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)

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Just for the Hell of It -- Episode 24

Not a UFO, nor a giant flying yamaka, but a balloon light being rigged at dusk.

I don't recommend film industry gear or services very often, maybe because I've been working mostly on sound stages the past six years, and thus have been using much of the same equipment I first encountered more than three decades ago. When you don't work with  new technology, there isn't much reason to say anything about it one way or the other.*

My new show is so different from the last one that I'm not sure you can call both "multi-camera sit-coms" -- although that's what they are -- and this one is much harder on the lighting crew than anything I've done in a very long time.  At three weeks in, we'd already done one full day filming exteriors under a hot sun along with two night exteriors, one of which blew right through midnight into Fraterday. With the busy pace and full schedule causing the fatigue to accumulate week by week, our entire crew has begun to feel like we're working on a feature film.

This isn't quite what I had in mind when I wished for a show to come my way... but you take what you can get in this town, and right now this is it -- and it is what it is.  Still, it's always good to scrape the rust off old skills and learn some of the new tricks that have turned up since I last did exterior location shoots.

Balloon lights certainly aren't "new" -- they've been around for quite a while now -- but the technology has evolved over the years to the point where they've become an essential part of the equipment package for many night shoots.  For our first night exterior work on this show, we used the calm, capable, and supremely competent services of Brian Glassman and 1 Stop Lighting and Grip, who specialize in all aspects of balloon lighting and post-shoot helium recovery, which lowers the cost to the production company.

Brian was just great -- an industry veteran who knows what's what, but hasn't sunk into the  dismal swamp of despair that turns some of us into bitter old cranks.  He knows what he's doing and brings a great attitude to the job.  Once his balloon was up and lit, he helped our lighting crew place, move, power up, and adjust the tungsten lighting package until the AD finally called wrap. He didn't have to do any of that -- he could have concentrated on hoovering up all the snacks at craft service -- but he's not that kind of guy.  Whenever we needed an extra hand, he was there, and when the balloon had to be moved or adjusted, he got it done fast, with a minimum of fuss.

I was impressed, which is why I have no problem recommending Brian and 1 Stop to anybody who needs balloon lights for a night shoot -- and you'll notice a permanent link to 1 Stop now under the list of Industry Resources over on the right side of this page.**


Next up, here are 13 signs that you work in the film and television industry.  The bit about over-and-under only applies to sound and video people these days -- juicers wrap all cable clockwise, all the time -- but the other twelve hit the nail on the head.


Last, here's another pithy meditation on the industry and modern culture from veteran writer/producer Rob Long at Martini Shot.  It's a good one.

Those are your picks of the week -- so check 'em out...

* I have discussed LED lights a few times, but that technology is still climbing the steep part of the developmental curve.  With things changing so fast, there isn't much point in recommending or dissing the current offerings.

** Those of you reading this on a cell phone will have to click "Web Version" at the bottom of your screen to see all those links.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Moment of Truth

The New Show, Week Two
                           Day One of filming.  This is NOT your average sit-com

