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)

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Getting Started




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

Do that, and you'll be fine.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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


Sam then added these words of advice:


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


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


That's how you do it.

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

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

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

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

Good luck!

Grip and Electric LA

Grip and Electric East Coast

TV/Film crew Availability

Production 911



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

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

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



Sunday, June 2, 2019

Just for the Hell of It -- Episode 52

                                               Photo by Zoran Milosavljevic 


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

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

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

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

"What?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes life really is a bitch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Home


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

The only constant is change.

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

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

Hey, not all change is bad.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I couldn't argue with that.

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

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

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

Sunday, March 31, 2019

It's a Jungle Out There




                                                 "Nature red in tooth and claw..."


Los Angeles is an urban desert hopelessly overpopulated by people and their vehicles. If aliens from another world were to land now, they might well assume that cars are the dominant life form here, with pavement their natural habitat and human companion-animals to serve their needs. Once a dusty little backwater, the megalopolis of LA is bit like ancient Rome, now a highly artificial construct able to exist and thrive thanks only to water brought in from afar.*  

Still, vestiges of the natural world survive right under our noses amidst all this automotive and human chaos.  Despite us -- and in some cases, aided by us -- these animals go about their lives unnoticed by so many who remain oblivious to anything that doesn't light up the screen of a smart phone.   

But if you pull your head out of your digital ass, look around and pay attention, you'll see them -- skunks, possums, and raccoons checking out garbage cans for a meal, coyotes trotting back into the hills at dawn, and red tail hawks circling high above. Occasionally an LA homeowner will discover a bear in her swimming pool, and mountain lions are making their presence known.  Ever since an initiative banning the hunting of these lions was passed back in 1990, the big cats have expanded their range into the suburbs, with one -- the iconic P-22 -- now alive and well in hills of Griffith Park overlooking LA.

I never saw a bear or mountain lion during my forty years in LA, but working on location took our crews into the realm of other wild creatures. While working on a highly forgettable low budget feature early in my career, we were filming night scenes with Joseph Cotten in the deserts north of LA. There are few activities less natural and more artificial than making a movie, but reality intruded shortly after midnight when a chorus of high-pitched howls from a nearby pack of coyotes stopped all work for a few minutes -- not out of fear, since there was nothing to be afraid of, but from a sense of wonder. It was a hauntingly beautiful moment.  

Most of my encounters with the wild came in the form of birds. While filming a commercial in the wealthy neighborhood of Hancock Park, we were rehearsing a dolly shot by a backyard swimming pool when a little bird rocketed in out of the blue with a small hawk right on its tail, matching it move for move.  Around and around the pool they went, until the bird made a desperation dive straight at the camera where the operator, assistant, dolly grip, director, and AD stood, eyes wide. Seeing all those people, the hawk peeled off and vanished, the little bird safe for the moment. This quick, intense life-and-death drama caught the entire crew by surprise, and left us shaking our heads.

Another avian close encounter happened while filming at a park in Orange County, where I was manning a reflector one hot summer day when I saw a hawk fly in amidst the branches of a huge tree, then emerge a few seconds later with a baby bird in its claws.  The hawk landed twenty feet away, then proceeded to eat that doomed chick as the mother squawked in protest from above.  

Nature is a cruel mistress, allowing only the fittest - and luckiest - to survive.

The first Peregrine falcon I ever saw in the wild had nothing to do with filming or work, but was right outside my apartment in LA.  Heading out for a walk one afternoon, I noticed a pile of small feathers on the hood of my car, then saw more drifting down out of the sky.  Following that river of feathers back to their source, I spotted the Peregrin high up in big pine tree, picking apart the body of a hapless dove.

I got an up-close view of a Peregrin in downtown LA while we were filming another commercial nearly fifty floors up in a building still under construction.  During a lull in the action, I wandered over to a window to admire the view, and there on the ledge just a few feet away was a gorgeous falcon, surveying its realm -- and doubtless searching for a pigeon dinner -- from this man-made urban cliff five hundred feet in the air.  After a few minutes it spotted a target and took flight, dropping out of sight in seconds.

