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, July 24, 2016

The Parallax View

     And now for a boring old-guy harangue you'll doubtless ignore...

While working a long day on my home studio rigging crew several years ago, the conversation eventually meandered around to subject of age. When one of the young kids on our crew heard I was nearly 60, he slapped my back, a broad grin on his face.  

"You're almost out!" he said gleefully. "That's great!"

Well, yeah… but no. Under normal circumstances, the union allows a member to retire at age 62, but there's no point in doing so if you haven't yet accumulated enough working hours over your career to generate a decent monthly pension check -- unless you happen to be a trust-fund baby or have another fat source of income, neither of which are likely to be found among the ranks below-the-line. Anyone forced to rely solely on the tender mercies of Social Security in retirement runs the risk of spending their so-called "Golden Years" in a cardboard condo along the concrete banks of the LA River. And since I hadn't been on speaking terms with IATSE during my first fifteen years in Hollywood, I was nowhere near to qualifying for the union's full monthly retirement benefit.

I'm still not. That conversation took place more than five years ago, and although I've worked fairly steadily since then, I'd have to toil at that pace for seventeen more years to qualify for the maximum pension check -- and that, ladies and gentlemen, is out of the question.*

There comes a point of diminishing returns in every endeavor, and I'm almost there. 

That young juicer was a nice kid who meant well, but he got his union card at an early age with the help of his father, and already seemed to have assimilated his dad's attitude that reaching the end of a career is the true goal of every worker. 

I don't see it that way. Neither did Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said: "Life is a journey, not a destination," and as Hallmark-Cards corny as that sounds, I think the same is true of a working career. The adventure -- the fun -- is in slogging through the rough and tumble joys and horrors of the daily grind with your co-workers, even if that can take a while to understand.  

The end of a working life is just that -- the end -- and will come soon enough. It also marks the beginning of your post-work life, of course, but being old enough to retire means being old, and from what I've experienced thus far, that pretty much sucks. Still, it's the only game still dealing me in, so I'll just have to play those cards as best I can until the Grim Reaper finally rakes in the chips and turns out the lights.

So why am I blathering on about all this, boring the crap out of anybody still reading -- and who hasn't yet clicked over to see the latest at Shitty Rigs?

To provide some perspective, that's all, a parallax view for those of you still on the upward climb of your Hollywood journey, along with a word of advice. 

Don't get overly obsessed with your goals. Goals are just a way to measure your progress as you march down the road of life.  So long as you keep trying, you'll probably achieve some of them over the course of time -- but if and when you do grasp that brass ring, there will likely be another dangling out there just beyond your reach. And should you manage to grab that one, yet another will materialize in the ether, shiny and gleaming in the golden light of the dying day.**  

There's no end to it… until the end. Then what? 

It's all too easy to succumb to career obsession in this fear-based freelance Hollywood life of perpetual insecurity. Striving to achieve your goals is an essential part of that equation, but it can't be the only thing. Don't forget to smell the proverbial roses along the way, because the people you meet, the friends you make, and the problems you solve together at work are all part of the tapestry of your life. They're some of the blessings enjoyed by those of us who work in the film and television industry.

Pursue your goals, get better at your job, make more money, and bask in the warm glow of whatever success comes your way... but be careful not to slide into the quicksand of being dissatisfied and unhappy unless and until you've achieved those goals. Nobody can afford to ignore the future, but you don't want to dwell on the not-yet at the expense of the here-and-now.  Take a good look around every now and then to appreciate all you have and how far you've come. Enjoy the journey as it unfolds, because before you know it, everything you take for granted -- the entire backdrop against which your life has unfolded -- will begin to slip away and vanish, including the people.

And once gone, they're gone for good.

Don't worry about it if none of this makes sense to you -- it probably wouldn't have made any sense to me  when I was in my twenties, either. Since the beginning of time, the old have tried to warn the young about what's coming, but it's the nature of the the young not to listen. I certainly didn't when the oldsters wagged their bony old fingers at me back in the day... but now I see it from the other side. 

Maybe that's just how it is, how it's supposed to be -- each generation learning the hard lessons their own way, at their own pace. 

All I can add is this: time is a deceptively slippery commodity. The years pile up at an alarming rate, and one of these days in that distant-but-closer-than-you-think future, you just might find a smiling young person congratulating you on being "almost out" -- at which point you may feel the urge to warn him or her to enjoy the journey, not the destination. 

Maybe that young person will listen, maybe not -- and maybe it doesn't matter one way or the other.  

I've been gradually coming to terms with the reality that the end of my own Hollywood journey is finally in sight, and am more or less at peace with it. I'll take one more lap -- whether for another full season or just the next few weeks helping get a few new shows up and running for the Fall TV season -- then wave goodbye.  

That is all -- end of harangue. Now I'll just grab my walker, hobble to the front door, and yell at those damned kids to get off my lawn…   

*  Fuck it.  I'll get by one way or another, even if it means a diet of Ritz crackers, Alpo, and Two Buck Chuck.

** I had this post locked, loaded, and ready to go before listening to an interview with Danny McBride, who (much to my surprise) speaks rather eloquently to this very point.  It's a great interview, in which -- among other things -- McBride goes into detail discussing the process of writing his new HBO series Vice Principals...

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Fifty-Five Steps

   "Exit the Kill Zone!"

