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 4, 2021

You Can Get It ...

                                                  ... if you really want.

As I wander through the dusty archives searching for posts worth including in the book, certain patterns  emerge, the most prevalent being me bitching about how hard the freelance life can be in the film and television industry ... and it occurs to me that I may have leaned on that horn a bit too much. Sure it's hard, but as my dad used to say: "Nothing worth doing in life comes easy." Besides, nobody forced any of us to tilt at the windmills of Hollywood -- that was our decision, and having chosen this Procrustean Bed, here we must sleep.

Another recurrent theme in those old posts concerns the difficulty of grasping the brass ring of your own cinematic dream, whatever it may be. You want to be screenwriter, director, or DP?  Great - go for it - but understand that you'll be competing against thousands of other young, ambitious, talented wannabes, so you'd better have a Plan B in your back pocket ... and maybe a Plan C, just in case. 

That's all true, as far as it goes, but it doesn't go very far -- and more to the point, it dwells on the negative.  As the Indigo Girls put it, in impeccably astute lyrics:  

"Darkness has a hunger that's insatiable, and lightness has a call that's hard to hear."

So I'll back off on the darkness for a moment to look on the bright side, because a dream really can come true if you want it badly enough, possess the requisite talent, and are willing to work hard for as long as it takes. It won't happen overnight, but it can happen. In the immortal words of Jimmy Cliff:

"You can get it if you really want, but you must try, try and try, try and try, 'til you succeed at last."

I was reminded of this by an e-mail that recently dropped in out of the blue from a young man I first heard from shortly after this blog hit the wilds of cyberspace. Back then, "Tom" (a name of convenience to preserve his anonymity) wrote asking if he should finish film school or drop out to plunge head-first into the film industry and push towards his dream of becoming a DP.  

This wasn't a comfortable question for me to answer, for a number of reasons. I didn't go to a real film school, and thus had no idea what it's like to go through a dedicated film program like those offered at UCLA, USC, NYU, or any other big name university. My school didn't even offer a Theater Arts major, so I was left earning a catch-all degree in -- drum-roll, please -- "Aesthetic Studies." 

No, I'm not kidding -- and yes, you may now laugh as long and hard as you'd like.

I arrived in Hollywood highly motivated if not particularly ambitious, ready and eager to work hard at whatever film jobs I could find, but with no particular goal in mind. I just wanted to get my foot in the door and see what Hollywood had to offer. When asked what I wanted to do, my standard reply was "camera department," but there wasn't much drive behind that, and the more I saw of what camera assistants actually did on set, the less desire I felt to join them. One thing led to another, and after a couple of years toiling as a griptrician, I settled on set lighting, where I slowly worked my way up from juicer to Best Boy to Gaffer, and then -- when circumstance again intervened -- back to juicer again. Other than suffering a painfully bad back from lifting all that absurdly heavy lighting gear over the years, I have no regrets about my career choice. It wasn't all fun, but enough of it was.

In a long and rambling reply to Tom's question, I listed the pros and cons as I saw them of remaining in school vs. jumping straight into the industry, but ended up admitting I didn't really know what he should do. This was a decision only he could make. 

Here's part of his response at the time:

"I will be thinking long and hard about whether or not school is for me.  It's currently a toss up as I'm enjoying the people I'm meeting and the projects I've been working on, however I feel like what I'm learning in class is not worth the huge tuition I'm paying ($20,000+/year).  Only time will tell."*

That was the end of our communication, and I forgot all about it until the following e-mail arrived a few weeks ago.  Fortunately, he included our previous correspondence from way back then, without which I'm not sure I'd have remembered any of this.

"Michael, below you’ll find an email exchange between us from 14 years ago. I stumbled across it today by accident and was immediately transported back to my cheap apartment in Chicago, pre-economic collapse, feeling lost in the city (and in life), wondering if I would ever get to work in the movie biz. Well, things have turned out interestingly and I have to believe that your words helped shape my journey."

"If you read back you’ll see an anecdote you wrote about a DP that you enjoyed working with. One who came up through the ranks and learned the craft, something that stood out in sharp contrast to another DP who started shooting straight out of school. Well that must have struck a chord with me because shortly after this, in mid-2008, the film incentives were passed in my home state. I moved back and got my first job as a grip on a very small feature. As luck had it, it was an ultra-low IA contract that no locals wanted to touch so I ended up getting most of my required days. One job led to another and before I turned 20, I was in the local, making movies."

"I learned a lot of hard lessons and oftentimes felt like an under-aged fish out of water, but I was living the dream. I was reminded very quickly just how brutal this dream could be when, after a 21hr day, I fell asleep at the wheel and crashed into a telephone pole. Thankfully I walked away unscathed and the city never charged me for the pole, but that told me a lot about the business I was in. Still, I was committed and became addicted to learning as much as I could."

"Turns out I had a knack for being a dolly drip. I loved it and for the following years I pushed dolly on everything from low budget commercials to a $200mm Disney feature. I  had the privilege of learning from some of the best dolly grips, techno techs, operators and DPs in the business. It was truly the greatest film school I could have asked for. The whole time I was still shooting hip hop videos and short films on the side. Around then I met a girl who was working as a stand-in. We dated for a few years, eventually got engaged and are now happily married with 2 kids. I transitioned out of gripping and into operating and in 2011 joined 600."

"Eventually a new governor took office and the incentives disappeared. I was called with opportunities to push dolly in Atlanta, New Orleans, and LA but decided to stay and hit the reset button. I got in with the Filmotechnic Russian Arm guys, and swung the arm around part-time while starting a business (nothing to do with the industry, but another great learning experience). After three or four years, the urge to go back to film full-time was too strong. I left my business and began to shoot more and more, getting into the automotive market with the help of my producer contacts. I began to make a name for myself as a “car-guy,” but kept shooting narrative whenever I could, and eventually won an Emerging Cinematographer Award through Local 600. After that win I was taken more seriously and my career benefited. I got my first agent and started traveling more.  I’ve been all over the country, to the Caribbean, Europe, the Middle East - places I never thought I’d get paid to go. It’s been a blast (mostly) and I’ve been very fortunate."