“Dude, what’d you over the weekend, rebuild your house?”
It was Monday, back on stage after a grueling rig week that left me more-or-less comatose by Friday, and one of the new (to me) grips was apparently trying to say “hello.”
“Say what?”
“You look beat already, and it’s only Monday.”
I stared long and hard into his unlined, youthful countenance -- the face of a man still happily skipping though his 40’s -- then shook my head.
“At this point, just crawling out of bed in the morning is enough to wear me out,” I replied, trying to put a sardonic spin on an otherwise grim reality. 
“You close to retirement?”
“Another year or so.”
“I wouldn’t wait too long,” he cautioned.  “You don’t wanta die before you start collectin’ social security.”
“Gee, thanks for the advice, punk,” I thought -- but refrained from saying. I don’t know these grips well enough to start barking at them just yet.  All in good time.
Unable to come up with a polite reply, I just shrugged and moved on.  
Still, he had a point, because feeling tired is one thing, but looking tired is something else altogether. Here in Hollywood -- in front of and behind the cameras -- perception is accepted as reality, and I can't afford to be seen as the broken-down old juicer limping along behind the rest of the crew. It hasn’t come to that yet (not even on this job, where -- with one notable exception -- I’ve managed to shoulder my share of the load), but after two punishing weeks, I am starting to wonder if the load will ever lighten up on this show.
“Be careful what you wish for,” a wise man once said, and there’s a lot of truth in those six words.  I wanted a show and I got one, but after two brutal weeks I’m beginning to question the wisdom of having that generic wish granted in this particular way. 
Which is to say, this show has been a real bitch thus far.  
Two Fridays in a row now, I’ve staggered home having had my ass thoroughly kicked and handed to me on the way out the stage door.  At the end of each week, I could not have worked one more day with any real effectiveness or enthusiasm whatsoever.  I was one whipped puppy.
The first week was all rigging, all the time, much of it up high in the narrow labyrinthine catwalks of soundstage that’s nearly eighty years old and showing every one of those hard years. The depression-era dinner theater was converted to a television stage back in the 80's, but it’s unclear if any serious upgrades were made up high.  From the looks of it, my guess is “no.”
And on that first day up high, I encountered a moment of truth -- one I knew was coming someday, but hadn’t yet experienced.  Faced with five 100-foot coils of 4/0 (the really heavy stuff, with very thick insulation), I took a deep breath, bent my knees, then grasped a coil with both hands and attempted the classic clean-and-jerk maneuver to heft it to my shoulder.
But I couldn’t do it.  I got that monster up to my chest, but no further... so I duck-walked it across those god-awful catwalks to where it had to go.  My fellow juicer -- a considerably younger guy -- took note of this, and without a word proceeded to bring the other four coils over.  I let him do it without any argument.
That was a first, and not the kind I like. Not one little bit.
The rest, I could do.  Pulling each cable around the corner, then running it out straight and snapping it tight on that over-crowded catwalk wasn’t a problem -- and once we had all five cables neatly lined up and ready to feed over the side down to the stage floor (there to run outside and thus double the capacity of the existing exterior power), the really hard part of that particular task was done.  
But that moment was humbling for me. I can still do everything a juicer is responsible for on set, but will have to leave carrying 4/0 on my shoulder to the younger juicers from now on. Otherwise I might end up rolling out of Hollywood in a wheelchair when the time comes.
It's abundantly clear that this show is not your average multi-camera sit-com.  We won’t film in front of an audience at all, but will instead be shooting lots of day and night exteriors in addition to our stage work. Indeed, our first day of filming was on a football field from dawn 'til dusk, wrangling  two 20-by-20 condor-mounted fly-swatters, two 12 by 12 ultra-bounce frames, two18Ks, two 6K HMI pars, and all the requisite support gear. Granted, a package this size wouldn't impress the crew of any episodic (not even a second-unit crew), but it's six years since I last worked a location job using this kind of equipment.  
With four juicers to handle the load, it wasn't a problem, but spending an entire day under the harsh Southern California sun (an unseasonably warm 87 degrees) made it something of an ordeal for this aging juicer. By the end of that day, I was hurting.*
Fortunately, the next day's filming was in the air-conditioned comfort on stage -- quite a relief, that, even if I was still dog-tired.  Running up ten-step ladders and climbing atop set walls to adjust lamps is still right in my wheelhouse, and it felt good to be back on familiar ground.
But with a ton of location work coming our way, this job will either beat me into some kind of shape, or pound me right into the ground -- and at the moment, I have no idea which way that will go.
We shall see...

* Yeah, I know -- all y'all twenty-something studs filming day exteriors in Georgia, North Carolina, Louisiana, Texas, and Florida will sneer at this, and for good reason. I've done features down South in the summertime, and know exactly how rough that is.  But it's all relative, and once you've become accustomed to working almost exclusively on stage, suddenly being thrust out into the real world comes as a rude awakening.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Day Player Chronicles -- Part Two

                                       True, that...

The first thing a day-player needs to know is that he/she only gets a call when a crew needs help. Either one of the core crew is unavailable for some reason (out sick, or having taken a more lucrative temporary gig), or else the crew is facing an unusually heavy work load.