I make the climb one slow step at a time, trailing behind my two fellow juicers. They're both younger than me, of course -- one by eleven years, the other by twenty -- and I'm in no rush. Still, I'm breathing hard by the time I join them up high, where we pause for a minute to catch our breath.

Seven in the morning feels way too early to climb fifty-five steps.

The show we're about to wrap enjoyed a full season run of 22 episodes, after which the producers -- confident of a second season pick-up -- agreed to pay for a "fold and hold," whereupon the show crew cleaned up any loose ends that might present a hazard, then gathered their personal gear and walked away, fully expecting they'd be back for Season Two.

This industry seldom rewards such optimism. I've been down that dark road before, when my then-new show's first ten-episode season went so well that the "star" boldly predicted we'd have a five-year run -- and I was dumb enough to believe him. As I heard the story later, that cocky little bastard then handed the network a list of demands which included (among other things) a huge raise for himself and bringing his mother onto the show as a cast regular for the following season.* Suddenly realizing what a pocket full of trouble this little rooster really was, the network dumped our show like a hot potato, which is how a one-month fold-and-hold -- along with our "five year run" -- turned into a three-day wrap followed by a phone call to the California State Unemployment Department.**

So it goes.

It's a given that this town views any display of giddy optimism as hubris -- one of the Seven Deadly Sins -- which is why the Gods of Hollywood take such pleasure in punishing anyone so rash as to assume they're entitled to success. Unfortunately, the ensuing thunderbolt from above often results in massive collateral damage, laying waste to guilty and innocent alike. But one man's loss is another's gain in the zero-sum game of Hollywood, which is why the original crew of this show was long gone and we were about to clean up their stage.

So here we stood in the catwalks, surveying the mess they'd left -- and it was ugly.

                                 The center aisle

"I hate cable," sighed one of my fellow juicers.

I just nodded. There was no need to say anything else, because he spoke for us all.

As the mechanism that conveys electricity -- the essential juice -- to our lamps, cable is both the foundation of our livelihood and the bane of every juicer: a back-breaking, shoulder-destroying, knee-grinding, ankle-crushing necessary evil. Once in place and properly hooked up, it channels the immense quantities of power we use to light our stage and location sets, but wrangling all that cable during the rig, then wrapping it later, is a bitch, especially for those of us who aren't quite as young as we used to be.

Cable is the single worst thing about being a juicer. Manhandling BFLs is no big deal -- nobody expects you to put an 18K on a stand all by yourself -- but a juicer often has to wrangle hundred pound rolls of cable alone. Anybody can plug in a stinger to charge a producer's IPhone, but to run, power, then wrap such heavy cable takes a real juicer, and that exacts a toll. The longer you do it, the higher the price.

In the long-ago words of the late, great Jimbo: "I'm mining my body."***

He wasn't kidding.

Finally running out of reasons to procrastinate, we got to work. As always, the early stages were slow, but after a while we caught our second wind and got into a good rhythm, which is when the work really gets done.  While my two younger compadres attacked the Gordian Knot in the center aisle, I had the easier task of dealing with the danglers -- fifty and hundred-foot cables rigged over the side of the catwalks to reach the set below. I'd detach the end of each cable from the waterfall (the main power run coming up from the dimmer room), then tie it to my hand-line and slowly lower the loose cable to a juicer on the stage floor, who coiled it nice and tight as it came down. When he had it all, he'd release my rope, then snugly tie the cable wait for the next one.  Once all the danglers were down, I joined in on the center catwalk, where we freed up the cables, then wrapped them to an empty catwalk, leaving a long row to be lowered later.

This is heavy labor, but time passes quickly when you're working at a steady pace, and soon it was time for breakfast (or "coffee," as this union-mandated break is called), so down those fifty-five steps we went -- and after twenty minutes in the commissary, it was back up high to continue the battle.

Loading up on coffee and/or orange juice at breakfast has consequences. Sooner or later you've got to pee, but that means yet another 110 steps… unless you can find an empty water bottle (with a cap, of course) up high to serve as a mini-honey wagon.  Unwilling to make any more of those down-and-up round trips than strictly necessary, that's exactly what I did -- very carefully, I might add.

Hey, you do what you've gotta do to get through a cable day.

Once we'd restored some semblance of order to the center catwalk, it was time to start dropping all those fifty and hundred foot coils of cable, which weigh somewhere around 40 to 80 pounds each. The procedure isn't difficult, but you have to do it right, because getting careless and moving too fast can send one of those car-tire sized coils plummeting to the stage floor.  If somebody down there isn't able to get out of the way, that person's entire day -- entire life, really -- will be ruined in a big way.

I wrap a 5/8th inch line all the way around the top rail once, then feed the end below the knee-rail to the catwalk, where the juicer I'm working with loops it through the coil (or two, if they're fifty-footers), and ties it securely with a clove hitch or bowline -- his choice.

"All clear?" he asks.

