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, May 5, 2024

May

 


Well, it's book time again. I do a lot more reading here on the sunny beach of retirement than when I was breaking rocks in the hot sun of Hollywood, and aim to spread the word about any particularly good reads.  The Wild Bunch, by W.K. Stratton, is all that and more.

Reading If They Move, Kill 'Em was an education in the life, times, and work of Sam Peckinpah, but although the chapter devoted to his most legendary film, The Wild Bunch, is excellent, it tells only a portion of the story. W.K. Stratton's book goes deep into how the movie came about, from the first sketchy idea to theatrical release, and as usual in Hollywood, none of it came easy, least of all the grueling process of filming the script on location in Mexico. Having suffered from the meddling of studio suits in his previous films, Peckinpah was determined not to let that happen again, so chose rugged, remote locations that offered the raw authenticity his story needed with the bonus of being difficult and unpleasant for the suits to reach.  

I must confess that I didn't grasp what an astonishing film The Wild Bunch is the first time I saw it.  Being a callow, uninformed, and thoroughly ignorant young man, I -- like many others at the time -- focused on the graphic slow-motion shootout at the end, and couldn't see the cinematic forest for all those bloody trees.  Many years later on a slow, hot, and unemployed summer afternoon, I saw a fresh print screened at the old Cinerama Dome in Hollywood ... and was totally blown away. Peckinpah's film is so tightly constructed and the performances so letter-perfect that I couldn't believe my eyes. It's a truly magnificent movie.

The story this book tells is equally amazing, especially for anybody who's worked a feature on location.  In that case, you know how hard that can be: so imagine spending months in remote regions of Mexico working for a director who was something of a genius, but also a heavy drinker with a Jekyll and Hyde personality that could be generously described as "volatile." 

If you have any interest in this legendary film, check out the book. It's terrific.

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



Ed Zwick has enjoyed a golden career as a director, writer, and producer. Starting in television, he made a name for creating Thirty Something before moving into feature films, where he directed Legends of the Fall and Glory, among other notable efforts. Although I'd heard his name many times over the years, I haven't seen many of his movies, but this interview on NPR convinced me to read the book, and it's a truly great read. If my word isn't enough to induce you to read it -- no judgment here, I understand -- at least listen to that interview. It's highly entertaining and well worth your forty-five minutes.

With an opening that includes this, I wasn't too sure about the book at first: 

"I was living in Paris after college on a fellowship to observe experimental theater companies ... when I scored a dream job as an assistant to Woody Allen..."  

So the kid's first industry job is PAing for Woody Allen on the set of Love and Death  -- in Paris, no less --  after which he's accepted to the AFI in Hollywood. Woody then sets him up with a beautiful babe in Beverly Hills, and before you know it, young Ed is writing and directing a network television drama at the tender age of twenty-seven. This origin story carries more than a whiff of privilege, but I suppose a guy doesn't get to choose his parents, upbringing, or early passions, and as the narrative unfolds, it's clear that he had the chutzpa to make the most of whatever opportunities he encountered.

The story takes wing once it gets to directing Glory, which put him on the map as a feature director while running him through the wringer of dealing with a bafflingly intransigent Mathew Broderick and the actor's highly opinionated, domineering mother.  Whatever residual shreds of envy I felt about Zwick's apparently effortless rise to early success in Hollywood, the ordeal Broderick (and his nightmare mother) put him through demonstrates that he paid his dues and then some.  When I got to the story describing how the 23 year old Julia Roberts blew to smithereens Zwick's dreams of directing "Shakespeare in Love" after he'd worked extremely hard to get the studio green light -- and this after six million dollars had been spent on sets and pre-production -- I understood that he earned his subsequent success.  The man is a gifted writer who spins a smooth and deeply personal story laced with wry humor, plus -- for any of you young wannabes still dreaming of becoming directors -- he offers a ton of sage, real-world advice on the craft, every word of which was learned the hard way.  

Here's a taste of Zwick's prose in a section describing what he learned about the diamond trade from a South African journalist while doing research for his film Blood Diamond:

"There was little about the diamond industry she didn't know (and despise). She walked me, step-by-step, through the circumstances by which De Beers' stranglehold on the market in rough diamonds was complicit in financing the bloody Sierra Leone conflict. With her guidance and by virtue of her connections, I visited mines, read spreadsheets and secret memos, peered at rough stones through microscopes, traveled through four continents to talk to jewelers, dealers, smugglers, politicians, captains of industry, mercenaries, NGO do-gooders and corporate spin doctors. What I learned was as complex and rife with contradiction as Africa itself: as faceted and mysterious, one might even say, as a diamond -- a thing both rare and yet abundant, a beautiful object born of ugliness, something indestructible that has also caused so much destruction." 

Nice.  

So yeah, I like this book a lot. Maybe I have some variety of ADD, because I'm seldom able to plow right through any book, which is why I usually have half a dozen on the coffee table with bookmarks in the middle. I always finish them, but not without bouncing from one to another night after night, so it can take me a long time to get to the last page of any book. That didn't happen with this one: instead, I looked forward to sitting down next to the wood stove every night to read a few more chapters -- and there were no digressions.  I didn't even look at another book until I'd finished Hits, Flops, and Other Illusions.  Indeed, my only complaint is that I finished it too soon.

Now, to answer the question the photo of the book above might have raised in your mind ... no, it seems I really can't take a level, non-skewed photo of a book with my iPhone.  

So it goes.

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

Harkening back once again ... remember this one?  Truth be told, getting through the first half of that book was a bit of a slog. Although the story was true -- a famous director and his equally famous lead actress/wife kidnapped by a ruthless dictator/film buff who wanted them to turn his third-world film industry into a world-class cinematic powerhouse -- there are just too many names and events to keep track of in a very dense narrative, so I put it down for a while.  Quite a while, actually, but I finally opened it again and am happy to report that the second half picks up enough speed to be a fascinating read.  