The second thing a day-player has to understand is that he's there to fill the gaps and serve the needs of others. The core members already have their established roles on set, and although they'll do whatever's required to keep the machine moving forward, their first responsibilities are the priority tasks -- whatever the gaffer needs done right NOW.  The day player may join them on the front lines as needed, but his/her job is usually to do everything else: help the Best Boy wrap and return equipment, run and drop cable from up high with the dimmer operator, power up the practical fixtures on set, or work as the "floor man" preparing lights, stirrup hangars, and other equipment for the core crew hanging lamps up in their man-lifts.

Having become accustomed to working as a member of the core crew for so long -- a front-line juicer going up the ladder or jumping into the man-lift first -- shifting to the mindset of a day player required an adjustment.

As I was recently reminded, call times aren't always friendly to a day-player.  The show I worked on a few weeks ago brought me in again to work their first day back from hiatus (all the Best Boy could promise was one day), because that week's episode was big enough that their three core juicers needed some help. Their usual call time on Mondays is usually around 3 p.m, and they rarely work much past 9*, but our call for this very busy day was 6 p.m., with the promise of working well past midnight.  Had I booked another job with an  early morning call the following day, I'd be looking at very little sleep.

There was no other job, since things are slow in town right now, but this illustrates the curse of the day-player, who toils at the whim of forces that are beyond his control and utterly unconcerned that he might have to report for work on another show the following morning on only three or four hours sleep.  I've been in that position too many times over the course of my career, and don't plan to do it again. It's just not worth the money. That's one reason I view day-playing as a last resort, and much prefer to be a member of the core crew.

But beggars can't be choosers, so we do what we have to do.**

As it turned out, the BB got the okay to bring me in the next day (and a blessedly short day it was), so all was well.  The check for two days is a lot more satisfying than one solitary day, and the gaffer assured me that I'd be back in a couple of weeks.

But a funny thing happened on the way to assuming my new role in Hollywood as a day-player (and my plans to write a series of posts chronicling that transition) -- the phone did ring after all, and I'm no longer day-playing.  A gaffer I've known for very long time called to say he was starting a cable sit-com show very soon, and would I like a slot on his crew?

Is the Bear a Catholic?  Does a pope shit in the woods?

We've been rigging the stage and exterior sets for a week now, pushing the very big rock up the very steep hill at (miracle of miracles) full union scale. It was one ass-kicker of a week for me, but I managed to get through the worst of it without embarrassing myself. The next few weeks won't be easy -- working on a very crowded stage (the proverbial ten pounds of shit in a five pound bag) with an entirely new crew will require yet another adjustment. It never ceases to amaze me how in a town where everybody seems to know everybody else, I can still -- after all these years -- run into a crew of total strangers. But such is Hollywood, where the intense nature of the work means they won't remain strangers for long.

The only downside thus far are that it's a kid's show (the scripts for which tend to be mind-numbingly simplistic), we'll be doing a fair amount of night exteriors (never fun, those), and none of the episodes will shoot in front of a live audience. We'll follow the usual three lighting days/two filming days schedule, but rather than a block-and-pre-shoot day followed by the audience shoot, we'll just grind out the sit-com sausage shot-by-shot over the course of two full days. This schedule falls somewhere between a standard audience-shoot sit-com and a"hybrid" multi-cam -- which rehearse and light for two days, then shoots for three days with no audience.

Hybrid shows have become more common in the past few years, especially for shows that require a fair amount of location filming or employ more time-consuming special effects than a normal sit-com, and although this isn't a true hybrid, I'll miss those audience shows for a number of reasons.  But if this show is less than ideal, it sure as hell beats unemployment, which is to say I will not look this gift horse in the mouth.

Hey, I'm lucky to have a job at all, and besides, nothing's perfect in this veil of tears we call life.  All I have to do is show up on time and do the work to the best of my ability -- which is pretty much my default setting at this point. I don't know how to work any other way. The silver lining is that we'll have three juicers on the core crew, where most of the crews I've worked on only had two. We should be able to spread the work load so that none of us suffer undue abuse.

