- and he got his 30 days on a Facebook movie (for their streaming service) that flipped." ***


Now we hear the story of "Sam," who was trying hard to get his thirty days a year ago, but hadn't had much luck -- then the tide turned, and he's now a member of 728.


"I started my crazy Hollywood journey in January, 2016, fresh out of film school and eager to get on set. During my last semester, I had an internship where I met a couple of Production Coordinators, and after graduation, they hired/recommended me for jobs as a PA.  On set, I  kept an eye on the the grips and electrics, watching what they did and how they did it.  When they weren't busy, I'd ask them how they got into the industry, and if they had any advice for someone just starting out. Occasionally I'd get a call to work as a grip or juicer on a non-union shoot with some of my ex- classmates who'd made it to LA a year or two before me.  I also tried Craigslist and Mandy.com, but didn't have much success, as most of the sites wanted me to pay just to reply to job offers."

"A year and a half of working as a PA/Grip/Electric taught me a lot, and along the way I'd met quite a few grips and juicers.  I kept in touch with many of them, as well maintaining contact with my ex-classmates as they moved up the ranks on set.  I'd also begun to take full advantage of some useful set-related Facebook groups that were always looking for G&E help.  After a while I decided to shed the label of being a PA, and from then on took only G&E jobs, even if that meant gigs as a swing man on crappy music videos that paid only $150/12.  As time went by, I honed my skills as an electric and focused on making a career as a juicer.  I kept meeting more and more people, and before I knew it, was working consistently on music videos and non-union commercials." 


"Fast-forward to the summer of 2018, when it was so busy that both local 728 and 80 were into permits. A close friend of mine (who I'd met when I was a PA) was working as an office PA on a union commercial, so when the Best Boy Electric couldn't find an available 728 member, she gave him my name (via the Production Manager), and I got hired for two days as a permit juicer.  I busted my ass on that job, trying to impress him with what I'd learned over my years of non-union work.  After that job, he passed my name along to other 728 members, and a month later I got a call from a Best Boy working on a Tier 1 feature, where I got twenty-five permit days of union work.  I was still three days short of my thirty, and didn't get those until the end of March in 2019 on another job, thanks to someone I'd met years before." 


"I'd say it was 60% luck and 40% hard work that got me where I am today: a dues-paying member of Local 728.  Although I hustled hard to make it, I might never have gotten my union card without some luck and the help of other people when I really needed it." 


Sam then added these words of advice:


"Don't get discouraged if you don't join the union with X amount of years -- sometimes it takes people ten years to get those thirty days.  Just keep grinding and good things will happen.  Save your money whenever you can, because you'll need it, and try not to burn bridges.  The business may seem big, but it's much smaller than you think, and word travels fast.  And to all wannabe 728 members: learn DMX/wireless technology. It's the future."


Mike and Sam took different routes to their union cards, and so will you -- everybody has to blaze their own path through the Hollywood jungle -- but there are distinct parallels in their respective stories. Both had the drive to do whatever was necessary to survive the most challenging phase of every Hollywood journey: getting started. Mike flipped burgers to pay the rent and worked a year of freebies for the AFI, while Sam toiled as a PA to scratch out a minimal living and gain experience on set. They asked questions, learned from the on-set pros, reached out to make contacts and keep in touch with those people, and made the most of whatever opportunities arose, working hard to gain acceptance and credibility.


That's how you do it.

Both also received a little help from other people at crucial moments, just as I did four decades ago -- and that might be the most important thing to take from this post: nobody makes it on their own. Working your ass off is a given, but you'll also have to be the kind of person other people are willing to help.  Although I've never met Mike or Sam, it's evident from our e-mail communications that they're good guys, not me-first assholes. If they weren't good, hard-working people, others would not have dropped their names in the right ears when it really counted.  

The lesson here is at the end of the first paragraph of this post: Don't be a dick.

Although the modes they employed to find work were different from mine more than four decades ago -- there was no Facebook, Craigslist, or internet back then, and the AFI was a shadow of what it would become -- the rest is very similar to how I got started. 