Before nodding,  I scan the floor below to make sure nobody is wandering into the danger area, then yell "Exit the kill zone!" in a loud voice. With a construction crew slowly -- and noisily -- tearing the sets apart while we work, it's crucial to shout

Over the side the cable goes, and the weight hits hard, but I keep a light two-handed grip on the rope -- that full wrap around the rail makes all the difference -- and with a buzzing whir, the rope carves a shallow groove in the soft rail as the cable drops towards the deck. Friction absorbs this sudden release of energy, converting it to heat, raising the acrid sent of scorched wood from the rail. Watching the cable, I tighten my gloved grip at the last possible instant, bringing the coil to an abrupt halt. It dangles there, four feet off the stage floor, until a cable cart is rolled underneath. Then I ease my grip, allowing the floor juicer to guide it into the cart. He loosens the knot, frees the rope, then yells "Hollywood!" to let me know I can pull it back up. We'll repeat this process, periodically switching roles, until all those coils of cable up high are on the floor.

But that'll take a while, and now it's time for lunch, so back down those fifty-five steps we go.

After a relaxing hour, during which we eat, then retire to a shaded porch on the studios "Residential Street" back lot to chew the fat about politics, the continuing insult of cable-rate (and the cheap-ass networks who love it), and the cynical lament of all aging workers that their business (whatever it may be), is going to hell in the proverbial hand basket.

In other words, same as it ever was.

Then it's back we go, up those fifty-five steps again, which have just about killed my thigh muscles at this point in the day.  Three hours later, we're done -- the cable wrapped, dropped, and sent back to the lamp dock. The construction crew is still dismantling the sets, but our work here is over. Once the sets have been torn apart, the rigging grips will take down the network of green beds, and the stage will then be ready for the next show to come in.  When that day comes, the process will start all over, rendering order from chaos, chaos from order, and back again. We make an idiot-check up high to be sure everything's done, then make one last trip down those steps.

This day has been a serious workout, and I know my back (along with everything else) will pay the price tomorrow morning, but right now it feels good -- the pleasant sense of physical weariness that comes from a tough job done well.  What comes next is uncertain.  This was the last show to be wrapped here at my home lot, and the ramp-up for the new TV season has yet to hit.

That's just as well, because I can use a few days off to recover.  And when the check for this day arrives in the mail, I'll know at least one thing: we all earned our money today.

* She'd appeared in the final episode of the first (and only) season.

** The last I saw of that "star" was his mug shot in the newspaper after he landed in jail upon getting nailed for his third DUI. Some people never learn...

*** The Gaffer who long ago taught me what it means to be a professional in this industry.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Things to Come

              Do Android Juicers dream of Electric Sheep?
                   (With apologies to Phillip K. Dick)

A few years ago, a reader left a comment asking why television shows in general (and multi-camera sitcoms in particular) require such intensive work from week to week to properly light and shoot every episode. He proposed rigging a large array of lights over each set at the start of the season, allowing the crew to use whatever units were necessary to light and film each shot of every scene.

That's pretty much the way we do it on the permanent sets, where enough lamps are hung to cover each set in broad brush strokes. Additional lamps will be rigged throughout the season to meet the particular needs of each episode, but once those sets are dialed-in (which can take a month or so), the bulk of the lighting work is done on "swing sets" that come and go each week: a bowling alley, office, convenience store, bar, coffee shop, bank, gas station -- whatever the script calls for.  

Thanks to disruptions in the economic model that powered television for decades, and the proliferation of low budget cable networks -- relative newcomers like TV Land are so cheap they make the notoriously thrifty Disney look generous in comparison -- Hollywood has been on a relentless quest to cut expenses the past few years, which is why multi-cam shows are lit from pipe grids these days. Pipe grids are relatively cheap and easily modified to serve the ever-changing needs of those weekly swing sets -- but once the lighting has been roughed in, and the sets dressed, things get ugly. Changes in the blocking of a scene (which happen with metronomic regularity throughout the week) usually require several lamps to be adjusted accordingly, which means a juicer has to take a twelve-step ladder or a man lift onto the set to get up there and do the job -- followed by a grip to reset the flags, cutters, and/or teasers -- which in turn requires much of the set dressing to be moved out of the way, then put back. 

All of that takes time and effort, which is one reason this such a labor-intensive business.*

It's also why every show -- no matter how similar they may look on the Toob -- is actually a custom made item. The swing sets for each new episode vary in size, layout, and location on the sound stage from week to week, and with current technology, there's no way to effectively mechanize or automate the laborious process of lighting those swing sets.  

Still, the quest to cut costs is relentless. Thanks to the Digital Revolution, we rarely see dollies, dolly grips, or first assistants (focus pullers) on sitcoms anymore. On most multi-cam shows, all the camera work -- including moves, zooms, and focus adjustment -- is done on the fly by solo operators of four digital cameras mounted on peds.** Three assistants (or just two on certain cheaper shows) keep the cameras supplied with fresh data chips, wrangle the video cables trailing behind each ped, and handle the slate duties, but where it once took fourteen technicians to operate the cameras and dollies, only seven remain -- and the producers just love that.

With camera departments stripped to the bone, it's tempting to assume that no further reductions will be practical, but like rust, technology never sleeps -- and make no mistake, the robots are coming. Consumer robo-cams will soon be available, while more sophisticated versions are already replacing human operators in newsrooms (and in certain mega-churches), and are now poised to enter the sports world, where they may eventually displace some human camera operators. And if you're still feeling smug about the need for humans in the process, consider this astonishing technology, which could revolutionize the way car commercials are filmed -- and in the process, result in a lot less crew days shooting on location.