That's the plan, anyway.  It remains to be seen what will happen when "the plan" meets reality, because it may well turn out there's a reason we have three juicers.  And in that case, I'll doubtless have plenty to bitch about -- the stuff of future blog posts.

Stay tuned...

* And that, my little droogies, is one of the many reasons I work in the multi-camera world.

** Except for episodics -- no way am I going back to those...

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Day Player Chronicles -- Part One

The Fountain of Youth
                              Ah, to be young again…

At this point, eight days of work as a day-player takes a toll, even with a weekend in the middle. That's not enough to wear down a young, strong twenty-something juicer, but pile forty more years on his back and he’ll feel like he’s already run a marathon long before those eight days are over.

I sure as hell did.

Although the hours on multi-camera shows are nothing like the grueling torture suffered by crews on episodics, those three lighting days each week are all work, all the time -- and during the much longer block-and-shoot and audience shoot days, I was on my feet almost the entire day.  It's not easy to stand and wait on a chilly sound stage, hour after hour, one ear tuned to the radio chatter between the gaffer and dimmer op, the other listening to the A.D. and director -- all the while ready to grab a ladder or jump in a man-lift to replace a burned-out bulb or make whatever lighting adjustments are necessary to keep the sit-com machine moving forward. It's a bit like sitting at a very long red light in traffic, one foot on the brake pedal and the other on throttle, ready to burn rubber the instant that light flashes green.

But we have to do it, because sooner or later something will happen that requires our immediate and full attention…  and on the last block-and-shoot day, that something was a fire up in the green beds -- not a huge, blazing conflagration, but very real flames licking up from a charred 100 amp Bates connecter atop the old, extremely dry wood of the green beds.

This particular show doesn't make use of those green beds, a double-wide row running nearly the length of the stage above the camera aisle. Once upon a time, the sound department would install six Fisher booms up there, where the operators could work the microphones out of everybody else’s way down on the floor.  But under the constant pressure to lower costs, there are now just two Fisher booms on stage, each mounted on a massive perambulator. Together, those two monsters -- with a boom operator, pusher, and utility person -- take up as much floor space as all four cameras combined, and with each camera and sound rig trailing a very long, thick cable, moving the whole menagerie from one set to another becomes a tedious exercise in cable-wrangling logistics.  

The more I work on the new shows, the more I miss the old days...

Because this show wasn't using (and thus didn't have to pay rent on) those green beds, there was no ladder installed for us to get up there, which meant the grips -- working by the dim stage emergency lights after our dimmer operator killed the power -- had to deploy a double-sided twelve step so we could climb onto the greens and deal with the situation.  

Meanwhile, the rest of the crew -- camera operators, assistants, the sound department, props, set dressing, hair and makeup, PAs and actors -- evacuated the stage.

Once up there, it was no big deal. The heat source that sparked the fire cooled when the power was cut, so the Best Boy was able to extinguish the flames with a few slaps of his gloves. There was a lot of very nasty smoke, though, so we opened the elephant door and all four stage doors to air the stage out for a while before the rest of the crew came back to resume work.  We replaced the burned-out cable and "five-pecker billygoat"), then checked every other connection up there.* One was a bit warm, so we installed a new stinger (extension cord) and called for the dimmer op to bring the lights back up.

It was only then that I noticed that I wasn’t the least bit tired anymore.  Before the stage-clearing excitement, I’d been feeling stiff, creaky, and old, but all that -- along with a good thirty years --  vanished the instant someone yelled “fire!” 

To mangle the famous quote of the late, great Rick James, “Adrenaline is one hell of a drug.”

A similar thing happened the following night after the audience show and curtain-call, when -- after eleven hours of mostly watchful-waiting, we had to kick into gear and wrap the lamps from all the swing sets as fast as possible. It was up the ladder, unbolt the lamp, lower the lamp, unbolt the stirrup hanger, carry it down the ladder, then move the ladder and repeat for the next hour or so -- and once again the accumulated fatigue of the week just disappeared. 