There's a reason I'm publishing this post in mid-June rather than waiting for July.  The broadcast network sitcoms and episodics will soon begin gearing up for the new Fall season, and with the streaming networks in full swing, a movie or two shooting in town, and commercials going strong, Hollywood should be very busy in the latter half of July. There's a good chance the unions will run out of available grips and juicers, at which point permits can be hired -- and that will be the opportunity for any newbie grips or juicers to get some union days, meet pros on set, and make more contacts. Call the locals to see if you can get on a list of permits, scour the Facebook links below, and call the grip and/or electric departments of all the major studios at least once a week. Be polite but persistent -- make sure they know your name. A one-day permit call at a studio can turn into three weeks of work, and sooner or later you'll get your thirty days. Mike did it, Sam did it, and so did I -- which means you can do it too.

Good luck!

Grip and Electric LA

Grip and Electric East Coast

TV/Film crew Availability

Production 911



* Besides, that story will be in the BS&T book, which -- yes -- I'm still working on... and will be for a while.

** Local 80 are grips, 728 are juicers (set lighting technicians), and Local 600 is camera.

*** "Flipped" means that the movie started as a non-union production, then at some point the producers decided to sign a union contract, allowing the crew to accrue union days.  



Sunday, June 2, 2019

Just for the Hell of It -- Episode 52

                                               Photo by Zoran Milosavljevic 


Being one who seldom does today what can be put off 'til tomorrow (especially in retirement), I'm only now working my way through Season Three of Deadwood -- and this after finishing Season Two several years ago.  Not that I didn't like the show, mind you, but it's easy to get distracted by the Next New Thing emerging from the churning mosh pit of quality programming in this era of Peak TV.

For reasons that were never sufficiently explained -- and much to the ire of its many fans -- a Season Four of Deadwood was not forthcoming. Instead, David Milch (the show's creator and head writer) suggested that he might wrap up the series with one or two Deadwood movies at some nebulous point in the future. Such vague promises are generally worth the paper they're not printed on in Hollywood, which is why nobody really believed those movies would ever happen.

I don't have HBO, so didn't see my first episode of Deadwood until it finally came to Netflix. Before then, I did some day-playing on another HBO show called Tell Me You Love Me. There we were at 6:00 a.m. one freezing cold morning -- there was ice in the gutters at our first location -- running cable and setting up lights, when a dimwitted civilian who was waiting for a bus asked what show we were making.  I told him, mentioning that it was an HBO production, whereupon he glared at me with an accusing stare.

"Why'd you cancel my favorite show?" he frowned.

"What?"

"Deadwood -- how come you took it off the air?"

I just shook my head. If this fool was dumb enough to think that a lowly juicer running power cables through icy gutters in the pre-dawn darkness of the San Fernando Valley had anything to do with a network's decision to cancel a show, then he was just too stupid to deal with... but if nothing else, this was a reminder of how popular that show was, and how disappointed the fans were when it died a premature death.

Having left the notion of future Deadwood movies lingering in the air like a fart in an elevator, Milch took his talents to the benighted surf noir drama John from Cincinnati, which was greeted with a resounding thumbs-down from viewers and many of the critics.*  Next he created Luck, a series set in the arena of horse racing, which got the axe early in the second season after the media reported the deaths of several race horses during filming.

At that point, Milch seemed to disappear until surprising the world by bringing that long-rumored two hour Deadwood movie to life after all. It aired last week on HBO as the rarest of all things in Hollywood: a promise kept.  I don't know if this will be enough to make all those angry Deadwood fans happy -- remember, the word "fan" is short for fanatic -- but it's more than Hollywood usually delivers.

I haven't seen the movie, and won't until HBO allows it to be aired on Netflix or Amazon Prime, but that's okay. I've still got ten more episodes of Season Three to watch first, which will take a while since I'm not a binge-watcher. Shortly after rejoining the Season 3 travails of Al Swearengen and company in their exceedingly grubby, bloody little frontier town, I stumbled across this, which discusses the making of that two-hour Deadwood finale.  It's an interesting piece, but with some awful news: David Milch is suffering from early-onset Alzheimer's disease, a fate I wouldn't wish on anybody. Above all, this is a wrenching personal tragedy for Milch, his family, and friends -- Alzheimers ranks high on the list of terrible ways to go, for all concerned. Beyond that, Milch's writing and creativity has stood above the pack for a while now (rivaled only by David Simon, IMHO), and the loss of such a protean creative force, still in his prime, is a blow to everyone who appreciates dark, edgy, nuanced television dramas.