"I achieved a huge goal: to make a living as a DP, something I'd dreamed about since I was thirteen years old. Not only that, I’m also able support my family doing so. I’m very lucky. It was an interesting road getting here, filled with many unseen bends and dips, but it’s been great, and I just want to say thank you for taking the time to respond in such a heartfelt way all those years ago. It meant a lot then and it means even more now."

I've always tried to answer questions from readers honestly, underlining the difficulties of working in the film industry without throwing too much cold water on their hopes, so it's gratifying to hear from a reader who took heart from this blog and/or our e-mail exchanges -- but a few encouraging words don't mean much unless you're ready to do the work required to turn a dream into reality. Tom put his head down and did it, taking crappy low-money gigs to get his union card, then working his way up without the golden-handshake contacts that help a few lucky newbies get ahead. In taking the school-of-hard-knocks road (what I like to call The Joe Frazier School of Higher Education), he acquired a wide spectrum of practical, on-set experience -- good and bad -- all of which contributed to his eventual success in becoming a DP. Despite the difficulties, obstacles, and competition, he made it happen -- and if Tom did it, why not you?  Everyone's circumstances are different, and a lot depends on where you live and the state of the industry at any given time, but if you have what it takes, your cinematic dreams really can come true. You just have to want it badly enough.

 If that's you, then go for it -- and don't stop 'til you get there.

* That would be at least $25,000+ in today's money, and probably a lot more.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Ahem...

                                     That's one way to change a light bulb 

We all miss a deadline from time to time, and this is my turn.  I've got a couple of posts in the works, but nothing remotely ready to go for March, so ... here's nothing.  As my official excuse, I'll offer that February is the shortest month of the year, but the truth is I've been putting more effort into the book lately (if I don't, it'll never get done) which doesn't leave as much time or energy for the blog.  With any luck, I'll have something ready for April, but until then -- and apropos of nothing at all -- here's a fox who recently emerged from the woods to take possession of my director's chair.  

 If he starts demanding craft service, I'll be in a world of trouble.


PS:  For reasons I'll never understand, this post went up today -- NOT on Sunday the 28th, as scheduled.  Might have been my mistake, or maybe the Blogger software fucked up. Either is equally likely, but I suppose the "why" doesn't matter now.  Still, if any of you have bothered to read this far, there's one bit of good news:  Peggy Archer put up a fresh post over at Totally Unauthorized last night, so you ought to click on over to read it.


What Was it Like?

 


There's a saying I used to hear in Hollywood from time to time: "It's just as hard to make a good movie as it is to make a bad one, so let's make a good one." The logic, facile though it is, almost sounds reasonable. Given the colossal expense and massive human effort required to make any movie, why not make it good?  Alas, the film industry doesn't work that way. Sturgeon's Law decrees that "Ninety percent of everything is crap," and this is certainly true in Hollywood. It's not that the writers, producers, or director of any project consciously set out to make a bad movie, but it's just hard to make a good one.*  The script, budget, casting, direction, editing, soundtrack -- and sometimes even the weather -- has to be right (or go wrong in extremely fortuitous ways) to result in a good movie, which is one reason the list of classic films isn't very long. To quote Chief Dan George in Little Big Man: "Sometimes the magic works, and sometimes it doesn't."  

In Hollywood, it's mostly the latter.

I've always wondered what it would be like to work on one of the legendary classics: Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Maltese Falcon, Citizen Kane, Touch of Evil, Casablanca, The Wild Bunch, Chinatown, The French Connection, or Blade Runner.  We all have our favorites -- your mileage will certainly vary -- but these are a few of mine. Was there a feeling among the cast and crew of those films that they were blessed to be working on something truly special, or was it just another job with long hours, difficult working conditions, and never enough sleep?

I'll never know. The only truly good movie I worked on was The Fifth Element, and although a fun, entertaining film, it hardly qualifies as "classic."  One other (Heart of Dixie) turned out reasonably well in a low-budget, workmanlike manner, but the rest of features I did were destined for that ninetieth percentile cinematic sewer so aptly described by Theodore Sturgeon.

Here in the Covid lockdown, I've been reading bit -- a few books hot off the presses, along with older tomes pulled down from shelves where they've been quietly collecting dust. Among the former is The Big Goodbye, which describes the torturous journey of the 1973 classic Chinatown from the first stirrings of an idea between the ears of Robert Towne, all the way through the writing, re-writing, production, and post-production process.** It's a story of personality clashes, ego battles, substance abuse, and good intentions crashing against the unyielding rocks of reality,-- a struggle from start to finish in which the energy and imagination of several smart, talented people came together in something like a relay race, each carrying the creative baton until pushed to exhaustion, then handing it off to the next. At any number of junctures -- including the very end, when all was complete except for the sound track -- Chinatown could have gone off the rails.  That it didn't is a testament to the value of a rough-and-tumble collaborative process, but it sure as hell wasn't easy. Tempers flared, expletives were exchanged, and relationships fractured. At one time or another, bad decisions were made by each of the major players in the drama -- Robert Towne, Bob Evans, and Roman Polanski -- decisions that could have ruined the film as we know it. During a particularly stressful moment on set, Faye Dunaway reportedly threw a cup of fresh, warm urine directly into Polanski's face. With tensions like that, it's hard to imagine the movie could even get finished, let alone be any good ... but Chinatown emerged from that cauldron of chaos as a true classic of Hollywood.

The Big Goodbye is a terrific read. If you want to wait a few months to save some money buying a used copy, fine -- but don't let this one pass you by.


Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock 'n' Roll Generation saved Hollywood sat on my bookshelf for twenty years before I retired and finally had time to crack it.  At 439 pages, it's a long but entertaining and rewarding read. As this review/interview puts it, the book is "a rollicking gossip-propelled magic-carpet ride through the heady days of the ‘70s," and if there's a bit more who-was-fucking-who-and-snorting-what tabloid prattle than I care for, the essence of Peter Biskind's stories resonate with the ring of truth. Still, as Roger Ebert put it: "Biskind has a way of massaging his stories to suit his agenda."