Later that night, I observed another form of urban wildlife in her decidedly unnatural habitat. Gazing up at what was then the tallest skyscraper in LA (more than twenty stories higher than my perch), I spotted a female executive in workout leotards, perfectly framed in a big picture window, grimly churning away on an elliptical trainer as she stared out at the cityscape below.  

It was an oddly voyeuristic moment.  Although she was much too far away for me to discern her features, I was watching unbeknownst to her -- or maybe she thought the entire city was watching, and fantasizing... and perhaps she liked that notion. It wasn't exactly a Citizen Kane, woman with a white parasol thing, but still, I've often wondered who she was and what became of her. Did she managed to claw her way all the way up the corporate ladder, or eventually hit the glass ceiling?  Did a husband and children interrupt her climb, and if so, does a small, never-to-be-confessed part of her regret that choice?

I'll never know, but will always wonder. 

My last Peregrin sighting in LA came on a blustery spring afternoon while taking a walk around my neighborhood.  Halfway up the block, lost in thought, I was suddenly brought back into the moment when a falcon landed on the parkway grass ten feet ahead of me, a headless pigeon in its claws. The bird glared at me with fierce brown eyes, then flew into a nearby tree to wait for me to leave. I inspected the pigeon's remains, the head nowhere in sight, it's neck a jagged, bloody crown.  

Tennyson knew what he was talking about when he wrote the line, "Nature red in tooth and claw." 

So whether you're working on location or just out for a walk on the urban sidewalks, suburban boulevards, or rugged hills bordering LA, put the smart phone away and keep your eyes peeled. You never know when something wild will appear, animal or human. 

It really is a jungle out there.


* As the justifiably angry residents of the Owens Valley can attest, at great cost to the areas supplying that water...

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Just for the Hell of It: Episode 51


                                                                 Wrong...
                                                    Photo by Matt Hawkins

Once, many years ago, I worked on a commercial at a stage in one of those crappy industrial park facilities (I refuse to dignify such bare-bones facilities with word "studio") out in West LA.  Rather than a real stage with wooden floors, thick sound insulation on the walls and elephant door, and with no catwalks up high, this was just a big empty room with a concrete floor and a minimal pipe grid overhead.  The only virtue of a stage like this is that it's relatively cheap, but you get what you pay for in life -- and that sword cuts both ways.

Anything beyond the most basic power distribution gear and a minimal tungsten package had to be ordered from an outside rental house, but this was a fairly simple job, so I didn't have to go off-lot. At a certain point in the rigging process, I was in need of another 100 amp to 100 amp Bates splitter. I don't recall the exact situation, but these splitters are typically used when you need to distribute power from a single 100 amp Bates feeder to many small lights that won't require individual dimmer control.

I called the stage manager for another splitter, which he dropped off a few minutes later, but there was something very wrong.  Rather than a male 100 amp Bates fixture wired to two female Bates fixtures, this one was compose of three males. I took it back to the stage manager and set it on his desk.

"Do you see anything wrong with this?" I asked.

"It's brand new," he said, a hint of pride in his voice.  "I made it yesterday."

"Okay," I nodded.  "So how would I use it?"

He gave me one of those looks, as if astonished that a gaffer being paid $500/day didn't even know how to use a simple splitter.  But he was polite, and began to patiently explain.

"You just patch it into your hundred amper, and then --"

He stopped mid-sentence as recognition dawned.

"Oh... wow.  Man, I'm sorry about that."

"No worries," I replied.  "Just get me another one, okay?"

I didn't give him a hard time, but just wanted the young man to see and understand the problem for himself, and thus learn the value of paying attention to the task at hand -- and the dangers of not doing so.

That might have been the single dumbest equipment blunder I witnessed during my years Hollywood, until the photo up top appeared up on the Local 728 Facebook page recently: the same brain-dead error applied to a Bates extension cable.  Whoever wired up this cable should be very grateful nobody plugged the damned thing into a hot circuit -- but more to the point, had that person been paying attention to what he/she was doing in the first place, it never would have happened. I've said it before and will probably say it again: when working with electricity you have to keep your eyes open, pay attention, inspect your equipment, and never make assumptions.