Translation: more technology = less work for humans.***

All of these are just baby steps, of course, because we're nowhere near the steep part of the digital/techno-curve yet -- the point where things will get really weird -- which means the already dizzying pace of change is destined to accelerate in the future.

If we've learned anything over the years, it's that the march of "labor-saving" technology (read: "save the producers from having to pay for labor") never stops -- so let's extrapolate a little, and assume that robotic cameras eventually do replace most human camera operators covering televised sports. Might similar, improved robo-cams eventually encroach upon the more formulaic television offerings -- variety shows, game shows, and multi-camera sitcoms?

I don't see why not. The Luddites couldn't stop the forward march of technology, and neither can we.

Still, robo-cams have a long way to go before they're ready for prime-time. A quick Google search will turn up numerous clips of these robots going rogue in the relatively benign confines of a television news studio, which is probably the least challenging environment for an automated camera system. I don't see robo-cams becoming sophisticated enough to supplant human operators in episodic television or features anytime soon -- if ever -- but with increasingly sophisticated green screen technology reducing the need for massive location shoots (and in many cases, replacing sets altogether), there may be less need for humans on set in the future. More and more of the physical work that was once done by people is now happening inside computers.

The same forces engineering these changes are turning their cold, bottom-line gaze towards the lighting department. There's now a "hot head" rig available from Arri that can pan, tilt, and adjust the spot/flood of a big lamp remotely -- very useful when a BFL has to go where a human lamp operator can't. These LRX lamps offer similar capabilities, with some able to be controlled via an iPhone app. Concert-style moving lights are very common in Hollywood these days (including some sit-coms, unfortunately…), and not just for the usual rock-and-roll "flash and trash" lighting. It's possible that certain types of shows will someday be lit with vastly more sophisticated versions of today's moving lights that could deliver any color, texture, and intensity of light the DP or Lighting Director desires -- and once rigged, a set like that might not need more than a dimmer operator/programmer working the board, along with a staff juicer to run stingers for the cell phone chargers of the two dozen "producers" slouched in their tall director's chairs.


Although the possibilities are endless, I don't see any truly momentous changes looming in the near future. LED lights continue to come on strong, with Mole Richardson now offering a 10 K equivalent fresnel lamp, but fully equipping a stage with the very best automated lighting technology currently available would be prohibitively expensive -- and until that changes, it won't happen. Whether or not such an approach will ever be truly cost-effective for television is another question, but given the rapid evolution of digital lighting technology, the days of a juicer showing up on set with just a tool belt, a strong back, and a good attitude are numbered. As in so many other industries, the in-demand workers will be those who stay abreast of the technology as it evolves, able to surf that digital wave wherever it leads.

What does the future hold for those who work below decks in Hollywood? I don't know, and neither does anyone else. In some ways, the Digital Revolution has generated more work for crews, but much of that employment takes place on the purely digital side of the fence. Technology hasn't eliminated the need for human involvement (thus far, anyway…), but it has rearranged the employment deck chairs on the good ship Hollywood. New jobs are created while old jobs -- and the people who did them -- are tossed overboard. That works fine for the fresh faces coming up the gangplank armed with new technology skills, but it's not so good for those who are left behind to swim for their lives.

The only real certainty is that change is here, and will keep on coming. From my personal perspective, at least one thing has become crystal clear: there's no place for a techno-dunce like me in this Brave New Digital World, which means I'll be heading out of Hollywood's back door to the sunny beach of retirement just in time...

* Back in the day, standard procedure was to rig a stage with an interlocking system of green beds hung just above the set walls. There was usually a 5K (five thousand watt lamp) in each corner, and a row of 2Ks in between, so that the set was literally ringed with lights.  Whatever was being filmed -- a wide master, two-shots, three-shots, over-the-shoulders, or close ups -- could be lit from those green beds by juicers who turned on and adjusted whichever lamps the Gaffer and DP needed.  Green beds are still used on sound stages for episodics and features, but very rarely on sit-coms. 

** There's at least one producer/director left with the clout to get four dollies with dolly grips and first assistants on his shows -- the legend himself, Jim Burrows...

*** There's room for debate about that, of course -- and a good place to start is this podcast from Freakanomics Radio, where the winners and losers in the process of "creative destruction" are discussed in an entertaining, informative, and somewhat spooky podcast.

Sunday, June 26, 2016


      The Juicer and The Champ, when we were both a lot younger...

Celebrity is a curious thing. Once an otherwise ordinary man or woman has managed to achieve a certain level of fame due to talent, drive, hard work, and/or the vagaries of timing and luck, that person is elevated to the exalted state of a "celebrity." The public persona -- the image -- then takes over, exerting a strange magnetism on the rest of the populace who yearn to be in the presence of celebrities, to see them up close, and if possible, speak with them one-on-one. It's as if they believe some of that precious stardust will rub off on them… and maybe it does. An undeniable exchange of energy takes place during encounters between civilians and celebrities, but what else may be gained by either party in these fleeting transactions remains a mystery.

Whatever it is feels real, though -- people don't forget those moments.

There's long been a symbiotic relationship between celebrities and Hollywood. In harnessing the star power of those in the public eye to draw a paying audience, the Industry reaps fatter profits while enhancing the public standing of those celebrities -- a win-win for all concerned.