Consider this, the opening of Chapter Seven, titled "Sympathy for the Devil: How bad boy William  Friedkin made The Exorcist, joined Coppola and Bogdanovich in The Directors Company trying to take over the world, while Altman got himself in trouble."

“On December 8, 1969, a scant four months after the Manson murders, twenty-three miles east of San Francisco at the Altamont Speedway in the white trash town of Livermore, Alameda County, 400,000-plus long-haired flower children gathered on a chilly fall afternoon to hear the Rolling Stones in the West Coast’s answer to Woodstock.  Security was augmented by a couple of hundred Hells Angels, who were accustomed to performing such chores for Bay Area bands like the Grateful Dead in exchange for free beer. They came rolling in on their loud chrome Harleys like squat toads atop gleaming steel, accompanied by the loud thrum of the three-stroke engines and the smell of gasoline.”

Hollywood wasn't even on my radar in 1969, so I can't argue with Biskind's tales of film industry intrigue back then -- but I was at the infamous Altamont concert, which took place on Dec. 6, not Dec. 8.  The event was staged in the Altamont Pass, fifteen miles east of Livermore, past a high ridge of rolling hills that separate the town from the San Joaquin Valley. Livermore was (and is) far from the smug urban sophistication of San Francisco, and at the time had a population just under forty-thousand, 97% of them white, but that didn't - and doesn't - make it a "white trash town." The phrase packs an edgy, alliterative punch, but it's a low blow. As for the crowd that day, every media report I've seen and heard put it at 300,000 (a rough estimate, since I certainly wasn't counting heads), not 400,000. A large cohort of Hells Angles was indeed paid with beer to keep people off the stage, and at one point as I waded through the crowd past a yellow bus occupied by several of the bikers, one Angle noticed that I was carrying a motorcycle helmet, and threw me a can of beer.  They rode loud Harleys, all right, but these iconic motorcycles are powered by four-stroke engines -- and if this sounds like a minor quibble, remember that there are no motorcycles, Harley or otherwise, that use a '"three-stroke engine." Although a patent for a three-stroke motor was issued in 1995, more than twenty-five years after Altamont, God knows if it was ever manufactured. As for "the smell of gasoline," well, there was a lot of dope smoke drifting around the crowd that day, so it must have overpowered the reek of gas.

Ahem ... okay, I didn't mean to drag you all into the swamps of digression here, but since I rode my own four-stroke motorcycle (a Honda 305 Superhawk, for what it's worth) to Altamont on that chilly December day, and stayed from the hopeful beginnings to the bloody finish, I feel compelled to push back on someone who writes about as if he was there, but clearly wasn't. Not counting his white-trashing of Livermore, Biskind makes four factual errors in three sentences, which undermines the credibility of this book, laden as it is with footnotes that allow many of those named in the narrative to dispute what actually happened as reported by others. 

Despite these quibbles, Easy Riders/Raging Bulls is a fascinating read that captures the drama of a power struggle as the old order of Hollywood crumbled before the assault of a younger generation that had their own ideas about what movies should be. Biskind is adept at describing the ugliness that so often accompanies talent and success, and as he tells it, each of those legendary directors -- Friedkin, Bogdonavich, Scorcese, Ashby, Rafelson, Coppola, Lucas, Altman, Polanski, Schrader, and Spielberg -- was at times a complete asshole, driven as many of them were by fear, insecurities, dysfunctional personalities, overindulgence in drugs, and egos that inflated exponentially with each box office hit. Making movies is a difficult endeavor under the best of circumstances, but these young self-styled auteurs were swimming upstream against a sclerotic Hollywood system that had no clue how much American society and culture had changed while it had been busy making the usual star-driven epics.  The films this younger generation wanted to shoot made no sense to the crusty studio heads or the veteran crews on set, all of whom were accustomed to the old ways of working. Given the tectonic stresses involved, there's no way these movies could be made in a calm, orderly manner -- and they weren't. After wrapping principle photography on the first Star Wars in London, an unhappy shoot from start to finish, George Lucas said this:

"I realized why directors are such horrible people, because you want things to be right, and people will just not listen to you, and there is no time to be nice, to be delicate. I spent all my time yelling and screaming at people."

 

                                          George was not having fun.

Biskind's account details the difficulties all these young directors faced in ushering their films from idea to screen -- The Godfather, The Exorcist,  McAbe and Mrs. Miller, Shampoo, Chinatown, Star Wars, and Jaws (which, according to his book, the on-set crew referred to as "Flaws"), and how terrified they were that the movies would flop, nipping their careers in the bud. Peter Biskind deserves enormous credit for collecting and collating all the material here, which required enormous effort, patience, and determination -- and despite an occasional indulgence in purple prose, he's an excellent writer. You should take Easy Riders/Raging Bulls for what it is: the story of a revolution in Hollywood that changed everything about the movie business and paved the way for the film industry of today, for better or worse. ***  Maybe it plays a bit loose with the facts here and there, but it's a fun, occasionally jaw-dropping, highly entertaining read. History is often written by people who weren't there, through the 20:20 lens of remembered hindsight, so read it with a grain or two of salt -- but read it.  

After finishing both these books, it's clear to me what I should have known all along: working on the set of any movie, be it a future bomb or classic, is just that -- work -- and nothing like the naive, gauzy notions I'd harbored while falling in love with movies in school. The crews on those shows doubtless felt much as I did while working on so many forgettable projects: first and foremost, each was a job for which they got paid, enduring long days of hurry-up-and-wait tedium spiked with sieges of very hard work, their spirits maintained primarily by the black humor every good crew employs to get through an ordeal. When you're sitting on an apple box at 3:00 in the morning, dog-tired and staring at your boots while praying for the A.D. to call wrap, the "magic" of Hollywood is as cold and distant as the dark side of the moon. If the movie flops, so what? So long as the paychecks don't bounce, you're okay. Besides, by the time this one is in post-production, you'll be on another job that's just as much -- and maybe more -- of a grind, and if history later anoints either movie as a "classic film," great. That and five dollars will buy you a small cup of Starbuck's finest.