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A grim statistic echoed in my head during the ten years before I retired: the average IATSE Local 728 retiree only collects 18 monthly pension checks. It didn't come from the report of any scientific studies, but was accepted as common wisdom among juicers on every set I worked on. The not so subtle implication was this happened because the average 728 retiree would be dead a year-and-a-half into retirement, thanks to a career spent inhaling toxic dust and smoke on sound stages, constant exposure to heavy doses of EMF radiation, and the bad habits of heavy smoking, drinking, and drug use that often tempt those who endure the relentless grind of working on set.

Granted, that statistic was based largely on the WW II generation of set lighting technicians -- the crusty old veterans who were still working when I broke in -- many of whom got hooked on cigarettes long before the lethal dangers of smoking became obvious. Much of the lighting gear they used was riddled with asbestos, which coated the retaining rings in lamps with fresnel lenses, cables inside the lamps (which had to resist extreme heat), and on the power feeders of strip lights. There might not have been enough floating asbestos from these sources to inflict a full blown case of mesothelioma, but once inhaled, those tiny fibers become permanently embedded in the lungs  Back in the day, all these factors combined to inflict the death of a thousand cuts, breaking the post-retirement health of many Local 728 retirees.

                                              A pair of Mole Richardson nine light cyc strips

Whether that eighteen month death sentence statistic was real or apocryphal bullshit remains unclear to this day.  All I know is that many of those old asbestos-laden lamps were still in use during my early years as a juicer, and I've always wondered if that might catch up with me someday.

So it seemed rather ominous when a letter arrived last week from the Motion Picture Pension and Health office in Studio City, demanding I prove to them that I remain among the living, and have not yet been "promoted to glory" as the Salvation Army refers to it -- although I prefer William Shakespeare's description of death: "to shuffle off this mortal coil."  Failure to confirm that I'm still upright and breathing to the satisfaction of the MPPH would result in the cessation of my monthly pension.

And wouldn't you know it -- that letter came nineteen months after I received my first pension check.

Coincidence?  Who knows, but I dutifully presented the requisite forms along with my driver's license to a local notary public, who certified my continued existence as a carbon-based life form, and applied his official stamp.  It cost me $15 and first-class postage, but I suppose that's cheaper than the 850 mile round trip to Studio City.

So it goes...

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Here's a good interview with legendary DP Caleb Deschanel, who made a somewhat roundabout journey into the film industry, starting in medical school, then to USC, then to the AFI in its very first year, on into world of commercials, and finally to his first feature film, The Black Stallion.

The rest, as the saying goes, is history.

I "worked with" Deschanel only once -- and those quotes are there for a reason... which means maybe it's time for a little clarification here at Blood, Sweat, and Tedium.  It's very common in Hollywood to say "I worked with (insert name of famous actor, athlete, or rock star here) on (insert movie, show,  commercial, or music video title here) and he/she was great/indifferent/awful."

I've used those very words more times than I can remember, and although technically true -- we did work on the same project -- the phrase has an elasticity that puts the superpowers of Reed Richards to shame.*  You can work on a film or television show starring a particular actor for months on end, but unless you were the director, camera operator, dolly grip, dialog coach, fellow thespian, make-up/hair artist, wardrobe fitter, or member of the sound department tasked with affixing lavaliere microphones to the star's wardrobe or body, then you didn't actually work with that actor.  I often chatted and joked with our actors, and sweated bullets to light them and the sets on which they appeared, but although I certainly worked above and all around them, I did not personally work with them.

Ahem.  Pardon the digression.  Just wanted to clear that up.

Anyway... I "worked with" Caleb Deschanel while rigging a stage for big studio movie just before the turn of the century.  It was a week's worth of labor preparing a set designed to duplicate the Chicago Tribune's office high up in one of the Windy City's tall skyscrapers. This was a big job, with something like 130 sky pans we had to hang on a long, curving truss, a rig designed to properly illuminate an enormous trans-light backing.  That was only one of our tasks, though.  We ran tons of cable (literally), then powered and installed tubes in what felt like hundreds of fluorescent fixtures -- and if there's one job I absolutely loathed during all my years under the Hollywood lash, it was anything dealing with fluorescent fixtures. Kino Flos were fine, but installing the proper color temperature tubes in those god-awful overhead office fixtures was a delicate, frustrating ordeal.