Up to a point, anyway. The film and television career of Elvis Presley offers a cautionary tale on the plusses and minuses of riding the Hollywood tiger, and the dangers of diluting and cheapening a celebrity's personal brand through overexposure in crappy movies. Poor choices like those he and his management team made would send a lesser star's career straight into the toilet, but Elvis was blessed to occupy a singular niche in the heart of his fans and the culture, allowing him to survive and prosper despite starring in such forgettable films.

But then came the Las Vegas years, those god-awful white leather pantsuits, and The King's ignominious demise while sitting on the john. How the mighty have fallen, indeed.

Given that many film and television stars achieve celebrity status, we who work on set inevitably rub shoulders with these celestial beings on a regular basis. It's all part of the Hollywood deal. While civilians tend to get all giddy and jelly-legged when face-to-face with a celebrity, we're more blasé about the experience. This is partly out of familiarity (which does indeed breed a certain degree of contempt), but mostly from necessity -- we're there to work, not gush over the on-set talent and clamor for autographs, head shots, or selfies with a star.

That kind of behavior is for civilians. We have to conduct ourselves like professionals on the job.

Still, this doesn't mean we don't notice or pay attention when a celebrity walks on set. After all, we were all civilians before breaking into the Industry.

A lively discussion kicked off among my set lighting crew during our lunch hour a few years back, relating the various celebrities we'd worked with over the years, from the lowest rungs of television fame on up to major movie stars and sports legends. The consensus among most of the crew was that although some television and film stars are impressive, sports heroes were the celebrities they most enjoyed meeting.

I wasn't so sure. Although I've worked with a few sports legends on set over the years -- Terry Bradshaw, O.J. Simpson, Marcus Allen, Emmet Smith, Arnold Palmer,  Evel Knievel, and Ichiro Suzuki come to mind -- it was a much bigger deal for me to work with and talk to Joseph Cotten, whose impressive body of work in movies from the 40's and 50's helped me fall in love with film during my college years. While still in school, I got to meet Frank Capra and Jean Arthur, which was a huge thrill at the time. Years later in Hollywood, I learned that a sitcom I was about to start had cast Malcolm McDowell in a pivotal role -- the man who starred in IfA Clockwork Orange, and O Lucky Man!. This was very cool indeed, and I couldn't wait to meet the man. I didn't plan to ask for an autograph or anything so crass, but just wanted to shake his hand and tell him how much I'd enjoyed his work -- and that watching his movies when I was young helped steer me towards a career in Hollywood.

As always on a new show, things were a bit tense during the first few days of rehearsals and lighting, so I didn't force the issue. I waited patiently for the right moment, which finally arrived one afternoon near the end of the week when I walked out the stage door... and there he was, taking a break for some fresh air. He glanced my way and nodded, then -- just as I was about to speak -- his cell phone rang. With an apologetic shrug, he answered it, and the moment passed. Ah well, no problem. Our show was scheduled for twelve episodes, so there'd be plenty of time to have that brief conversation in the weeks to come.

The next day I arrived on to find him gone for good -- the producers had re-cast his role with another actor. I never learned whether they decided he wasn't right for the part after all, or if he bailed on the show for a more lucrative opportunity elsewhere -- all I know for sure is that I never did get to shake the hand of Malcolm McDowell.

Such is life.

Still, I've had the opportunity to meet several actors who'd made an impression on me over the years, including Alan Alda and Suzanne Pleshette, along with an English actor few Americans would recognize -- David Warner, who blew my young high-school mind in Morgan!, yet another British movie that helped ignite my interest in film.

All of this was running through my mind while the actors vs. sports legends discussion raged on in the Gold Room, and just as I was about to make the case for actors, I remembered that amazing day in 1983 when I met Muhammed Ali… and with that, I had to concede the point, because no actor could compare to The Greatest of All Time. You really had to live through that tumultuous era to understand just what a monumental impact he had on the social, cultural, political, and pugilistic scene of the times. Ali had the personal magnetism of Jack Kennedy, the athletic prowess of Willie Mays, and the eloquence (albeit in his own uniquely audacious style) of Martin Luther King -- all that and much more wrapped into the dynamic, loquacious, and formidable presence of one of the best professional fighters of all time.*

I had mixed feelings about the young Cassius Clay when he entered the public eye in the weeks leading up to his first bout with Sonny Liston. Clay was everything this fourteen year old boy had been taught an athlete shouldn't be: loud, arrogant, and boastful. Like the rest of the known world, I assumed the massive, glowering Sonny Liston -- famous for his early round knock-outs of opponents -- would pound this sassy young upstart into submission and finally shut his big mouth... but in the ring, Liston had no answer for the exceptional speed of Clay. It was a controversial fight, as was their infamous rematch fifteen months later in Lewiston, Maine, but those two fights launched the legend of Muhammad Ali -- and by that time, I'd come full circle as a huge fan of the young champ. I followed his astonishing career through televised and pay-per-view fights (when I could afford them, anyway) for the next two decades as his career rose and fell against a backdrop of one of the most colorful and exciting eras in the history of boxing.