That much, I understand, and feel in my bones to be true ... but still, a part of me wishes I'd had a chance to work on one of those classics. Some dreams never die, no matter how harsh a light we shine on them.

Maybe in the next life.

 

* Other than the fictional producers of The Producers, of course -- and yes, I know it's about a play, not a movie...

** For everything you might want to know about the book and the movie -- and then some -- click here.

*** Mostly the latter. Jaws and Star Wars opened Hollywood's eyes as to how much money a big movie can bring in, and now all we seem to have is an endless succession of brain-dead, CGI-laden comic-book  movies.  



Sunday, January 3, 2021

The New Year


                                        Just blow 2020 away ... please.

                                             Photo by Mike Murray 

 

Good riddance to the worst year we've been forced to endure in a long, long time: a true annus horribilis, twelve long months that took and took and took like a Black Hole, giving back nothing.  Some bean counter at the keyboard of a supercomputer could doubtless tally our individual and collective losses in 2020, but I can't -- all I know is that we've lost a lot, in every way, that we'll never get back. Yes, we'll crawl through this long dark tunnel eventually, and things will get better, but I don't think they -- or we -- will ever truly be the same.

Ten years ago, on Jan 2, 2011, my lead-off post for the New Year began like this:

"It’s New Year’s Eve as I sit here at the keyboard — yeah, I’m a real party animal, all right — at the end of another year, this one closing the books on our first decade of this brand new millennium. All in all, it has not been an auspicious start to the next thousand years: our country mired in two wars, grinding though an ugly and seemingly endless recession while split by an apparently unbridgeable political divide that has both sides screaming at each other across the widening chasm.  I don’t know about you, but I can’t see much light at the end of any of those tunnels.  These may not be the worst of times, but they sure as hell aren’t the best."

A few things have changed since then -- the stock market is way up while our participation in those wars has dialed down, but the bloodshed overseas continues, driving an outflow of refugees that has helped spark the rise of authoritarian regimes across the globe. Our domestic political divide has only worsened, generating levels of vitriol our country hasn't experienced since the 1960s -- or maybe the 1860s, which is not an era we want to emulate. The rotten cherry atop this Shit Sundae was the arrival of Covid, the New Plague that has thus far killed nearly 350,000 Americans while turning life as we knew it upside-down and inside-out. Now, as ten years ago, there's a shocking number of unemployed and homeless people in America, ... so are these finally the worst of times?

I don't know, but let's hope so, because the only way to go will be up.  I sure as hell don't want things to get any worse.

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

One of the last movies I saw in 2020 was Never Cry Wolf, which arrived in the mail courtesy of Netflix last week.  Being something of a Luddite, I still watch a lot on DVDs, although I stream as well - but the offerings on streaming services are limited, and I have zero interest in the last twenty years worth of Hollywood's tent-pole superhero movies. I'm not being critical here -- we like what we like, and to each his/her own -- but the only superhero offering I'm willing to watch is The Boys, on Amazon, which approaches the genre from a much more interesting perspective than all those $200 million Spiderman, Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Iron Man, Thor (among too many others) cinematic spectaculars. 

Never Cry Wolf was released in 1983, and could hardly be more different from the products of today's Hollywood. It's not a great film, but I liked it well enough, and Charles Martin Smith deserves credit for committing to a difficult role in a very big way.  His task wasn't quite so daunting as working on The Revenant, but running around the Alaskan tundra chasing caribou and wolves while wearing absolutely nothing but a pair of boots is not for the faint of heart, thespian or civilian. 

I was curious about this movie for one reason -- a grip I used to work with on commercials back in the day was a member of the first unit filming crew on Never Cry Wolf, and told me a story I never forgot.  While filming that caribou sequence, the wranglers were having a hard time controlling the herd as the lunch break approached. No matter what they tried, they just couldn't get the caribou into a corral built to hold the big animals during breaks in the filming, so they finally gave and joined the rest the crew at lunch. Meanwhile, a pair of young Inuit men were quietly watching from a distance, saying nothing, but when the wranglers and crew returned to set, they found every one of those caribou waiting patiently in the corral.  

Any number of lessons can be drawn from this story, but to me it underlines the importance of letting the real experts -- people who actually know what they're doing -- handle things rather than allowing outsiders to come in and flail away at great cost to all concerned.  It's a lesson that applies across the boards, from Hollywood to Washington DC.  

If only we'd learn it.

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

I didn't see It's a Wonderful Life until I was in college, and it blew me away. Granted, I'm a sucker for what the industry wags back in the day called "Capra-corn," but it's undeniable that Frank Capra made some terrific movies.  IAWL was his first post-war effort, and although several of Capra's previous films were more popular -- and won Oscars -- none were better than the Jimmy Stewart/Donna Reed Christmas classic. Here's a fascinating piece on the film by Kim Morgan, writing for the New Beverly Cinema website, dissecting the real horror at the center of the film, which turns out to be a lot more than just another feel-good holiday movie. But if the ending of IAWL leaves you uneasy because the evil Mr. Potter is never brought to justice, here's something to scratch that itch.

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

The Covid plague continues to escalate, affecting production in Hollywood and beyond. Numerous studios, televisions shows, and feature films have had to halt production for days or weeks due to positive tests, and given the current surge of cases here in California (and particularly in LA), the situation seems likely to get worse before it gets better. You've doubtless heard -- or heard about -- the instantly infamous outburst by Tom Cruise on the set of the latest Mission Impossible production, in which he minced no words.

Having worked for a few screamers over the years, I don't have much  patience for anybody who yells at the crew, especially actors.  I certainly didn't like it when a DP, Gaffer, or Best Boy yelled at me, but that happened within my department.  Sometimes you just have to roll with it and move on -- but if a juicer would be way out of line yelling at an actor (which would probably get that juicer fired), neither does an actor have any business yelling at the crew. Still, we're living through uniquely perilous times in personal and professional terms these days, so in this case, I'm okay with it. I don't like that Cruise yelled at those guys, but I like it even less that it seems he had to.