The whole story would be unbelievable as a work of fiction, but being true, it ultimately comes across as poignant as it is jaw-dropping.  The tale is almost biblical in scope: a love story and marriage go bad as fame, pride, and temptation bring down a high-flying career until the heavy hand of fate intervenes to deliver years of truly brutal suffering. Redemption finally comes, but at a cost.  How does it feel to have a moribund career brought back to life -- to finally get all you ever wanted in professional terms -- at the price of renouncing your home country and living a complete lie?  Then what happens after years of careful planning leads to a narrow life-or-death escape and you're back home trying to explain what happened to a skeptical public and country that doesn't know who or what to believe anymore?  This story brings a double-shot of "be careful what you wish for," and if you can wade through the first half to get to the real meat of the story, you'll be glad you did.  It really is something special.

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

Daniel Bessner has a long, thoughtful article in Harper's Magazine dissecting the current plight of writers in Hollywood. For all but the most established television writers, life is increasingly uncertain for several reasons Bessner delineates, including the corporate consolidation of the industry. If the link is hidden behind a paywall and you want to read the piece, shoot me an e-mail at the link on the home page and I'll send it along. One caution: I work on a Mac, so it will be in Apple's Pages word processing form, which isn't readable by a PC.  

If you don't have the time to read, check out this 45-minute conversation Bessner had with "Fresh Air" host Terry Gross on NPR, which covers the same territory. The more I hear about the situation in Hollywood these days, the happier I am to be retired.

On that note -- the current state of Hollywood -- here's another snippet from Ed Zwick's book, describing the comments of the studio executive without whose backing the difficult, costly production of Blood Diamond would never have happened.

"I love this movie," he said.  "I'm proud of it and I'm going to hang the poster in my office.  But it's the last one of its kind we'll ever make."

"But why?" I asked.

"Because it cost one hundred million dollars to make and the studio only made a forty million dollar profit," he said, shrugging. "Our corporate bosses expect us to meet a P and L projection every quarter.  It's more profitable for us to lose seventy-five million on one release and then make three hundred fifty million on the next. Those are the multiples we're working in these days. A big movie just for adults can't do that anymore. And forty million doesn't move the needle on the stock price."

So there you go, kiddos: it's all about the stock price nowadays.

Read it and weep.

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

A nasty accident happened on a shoot in Georgia recently when a stunt involving two picture vehicles went bad. The details remain unclear at the moment, but as this article and video from the NY Times shows, it was bad, albeit not nearly as bad as it could have been. As disturbing as the accident is the absence of an ambulance in case something went wrong.  Stunts are inherently dangerous, especially when moving vehicles are involved, so how can a production company justify not having an ambulance standing by to rapidly transport any accident victims to the nearest medical facility?

Let me take a wild guess: it was the money the production would have had to spend on that ambulance, right?

Same as it ever was.

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

Closing out on a brighter note, a story about an incident that happened during the filming of Exit Wounds in 2001. It seems that martial artist-turned-actor Seagal wasn't fond of rehearsing, and true to form, refused to rehearse a scene that was set in a houseboat on location. As told by Tom Arnold, who also appeared in that scene, here's what happened.

Spring is finally here after the long winter, so turn off your computer and cell phone, and get out into it.
And hey, Happy Cinco de Mayo!

Sunday, April 7, 2024

Whither Hollywood ... again.




Like every veteran of Hollywood, I've seen a few changes to our industry over the decades.  Carbon arcs and tungsten lamps were the state of the art in film lighting technology as I was getting started in the late 70s, but arcs were soon elbowed aside by HMI lamps in the early 80s.  HMIs have evolved a lot since then, and still rule the roost of day exterior filming, but small LED lamps have made inroads in lighting on sound stages and for day/night interiors. From what I hear anecdotally, attempts at larger LED fresnel lamps haven't as yet been entirely successful, but that too may just be a matter of time.

LED Walls came into use in the last few years to replace the crude canvas backings, trans-lights, and blue/green screen technology that has long been standard on Hollywood sound stages. These arrived after I retired, so I never got a chance to see them on set -- but their capabilities are astonishing.  Not only can LED walls create a totally believable world for the actors to inhabit, but the "location" light emanating from the LED screens helps light the actors for the camera in a naturalistic manner. Some physical props and sets are still needed, along with additional lighting, but the end results are remarkable.

For more examples of what LED walls can do, click herehere, and here -- and if you're really interested, here's how an LED wall is constructed on stage.

I addressed the question Whither Hollywood? a dozen years ago -- a very different era -- and although I'm clearly no Hollywood Nostradamous, this seems a good time to take another stab at it. Once again everything seems to be in flux: just when it seemed that LED technology was exactly what Hollywood needed to continue grinding out "product," along came AI to muddle the waters and send shivers down the spine of Hollywood veterans and relative newbies alike -- above and below the line.

We've all seen the AI-generated images from Sora by now, which are as startling as they are scary for everybody who works on set in the film and television industry. Half of those clips look appropriate for animation, but others are astonishingly photo-realistic. There are major limitations on the capability of AI imagery at the moment, but given the rapid evolutionary progress of all things digital, it seems destined to have a serious impact on the industry as we know it ... and indeed, it already has.  After seeing what AI can do, Tyler Perry recently backed off a planned $800 million expansion of his studio facilities in Atlanta. A lot of people there were doubtless looking forward to the construction jobs that were to come from building those sound stages, and the movies and television shows that would have been shot there. 

Now, who knows?

Creating hyper-realistic images and sixty-second clips is a long way from making a feature film, of course, much less generating the kind of performance a skilled actor can bring to the screen -- and blending truly convincing vocals and performance with AI imagery may prove a much steeper hill to climb.  That said, new generations of viewers are bringing their own sense of aesthetics to the table. In time, those who grew up immersed in the visual textures and palette of video games may be ready to leap across the uncanny valley to fully embrace AI performances on screen.  

Movie audiences were once dazzled by black and white silent films in a nearly square format, then came sync-sound and a slightly wider format, followed by color, true widescreen, three-strip technicolor, VistaVision, cinemascope, Cinerama, Imax, digital, high def, 4K, 8K, and now ... AI.  

"The only constant is change," the ancients cautioned, and big changes in the way movies are made and viewed have been part of the equation from the very beginning. 