The rigging gaffer drove us like sled dogs in the Iditarod, but at least he was a decent guy who know the business backwards and forwards, and did his share of the work.  Around noon, the first unit gaffer showed up to have a look. I'd worked with him on a commercial many years before, but hadn't seen him since, and as sometimes happens, he'd changed a lot -- and not in a good way. He'd been a very pleasant guy on the commercial, but now he positively radiated arrogance, striding around the set in the imperious manner of a Roman senator, nose held high, ignoring the crew that was working so hard to light those sets.  Seldom before or since have I encountered a gaffer riding atop such a high horse,  apparently convinced of his own wonderfulness.  Only when Caleb Deschanel arrived to see how the rig was coming along did the gaffer descend from Bucephalus and adopt some measure of humility.  Together they walked the length of that big truss and around the set inside, then shook hands, and Caleb departed. He hadn't been there more than fifteen minutes.

So, do those quotes around "worked together" make sense now?

Still, I felt some resonance while listening to Deschanel's story in that interview.  He decided to become a cameraman, but when IA  Local 659 refused to let him in, he had to join an offshoot NABET local whose members primarily worked on commercials.**

Me too, Caleb -- I was just a few years behind you.  Even the success of The Black Stallion (which was filmed outside the U.S.) didn't help his case with 659, and it wasn't until Steven Spielberg intervened in a rather mysterious manner that Deschanel finally got his union card.  Lacking such powerful friends, I had to wait until NABET merged with IATSE in 1992 to get my own IA card, and even then the set lighting local refused to grant me roster status (effectively denying me the ability to work union jobs) for another three years, when I finally managed to get my 30 days on a TV movie that turned halfway through.

I don't know why I'm boring you with all this... well, yeah I do.  I'm pretty well immersed in the blog-book project these days, and it's a bit like taking a time machine waaay back and deep into my own origin story, reliving moments and unearthing dusty memories, along with a few radioactive resentments.  I'm not nursing grudges -- that's all over and done -- but have not forgotten the people and institutions who behaved in a less than generous manner.  

Just listen to that interview, especially you wet-behind-the-ears newbies who haven't yet learned how the film and television industry really works.  The salient message is this: don't be a dick. You have no way of knowing who among your peer group will be there to help advance your career down the road.  Deschanel might now be slogging to work every day as a proctologist had he not met a couple of key people during his pre-med studies, and it was friends he made later at USC and the AFI who helped engineer crucial turning points in what turned out to be a very successful career.***

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So the Oscars have come and gone -- yawn -- amid more than the usual "sound and fury signifying nothing."  To host or not to host, that was the question, although it was impossible to care about the answer.  I pretty much had my say about the Oscars a long time ago, and my attitude about this annual glittering blabfest hasn't changed.  I've only seen one of the nominated films -- Roma -- and thus had no cinematic dogs in the fight, nor did I feel compelled to watch the spectacle.  Congrats to the winners and to the losers: and remember: you didn't really lose, you just didn't win. There's a difference.  I just hope you managed to get shit-faced on somebody else's champagne at the after-parties...

Here's a fascinating clip showing how Alphonso Cuaron's crew on Roma created a vintage street scene from scratch -- movie magic at it's finest.  While watching the film, I had no idea it wasn't the real thing.

And last but not least, a list of the nine greatest best picture winners over the years.  It's an impressive list, although your mileage may vary.

That's it for this month.  This has been one effing cold winter thus far -- I'm burning the wood stove from dawn 'til bedtime these days -- so let's all pray for the coming of spring...


* Otherwise known as "Mr. Fantastic" in the movie and comic book versions of The Fantastic Four.

**  That was then -- it's now Local 600.  NABET stands for National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians, representing many who work in radio and television.

*** Yes, there are more than a few assholes in Hollywood as well, but as a DP, at least Caleb doesn't have to see dozens every single day...

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Industrials



                                Fun in the sky -- for some of us, anyway...

Back in the good old/bad old days, I’d take an occasional gig working on an industrial film -- essentially an infomercial done by or for a company to use in-house for employee education and training, or to promote its brand and product to potential customers at trade shows. 