Granted, I wasn't there, so all I know is what's been reported in the media, but unless they got it all wrong, Cruise berated two crew members for violating the Covid safety protocols, insisting that the livelihoods of so many people depend on that film and other shows currently in production. I'm not a big fan of Cruise, but he wasn't wrong. This industry really was locked down solid for six months by the virus, throwing many thousands out of work, and is only now beginning to come back to life.  Wearing masks and keeping your distance is the only way our business can continue until the vaccines are widely distributed, and that's not going to happen overnight. If backing up Tom Cruise in this one instance makes me an "I said it was wrong then, but now say it's okay" hypocrite, well, so be it -- go ahead and lob stones at this glass house of mine. None of us are perfect, nor is the world in which we live.


Meanwhile, here's a piece on how one show is dealing with the reality of filming during the plague, and another on how/why the industry will be doing so for a while.  But at least 2020 is now growing ever-smaller in our collective rear-view mirror, and for that we can all be grateful.  

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

Despite -- or maybe because of -- this ugly year, I don't want to leave on a negative note. Some of you might recall the name J.R. Helton, author of Below the Line, the seminal film industry book first published twenty-five years ago. If you've never read it, you should definitely seek it out. Helton has published several more books since -- each very different, all of them good -- and is now rolling out a podcast one chapter at a time, called Man and Beast: A Love Story.  It's not about the film industry, but deals with the gritty reality of a life far from the glitz and grime of Hollywood.  I tuned in last week, and was riveted.  Helton has a great voice for podcasting, while the spare, lyrical production deftly matches the tone of his story.  It's all true, of course, with names changed to protect innocent and guilty alike, as J.R. continues to mine the ore of his own all-too interesting life, then refine it into literary gold. Anybody who's tried this knows how hard that really is, but like every true master of his craft, Helton makes it look easy.  The price is right (ahem: free), so check it out.

Taking a cue from Helton, I've been excavating my past in the form of the long-promised BS&T book, which is coming along.  I've re-written eighty or so of those old posts, and although much remains to be done, am determined to finish the damned thing in 2021. With any luck (assuming I survive the virus), it'll be ready to print by the end of this year, and sooner if possible.  Immersing myself in all this ancient personal history is a strange endeavor, attempting to move forward by reliving events that took place from five to forty years ago. In some ways it feels like all this happened just yesterday, but then I look in the mirror and am reminded otherwise ... which brings to mind one of the most famous lines in American literature:  

"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."** 

Yep - that's me on that boat, rowing as hard as I can.

Finally, a few moments of zen in the form of Room Tone, courtesy of Evan Luzzi over at The Black and Blue.

I wish each and every one of you a happy, healthy, and prosperous new year. 

 

* Wonderfully played by Lionel Barrymore.

** The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

 

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Just for the Hell of It: Episode 62


                             The Searchers, directed by John Ford
                                        Bronson Canyon, of course - again.

Well, it's been an interesting month, hasn't it?  Other than the election -- and I think we've all heard quite enough about that by now -- the only actual news is that Hollywood was so busy in early November that my union was hiring permits, which means every able-bodied, dues-paying member of Local 728 was employed or for some reason unwilling to work.  Film and television production are not affected by the current Stay at Home Order in Los Angeles, since it's considered an "essential service."  I'm not so sure about that "essential" designation, but after six months of shutdown, people are very happy to be back on the job again, and although positive tests continue to pop up here and there (many of which shut down their shows for a while, then turned out to be false positives), the Covid safety protocols seem to be reasonably effective.  

There's always room for the absurd in Hollywood, of course, as reported by the O. G. Queen of Industry Bloggers, Ms. Peggy Archer. Although Totally Unauthorized has been quiet for a while, she's active on Twitter, where the following missive and photo recently posted:


"Apparently, a show in New Orleans had a party-related Covid outbreak, and the studio brass dressed all the producers down. Our department was issued 6 foot sticks."



Whether these sticks are to be used as weapons to fend off anti-masker Covid-deniers, to measure and maintain the requisite six feet between crew members, or simply to serve as (ahem) "pointed" reminders to keep your distance, is unclear. 


Producers. Can't live with 'em, and can't live without 'em. 


Meanwhile, the virus has brought new job classifications on set: the Covid Manager and Covid Compliance Officer, tasked with making sure the cast and crew are following proper safety protocols.  In this episode of KCRW's The Businessa production supervisor-turned-Covid Manager discusses the trials and tribulations of her new gig. Until listening to this, I'd only considered how Covid has impacted the lighting, grip, and camera departments, all of whom have to wear face shields and masks on set -- which is bad enough -- but she discusses how tough the protocols are on the hair, makeup, and wardrobe departments, whose extremely close contact with unprotected actors requires them to wear maximum coverage Covid suits.  Imagine doing that while working long day exterior shoots in the summer in Hollywood, Atlanta, New Orleans, or New York.  


No thanks. I tip my cap to those people, who can't be having much fun on set these days.


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Most of you who've been checking in here for a while now are familiar with this account of a stunt gone bad, but here's another story about a stuntman who made a big mistake when he jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge as a camera rolled. Although I grew up in the SF Bay Area, and returned in retirement, I'd never heard of this until very recently.  If there's a lesson here, I suppose it's that desperate people do desperate things -- and acts of desperation don't often end well.

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This hosting platform - Blogger - continues to find new ways to piss me off. As you've probably noticed, the formatting often changes without warning - double-spacing here, single-spacing there - and the font sizes can vary from paragraph to paragraph. Some of those flaws are fixable, others still mystify me. Blogger "upgraded" the site a few months ago, which led to weeks of confusion as I tried (and often failed) to re-learn how to do things that were accomplished with ease before the "upgrade." Why is it that these digital entities seem compelled to "fix" things that weren't broken, and in the process drive their customers up the fucking wall? 


Don't bother trying to answer that rhetorical question. So it goes in modern life, where it -- whatever "it" may be -- just is what it is.


I thought I had things more or less sussed out, but now Blogger suddenly won't allow me to post the photo of a book here ... so fuck it -- I'll just send you to an NPR review of that book, which is probably just as well. Now I don't have to sit here for thirty minutes coming up with an apt description of a wonderfully entertaining book that if you haven't yet read, should definitely go on Santa's gift list to leave under your tree at Xmas.