A quote from the article sums up the situation -- and then some -- rather well:

"Deadwood: The Movie is about the tension between wanting things to change versus wishing they could always stay the same.  It's also about the resonating power of loss."

Sometimes life really is a bitch.

Note: NPR re-ran a good interview with David Milch last Friday.  It's worth a listen.  

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I'm not a member of the skateboard generation. Granted, skateboarding started when I was a kid, but back then you had to make your own board by cutting a skate in half, then nailing those cheap metal wheels onto a two-by-four.  One of my best friends did just that, then promptly fell and broke a leg with a nasty spiral fracture that kept him bedridden all summer long. This might not have been enough to dissuade me from trying it as well, but there were no sidewalks in the rural hills where I lived, and precious little pavement of any sort. What asphalt we did have was so rough as to render any sort of skate-related activity impossible, which is why I eventually turned to motorcycles for my adolescent thrills -- and paid the price.**

Still, the in-your-face culture of skateboarding that grew out of those early days held an undeniable appeal.  I loved Dogtown and Z-Boys, a gritty skateboarding documentary by Stacy Peralta that told the story of a legendary band of rough-and-tumble skateboard rats in Venice, California, long before that town became a fashionable colony of Santa Monica.  Even now, I always stop to watch when I see kids practicing and learning the difficult, bruising art of sidewalk surfing.

Minding the Gap continues the tradition, a sensitive, lyrical documentary focusing on three adolescent skateboarders who come of age and grow into young men while grappling with the harsh realities of finding their place in a culture that seems to become more fractious and dysfunctional with each passing year.  It's definitely worth seeing -- and worth a listen is this 20 minute interview with the film's young director/cinematographer (and fellow skateboarder) Bing Liu, who has since become a professional camera operator with some notable credits on his resume.

If you feel any resonance with the world of skateboarding, see the movie and listen to the interview.

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In this Martini Shot commentary, Rob Long dissects the relative economics of movie theaters vs. the current streaming powerhouses of Amazon, Netflix, and eventually Apple.  The world of movies and television is changing fast, and the jury's still out on where it will all wind up -- but you can bet the landscape of Hollywood will look a lot different a decade from now.

For more on the evolving nature of television, Tim Goodman (TV critic for the Hollywood Reporter) and Jason Snell (his podcast co-host at the TV Talk Machine) continue to discuss and analyze these ongoing changes as the digital revolution batters away at the crumbling walls of the Way Things Were.

In this excellent piece, Robert Lloyd (television critic for the LA Times) deconstructs the relative virtues and cultural resonance of single-camera vs. multi-camera comedies.  Multi-cam shows are an entirely different world than single-cam, and it's easy to dismiss the former  -- with that irritating, idiotic laugh-track -- as an inferior brand of televised entertainment.  I've done exactly that more times than I care to admit, mostly because the modern multi-cam sitcom no longer appeals to me... but that wasn't always the case. As a kid, I used to sit down in front of our ancient Cathode Ray Gun with my mom, dad, and sister to watch "All in the Family," laugh-track and all.  It was a funny, relevant, ground-breaking show at the time.  As the years passed, though, my tastes in television changed, and I came to view multi-cam laugh-track shows with something close to contempt.

How ironic then that when I finally aged-out of the single-camera world, with its 16 hour work days and end-of-the-week whipping post of Fraterdays, I was left with no choice but to embrace the much more humane world of multi-cam sitcoms, where the work hours generally ranged from 35 to 45 hours per week.  I made a lot less money, but suffered infinitely less pain, boredom, and misery, a tradeoff that worked for me.  Besides, multi-cam shows turned out to be a lot more fun to work on -- there was a lot of laughter on those sets, which isn't always the case on single-cam shows.

To quote Chuck Berry: "C'est la vie say the old folks, it goes to show you never can tell..."

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In this fascinating interview, John C. Reilly talks (among other things) about meeting the considerable challenges of his role in the recent Laurel and Hardy movie.  It's a good one.