The potential of AI is doubtless bringing the money people and producing class -- at least those who actually work at producing rather than those who've been anointed the title "producer" thanks to the efforts of their agents -- to a state of euphoric delirium as they dream about abandoning cameras, crews, physical sets, sound stages, and location filming altogether in favor making movies entirely within the digital boundaries of computers.  I can see them high-fiving over magnums of Cristal champagne while chortling "We'll save hundreds of millions -- that's more money for us!" In these wet-dream fantasies, those who do the heavy lifting on and off set will go the way of steam trains and the boiler tenders who shoveled coal to keep those massive engines running, all relegated to the sepia-toned archives of Hollywood history. 

Their dream is a nightmare for the rest of Hollywood.

Although I don't think that day will come soon, the long-term outlook for those currently employed in Hollywood is not encouraging.  AI might never replace all the workers on set, but it could drastically reduce their numbers, which is not something any of us wants to hear.  The industry health care and pension plans are funded in part by contributions from working union members, and a slimmer workforce would reduce that funding. Absent some new source of income, a tipping point could be reached beyond which both programs collapse, which would be catastrophic for the rank-and-file who desperately need health coverage now, and will eventually need the pensions they've earned. 

The decade prior to the last year's WGA/SAG strike was golden as the streaming networks funneled vast sums into producing movies and television shows, which brought a lot of new writers, directors, and crew people into the industry -- but given the boom-and-bust nature of Hollywood, I had a bad feeling that many of those who came in during the boom times of streaming would be left high and dry when the inevitable bust came. Sure enough, once it dawned on the money men that the economics of streaming wouldn't support such high levels of spending, an across-the-board retrenchment commenced well before the WGA/SAG strike. From what I hear,  production is still way down as we move into what should be the peak of pilot season ... but it's just not happening. Maybe this is due to the threat of an IA strike in the coming summer, or maybe the money people are just waiting to see what develops. I don't know, and I'm not sure anybody else does either, but one thing is evident: a lot of people are hurting in Hollywood these days.

So ... back to the subject of AI.  After deciding to conduct my own experiment, I logged on to ChatGTP, created an account, then asked it to come up with 150 words describing how AI would affect workers in Hollywood -- written in the style of "The Hollywood Juicer."  I haven't a clue if ChatGTP knows who or what "The Hollywood Juicer" might be, but this is what came back.

"In a whirlwind of circuits and celluloid dreams, the advent of Artificial Intelligence (AI) casts a shadow over the bustling streets of Hollywood.  As the gears of innovation grind, so to do the fears and aspirations of the industry's workforce.  AI's incursion into Hollywood promises both marvels and challenges, reshaping the landscape of creativity and labor.  On one hand, AI heralds a new era of efficiency, streamlining the production pipeline and revolutionizing visual effects. Automated algorithms analyze scripts, predict box office success, and even generate storyboards. Yet, this technological revolution raises poignant questions about job displacement and creative autonomy.  Will AI render traditional roles obsolete, leaving actors, writers, and directors adrift in a sea of algorithms?  Navigating this brave new world demands a delicate dance between innovation and preservation.  Embracing AI's potential while safeguarding the human touch is the industry's tightrope walk. For Hollywood's denizens, the future beckons with both trepidation and tantalizing promise." 

Other than counting the words (153, for those who care), who am I to judge?  I leave it to you, dear readers: Should I just punch in a question or subject on the first Sunday of every month, then publish the results rather than slaving over a hot keyboard for weeks on end to come up with readable posts?

Let the Vox Populi be heard!

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

I must confess that not many modern movies interest me.  The last two mainstream movies I saw and liked were Bladerunner 2049 and Hell or High Water, both of which are ... well, let's just say "no longer new." Another recent viewing was Crazy Heart, which I liked, but given that it's fifteen years old, you can see where I'm going here.  This could be because I've become an old crank who shakes my cane at passing clouds while grumbling "They just don't make 'em like they used to!" -- or maybe, as The Dude might say, I'm just not into the whole superhero thing. If you love Marvel movies, great -- hey, more power to you -- but I'd rather stay home and watch Netflix, TMC, or Criterion these days.  Still, every now and then I hear about a new movie that makes me sit up and pay attention, which is what exactly happened when I heard this review of Don't Expect Too Much From the End of the World, then watched the trailer

Okay, now I really want to see this one, because it just might be another Stranger than Paradise, which blew my considerably younger mind back in 1984, but since it's only playing at little art house theaters at the moment -- none of which are near me -- I'll probably have to wait until it hits a streaming network. You might be luckier.

Even the staid Gray Lady herself had good things to say about this movie -- and if that link leads to a paywall, try this one, which the NYT claims should be good until April 20 or so.  I'm not gonna waste my breath and surrender my wrists to tunnel carpal syndrome by describing those reviews and the trailer, so just click those links and see/hear for yourself.  This movie sounds like a true breath of fresh cinematic air, which we sorely need these days.

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

     The young me with an even younger Lea Thompson in her wardrobe for the day.

I took a trip down memory lane recently to watch a feature I'd worked on thirty-seven years ago.  Thirty-seven years ... how is that even possible?  

The tempus, it really does fugit.

I don't recall that a cast and crew screening was ever held for The Wizard of Loneliness, which we filmed late in 1987 in rural Vermont with a surprisingly good cast for a low-budget feature: a very young Lucas Hass, the lovely Lea Thompson, Dylan Baker, Lance Guest, and the venerable old pro John Randolph.  It was a tough shoot  -- two solid months of six-day weeks filming in a small town amid the rugged hills a forty-five-minute drive east of Sugarbush, where it got very cold as November morphed into December.  I've written about this job before, and the small crew we had to film night exteriors in the snow, a deal memo that paid us overtime only after we'd worked a cumulative 96 hours per week, the six rental cars various crew members wrecked while driving icy roads in the first weeks of production, and Lea suffering a cut on her head in one of those crashes that required plastic surgery back in LA while we shot around her for several weeks -- but I'd never actually seen it.  The VHS tape of the movie that I bought twenty years ago and never watched is now useless without a working VCR, so I figured I'd never get to see it ... until one night it occurred to me to search the web, and sure enough: there it was on Amazon Prime. You know what?  It's not half bad.  Rather earnest, and there are five or ten minutes that might better have ended up on the cutting room floor, but all in all it's a decent little period piece.  