My Lunches with Orson is an edited transcript from a series of lunchtime conversations between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles in the last years of his life, during which they discussed a wide spectrum of subjects. Welles is rightly regarded as the great tragic genius of Hollywood, a man whose brilliance is unquestioned, but whose artistic temperament and refusal to crank out formulaic crowd-pleasers kept him at odds with the studios for most of his career. Citizen Kane is generally regarded as one of, if not the, greatest films ever made, and although I'm not a fan of such lists, I can't argue with that.  My own personal favorite of Welles has always been Lady from Shanghai, but that's just me. Your mileage, as the saying goes, may vary.


I only saw Welles once, a fleeting glimpse while heading into the Hollywood office of the EDD to file for unemployment -- an experience described here.  In this interview, Welles discusses Touch of Evil, another of his classics, and if you still want more, here's a longer conversation with the man.


But seriously -- get your hands on a copy of My Lunches with Orson. You'll be glad you did.


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With the passing of Sean Connery, another cinematic icon of my youth has departed the earthly realm for whatever comes next.  You no doubt read/heard all about him in the past few weeks, but this obit from the BBC is a good one, and might be worth your time. Our modern movie stars are very popular, but they really don't make 'em like they used to, and for his type of roles, Sean Connery pretty much broke the mold.


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We take the Steadicam for granted these days, having forgotten what a truly revolutionary device it really was. For many of you, it's always been in the cinematic toolbox, but there were no Steadicams fifty years ago, and those of us with a few more years weighing down our shoulders remember the impact of Garret Brown's creation when it hit Hollywood. The first Steadicam footage I saw back in the day pretty much blew my mind, and here you can see some of the early tests of his prototype from 1974, which demonstrated what a quantum leap it represented. 


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From time to time I get requests to promote a product or service related to the film industry, and another such missive rolled in the other day. Having no way of knowing how legit these things are, I usually ignore them.  BS&T was started for the sole purpose of sharing my experiences and offering my perspective on the industry. I've refused every offer to "monetize" this website over the years, and am not about to start now, nor will I lead you astray by recommending a service I don't know anything about.  


With that caveat, The Mercury Report might be worth a look for those of you still trying to get your career in gear. In their words:


"The Mercury Production Report is a digital resource for actors, crew and vendors with a list of film, television or new media projects emailed weekly; projects are in hiring phases of production (pre-production or development), with most projects in the USA and each listed with contact information including hot links to email, websites or social media."


I asked for samples, so they sent me a few pages from the latest issue. It looks legit, with extensive listings of feature films about to begin production all over the country and beyond. It's packed with contact information (names and e-mail address) that you'd be hard pressed to uncover on your own. Given that department heads hire most of the crew on a show, and typically hire people they already know,  it seems unlikely that grips, juicers, props, set-dec, camera, hair/makeup people, and other union crew members can find work through The Mercury Report, but newbies and actors could. Some of the shows listed are non-union, which is where many of us got our start.  


At $55/month for the standard version, it's not cheap. Still, given how rough this year was on industry veterans well-connected with the job market, I can only imagine how tough it is on those still trying to get a foot in Hollywood's door. The  months leading up to November might well have some of you feeling like the protagonist of this very short film.


On that note, cheer up, kiddos. I know how ugly things look right now with Covid on the rise, the body count mounting higher with each passing day, and widespread distribution of vaccines several months away. Whatever the weather brings, we're in for a long, bleak winter, but our ancestors tell us that it's always darkest just before the dawn, and they're often right. With any luck, their wisdom will hold this time as well.  Be patient, wear your mask, stay healthy, and hang tough. 


And try have yourselves a Merry Little Christmas.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Arcs



    "Kansas" carbon arc lamp mounted on clickety-clacks, circa 1963
                        Photo courtesy of Earl R. Gilbert and Local 728


Carbon arcs running on direct current were the state of the art in BFL technology when I first walked onto a film set back in 1977.*  Although the first 4K HMI lamps had recently arrived in Hollywood from France, nothing could rival the output and quality of light produced by a carbon arc. It would be several years before reliable 12K HMIs were developed to challenge arcs, but most of the DPs I worked for -- as a juicer, Best Boy, and Gaffer -- preferred carbon arc lamps over HMIs all through the 1980's.**  

A carbon arc is essentially a giant arc welder in a can with a glass lens in front. The sheet metal, rivets, and worm gear engineering of arcs has always reminded me of steam locomotives, and the advanced industrial-age technology envisioned by Jules Verne in novels like Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. You didn't just turn on an arc and walk away, but had to actually run the damned thing. There was an art to feathering the strike, adjusting the dancing electric flame through the little red safety-glass port, and "trimming" the arc -- removing the red-hot old carbons once they'd burned down to charred nubs and replacing them with fresh rods. 



                   For another video clip demonstrating an arc in action, click here.


Plate on the side of each arc, demonstrating the proper gap between positive and negative carbons

Everything about arcs was big.  Many of the classic Brute Arc "heavy-heads" were fitted with two folding handles on each side, one for each of the four juicers required to safely mount the lamp on an equally robust molevator stand. We could get away with using 2/0 cable when running just one arc, but powering two or more meant 4/0 -- at nearly a hundred pounds per hundred foot roll, the back-breaking bane of juicers the world over. When filming at the beach, we'd pull the wheels off each molevator, then mount it on a set of miniature tank tracks called "clickety-clacks" before heading-up the arc and tying the grid to the back two legs of the stand.  The resulting rig looked like some kind of ray-guy weapon from a futuristic sci-fi movie, but clickety-clacks made our lives so much easier when working on sand. 