As Wikipedia puts it: "An industrial video is a type of sponsored film (such as an educational film) which prioritizes pragmatism over artistic value." 

The focus on "pragmatism over artistic value" meant that these jobs were usually fairly  straightforward, with neither the time for glowing, painstakingly-lit product shots nor the money for famous celebrities to lend their star power to the project. They weren't exactly quick-and-dirty -- we made each shot look as good as circumstances allowed -- but with thin budgets and tight schedules, there was only so much to be done. The analog video technology of the time was relatively primitive, so most of the industrials I was involved with were shot on 16 mm film with a small crew: often just a gaffer, grip, and swing man to work with a DP/operator and camera assistant, a one or two person art department, a sound mixer and a handful of PAs, one of whom usually ended up holding the boom. Industrials didn't pay nearly so well as television commercials, but the jobs were low-key and casual, lacking the pressure and tension of big-dollar advertising jobs. There was often a lot more laughter too, which helped ease the sting of lower rates and the utterly pedestrian subject matter. There's nothing remotely interesting about filming a talking-head executive or manager in an office environment as he drones on about the mind-numbing details of manufacturing and distribution... but when no commercial jobs were available, I took what I could get. 

Such is the life of the Hollywood work-bot, a hunter-gatherer constantly on the lookout for his next meal in the freelance world of the celluloid veldt.

The first industrial I worked was as a grip on a one-day shoot for Silhouette Romance Novels (emo-porn for those with a predilection for bodice rippers), a short film meant to induce orders from buyers for the big and small bookstore chains of the day.* Unlike most such projects, this one splurged for an actual celebrity: Ricardo Montalblan, who had achieved widespread fame on the television show Fantasy Island.  After filming shots of the new lineup of Silhouette's literary offerings, we pre-lit the big wicker chair in preparation for our star. 


And finally out he came, resplendent in his trademark white suit: the living, breathing Mr. Roarke himself.  Despite myself, I was impressed. Although I considered Fantasy Island to be ridiculous schlock, Ricardo Montalblan was the biggest star I'd seen up close at the time, and he did not disappoint. Dapper, classy, and dignified, he was a real pro, nailing every line in a precise, exotic accent -- especially the finale, which he crooned with a knowing smile, a glint in his eyes, and a lilt in his voice:

"Romance the way it once was... and profits the way they can be again!"

If that didn't warm the hearts and quicken the pulse of those book-sellers, nothing would.

We worked sixteen hours-plus that day on a flat rate, but I didn't care. Every day on set was a blast back then -- I was just happy to be there... and getting paid. 


Cut to a slow summer ten years later, when a call came to gaff an industrial shoot for Piper Aircraft. We'd be filming MOS, with no sound department to slow us down or demand "QUIET!" on set -- just a producer/director, two cameramen, one camera assistant, a grip, gaffer, and a single PA. The crew gathered at John Wayne Airport early one morning, where I found the grip in the bar sipping mineral water while reading a worn paperback copy of “The Federalist Papers.”

This was a very different sort of Key Grip than I was accustomed to working with. Not only did he consider himself something of an intellectual tough guy, he was also a vocal vegetarian determined to dispel any and all stereotypes that haunt those who follow the meatless path.

“I’m strong,” he assured me — not that I'd asked, mind you.

While the producer/director, one cameraman, and assistant climbed into a Piper Cub with a camera mounted in the space where a side door had been, the rest off us piled into the Piper Aerostar picture plane, a twin-engined aerial hot rod capable of speeds over 250 mph. The two planes took off and headed east over the San Gabriel mountains, where the camera plane filmed suitably picturesque shots of the Aerostar in flight. We landed at the airport in Lake Arrowhead to shoot takeoffs and landings against the spectacular mountainous background, then headed back into the sky. A minutes later we were high over the Southern California desert when our pilot -- an ex- Naval aviator who had flown fighter jets off aircraft carriers for twenty years -- turned around with a grin.