Given all that, I was jazzed to land a two day job filming a commercial with Ali, a spot designed to run during the upcoming 1984 Olympics in LA. By now, though -- eight years after the Thrilla in Manila -- it was clear something wasn't right with the man. Whether due to damage suffered in those three savage wars with Joe Frazier, or some other mysterious malady, Ali's once-dazzling verbal skills had eroded.**

Excited as I was to see Ali up close, I worried that I'd find a shell of the man he used to be... and early on, that seemed to be the case. The first setup had Ali sitting in a comfortable chair, reciting a tedious speech declaring that winning a gold medal in the 1960 Olympics was "my most memorable experience" -- but with his eyes at half-mast, his speech was listless, slurred, and barely decipherable. During one particularly unintelligible take, the boom man glanced over at me and rolled his eyes.

It was bad. 

Finally taking a break, Ali got up to stretch his legs. I maneuvered into his path, then stuck out my hand and introduced myself. He lit up instantly, eyes flashing, his grip firm. This was a very different man than the one who'd been slumped in that chair a minute before.

"You ever box?" he asked.

"No," I replied, "but I've been a huge fan of yours right from the start."

He smiled, and we talked for a few minutes, but I can't recall the specifics -- I was suddenly overwhelmed just to be standing there talking to Muhammad Ali, and so relieved to find him mentally sharp. This was the Ali I'd seen perform with such soaring eloquence for the boxing press so many times in the past. Talking one-on-one with a fellow human being, there was no trace of the stumbling confusion he'd displayed on camera.

We witnessed a very playful Ali over the course of those two days on set. His performance in front of the camera didn't improve much, but off camera, he was a delight. At one point he wandered off, away from the cameras, then slowly made his way around the back of the stage to where the two old, fat, gray-haired geezers who ran the facility sat on a pair of apple boxes, lost in conversation. Ali put a finger to his lips to keep the rest of us quiet, then crept up behind the two men until he was close enough to reach out -- and with the lightest touch, gently tickle the earlobe of one. Thinking it was a fly, the old guy shook his head and waved a hand at his ear. Ali did it again, and again, until the man finally turned around to see the ex-heavyweight champion of the world grinning at him.

How such a big man could pull that off still amazes me.

Ali had a man with him who I assumed was just a friend, but turned out to be a sleight of hand artist. At one point the two of them were carrying on a conversation with a small circle of clients, producers, and the still photographer, all of of whom were Japanese.*** Taking the lead, Ali's buddy grasped the photographer's hand as if to shake it, but while distracting him with his lively patter, he deftly removed the man's wristwatch and slipped it to Ali, who dropped it in his pocket. A few minutes later, Ali's friend asked the photographer what time it was. The man looked at his empty wrist in confusion, his mouth open -- and his jaw dropped further when Ali pulled the watch from his own pocket and dangled it in the air in front of everybody.****

This was turning out to be a great job, and one I'd have gladly done for free: getting paid was just icing on the cake.

At the end of the second day, the filming done, Ali got up to leave. Once again I put myself in his path -- but this time I had my camera, and asked if I could get a photo with him. He smiled and nodded. I didn't quite know what to do, but Ali sure as hell did. We moved back into the lights, where I stood there like an idiot shaking his hand (a ridiculous pose), followed by a second shot where he held his big fist under my chin while glaring at me -- another forgettable shot. Then without a word, he snapped into a classic boxer's stance, and I followed his lead. Once we'd squared off, his face suddenly turned hard, as if a cloud had covered the sun. There was no smile now -- instead, Muhammed Ali fixed me with a cold stare.

"Did you just call me nigger?" he asked.

For a very long and extremely uncomfortable moment, I froze, unable to grasp what was happening --  suddenly feeling an unwelcome kinship with all those poor bastards who actually had to lace up the gloves and face Muhammad Ali in the ring.

He waited a beat as I twisted in the wind.

"Oh," he said, finally breaking the spell, his face relaxing into a playful grin. "You called me bigger."

The entire stage erupted with laughter, which is when the photo at the top of the page was snapped.

That picture recorded what was in some ways the peak of my Hollywood career, a moment that will live with me forever. I'd go on to work as a Best Boy, then Gaffer, traveling all over the country and beyond to film commercials and features, seeing spectacular locations and meeting some very interesting people (some of them actors) -- experiences that left me with a fat bank of good memories.  But I'd never again have another moment like that, squaring off with Muhammed Ali, the Greatest of All Time.

Some things you only get to do once in life, and I was lucky enough to meet my Number One sports hero -- the ultimate celebrity of the entertainment world -- on a day I'll never forget.

Thanks, Champ -- may you rest in peace...

Muhammad Ali: Jan 17, 1942 -- June 3, 2016

* For a terrific 20 minute interview with David Remnick (editor of The New Yorker and author many books, including a good one about Muhammed Ali) on the social and cultural impact Ali had back then, click this.  It's really good…

** It was only later that we came to understand he suffered from a form of Parkinson's Disease.

*** We were filming a commercial for Hitachi -- one of those "cash jobs" the Japanese were famous for bringing to Hollywood back in the day.

**** Many years later, I found out for myself exactly how that befuddled photographer felt...

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Bonding through Pain

              Bonding, not bondage -- bondING! Sheesh…

"Humans don’t mind duress, in fact they thrive on it. What they mind is not feeling necessary."

Sebastian Junger

I met an old friend recently for a long, beery lunch at a legendary Hollywood watering hole, where we talked about the old days and the new days, how much has changed and how much hasn't -- and who we once were as opposed to who we are now.*

A lot of water has flowed under that bridge.