Heavy-heads ran like a train so long as they were properly maintained and lubricated, but as the name implied, they were heavy, and a good sized crew was required to work with them.  This wasn't an issue on big union features, but the commercials I worked on at the time had smaller crews, so we rented lightweight arc heads, which opened from the rear rather than the side. Along with running 4/0 from the genny, our morning ritual included lubing the worm gears that maintained the gap between positive and negative carbons with generous blend of kerosene and powdered graphite.  For whatever reason  -- improper maintenance, perhaps, exacerbated by the intense heat of a 225 ampere flame -- these lightweight arcs would sometimes run rough after hours of sustained use. I made a habit of opening the back of each arc between setups to allow the element to cool, and soon learned to carry spare arc elements on every job.***

                         Lightweight arc with element access from rear of lamp


Despite such issues, I really liked arcs, which could match daylight or tungsten lighting simply by switching carbons -- white for daylight, yellow for tungsten -- with no loss of light. Try that with an 18K HMI.  An arc produces a very clean light requiring minimal color correction -- most of the time we'd add a frame of Y-1, a pale yellow gel, to bring the color temperature down to 5400 Kelvin without adding any reddish tint -- and unlike modern lamps using bulbs, the point-source of an arc throws a crisp, sharp shadow. Yes, they use a lot of power and thus are not nearly as efficient as modern lamps, but carbon arcs are cool, sexy beasts in ways no HMI or LED will ever be. 

                        The King of Cool, Steve McQueen, posing with a carbon arc

The first generation of modern arcs was the 170, which used 150 amps of D.C. power, after which the need for more light brought the Brute Arc into production, burning 225 amps.  Mole Richardson eventually came out with the Titan, which reportedly consumed 350 amps, but I'm told they didn't catch on for a number of reasons. I never a saw a Titan arc on set or anywhere else.  

 In the early 80's, I worked a series of Murph 76 commercials shot on location in and around a Union 76 gas station at Dodger Stadium in Chavez Ravine. Most were daytime shoots using arcs as key and/or fill lights, but we did an all-nighter late one summer to shoot a Christmas spot using six arcs, each mounted on a set of two-high parallels.  That meant six arc operators, one for each light. Once everything was rigged and ready for filming, I sat up there running my arc all night long. 

With the gas station sprayed in a thick coat of soap bubble "snow," and bathed in cold blue light from our arcs, it was quite a sight. In the background, out of the camera's view, lay the dark outline of Dodger Stadium, silhouetted against the glittering lights of downtown LA.  It was well after midnight by the time "Murph" (the gruff, crusty Richard Slattery) finally emerged from his motor home in a stuffed red Santa suit, then staggered around that sloppy mess barking his lines. The rumor on set was that he'd been hitting the bottle pretty hard that night, but who knows? All I do know is that once dawn broke, we had to pull those big, heavy arc heads and all-steel molevators down from the parallels, lug them to the truck, then wrap what felt like miles of dirty, wet, soapy 4/0 as the hot Indian Summer sun rose in the east, beating down on us like a sledge hammer.  With our gloves, shirts, pants, and boots thoroughly soaked and utterly filthy, we then went our separate ways back home through the rush hour gridlock of LA traffic. It was an ugly end to one very long night.


                         Carbon arcs working on The Magnificent Seven, 1960

Things changed when 12K HMIs finally became reliable. We still had to run plenty of cable, but once adjusted for a given shot, a 12K could be left alone until the next setup, with no delays to "trim" an arc -- remove the burned carbons and install fresh ones.  The early LTM 12ks used 120 volt magnetic ballasts that weighed nearly three hundred pounds and were no fun at all to wrangle, but the advent of smaller, lighter ballasts powered by 208 volt (three phase) or 240 volt (single phase) A.C. brought the 12K HMIs into the mainstream of production.  Still, we needed to carefully monitor the frequency of the generator, which had to remain between 59.75 and 60.25 hertz  to avoid the dreaded "HMI flicker," which would cause the projected film to appear as though a demented camera assistant had been frantically opening and closing the iris during a shot.  In the early days of HMIs, we'd rent a plug-in digital "freak-meter" to monitor the frequency on set, but when small hand-held optical meters became available, a Best Boy or Gaffer could accurately read the frequency simply by pointing the meter at the lens of a burning HMI.  During my decade gaffing commercials, I always carried an optical freak-meter the size and weight of a pager on every job, but after a few years, flicker-free electronic ballasts came into use, turning my $400 dollar meter into a relic. 

So it goes - the only constant is change.

18K HMIs eventually became the industry's go-to BFL, putting out more light than a 12K with no real penalty in weight.  By the time 24Ks were introduced,  I was working on multi-camera sitcoms that rarely left a sound stage, so I never had a chance to work with one of these mega-BFLs.  My younger friends in Hollywood tell me that 24Ks have a relatively short bulb life, and suffered from lens-cracking issues early on, similar to those that plagued some of the first 12Ks.  If a truly massive source of light is required nowadays, the 100K or 200K SoftSun units will do the job, but for most filming needs, standard 18Ks or the 18K Arrimax -- with no fresnel lens, essentially a giant PAR lamp putting out a lot of light -- seem to be the industry standard BFL for film and television.**** 

Although carbon arcs can still be rented in Hollywood, I hadn't heard of them being used in recent years except as props in movies about movies, but as you can see in this photo, there's a big feature currently in production using several arcs and shooting on 35 mm film.  Terry Meadows at Cinepower and Light  has a number of pristine Brute arcs in stock and ready to rent, so it seems the legendary carbon arc has come full circle from set lighting workhorse to show-horse and back again.  

                                          Photo by Tommy Dangcil

Arcs will still be rare -- you won't see them on many shoots -- but they're back in use, and if that's not a great Hollywood story, I don't know what is. 


(Many thanks to Terry Meadows, Tommy Dangcil, and so many others on the 728 FB site who helped fill in the gaps of my arc knowledge.) 

 
* Do I really have to explain what "BFL" stands for?

** Some of the early 12K bulbs had a tendency to explode like a bomb, with no warning at all. This scared the crap out of everyone nearby, and caused a delay while we cleaned out the head to install a new globe -- but sometimes the fresnel lens would shatter as well, which meant replacing the entire lamp. In a business where time=money, this was not good, and is one reason many DPs and Gaffers stuck with arcs long after 12K HMIs were introduced.  