The thing about watching a show you worked on is that it feels a bit like a home movie -- so many scenes remind you of things that happened on set -- some crazy, some fun, and many not fun at all -- and of the people you met and worked with back then, but never saw again.  Finally seeing The Wizard of Loneliness was a bit like watching a lovely young woman in a sleek, sexy dress walking down the street on a lovely spring day ... it made me feel young and old at the same time.  

And on that rather poignant note (thanks for the writing tip, ChatGTP!), I'll sign off for another month.  Spring is here, so try to ignore the firehose of bad news that's drowning us all these days, and enjoy it while you can.


Sorry about the awkward formatting in the very first paragraph.  It was all fine and dandy until I found a better train photo to replace my original choice, and for reasons best known to digital gurus, tech nerds, and the non-existent God above who clearly hates me ... it fucked up the formatting of that paragraph all to hell and gone.  I tried to fix it four times -- rewriting that paragraph and reinstalling the links, but each time the rogue formatting re-emerged.  Blogger software is buggy in its own special and infuriating way, leaving me no choice but to go outside and shake my cane at a cloud.

Sunday, March 3, 2024

A Dark Day


                                   

From the first time I walked onto a soundstage, I liked going up high, where the work was always physical but relatively straightforward. The catwalks are a world apart from the clusterfuck of noise and confusion that so often infects the stage floor, where one or two loudmouths always seemed to be yelling about something. Some days were utterly terrifying, of course, but at least I knew that I was contributing in a meaningful way -- and in the process, earning every last penny of my paycheck ... and then some. Those days were very satisfying on many different levels.

Working thirty to forty-five feet or higher off the ground comes with inherent risks -- gravity has no mercy and takes no prisoners -- so you have to be careful, but the soundstages I started on at Paramount and Warner Brothers were in solid shape.  I felt safe on most of the non-union stages around town as well, although a few of the really old ones were decidedly sketchy.  My biggest worry when working up high was accidentally dropping a crescent wrench or screwdriver that might hit some poor bastard down on the stage floor. Still, most of those stages I worked on were built many decades ago, and time takes a toll on everything. Any studio that doesn't keep an eye on and maintain those catwalks is putting at risk the lives of crews who work up high. 

A terrible tragedy happened early last month at the CBS Studio in the valley -- "Radford" as it's known throughout Hollywood, which was my favorite studio and home lot for the last third of my career.  A  41-year-old lighting technician working a show on Stage 3, one of the oldest soundstages on the lot, was killed when the boards under his feet gave way with no warning. Exactly what happened remains unclear pending the investigation, but what matters is this: one moment Juan "Spike" Osorio was doing his job and the next moment he was falling forty feet to his death.  He wasn't out on the perms or doing anything remotely dangerous -- he was just doing the physical but routine task of wrangling cable up high, something every juicer does many times over the course of a career.  I spent countless days landing and dropping cable up high at Radford, although never on Stage 3, where Gunsmoke and many other shows were filmed way before my time in Hollywood. Never once in all those years did I worry about catwalk floorboards giving way like a trap door -- the possibility never entered my mind.  I'd spot occasional missing boards or a weak safety rail on the catwalks, and if I couldn't fix the issue right then and here, I'd report it to the studio rigging gaffer. Other than a few heart-pounding adventures out on the perms, I never felt in any danger up high, but it seems my confidence in the structural integrity of those stages was misplaced.  

The ripple effects of this tragedy won't be confined to Juan's widow and their families -- and here I speak from experience: nobody who was there will ever forget the sight and sounds of his violent death.  It's bad enough if you don't personally know the man, but if he was part of your crew and/or a friend, it's devastating. One way or another, everybody on that stage is a victim, and Spike's death will haunt them for a very long time.

Maybe I was just lucky during my years working up high -- I really don't know. All I can say for sure is that Juan Osorio didn't deserve to die on Stage 3: he should have finished his workday and gone home to his wife. There will doubtless be some kind of legal action and eventual settlement, but those things take time, so a GoFundMe has been established for his wife, who needs all the support she can get right now. I chipped in, but it was still short of the goal the last time I checked, so if you can help, please do.  If for whatever reason you can't contribute, please consider adding your voice to this online petition pressing for legislation to mandate that studios inspect, maintain, and repair sound stages. Let's do what we can to make sure what happened to Spike never happens to anybody else.

Thanks.

RIP, Spike.


I'd planned to write about other things this month, but shifting to another subject just doesn't feel right, so I'll save it for another day.

MT

Sunday, February 4, 2024

February



Thanks to the "Crew Stories" FB page, I recently came across another "inside the belly of the beast" film book. In Purple Fury: Rumbling With the Warriors, Rob Ryder weaves a collection of anecdotes describing his adventures toiling in many aspects of the film industry -- from PA to locations, set dec, acting, screenwriting, props, and sundry other on/off set chores -- around the central story of working on Walter Hill's legendary 1979 film The Warriors.  The title and cover photo come from Rob being drafted by Hill to replace an injured stuntman as a member of "The Baseball Furies," one of the violent gangs The Warriors must confront as they fight their way across New York City over the course of one long, bruising night. While playing the bat-swinging role of "Purple Fury" for the cameras at night, he managed to keep his day job in the Locations Dept for a few days, which made the messy and exhausting job of working a feature film all the more grueling. 

As you can see from the first page, Ryder is a stylish writer who spins a punchy, informative, and highly entertaining tale: 

"Making movies is a lot like life -- a swirling chaotic clusterfuck. So if you're looking for a polished story that stays on track, clips along in perfect chronological order and rolls into the last station all tied up in a shiny pink bow, you caught the wrong train."  

He wasn't kidding. The narrative jumps back and forth in time and place from NYC to Hollywood, but Ryder's casual conversational style feels like he's telling you these stories told over a few ... okay, more than a few ... beers, and that's a good thing. This book is a highly entertaining read for industry veterans and newbies alike: the former will nod and grin as they resonate with Ryder's experiences, while the newbies receive a lively and accurate introduction to what it's like to work on a feature film.