“Hang on,” he said, then snapped the Aerostar ninety degrees on its axis, wings suddenly vertical.I turned my head to look straight down out at the desert floor ten thousand feet below as the plane launched into a vertiginous attack dive, swooping down before flipping back to horizontal, then zooming up and under the camera plane until just a few feet separated us: two aircraft flying so close together that a miscue by either pilot could send us all spiraling into eternity.

Riding an aerobatic roller coaster in the sky like this was a thrill I'd always wanted to experience, and being young and immortal, I was having way too much fun to be scared. My faith in the skill of our pilot freed me from any real worry, and besides, this was all out of my control. If Something Bad happened here, there wasn't a damned thing I could do about it. Sometimes you just have to go with the flow, hope for the best, and enjoy the ride.

We were all having a giddy blast… except for the Key Grip in the back seat, who had suddenly turned green, his countenance a pale verdant hue unlike that of any person I’d ever seen. Physically strong he might be, but this guy was on the verge of blowing vegetarian chunks as we careened through the high desert air -- and no good could come of that.** Alerted to the imminent danger, the pilot eased off the throttle and back into calm air. The grip's stomach gradually backed down from Defcon One, and we got on with our day.

It went well. We spent the next few hours touching down at a series of rural airports out in the desert, whereupon we'd disembark to crank out a few more shots as the pilot took the locals up for a high-speed aerobatic spin. When the producer/director was finally happy, we flew back to the airport, our work day over.

This was the best day on an industrial I ever had -- the most fun by far, even if our Key Grip might not agree. 

Hey, you can't please everybody...


* This was twenty years before Amazon crawled out of the digital sea like Godzilla to crush the life out of Crown Books, Borders Books, and Barnes & Noble.

** It's no joke -- here's an excellent tale of the stomach-churning hazards that come with aerial filming.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Just for the Hell of It -- Episode Fifty

I've long since forgotten who posted this photo or where it was taken - otherwise I'd give him credit here - but I  like the look of this location rig...

Attentive readers will note that this is going up a week early, as my habit has been to post on the first Sunday of each month - which is not until next week - and that it went up three hours earlier than the usual 12:01 p.m. time slot. The reasons for this are unimportant, and may or may not be repeated.  Hey, the only constant in this life is change...


                                 Quote of the Month

This, from the opening of San Francisco Chronicle film critic Mick LaSalle's review of the Tilda Swinton/Dakota Johnson film Suspiria:

"If life were infinite and leisure eternal and if the only challenge were how to fill the endless hours with something, anything, that might divert us even slightly, "Suspiria" would still be something to miss. Centuries and even millennia might go by, and it would still make sense to say no to this movie, because there's just never a good time to see anything this worthless."

Ouch, babe. I don't know if Mick is right or wrong about Suspiria, and since the genre of supernatural horror films no longer interests me, I'll never find out -- but jeeze, that opening almost makes me want to see it just to find out if a movie can really be that bad.

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I've said it before and I'll say it again -- nothing comes easy for anybody in the film and television industry -- but actors have the hardest job on set, if only because it's so difficult for budding actors to get started and make a living in the biz. Consider the early career of Rami Malek, who achieved fame with the lead role in Mr. Robot, then was cast to play Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody. In this interview, Malek describes how he went about getting his first significant role (and an agent), a story that you really have to hear to believe. He goes on to discuss the effort that went into fleshing out and fully inhabiting those roles, which goes way beyond punching the time clock each day on set.  It's a fascinating interview, well worth your time.

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When I rolled into LA forty-plus years ago, the sheer volume of production (along with the lack of industry activity elsewhere) and relatively cheap housing made it the place to get started in the film and television industry... but times have changed. A sobering piece in the Hollywood Reporter explores the current situation in LA, where ever-escalating costs of living are driving an increasing number of young industry professionals to live in their vehicles rather than bunk up with a dozen roommates or pay a king's ransom to rent a halfway decent apartment.  I knew an old grip back in the day who lived in a motor home parked on the lot of a small stage in Hollywood, a rarity at the time that may -- the way things are going -- become routine at some point.  Someone else will have to testify to the cost of living in the other tax-subsidy states that host a thriving film/television industry these days, but LA no longer seems to be a user-friendly incubator for young people attempting to kick-start their industry careers. The first few years can be very lean for beginners, who -- given the escalating economic realities -- might be better off aiming towards one of the other film industry towns... or be prepared for a nomadic life on the streets of LA until they begin earning serious money.