*** As this old post discussed, proper maintenance of carbon arcs was crucial.

****  I had a chance to work with an Arrimax before retiring, a day described here.  

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Just for the Hell of It: Episode 61

 

Photo by Lindha Narvaez 

I'm not a fan of awards shows. Yes, I used to watch the Oscars back in the early days of my Hollywood adventure -- particularly the year a film I worked on won -- but it wasn't long before the appeal of staring at the Toob for long hours of lugubrious, blubbering tedium faded to black. As for the Emmys, Golden Globes, and Grammys ... no. Whatever respect I might have held for the Grammys (not much, I admit) vanished like an Etch-a-Sketch turned upside-down and shaken hard when the fraudster pair known as Milli Vanilli won.

Having been there once, I totally understand why those who worked on the shows up for consideration pay close attention.  For veteran actors, an Oscar, Golden Globe, or Emmy can be the capstone on a great career, while younger thespians who grab a trophy will find themselves catapulted into the limelight, for better or worse.  I remain mystified that a large viewing audience with no direct connection to the actors, artists, or shows in contention cares enough about who wins and loses to watch any of these broadcasts, but the list of things I don't understand about Hollywood and the entertainment industry grows longer every year.  

Still, some of the writing about and reporting on these awards shows can be very good, and this year's pick comes from LA Times television critic Robert Lloyd.

The World is on Fire: Why Should We Care About the Emmys?

Here's a taste:

"This is not a normal year. The West Coast is on fire. A thousand Americans a day die from a disease much of the rest of the industrialized world has been able to keep relatively in check. There is fighting in the streets.  A television-personality politician is attempting to stay in office by creating exactly the sort of drama on which television thrives, and we are at war over things we should agree on -- like science and racism -- as we sit before our multiple screens and try to process or ignore what might be the end of democracy, locally, and of the world as we know it, globally. Screaming through one's waking hours, and even in one's sleep, does not seem in inappropriate response."

Robert Lloyd is always worth reading, but this one is particularly on point. Check it out.

The popularity of the Emmys is fading, though, and sank to new lows this year.  Some of this was doubtless due to Covid restrictions that turned what has always been a big, glittering spectacle into a glorified Zoom session, but maybe the viewing public is finally growing weary of these orgies of self-congratulation.  

Or not. Who knows?  Certainly not this rapidly aging ex-juicer.

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After several months of effort, the unions and producers in Hollywood finally managed to agree on how to handle the Covid crisis as the industry gets back to work and production resumes in earnest.  The IA seems to be serious about crews following the safety protocols, so maybe it'll work.  It won't all be smooth sailing, of course, but hopefully no more than a few bumps in the road. 

Up here in the woods, I've had a habit of calling one or another of my industry friends every Thursday, when I saddle up and ride twenty miles to a weekly Farmer's Market to load up on fresh corn, sweet ripe tomatoes, and whatever else looks good -- and where my cell phone gets four bars instead of none.  Life amid the trees is good, but there are disadvantages.  Until last week, I usually able to reach somebody in LA, because they were all at home wondering when the work bell would ring.  Now my calls go straight to voice mail, and I have a one-way conversation with a digital robot. Ah well, bad for me, good for them, and such is life.  I just hope they all manage to stay safe and healthy.

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Unlike many, if not most, of my former co-workers, I've never been much of a football fan.  Sure, I hopped on the bandwagon of my home planet Raiders and 49ers during their championship years -- both teams were fun to watch back in those seemingly innocent pre-CTE days -- but as each team eventually faltered, so did my interest. Nowadays, I tune in the Super Bowl every year (hey, it's my duty as an American) but that's about it. Still, I was aware of Gale Sayers, the astonishing slippery running back of the Chicago Bears, who once scored six touchdowns in a game against the 49ers. 

I mention this because Sayers  -- who died last week -- was portrayed in Brian's Song, a weepy 1971 television movie that I never saw. Being in my early twenties at the time, I had other things to do that were more compelling than watching TV movies, most of which sucked thanks to low budgets, punishingly fast shooting schedules, and scripts that were neutered and dumbed-down to meet the middle-of-the-road demands of the broadcast networks. 

I never thought much about the movie or the story of Brian Piccolo and Gayle Sayers, but after reading Mary McNamara's excellent piece in the LA Times this week, maybe I should have.  It might be locked behind a paywall, so here's a link she included that tells how the film came to be made in the first place -- how relative unknown Jimmy Caan landed the role of Brian Piccolo instead of major movie star Burt Reynolds, how Billy Dee Williams got the role of Gale Sayers instead of Lou Gossett, and how a simple bit of voice-over turned a rough-cut disaster into a classic that apparently still brings out the handkerchiefs fifty years later.  It's just a few minutes long, but quite a story, so do yourself a favor and check it out.

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Time for a reality check.  While scrolling through a FB group where crew people tell their stories, I came across a post asking if anybody has nightmares stemming from bad experiences on set.  As you might expect, this sparked a rash of horror stories describing film job misery -- and we've all got a few of those stories. They were entertaining to read, but this is the one that stopped me.

"My job was six straight years in Iraq and Afghanistan before I came home and stumbled into the movies. Yes, there have been moments when I got frustrated and angry, but they were short-lived and inconsequential.  A bad day on set is better than a good day over here."

The film and television industry can drive you crazy with top-down incompetence, egos on steroids, and a blithe disregard for basic human decency, but as the saying goes, "We're not curing cancer here" -- nor are we killing people, except on a really bad day.  As frustrating and exhausting as a tough day/week/month on set can be, it's better than being run like a greyhound in an Amazon distribution center, or chained to a desk under the fluorescent glow of some soulless cube farm, or toiling in the fields under a blistering sun picking crops for day wages --  and it sure as hell beats living and fighting in an active war zone, where every day on the job might be your last. The Covid restrictions and safety protocols add another dimension to the burdens of working on set, but humans are infinitely adaptable, and it'll all become part of the routine before long.*

So when things go sideways on the job, and you start wondering why the hell you got into this business in the first place, remember these words: "A bad day on set is better than a good day over there."   

Stay safe, everybody.


* Yeah, I know -- that's easy for me to say, given that I don't have to work on set anymore, but I did my time in the trenches. Your turn now.