Here's an eight minute short that offers an entertaining and informative deconstruction of the cinematic phenomenon known as "Bayhem" -- the dynamic shooting style of Michael Bay, in which the camera dips, swoops, and circles all over the screen in his famously pyrotechnic action movies.  I've only seen one or two of Bay's early films -- that was enough -- but this short explains where his style comes from and why it does (and often doesn't) work.  Definitely worth your time.

And while we're speaking of brainless action movies, here's a good look at some of the considerable thought, planning, and effort that went into a few of the stunts for the movie Venom.  Say what you will about all these glossy, vapid super-hero movies -- and to my mind, the less said the better -- at least they provide lots of well-paid work for crews and stunt people.  Hey, there's a silver lining in every cloud.

This piece from Wired magazine is a bit dusty -- five years old -- but still relevant to anyone interested in how cutting styles in movies have evolved over the years.

And last, here's an 11 minute clip of an interview with Orson Welles discussing some aspects of making Citizen Kane.  I don't know if film schools still teach Citizen Kane to the current generation of students, or if these young people have any interest in or appreciation for this cinematic landmark, but unlike any director working nowadays in Hollywood, Welles was a genius with a creative vision that overshadows them all -- which means he's always worth listening to.

That's it for now.  I hope you're all working and making money -- and if that's not happening, at least having some fun.  You know what they say about all work and no play... and it's true.


* Not all critics hated it, though.  Read this rather stunning review, then decide if you'd like to check out John from Cincinnati -- I did, and I do. It's now atop my Netflix queue.

**  A broken tibia and fibula that kept me in a cast and on crutches for nine long months...

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Home


            A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away -- a place I once called home


Cliché says that home is where the heart is, but the heart can be a fickle mistress capable of ever-shifting attachments, which renders the whole notion of "home" a bit elusive. That's not necessarily a bad thing.  Given that life has a way of knocking your gyros off kilter when you least expect it -- turning one's ordinarily reliable internal guidance system into a mass of flashing red lights -- the ability to adapt and call a new place "home" serves as an emotional survival mechanism of sorts.  Home can be the house you grew up in, the town where you went to school, the place you raised a family, or a park bench where you sleep in the middle of a big, ugly city. It all depends on the circumstance of the moment.

"You can't go home again," Thomas Wolfe declared in the title of his famous novel, and he wasn't wrong.  I left my third home to head for the City of Angels as a young man imbued with a blind sense of optimism kept aloft on the wings of hope and ignorance. Forty years later I retired as an old, worn-out workhorse ready for the glue factory, and by then, every home I'd known along that long journey had vanished into the ether, just like the tree, the swing, the car, and the house in the photo above. Gone too was that little boy standing there in the afternoon sun with no earthly clue that he'd someday wind up in Hollywood.

Near the end of Wolfe's novel, the main character comes to a realization.

"You can't go back home to your family, back home to your childhood...back home to a young man's dreams of glory and of fame...back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time -- back home to the escapes of Time and Memory."

Right again, Mr. Wolfe.  Most of the people I'd left behind were gone, some into eternity, the rest having moved on with their lives.  Time waits for no one, and it didn't wait for me.  This came as no surprise, but facing the door-slamming finality of all those changes offered a sobering reality-check on the finite nature of life.

It's been two full years since I wrapped my last show, packed up the car, then watched LA disappear in the rear-view mirror.  I really wasn't ready to go back until now, so down Interstate 5 I drove, through the long stretch of agricultural flatlands, then up, over, and down the Grapevine into the LA Basin.  My first stop was to walk around the old neighborhood, past my old apartment -- once "home," now an empty, fenced-off property posted with stern "No Trespassing!" signs, along with a multi-color announcement out front declaring that a much bigger and vastly more expensive multi-story apartment building would soon occupy the space.

The only constant is change.

I had dinner with old friends, lunches with former co-workers - some retired, others still working - and at long last sat down for a martini and a fabulous meal at Taylor's Steakhouse (no relation, unfortunately), a dinner I'd meant to enjoy, but never got around to all during my four decades living in LA.  The Uber ride home was memorable, the driver an ebullient Mexican immigrant who serenaded us with mariachi songs all the way back to the apartment where I was staying.  If not for the martini and wine, I might not have fully appreciated this, but sufficient libation can turn what might otherwise have been an ordeal into something fun, underlining the astonishingly diverse population of the modern Rome, Los Angeles.