We met thirty years ago while working on a low budget feature filmed up in the Northeast woods of Vermont. I was the Best Boy Electric, he was a grip then living in Texas. Having spent ten years working my way up in Hollywood, I'd developed an eye for below-the-line talent, and urged him to come to LA, where I knew he'd have no problem getting work. For whatever reason -- insecurity, a girl back home, whatever -- he didn't bite, but we got him on our set lighting crew as a juicer the following summer on another low-budget movie shooting on location in Mississippi.  Again I advised him to head west, where I was about to move up to gaffer, and promised him a place on our crew shooting commercials.

Still, he stalled, and it was the grip crew of that feature who finally enticed him out to Hollywood. They put him to work for a while, but eventually I managed to pry him away to work on my crew. He was really good -- very smart, strong, and physically capable, and had an absolutely wicked sense of humor that made my life on set as a beginning gaffer a lot more fun.  

In time he got an opportunity to join a crew doing big union movies, and left for a series of long location features in Colorado, New Orleans, and beyond -- movies you've all seen or heard of. He was destined for much greater things than my crew could offer doing commercials, and eventually worked his way up to be a big-time rigging gaffer who does the kind of 200 million dollar cinematic spectaculars seen by the entire civilized world.

In professional terms, he's far eclipsed anything I ever did in this business, and now earns as much in a month or two working one of those mega-movies as I make in a year.

Hey, did I mention that I had a sharp eye for talent?

It was great afternoon, during which the subject of  bonding through pain came up, because so often that's what it means to be on a film crew. Working brutally long hours in miserable conditions -- suffering while getting it done -- is part of the job. In some perverse way, it might even be the best part of a hard job, because that's where you find out who you really are, what kind of people you're working with, and what it means to need and be be needed on a crew. Some jobs are easy enough that we can cruise through our days at half-throttle, but the truly challenging ones require everybody on the crew to put forth a maximum effort. Working shoulder to shoulder on a job like that, enduring the pain it so often takes to do the job right, forges a bond you never really forget.   

This is something those who serve in combat or play professional football -- our culture's warrior and gladiatorial classes -- know very well, and what so many of them miss once that phase of their lives is over. The tight bonds formed between those who suffered together -- their squad, their team, their crew -- can only be understood by those who were part of and endured the ordeal. Nobody else really "gets" it.  

Let's get one thing straight: in no way am I equating working on a film crew with serving in the military. The former is a well-paid and relatively cushy job where the worst thing that might happen is working all night in the rain, getting cold pizza for a third meal, then having to take a short turnaround before coming back for more punishment -- and although that's a bitch, we don't have to endure the 120 degree heat of the desert while carrying a hundred pounds of gear in hostile territory where most of the indigenous inhabitants would like nothing more than to shoot or blow us all to hell. We lose a little sleep and endure plenty of tedium and needless stupidity, but soldiers in the kill-or-be-killed arena of a combat zone risk of losing everything the rest of us hold dear -- their eyes, hands, arms, legs, balls, their sanity... and should the worst happen, their lives. We get to work around smiling, beautiful women much of the time, graze at a well-stocked craft service table whenever hunger strikes, then sleep in a comfortable bed after work at home or in a company-paid motel room -- and although we might occasionally experience the urge to strangle a clueless producer, writer, director, D.P. or fellow work-bot, we never actually get have to do it. On a scale from one to a hundred, what the military endures every day is right up there at the century mark, while the worst of film jobs (like those poor bastards who suffered through shooting The Revenant) falls considerably short of fifty -- but the shared sense of purpose and willingness to endure whatever is required to get the job done creates a bond that we all recognize and understand, even if the degree of our respective suffering lies on opposite ends of the spectrum. 

I got to thinking about this while reading reviews of a new book by Sebastian Junger, called Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging

In Junger's words: 

"This book is about why tribal sentiment is such a rare and precious thing in modern society, and how the lack of it has affected us all. It's about what we can learn from tribal societies about loyalty and belonging and the eternal human quest for meaning. It's about why -- for many people -- war feels better than peace and hardship can turn out to be a great blessing and disasters are sometimes remembered more fondly than weddings or tropical vacations. Humans don't mind duress, in fact they thrive on it. What they mind is not feeling necessary." 

I think he's on to something. I've said it more than once on this blog: ours is a tribal business, and if Sebastian Junger is right, maybe that's one reason it can be so hard to leave: because once you go, you've left your tribe for good. The issue Junger shines a spotlight on then becomes unavoidable -- now that you're out, will you ever really feel necessary again in that same tightly bonded, team-oriented way?  

There are doubtless exceptions, but I suspect the answer is "no" for most people. It takes years to learn the skills required to become a fully contributing member of any team endeavor, and few of us have the time, energy, or motivation for that once our days in the business are done.

Although what we do in the film/television industry doesn't compare to what soldiers, cops, firemen, and medical personnel experience in the life-and-death crucible of their workplace, this Hollywood life is the only real job I've ever known. The bonds forged with my fellow juicers -- and the black humor that helped get us through -- as we suffered, endured, and prevailed through difficult circumstances are what I'll miss the most when I finally leave my Industry tribes behind.

I'll say it again: what makes this business worth all the pain and suffering is not the finished product up there on the silver screen, but those we meet and suffer with in the process -- the people.

* A dark, quiet little cafe where -- rumor has it -- movie stars, agents, and studio executives used to bring their mistresses for discreet meals back in the good old/bad old days...