In the grip of that adrenal-fueled glow, I felt like that grinning twenty-eight year fool in the photo above, absent the lovely actress, unfortunately.**

Waking up the next day, of course, I was once again a hundred years old. Rather than crawl from bed to face the day, I just lay there doing a slow inventory of all the parts that hurt -- and while in deep contemplation of the ceiling, pondered the power of adrenaline… which is when it occurred to me that there really is a Fountain of Youth, in the very last place I’d expect to look: at work.

I won’t go as far to say “work shall set you free” (there are way too many negative associations with that little phrase) but under the right circumstances, work really does melt the years away. Granted, this is only an adrenaline-spiked illusion -- and like every drug-high, all too temporary -- but shedding those decades truly is a wonderful thing, however brief the respite from reality.  At this point in life, I'll settle for that. Not that I have much choice, mind you. Besides, having worked in an industry of illusion for so long, the line between what's real and what isn't grows ever more tenuous by every year.  And that's not a bad thing. 


Still, if reality exists only in the moment -- and that moment happens to involve a truck load of 4/0 -- all bets are off, because this ungodly nightmare is nothing less than the Fountain of Death.

Never again, indeed

* I couldn't find a stand-alone link to image of what we call a "five-pecker billygoat," but if you click here, then scroll down to page 24 of Mole Richardson's power distribution catalog, you'll find a picture of what Mole calls a "100 amp Male Bates to 5 - house plugs" adaptor. 

** Your humble juicer (working as a grip, actually) with the lovely Melissa Prophet the night we wrapped the not-so-epic Van Nuys Boulevard back in the late 1970's.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Just for the Hell of It -- Episode Twenty-Three

   Direct from the corporate suite of Les Moonvies to your television...

Were there any justice in this world, Big Les Moonvies -- the $70 million dollar a year man atop the corporate dungheap of CBS -- would be ashamed.  But there's precious little justice being dispensed anywhere these days, so nobody should hold their breath waiting for an apology or admission of moral guilt from Moonvies, or any of the other corporate media kingpins who grow ever-richer spewing raw sewage into the freshly-scrubbed faces of the broadcast television audience. 

If this is the best CBS can come up with to stem the rising tide of cable programming, then we may as well raise the white flag of cultural surrender, because there seems to be no limit to what Big Les (who more and more comes to resemble the corporate media personification of Monty Python's Mr. Creosote) will do to fatten shareholder portfolios.  

As a spot-on post in The Daily Banter put it:

“The exploitative dynamics at play here are truly grotesque: rich people in the media create a game show where poor people are made to fight for resources so that those rich people in the media can get richer when poor people tune in to watch it.”

I'll admit that I'm no fan of so-called "Reality TV."  I considered it garbage right from the very first episode of Survivor on up through the hillbilly antics of those hirsute fools on Duck Dynasty.

And let's not even mention Honey Boo-Boo or the loathsome Duggar clan, okay?

That said, I really don't care what anybody else chooses to watch on TV -- that's their business, not mine.  Having met a some very smart people who love watching some very dumb shows, I long ago learned not to judge others by their programming choices.  TV is all about relaxation, recreation, and distraction from the increasingly ugly world outside our collective front door, and that's a very personal decision. How you lower your stress levels with the help of television is up to you. So I'll tune in my favorite shows while you do the same, and since we'll never be in the same room fighting for the remote, there'll be no harm, no foul, and nobody will get hurt.  If you love Duck Dynasty, more power to you -- and enjoy the show.

De gustibus, as they say, non est disputandum.

But the real question remains: can cable -- which has been eating broadcast networks lunch in terms of programming quality ever since The Sopranos debuted on HBO -- ultimately win this battle for audience eyeballs and advertising dollars on the strength of vastly superior shows, or will the broadcast networks successfully fight back by appealing to the worst in human nature as they sink deeper into the moral sewer of ever-more depraved reality programming?

My money's on cable, but then I'm a closet optimist.  As a much smarter man than I once observed:  "Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public," so it's much too early to count the broadcast networks out.

Time will tell.