My brief three day visit was all good, as the saying goes -- very good, actually -- but returning to the CBS Radford Studio might have been the most satisfying experience of the trip.  I spent most of the last fifteen years of my career helping to light shows on that lot, working on every one of those eighteen sound stages. Change has come to Radford as well, of course. There are now ten charging stations for electric cars on the top floor of the six-story main parking structure, enabling me to get a free 240 volt fill-up while I walked around the lot.

Hey, not all change is bad.

After doing time at Paramount, Sony, Warner Brothers, and Universal, working at Radford - a much smaller, friendlier studio - was a revelation.  Until then, I never felt that I had a "home lot," and made a serious effort to stay there as long as possible.  An itinerant film worker goes where the employment winds blow, and although I took an occasional pilot or show at other studios, I always came back to Radford.

And so I returned again, taking the parking structure stairs all the way down past the Radford Horse, across Gunsmoke Avenue and up Gilligan's Island Road past Stages 2 and 3, on around Stage 9 and down Republic Avenue to Stage 14, where I spent several years grinding out more than a hundred episodes of Melissa & Joey.  There I ran into a Key Grip and Best Boy I'd worked with many times, who were in the midst of one of the last pilots of the spring season.  We talked a while, then I continued on to Stage 10, 12, and 15, past the special effects shop and mill, and finally to the lamp dock, where half a dozen familiar faces awaited.  We shook hands, slapped backs, and traded stories for a while, then I went to lunch at the studio commissary with the Best Boy of my last show.

It felt warm, it felt good -- it felt like I'd come home.

This wasn't something like The Swimmer, an interesting but bizarre movie starring Burt Lancaster from the late 60's -- I wasn't searching for some ineffable mystery from bygone days.  Maybe that'll come in twenty or thirty years, should I be unlucky enough to wind up in the living-death embrace of dementia, but this was just a welcome stroll through the recent past.

It was exactly what I needed right now: a reminder of who I once was, and who I am now.

On the way back to my host's apartment, I made one last stop down a quiet street behind a Trader Joe's.  There, still living on the same patch of tired grass under a pine tree, was a homeless man I'd gotten to know over the last fifteen years.  I used to bring him cold bottles of water and Gatorade  during the sweltering summer months, and occasionally delivered a burger, fries, and a coke from the nearby Astro Burger. When he seemed to need it, I'd give him a few dollars, but in all that time he only asked for money once. "Keith" was -- and remains -- an articulate, engaging, observant guy.  He's also bi-polar, I suspect, or afflicted with some other mental instability that precludes him from joining the mainstream of society.  I'd stopped to say goodbye when I left LA two years ago, but he was gone at the time, and now I wondered if he'd still be there, if he'd even remember me -- and in that case, what his reaction might be.

He was folding up a blanket as I approached. He turned and saw me, then grinned.

"Mike Taylor, where the HELL have you been?" he said.

After a handshake and a hug, I explained my absence, then we had the usual wide-ranging discussion  about the state of Hollywood, America, and the world, as if no time at all had passed. He'd lost a few more teeth in those two years, but otherwise looked okay.  As always, the conversation wound up with him repeating his mantra that "All the world needs is peace, love, and understanding."

I couldn't argue with that.

When it was time to go, I slipped him a twenty dollar bill -- which he discreetly pocketed without inspecting -- then wished him well.  As I drove away, it hit me that he really wasn't "homeless" at all -- his home was that patch of grass under the tree, and if such a tenuous arrangement doesn't comport with my own middle-class notions of stability, safety, and "home," well, that's my issue, not his.

Then came the familiar drive north, over the Grapevine and through the valley back to the Home Planet, where the spring rituals of weed-whacking and spring planting awaited. I-5 is a good place to let the mind wander, and there was much to think about on that long drive. Although I wasn't able to see everyone on my list, I'll get to them at some point -- this wasn't the last time I'll head south.

LA is still a great place to visit, even if I wouldn't want to live there anymore.