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Day Player, Again...

                                         Have Toolbelt, Will Travel…*

After a month of post-pilot drifting, the phone finally rang -- or rather, the screen lit up with an incoming text, which goes to show that old dogs really can learn new tricks when they have to… and I had to, because after refusing to join the cellular stampede for last twenty years, my no-longer-shiny smart phone has become the essential tool for finding work.  

Yeah, I know: welcome to the 21st Century, dude -- and what the hell took you so long?

That's what happens when a core crew Show Boy morphs back into a hire-me-please Day Player -- the cell phone goes from digital bauble to economic lifeline in a hurry, with my first lesson in this Brave New Digital World being the importance of responding to a work text ASAP. This little nugget of wisdom came the hard way, of course, since I was busy at the time and didn't get around to checking the text for two full hours. That was much too late, of course, which is how a sweet eight day job for full union scale turned into a one day hi-goodbye gig. 

Ouch. Ah well, live and learn. That's one mistake I won't make again.

Still, one day of work is better than nothing, so I reported for duty back at my home lot. After twenty minutes of filling out the requisite start paperwork (scrawling my name, address, e-mail, phone, and social security number at least half a dozen times on different forms), and another ten minutes waiting for a production droid to check each and every form, then verify my SS card and driver's license, I was finally cleared to do some actual work.  

Since the show occupied two sound stages, I figured assumed that my fellow late-call juicer and I would be working indoors... but as so often happens, the God of Assumptions -- truly the Trickster -- had the last laugh. Our first task was to rig the "New York Street" backlot for the production company wrap party, which was due to commence once the audience show concluded much later that night. Hanging and powering a dozen strings of party lights above the ersatz urban boulevard wasn't particularly difficult, but I drew the short straw of working the sunny side of that street. Dressed for the expected indoor work in levis and a black T shirt, it wasn't long before I began to overheat while scrambling around on those sun-blasted balconies with no cooling breeze. By the time we'd finished, I was dripping with sweat -- at which point we went back on stage for the real work of the day.   

While the other juicer worked on cleaning up the cable troughs (this small stage had no catwalks or real "up-high"), I climbed in a man-lift and proceeded to methodically pull down every lamp, stirrup hanger, offset arm, riser, cable safety, and stinger on the set. This is the kind of wrap I like -- melding with the machinery of the man-lift, working steadily at my own pace with nobody on the floor to get in my way. Once I'd settled into a good rhythm, the hours just seemed to melt away as the nice, neat rows of lighting equipment on the stage floor grew ever longer. 

As simple-minded as it might sound, there's a very real satisfaction in this kind of work, and at seeing how much we'd both accomplished by the end of our day, nine hours after call.  There were only the two of us, but we kicked ass wrapping that stage.

After washing up, I signed my time card and was about to leave when the Best Boy invited me to hit the food trucks at the wrap party. Ordinarily, I'd demur in favor of getting home, but I was starving -- and besides, the free-food television gravy train will leave me behind for good soon enough. 

What the hell: I'd helped rig their damned party, so why not partake?

That I did, in the form of a nice fat cheeseburger, a big bowl of crisp, hot onion rings, and a large sugar-laced Coke -- a heart attack on a plate so late at night, but that kind of thing doesn't worry me anymore. Having witnessed the senescence-and-Depends ravages of extreme old age up close and personal as my Dad spiraled into the grave a couple of years ago, the notion of living to a ripe old age doesn't hold much appealThe "Golden Years," my ass -- I'm wondering if Blondie might have had the right idea when they sang Die Young, Stay Pretty a long time ago... but neither option is open to me now.

This wasn't my show, and although I knew some of the crew from other shows over the years, I was dog-tired and not feeling particularly social. The party was for them -- a reward after slogging through a long season -- not for me, so I took a seat on a hard wooden bench in the shadows, watching as the young writers and production drones (dressed to the nines in the modern, casual mode) waited by the food trucks with their young, pretty dates, the men making awkward conversation as the women nodded politely and tapped on their smart phones. Each had their own private agenda in this delicate mating dance, their unspoken desires utterly transparent, and oh-so-human.**

A truly good wrap party can harness and channel an explosion of pent-up, raucous energy, and in the process, provide a cathartic cleansing of sorts -- a kick-out-the-jams sense of closure to the end of a movie or season of a television show -- but this felt more like a dutiful exercise in mutual exhaustion, hopeful posturing, and lugubrious, unfulfilled yearning. The cool night air reeked with the scent of hot grease and ill-defined dreams, doomed from the start, going up in smoke.

Or maybe that was just me, staring into the cracked mirror of a career rapidly fading to black...

I was too tired to wallow in such pointless philosophical musing. All I wanted at that moment was a burger, onion rings, and a sweet, bubbly Coke -- and once they'd been inhaled, I slung my work bag over one shoulder and pedaled my bike silently through the dark night towards the parking structure.

The first job of the last phase in my working life -- once again a Day Player -- was over and done.

More to come.

* For those too young to know -- doubtless the vast majority of you -- this is a reference to a television Western that was very popular when I was a kid.

** One of the few benefits of old age (the only benefit, come to think of it), is that having been there and done that so many times in the past, I am no longer a participant -- which strikes me as a little bit sad and something of a relief at the same time. Go figure...