Over at The Big Wah (in my opinion, the most thoughtful and best-written quasi-industry blog around*), a recent discussion concerned the amateurization of everything. As usual, it's a compelling read of the sort that always makes me think -- and this time got me to wondering just where the digital revolution is taking us, and whether that ultimate destination is a good place or not.  

Again, we'll find out -- because there's no stopping the digital train now...


This week's podcast of The Business (from radio station KCRW) features a fascinating interview with Josh Karp, who has written a book detailing the saga of The Other Side of the Wind, the infamous unfinished final film by Orson Welles. His career in ruins, relegated to doing voice-overs and television commercials for Gallo Wine (among other things), Welles cast many of his Hollywood friends and acquaintances to appear in the film as actors, from John Huston to Peter Bogdonavich and beyond. Karp tells the story of a true indy film made by a combination of industry legends and newbies that eventually entered the dismal labyrinth of international financing  and endless complications. Welles died before the film could be finished -- indeed, it's not clear that he ever really intended to complete it -- but in the years since, the unfinished epic acquired a legendary status of its own.  

And now -- these being such modern times -- there's a crowd-funding campaign underway to finance its completion.  Hey, I hope they get it done.  Whether this capstone of Welles' career would burnish or stain his legend remains unclear, but if nothing else, a theatrical release of The Other Side of the Wind can only add to the man's hard-earned reputation as an American original, and the greatest filmmaker this country has yet produced.


And speaking of crowd-sourcing, remember this from just over a year ago?  Whether you contributed to Scott Storm’s Kickstarter campaign or not (and give yourself a pat on the back if you did), the funding goal was achieved, allowing Scott to finish his long-time labor of love, a twenty minute animated short called The Apple Tree.  Five years of hard work paid off last weekend in the big-screen LA debut of The Apple Tree at a theater in Hollywood, along with a full slate of brand new indy films. I couldn't make the screening, but apparently it went very well.

Check out this glowing review, then put yourself inside Scott's head for a minute and imagine how good it must have felt for him to read it, knowing that all his efforts had paid off -- that his film made a direct, deep emotional and artistic connection with the audience.  

You can't buy that kind of satisfaction, kiddos --  you have to earn it -- and it never comes easy.

With any luck at all, this (and his previous films) will lead to Scott taking the wheel of bigger budget features sometime in the not-too-distant future. If that happens -- and I really hope it does -- we'll all be the winners.  

Congratulations, Scott -- you The Man.

* I use the qualifier "quasi" only because she often wanders far off the reservation of industry topics, which is fine by me.  Hey, she's a smart young woman in New York who knows there are other things in life than what happens on set...

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Fade to Black?

       Sometimes it just doesn't work out quite the way you hoped…

A lot of things seem to be coming to an end these days.  My own show walked the plank into the oblivion of syndication three months ago, but if that was a big deal in my little world, it barely sent a ripple through greater Hollywood. On a bigger stage, the iconic cable drama Mad Men just closed out its historic run, as did the darkly stylish Justified earlier this year.  Two and a Half Men ended after a lucrative-but-tumultuous twelve years on the Toob, and even American Idol -- the famously all-conquering “Death Star” that ruled the ratings wars for a decade -- was handed walking papers and told leave the building after one final season.  
The bigger they come, the harder they fall.
Change is the only constant in life and Hollywood, but there seems to be a lot more churn than usual going down lately, indicative of tectonic shifts underfoot. In the last few weeks, too many of my industry friends awoke to the bad news that their shows had been cancelled when the networks announced the Fall lineup for the new season.
Although turnover is inevitable in a business where shows live and die on the whims of the cultural tide, this purge feels a bit different: if you listen close, you can hear the shrieks of panic from the plush network suites high above-the-line. As web-based programming captures the attention of more and more viewers tired of paying through the nose for cable or satellite hook-ups, ever more advertising dollars are migrating towards the web as well -- and that scares the crap out of television executives. Fear then generates the need to do something -- anything -- to demonstrate leadership in challenging times, so out came the executive's long knives as the bloodletting began.  
So it goes in the turbulent waters of Hollywood. Much like a surfer, the freelance Industry Work-Bot must be flexible, balanced, and adept at riding the ever-shifting waves to survive.  Doing so (and thus remaining employable) has been a constant challenge for me over the last three-and-a-half decades, but with the end finally in sight -- a year and change to go -- I saw a relatively smooth ride ahead onto the sunny beach of retirement... but not so fast, Surfer Joe. An unexpected storm blew in out of nowhere, and suddenly there’s a lot of very choppy water between me and that vast expanse of warm, dry sand.  
I’ve said it before: this is a tribal business where you’re only as good as your network of connections and your crew: your tribe. Absent those, you’re on the outside looking in. Once upon a time I had a book full of numbers to call when things got slow. Being young, reliable, reasonably competent and always ready to work, my employment dance-card was full much of the time. There were dry spells, of course -- a couple of them long enough that I seriously pondered looking for another way to make a living-- but the phone always rang before it came to that. 