I saw The Warriors when it was released thirty-five years ago, and although it made a big impression on me, I had no idea that it's since become a cult favorite all over the world, or that surviving members of the cast still gather at conventions to meet-and-greet fans, many of whom weren't even born when the film first hit theaters. 

Ryder moved to New York to become a writer before fate sent him on a detour into the film industry, but kept at the keyboard writing screenplays that often sold but didn't get made. Although one could view this as -- in the immortal words of then-president Jimmy Carter -- "an incomplete success," it's a hell of a lot more than most wannabe screenwriters accomplish. As his book reveals, he's still at it all these years later, coming up with ideas for scripts and making them pay one way or another. All that practice turned him into an excellent writer, which makes Purple Fury a great read.

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

There's a fascinating piece on Scott Frank in the January 1 - 8 New Yorker by Patrick Radden Keefe, titled The Ventriloquist. Truth be told, I'd never heard of Frank before reading this article, but it turns out he's been one of the most prolific and in-demand screenwriter/script doctors in Hollywood for quite a while now, to the point where he was able to demand $300,000 a week for his re-write services before moving into the triple-threat task of being a writer/producer/director.

His credits include Get ShortyMarley & Me, and Logan, among many others, and according to Keefe, has done rewrites for sixty features. His most recent effort is directing a television series currently running on AMC called Monsieur Spade, which imagines the life of an aging Sam Spade -- the lead character of Dashiell Hammet's The Maltese Falcon -- after he's left San Franciso to live in France.

Although I've long been interested in writing, I've never been drawn to screenplays.  Like all writing, screenwriting is an art -- and thus a noble endeavor -- but even the best screenplay is a blueprint for a movie, not the movie itself.  No matter how clever the plot or beautiful the story structure, a brilliant screenplay will never see the light of day unless and until someone turns it into a movie.  Few people beyond actors, producers, directors, and aspiring screenwriters read screenplays, and I don't imagine many people outside the film and television industry ever say to themselves "Hey, this feels like a good night to sit by the fire and read a screenplay."  

The best screenwriters are as good at their craft as any short story specialist, novelist, or poet, but I'm grateful that I've never been drawn to that particular literary flame.  I know a few people who are, and although they write smart, well-structured screenplays, the finger-to-the-air nature of the marketplace has left them beating their heads against the wall of futility for many years.  It seems that a good screenplay at the wrong time has less a chance of being sold -- much less making it to the silver screen -- than a bad screenplay at the right time.  Although I can't imagine dealing with such a level of frustration, I salute those who keep grinding away at it year after year.  They're made of sterner stuff than I.    

For what it's worth,  here are some thoughts on the subject of screenwriting from back in 2008, and eight years later, a few more thoughts.   

Keefe's article is a great read, so I hope that link works -- you never know these days.  If not, well, most libraries carry the New Yorker, and this one is worth a trip to your local branch.  For any of you interested in more from Scott Frank, he has a lot to say in several of the On Story podcasts out of Austin, Texas.

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

At some point in the last few years I stopped listening to podcasts of The Business, the weekly half-hour show on KCRW-FM that begins with a quick roundup of the latest news in the film and television industry, then moves on to an interview with an actor, writer, director, producer, or other luminary of the business.  Some weeks were great, others not so much, but eventually I grew weary of the show host, Kim Masters, and her habit of constantly interrupting and talking over her guests to the point where it seemed she thought the show was more about her than them.

I tuned in again recently and was pleasantly surprised to find that -- for these two episodes, anyway -- Kim left the interviewing to hosts more willing to shine the spotlight on the guests. The first features Noah Hawley discussing his Fargo series and another series in the works based on the "Alien" movies.  A wonderful storyteller, Hawley is also one very smart guy, and has some interesting things to say about a lot of things in that conversation.  The second has Gary Oldman talking about his role in Slow Horses, his acting career, his interest in directing, and the lure of continuing to work part-time so he can do things in life other than work on set. Personally, I could listen to Gary Oldman read a phone book (google it, kids) for twenty minutes, but this interview offers a lot more. If you like either show, give these a listen -- you'll be glad you did.

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

A letter from my union local arrived a couple of weeks ago with an odd request: the officers wanted me to retire ... again.  I was confused at first --  didn't I already retire back in 2017, so WTF?

It turns out that a large portion of the dues each retiree pays to remain a member of the local goes to the IA international.* Although that's not necessarily a bad thing, my local in LA is hard-pressed to keep up with the ever-increasing cost of life insurance premiums that cover all members. They could raise the quarterly dues, of course, but after most of the union was unemployed for more than six months last year thanks to the WGA/SAG strike -- and with full production not yet up to speed in Hollywood -- nobody wants to see the dues go up.  By signing and returning the form, I'd become "a retired member of IATSE" rather than simply retired from Local 728,  so the local would get more of the annual dues I pay, which would help defray those insurance costs.  

According to the letter, the only downside to signing that form is that there's no going back. An IA member who retires from the local can "un-retire" and go back to work -- or if sufficiently motivated, run for one of the union officer jobs -- but once he or she officially retires from the international, those avenues are closed. Given that I now live four hundred miles north of LA and am not about to take all those "safety classes" again --  without which I wouldn't be allowed on set anyway -- going back to work was never a realistic possibility, and my interest in becoming an officer of the local is less than zero.  That said, I hate to torch a bridge unless it's unavoidable, so I left the letter sitting on my desk for a week or so.  Then one morning I looked at it and thought "Who am I kidding? No fucking way am I moving back to LA to get back on the Hollywood merry-go-round." 

It's over -- it was over the first time I retired back in 2017.  At this point, an hour or two of stacking firewood finishes me off for the day, so there's no way I could go back to slinging 4/0 on a rigging crew or working 12 hour days on set.  More to the point, I don't want to -- at all. Forty years was enough ... so I signed the form and dropped it in the mail the next day. 

I won't lose any sleep over this.

That's all, kiddos. As months go, February isn't much fun -- at all -- but remember the words of Garrison Keillor:

"Without winter, you can't appreciate the spring."