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Every fan of Orson Welles has been intrigued by the release of his final film, The Other Side of the Wind. We've been hearing about it for decades, and here it is at last, the project brought to completion in no small part by producer Frank Marshall, who worked on the first-unit crew as 25 year old production assistant during principle photography in Arizona back in the early 1970's.  Now at age 72, he's closed the circle as producer overseeing the final edit and release. That's quite an accomplishment -- and you can hear all about it in this interview.

There's some brilliant work in Other Side of the Wind (I could watch John Huston chew up the scenery on screen all day long), and there's a scene filmed in a car at night in the rain that's something special -- not the least because it was filmed in bits and pieces with different actors over the course of several years -- but all things considered, I enjoyed the "making of"documentary They'll Love Me When I'm Dead a lot more.  If the life, work, and story of Orson Welles interests you at all, this is one you really don't want to miss.  Last I looked, both of these films were available for streaming on Netflix.  I'd recommend watching the feature before the documentary, but that's up to you.

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Here's a good interview with Matthew Heineman, who made the riveting documentary Cartel Land before taking the reins of his first dramatic feature film, A Private War.  That's a quantum leap for a director to make, and although I haven't yet seen the movie, everything I've read and heard indicates that Heineman stuck the landing.

Next, another good conversation with the ever-entertaining Joel and Ethan Coen, discussing... well, a lot of things anybody who like their movies will find interesting.  Check it out.

In this piece, David Simon sits down for a print interview talking about what he does and how he does it. If there ever is a Television Hall of Fame, Simon has already earned his first-ballot plaque on the wall for the brilliant series The Wire, which (along with The Sopranos) helped change the face of television dramas and usher in the current tsunami of Peak Television. He went on to craft four seasons of Treme, and two seasons thus far of The Deuce.  With these shows, Simon has cemented his status as the resident genius of dramatic, meaningful television -- everything he touches turns to artistic gold -- which makes this one worth a read.

This is a fascinating interview with Peter Jackson describing how his post production team was able to restore, synchronize, colorize, and add sound to silent, hand-cranked film from World War 1 that had been locked in the vaults of British film archives for nearly a hundred years. After five years of painstaking work -- which included using forensic lip readers to decipher what was being said in those ancient films -- the result is They Shall Not Grow Old, from all I've read and heard, an astonishing film. It's easy to regard history as dry, dusty, and having no relevance to modern times when viewed through the prism of jerky, black and white silent films, but the effect is very different when that same history lives and breathes like a modern movie. Your mileage my vary, but this is one I'm definitely going to see.

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On a personal note, one of the truly good guys of Hollywood passed away recently. Tony Askins was everything you could want in a Director of Photography --  knowledgeable, supremely competent, and easy going. I worked a twelve-episodes-and-out sitcom with Tony at Paramount called Love and Money, then came on for the last two seasons of the original Will and Grace as their extra-juicer for lighting days and shoot nights. Never once in all that time did Tony raise his voice.  He always got the job done -- and did it very well -- without ruffling any feathers. Tony Askins was smooth as silk, a gentleman in every way, and although I hated to see him leave the industry back in 2005, he'd earned his retirement, and enjoyed another dozen years before the lights finally faded to black. It was a privilege to work with him.

You were the best, Tony. Thanks -- for everything.

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That's it for January -- a short post, I know (which may be a relief to the few die-hards out there who still tune in), but I'm cobbling it together a few days before Christmas, which (with all due respect to Johnny Mathis) comes in second only to the weeks leading up to April 15 as the Most UnWonderful Time of the Year.  I recently resumed breaking rocks in the hot sun (figuratively speaking) on a project I've long blathered about -- a book based on this blog -- and there's only so much time I can sit at this keyboard.

That said, I wish all fourteen of you a very happy New Year, and hope 2019 will be an improvement over the rather dismal annus horribilis of 2018 now slinking out the back door.

In that spirit, I raise a glass of cheap champagne in a toast to better times ahead...