So here I am, still standing, but as the years passed, so did many of those contacts. Some  died, many retired, while a few had their careers take off, rocketing them into an orbit far beyond my reach. Of those that remain, not many want to hire a juicer my age. This is a business of youth, where three years of experience can mean just as much as thirty, and when push inevitably comes to shove, youth will be served. Besides, there's no denying that I’m limited in what I can do on set at this point. A twelve-hour call wrangling 4/0 -- “picking it up and laying it down” -- might put me in the hospital, while a week of 14 hour days on an episodic would leave me crawling back to my car on all fours come Fraturday morning.   
Realistically, all that’s left for me are multi-camera shows, where I can still pull my own weight without letting them see me sweat.  
Given all that, you can understand how hard the news hit  -- delivered via Facebook, no less --  that the Gaffer I’ve been working with since with since this pilot back in 2008 decided to retire a full year ahead of schedule. With thirty-odd years in the biz, he’s earned the right to call it quits whenever he wants, but his departure leaves the tribe -- our tribe -- in the lurch. With the click of a mouse, the bonds that held this team together through good times and bad over the last seven years vanished in an instant and I'm once again a free agent, a juicer without a tribe.
The last time this happened, I wandered through the wilderness day-playing for three full years before working my way into a new tribe and onto shows again -- but there aren't three years to play with now.
The rest of the crew will be okay. Being in their 40‘s and early 50‘s (and very good at their jobs), none of them will have much trouble finding a new tribe, but I’m nipping at the heels of Methuselah in an industry where gray hair is seen as the kiss of death.
So what to do? The same thing I’ve always done -- what every Hollywood Work-Bot does when it all goes to hell: adapt to the new reality and find a way to keep my head above water. The next six months will say a lot about how that goes. If I can’t land a show for the new Fall season, I’ll hope for one of the mid-season replacements that come along once all the mainstream shows are well underway, or maybe a cable show will materialize from the ether with my name on it.   

Then again, maybe not.
Without a Gaffer willing to grant membership into his tribe, my odds of joining the core-crew on any show show lie on the far side of slim to none. It could be this was my last good ride after all, in which case I’ll just have to suck it up, hope for the best, and ride the waves of whatever day-playing calls roll my way. And if that's not how I wanted this career to end, hey, that's Hollywood -- or more to the point (to quote one of my all-time favorite movies), "It's Chinatown, Jake."

Still, something may yet come up -- it always has in the past -- but if not, I'll lean on another iconic quote from my youth: "You can't always get what you want,"* because one way or another, I will get through this final year. If it's not a free and easy path, what else is new? Nothing about this Hollywood life has ever been easy, and in a way, a year of day-playing would bring my journey back full circle. I started out a stranger in this very strange land, desperately scrambling to find some traction, and if I have to finish up the same way, so be it. Come what may, I'll work another summer, fall, winter, and spring with all the dignity I can muster, then drop my tool belt and walk away. 
Then -- and only then -- will it be time to roll the end credits and fade to black...

* "but if you try sometimes, you just might get what you need."