 * Retiree dues are much less than active members -- in my case, around $120 a year as opposed to nearly $1000 active members pay. 

Sunday, December 31, 2023

January


                                    Here comes 2024

                                            (Photo by Robert Aasness)

Yeah, I know ... this is actually the last Sunday in December, not the first Sunday of January, so why is the monthly BS&T post appearing today? Hey, rules were made to be broken, and besides, it's New Year's Eve. I can't think of a better time to offer one last Hollywood air-kiss to 2023 while bracing myself for what's coming in the New Year. 


Although I may be one of the few sentient beings in this country who’s never seen a single episode of Homicide: Life on the Street — and likewise missed the entirety of Brooklyn Nine-Nine despite the fact that it was shot on a soundstage just a few yards across the alley at CBS Radford from the stage where I toiled on the longest running show of my so-called career— I was stunned and deeply saddened to learn of Andre Braugher’s entirely premature death last month. 2023 was a rough year for those who appreciate good actors of all stripes. The list of those left us is long and painful, and although there’s no way to determine which of these artists represented the greatest loss (and why the fuck would anybody even attempt such a ghoulish task?), it’s often the most recent losses that sting the most, and such is the case with Andre Braugher. 

I first became aware of him in the 2007 sci-fi thriller/horror film The Mist, a taut, spooky, and ultimately bleak film that made quite an impression on me, but I didn’t see him again until Men of a Certain Age came to my television a couple of years later.  Braugher gave strong, nuanced, memorable performances in each of these productions, which marked him as an actor to watch. You can get an inkling of how broad was his thespian range and what kind of guy he was from an interview that was broadcast on NPR, but for a measure of the man himself, it's hard to beat this story from a dolly grip who worked with him a long time ago.*

"About 25 years ago I did a movie with him (don't remember the name).  I'd gotten divorced a year earlier, and with a small daughter, still didn't have a lot of money. I took a date to the wrap party, a young lady that I wanted to impress.  We stopped for drinks at a restaurant on the way, and there was Andre at the bar.  I said hi and we chatted for a minute. My date said she liked whiskey, so I told the bartender to give me his best two shots. After we downed them, he said "That'll be sixty dollars."  

This was way more than I could afford -- I was expecting maybe twenty bucks ... in 1998 dollars.  Andre must have seen the panic on my face, and without missing a beat he told the bartender 'I've got this one."

"Thank you,' I mouthed."

"Forget it,' he said, then wished us a good evening. I've never forgotten this small act of kindness. He was a good man."

         Andre Braugher: a wonderful actor and an even better man.

                                                     RIP

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

Anybody who's been watching Slow Horses on Apple TV knows what an entertaining show it is, and that the lead is a role Gary Oldman was absolutely born to play.  It's been a long time since Oldman's birth, of course, and the weight of all those years is evident in everything about the slovenly leader of a motley crew of disgraced MI 5 agents -- slow horses -- each of whom has been shunted off to perform menial and meaningless bureaucratic busy-work under the relentlessly critical eye of seasoned veteran and fellow disgracee Jackson Lamb.**  

As this piece from GQ notes, the show provides Oldman the opportunity to release and "embrace his inner crank" and let the bile flow while guiding his younger agents through the labyrinth of spy-craft at the price of occasional blood. As usual with Brit shows, the acting of the entire cast is terrific. Slow Horses is a fun show now in its third season, and if you're not watching it, you're missing out. 

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

I've long thought of Frank Capra's classic It's a Wonderful Life as a Christmas Noir: a film that takes its protagonist -- a good man so thoroughly disillusioned by the cumulative weight of fate and circumstance that he's driven to commit suicide, but is saved at the last second by a guardian angel who then shows him how miserable the lives of those he loves would have been had he never been born. It's a truly great movie, but I never thought much past that thumbnail description for one reason: analytical dissections of cinematic classics was never -- ever -- in my wheelhouse. If it was, maybe I'd have spent a forty-year career doing something less strenuous and bruising than wrangling heavy cable and lamps on set in Hollywood. Still, I enjoy reading the analysis of those who do the mental heavy-lifting my brain can't handle, as in this take on Capra's movie from Mick LaSalle, senior film critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. 

"This movie was considered too downbeat for audiences when it debuted in 1946, and today is misremembered as a sentimental Christmas classic.  The truth is somewhere in between.  It's a Christmas movie, in a sense, but it's one that mostly addresses a central question that people ask themselves throughout their lives.  The question starts out as "Will my life amount to anything?"  Then it's rephrased over time: "Is my life amounting to anything?" "Has my life amounted to anything?"  Finally, it's "Did my life amount to anything?"

"Jimmy Stewart, a specialist in screen anguish, plays a man who's convinced that his life has amounted to absolutely nothing, and it takes a divine intervention to make him see otherwise. The redemption of his spirit is reassuring, not just to him, but to all of us. The movie tells us that Christmas is a time of renewal, but says it in a way that's unexpectedly visceral and personal.  Our relief for him is relief for ourselves. This is a great American movie about the meaning of success."

"You know you want to see it again. So see it."

Thanks, Mick. I think I will.

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

As the New Year approached, I had the feeling of being strapped into a roller coaster as it slowly clanked up through the darkness towards the first and highest peak, after which will come a stomach-churning vertiginous plunge into the twisty unknown at an ever-accelerating and increasingly lethal pace. Should anything go wrong -- a worn-out bearing, loose bolt, or broken piece of track -- the entire train of cars could hurtle into the void, sending all the passengers to oblivion.  A lot can go wrong over the course of this year, and here we are, just beginning to feel the heart-stopping panic as gravity takes charge ... and it hits us that we're suddenly no longer in control. 

What will happen, and what kind of world will we face a year from today? I don't know, but I find it hard to be optimistic these days.

All of this put me in mind of W. B. Yeats famous poem The Second Coming, which feels disturbingly appropriate for our current cultural, political, and geopolitical situation.

The Second Coming

William Butler Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer:

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold:

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.


Surely some revelation is at hand:

Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out

When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi

Troubles my sight somewhere in the sands of the desert

A shape with lion body and the head of a man, 

A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,

Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it

Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again: but now I know

That twenty centuries of stony sleep

Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle, 

And what rough beast, its hour come 'round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?


On that somber note, I wish you all a Happy New Year -- and good luck. We're all gonna need it.


* That would be "D" of Dollygrippery fame, of course. Thanks for sharing your great story, D!

** If "disgracee" isn't a real word ... well, it should be.


Sunday, December 3, 2023

December


                                             Victory!*

Christmas came early with the end of the SAG strike, but the ancient wisdom once again held true: "When elephants fight, the grass is trampled."  The film industry's below-the-line workers -- who do the heavy lifting on and off set to move a script from computer screen to silver screen -- were getting trampled even before WGA picket lines went up on May 2. The powers that be knew damned well a strike was coming and had long since ramped down production, which is why so many below-the-liners have been out of work for eight to ten months now, and some even longer.  Unemployment benefits run out after twenty-six weekly checks have been delivered -- and $450/week doesn't go very far in LA anyway -- so many of those people have been in desperate shape for a very long time.

Having burned through their savings, plundered retirement accounts, sold what they could, re-mortgaged homes, taken temp jobs, and borrowed from whoever was able to help, most of those hard-working crew people are now in a deep financial hole. It's great that long-dormant movie and television productions are finally gearing up to shoot, but it won't happen overnight, which means much of Hollywood is facing a lean and hungry Christmas.  

Things will be different in the New Year, when the film and television industry should be going at it hammer and tongs.  Debts will be repaid and bank accounts gradually replenished as the months pass, and life will be better for a while, but another dark cloud looms on the horizon: the IA contract with the AMPTP expires next summer on July 31st. Those in the rank and file were not happy with the last contract negotiated in 2021, when the IA came closer than I'd ever seen to calling a general strike. After decades of watching more hard-earned benefits vanish with each new contract, the membership was fed up ... but not quite enough, because they ratified the 2021 contract.  Still, the consensus at the time was that the 2024 contract would have to be much better or a strike will almost certainly be called to make sure that -- as The Who memorably sang back in the days of my youth -- "We don't get fooled again.

But then Covid shut things down for a while, and as production gradually resumed, it was with mandatory safety protocols -- daily testing, mask requirements, social distancing, strict and often fickle Covid Safety monitors, and an onerous A-Zone/B-Zone/C-Zone sector on every set -- which made a tough job all that much harder and pretty much took all the fun out of this business. Much of the workforce hadn't fully recovered when the WGA and SAG went on strike, which slammed the door for 114 days during which no sector of the industry suffered more than the below-the-line community, who supported the strike despite not having a dog in the fight. So when it's our turn for a new and better contract in July, will the battered, bruised, and still-recovering IA membership really be willing to call another industry strike -- and if so, will the WGA and SAG support us?

I don't know, nor does anyone else. To quote another old saying: "Time will tell."

It seems a bit early to declare who the real winners and losers were in this strike, but that didn't stop The Hollywood Reporter from sharing a few thoughts on the matter.  Whether they're correct in that assessment remains to be seen, but I hope they're right about at least one thing: the Lizard Queen losing influence -- and hopefully her job -- leading the AMPTP.  I didn't like her when she first got the job, and nothing since then has softened my view. 

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

A while back -- quite a while, actually -- a post appeared here called Art vs. Commerce discussing the age-old struggle between those in Hollywood who are driven to reap profits and those whose interest is in creating cinematic art.  When the two drives miraculously come together, the result can be a classic film ... but that doesn't happen often enough.

My own cinematic coming of age in the 70s was sparked by a new style of filmmaking that focused on compelling dramas with something to say, many of which did well at the box office. A young generation of writers and directors turned Hollywood upside down and created a new mini-Golden Age, but the good times couldn't last. Once George Lucas and Steven Spielberg demonstrated the massive profit potential of slick, well-crafted, undeniably entertaining movies like Star Wars and Jaws, that brief flowering of artistic expression in Hollywood was doomed. 

Nowadays Hollywood's bread-and-butter is a depressingly juvenile string of CGI-laden tentpole superhero franchise spectaculars, because it's all about the money.  The industry always has been, really, but there was a time when producers and studio heads were so befuddled by the changing tastes of a younger generation that they had to roll the dice on new writers, directors, and actors. The resulting cinematic renaissance fired my young imagination enough to lure me to Hollywood, but I have to wonder: if I was twenty years old now, would the current crop of superhero comic-book movies  drive me to enter the film industry?  I doubt it. I'd probably be more interested in the video game industry, which -- much to my surprise -- turns out to be bigger in monetary terms than the film and music industries combined.**

Look, if you love all the superhero/Marvel stuff, great: I'm not judging anybody else's taste, so more power to you. All I'm saying is that we're not gonna see another The Last Detail  -- let alone a classic like Chinatown -- emerge from Hollywood anytime soon, and I think that's a shame.

For those of you who might be weary of me shoving various books down your throat, here's a change of pace: Boxed Out is an excellent piece by Michael Schulman that appeared in the Nov. 6 issue of The New Yorker, analyzing why the most recent Golden Age of Television -- the early streaming years -- didn't and couldn't last. Another New Yorker piece by Schulman is a profile of Ridley Scott titled Napoleon Complex, which appeared in the Nov. 13 issue. I hope those links work for you, although they may lie behind a paywall. In that case, both of these articles are worth seeking out, either from friends who subscribe to The New Yorker or at your local library.

On the general theme of art vs. commerce, here's a fascinating interview/conversation with David Byrne  that will be of interest to any fans of The Talking Heads.  Byrne is not your typical pop/rock/whatever star, and is thus always worth a listen.

And speaking of music, in what passes for tradition at Blood, Sweat, and Tedium, here's the annual presentation of the inimitable Robert Earl Keen's classic Christmas song. 


And since I have no way of knowing if the "embed video" function still works at blogger, here's a direct link just in case: Christmas With the Family.

The world is a mess these days, here and abroad, but I hope you all find a way to have a wonderful Christmas season.  