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Just for the Hell of It -- Episode Twenty Two

              You never know what you'll find behind the set walls…

Quote of the Week: 

"I'd like to kiss the girl without having to choke her first."

(Ray Liotta, responding to the question "Is there anything left on your showbiz bucket list?" for a recent piece in the LA Times.)

This podcast interview from KCRW's The Business features former agent, producer, and sometimes director Gavin Polone with veteran writer/producer Rob Long in discussing the lucrative practice of agents and their agencies collecting “packaging fees” -- which can be substantial -- from the studios for doing absolutely nothing.  According to Polone, such fees come right off the top of a show’s budget, hoovering up money that could otherwise go towards making a better show.  
According to Polone -- who has never been shy about airing issues that usually remain behind closed doors above-the-line -- not only do these unearned and totally unjustified fees stiff the writers, actors, and producers who do the creative work necessary to put any show up on the screen, but they can have a negative effect on the quality of the show. Apparently the studios and showrunners are leery of alienating the agencies by challenging this practice for fear that the agent's top talent will be steered elsewhere in the future. Polone tells how he once tried to block his agent from getting an unearned package fee, but the studio -- unwilling to ruffle agency feathers -- refused to back him up. They just paid the money instead and if this sounds like something more likely to happen in any one of the many corrupt Third World kleptocracies around the globe, such is the grubby reality of modern Hollywood.  

What that says about the industry and this town is hardly flattering.
Lest this seem irrelevant to those of us who work far below-the-line, remember the ancient trueism:  “When elephants fight, the grass is trampled” -- and in the film and television industry, we’re the grass. The money quietly extorted by agents could allow a show runner to hire better guest stars, get better music to accompany the episode, or maybe let a department head hire extra hands to make the work week go smoother.  Hell, it might even go towards a better craft service spread for all the hard workers on set.  Of course, the show runner involved might just blow that money on cocaine, high-rent hookers, or a new Porsche, but even then, at least he or she actually did something to earn it -- unlike the agent. In essence, agents who engage in this slimy practice are little more than parasitic gangsters extracting "protection money" so the studios won't worry about something "bad" happening.  
Welcome to Hollywoodistan...


On the brighter side, here's a very impressive trailer for a film directed by a production assistant I worked with a while back.  I haven't seen the whole film, but if it's as good as this trailer, then that young man just might have worked his last day as a PA. 

I certainly hope so, because he's smart, talented, and ambitious in all the right ways -- and more importantly, he's earned it.


Next up, a beautifully written tale of being plucked from cinematic obscurity to appear as a featured extra in Woody Allen's "Stardust Memories," from William Zinsser, legendary writer and writing teacher who recently passed away. Truth be told, I'd never heard of the man before his death, but reading the many appreciations of him and some of his writing convinced me to buy one of his books -- and this story might show you why.


Have you ever wondered who the hell Bruce Logan is?  Probably not, but to answer your unasked question, the veteran cinematographer himself is starting up a blog to discuss, among other things, the many movies he's worked on over the last 40 years.  Only the introductory post is up thus far -- titled, appropriately enough, Who the Hell is Bruce Logan? -- but more is promised soon.  The only time I met Bruce, he turned out to be a very nice guy, and now he's going to share his acquired wisdom and experience.  That's a good thing, and his new blog bears watching.


Last --  and this being graduation season -- here are some excerpts from Robert De Niro's recent blunt-but-true commencement address to the graduating class of New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, along with a link to the entire speech. Although his advice could apply to any graduates, it was aimed at those who have chosen to enter the arts as a profession.  I'm not sure anybody but De Niro could stand up in front of a graduating class of dewey-eyed wannabe artists, look them in the eyes, and tell them the hard truth: that because of their fateful decision, "you're fucked."

That they are... but those with sufficient drive and talent will find a way to make it. They always do. As for the rest -- hey, it's a cruel world, kiddos, with only so many chairs at the table of the arts.  But there are lots of other tables in Hollywood and the world at large. You just have open your eyes -- and your mind -- and look for one that works for you.

Because in the long run, that's all that really matters.

So good luck, film school grads.  You're gonna need it.