* Okay, so it wasn't exactly VJ Day, but amid the tsunami of grim news in 2023, settling the strike qualifies as very good news indeed - and for anybody who doesn't see the connection, here you go:


** This is a total hypothetical, of course, since the last video game I played was "Pong" back in the early 70s.

Sunday, November 5, 2023

November

 


I've been reading a lot of film books the past few years to learn the inside stories of how so many movies we now consider classics -- CasablancaChinatown, The French Connection, The Wild Bunch, and others -- came to be made. When I first became interested in film back in school, my hopelessly naive assumption was that great movies were somehow blessed right from the start: a terrific script attracted a talented director, skilled cinematographer, a great cast, and voila: a cinematic classic was born ... but that's not how any of it works.

There's an old saying I often heard on set: "It's just as hard to make a bad movie as a good one, so let's make a good one," but it's never that easy.  More realistic - and certainly more to the point - is another Hollywood truism: "You can't polish a turd." No matter how good the acting, set design, or cinematography, turning a lousy script into a good movie is an expensive exercise in futility.  As it turns out, a long, difficult struggle was required to usher each of those classic films from script to screen, because the reality then as now is that getting anything new and different made in Hollywood -- where the tried-and-true is gospel and anything else deemed "too risky" -- is like carrying a sixty-pound sack of concrete through quicksand.  Back in the old days before my time, hard-ass, tight-fisted studio moguls like Jack Warner and Harry Cohn would occasionally take a chance based on gut feelings or an impassioned plea (or threat...) from a talented, bankable star or director, but nowadays Hollywood has little tolerance for anything that doesn't involve comic book superheroes.  That the two smash hits of last summer were movies based on a long-dead nuclear physicist and a popular doll sold to generations of pre-teen girls back in the 20th century is unlikely to change the sclerotic corporate hive-mind of modern Hollywood.

But for all the desperate battles fought by Roman Polanski, William Friedkin, Sam Peckinpah and other great directors, none had to face the ordeal of South Korean director Shin Sang-Ok and his star actress Choi Sun-Hee -- both the most famous in their respective crafts  -- who became the most successful power-couple in the South Korean film industry.  The story of their rise and fall is itself a classic film industry tale, but what happened next might make the most outlandish script ever written.  Both were kidnapped separately by agents of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il, a fanatical film buff who sought to harness their cinematic talents to bring his country's crude film industry up to world-class standards. This fantastic tale unfolds in the book A Kim Jong-Il Production, which sheds light on the infamously brutal "Hermit Kingdom" of North Korea, a country ruled by a familial succession of iron-fisted despots who turned it into the geopolitical equivalent of a black hole from which little is known and only a handful of people manage to escape.  

You can hear the streamlined basics of the story in this podcast from an episode of This American Life, but the book offers much more, including a history lesson on how the current heavily armed north/south standoff in Korea came about. Truth be told, though, the book is a bit of a slog, and I have yet to finish it, but if the prose is less than lyrical and the pacing glacially slow, the story is fascinating and offers a useful perspective on life in our own Hollywood film industry.  No matter how miserable you might feel at 3:00 a.m. working on some poorly written, low-budget, lousy craft-service pile of cinematic garbage here in America, at least you're not slaving for a pittance under the lash of a dictator who will see to it that you and your entire family are strung up over a blazing fire if you dare complain. 

Remember: no matter how bad things are, they can always get worse.

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



Roger Corman is one of the few living legends still alive in Hollywood. As one of the original -- and certainly the most prolific -- independent filmmakers to thrive in the shadow of the studio system, Corman's ultra-low-budget productions served as an incubator for young talent unlike any before or since. The list of major directors, actors, and countless below-the-line workers who graduated from the Corman school into mainstream Hollywood is impressive. The notable names on the poster of the 2011 documentary Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel are just a few of those who got their start working for Corman as he made films for American International Pictures, then started his own production company and studio with New World Pictures. 

If I'd had any brains when I landed in LA back in the summer of 1977, I'd have knocked on Corman's door, but I was utterly clueless at the time. Instead, I got my start with the now-defunct Crown International Pictures, one of the lesser low-budget production and distribution companies that were around back then.  A few years later, fate finally brought me to Corman's New World Pictures studio -- the old Hammond Lumber Yard -- in Venice, California to toil on a space epic with the working title "Planet of Horrors."  By the time it was released, the title had morphed to Galaxy of Terror, for better or worse.




My tenure there was a brief but interesting two weeks, during which we ran power throughout the stage and spaceship sets to ready them for filming, but the low wages -- I was making $600/week on a flat rate -- did not make me happy, so when a ten-day job paying $250/day came in over the phone, I decided to exit the low-budget feature world and walked away without looking back.  The gaffer replaced me with another warm-body/juicer, but forgot to inform the office that I was gone, which is how another $600 check arrived in the mail two weeks later ... which brought my total income on that project to $1800 for two weeks -- still not great, but a bit closer to market rate at the time. All things considered, I suppose Corman and New World Pictures treated me reasonably well, however inadvertently.  

Only once did the man come on stage to settle some issue, and did so with the Voice of God. Roger Corman was as impressive in person as is his legend in the film industry. He was a unique presence in our business who certainly deserved the Honorary Oscar awarded him by the Academy in 2009. Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel is a highly entertaining documentary available on Amazon Prime for just a couple of bucks: a fittingly low-budget price for the low-budget King.

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

Werner Herzog needs no introduction, but that Wiki-link will fill in the particulars for anyone not familiar with the man -- and once again the word "prolific" comes to mind.  As a director, writer, and actor, he's produced a massive quantity of interesting work -- there really is nobody else quite like him -- so whenever he's interviewed, it's worth a listen. Here's a recent conversation he did for the radio program Fresh Air as they discussed his new memoir Every Man for Himself and God Against All.  I have no idea what that title means, and whether the book is worth reading is an open question -- the NY Times reviewer seems to find it an odd blend of fact and lurid fantasy, and who knows which is which?  Still, Herzog's astonishing life and career are unlike that of any other filmmaker I'm aware of, and the Fresh Air interview is thoroughly entertaining, so check it out.

That's it for November, folks -- I hope every last one of you has a great Thanksgiving.