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Saturday, September 15, 2007
Welcome to the Dream Factory
There are three kinds of people who come to Hollywood: dreamers, drifters, and the driven. Each has his/her own reasons for coming to Tinsel Town, the Dream Factory, and in the end, every path followed or blazed has a way of ending in a complex stew of disappointment, regret, and resignation. Good times are here to be had, careers and money to be made, but nothing good seems to last very long on this thin strip of sun-baked earth trapped hard between the desert and the sea. Time passes in a blur, melting into the haze of smog under the relentless Southern California sun. Then one day you wake up to find thirty years have slipped through your fingers, and where the hell did they go...
Dreamers, drifters, and the driven. These are not mutually exclusive types or personalities – most of us have elements of all three in varying degrees. Even drifters follow dreams, and dreamers can be as driven as any hard-charging corporate CEO. There are as many reasons why they end up Hollywood as there are people living in the shadow of that big white sign perched high in the parched hills overlooking Los Angeles – which would be 167, 664, assuming the last census and Wikipedia got it right. Some had no choice in the matter: as their place of birth, “Hollywood” is a name they'll be scrawling on job applications and endless government forms for the rest of their lives. The rest came here on purpose -- forty-two percent white, thirty-nine percent Latino, and the remainder a stew pot of Asians, Blacks, and a smattering of Native Americans. Many are recent arrivals, having forded the southern border one way or another to seek work in the homes, gardens, kitchens, and construction sites of Los Angeles. An entire generation arrived in the great westward migration after World War Two, including those whose single-minded drive to make it in “the movies” doomed any hopes for a happy life behind the white picket fences and suffocating small-town routines back home. Others were driven here by sheer desperation, fleeing the horrors of blighted lives and terminally dysfunctional families, rolling the dice on a fresh start at the far edge of the continent, on the very lip of the abyss. Once in Hollywood, their backs to the wall, there was nowhere else to go: one way or another, they had to make it here. Some turned out to be gritty survivors who succeeded despite -- or because of -- past failures, while others ended up victims of the myth, riding the death spiral of drugs and dissolution all the way down. But no matter how many the streets swallow up, however slim the odds of success, there are always more where they came from. The moths-to-the-flame allure of Hollywood ensures a steady influx of young hopefuls from all over America and around the world.
It’s this neon-lit face of the American Dream most people want to hear about – the young hopefuls who come to Hollywood burning with ambition to hit the jackpot of wealth and fame, to be a star. Like the vast majority of these American Idol wannabes, only the barest handful bring the talent and drive it takes to make it big -- and even that’s not always enough. The importance of luck, that fickle and mysterious confluence of talent and opportunity, cannot be overstated when it comes to achieving success in Hollywood. While a chosen few make the most of their chance, the rest – many just as talented and driven, if not quite so lucky – will eventually face the hard choice of adapting to reality or heading back home. Those able to take the punches and stay on their feet can usually find a place somewhere in the Dream Machine. It’s never easy, but people do it every day.
There are others who arrive carrying equally ambitious (if quieter) agendas tucked under their arms: to become a hot, can't-miss director: the next Spielberg, Lucas, Cameron, or Tarantino. Theirs is a daunting quest, but at least the gauntlet they face isn’t as brutally insulting or degrading as that suffered by aspiring actors -- and the fall-back options (Plans B through Z) more numerous and somewhat less soul-crushing to accept. There’s a very wide spectrum of “success” in Hollywood. If nobody will hire you to direct blockbuster feature films, there’s always the world of Television. If TV won’t have you, there are commercials and music videos to be made. If those doors remain closed, maybe you can put together a sweet little low-budget feature to trot around the Indy circuit. Should that fall apart, maybe it’s time to beg, borrow, or steal enough money for a decent video camera and start earning a living making infomercials for late night TV, or educational and training videos for schools and business. At that point, you won’t even be a blip on the Hollywood radar screen, but maybe it's better than starving – or getting a real job. And if all else fails, there’s always the final frontier: the down-and-dirty world of porn. It’s a long way from Hollywood, but if you can stomach it, there’s work to be had and money to be made down there.
The gulf between working in feature films and the seamy world of porn is unspeakably vast, and a long, hard fall for any cocky young Icarus who blows into town hell-bent on becoming the next Tarantino. But navigating the currents can be tricky in an industry where a little success is often the most dangerous thing of all. Once aloft, it’s all too easy to catch an updraft and soar a little too high here in Hollywood, where sooner or later, everyone learns that even the most expensive pair of designer wings are held together with nothing more substantial than wax.
Success doesn't come easy, but most people find a way: it’s all a matter of adjusting one’s outlook and the ability to selectively define “success.” And really, what’s the alternative? After coming this far – all the way to the very edge of the continent – slinking back home just might be the worst failure of all. At a certain point, the very nature and process of the struggle itself seems to change something inside, making it almost impossible to turn back. Besides, hope dies last, and there’s no telling when those magic doors might swing open. Yes, the system is rigged against outsiders right from the start, but miracles occasionally do happen – a long-suffering writer, actor, or would-be director plodding along in the dark corridors of obscurity finally catches that once-in-a-lifetime break and is thrust into the fierce heat of the spotlight. It doesn’t happen often, but just enough to keep the rest from giving up hope.
I didn’t come here with dreams of being any kind of a star, in front of or behind the camera, but simply to give Hollywood a try. After falling in love with so many classic American movies in college (and making a few decidedly non-classic student films of my own), I wanted to see what making real Hollywood movies was all about. At the time, anything else sounded way too much like a Real Job -- the slow, steady cadence of the dead man walking. Work as a drone in a cube farm? Strap on a suit and tie every morning to battle the twin bureaucracies of office politics and the white-collar power structure? No thanks. And so after a nervous period of post-collegiate stalling, I inhaled one last lungful of crisp Northern California air and plunged south into the smoggy morass of Hollywood. The transition was rude, the learning curve steep, but in time I caught a break, worked a few low-level jobs, and met those who eventually hired me to work on lighting crews. I worked my way up from juicer to best boy to gaffer – and then, like so many others before and since, I too sailed a bit close to the sun. Before I knew it, my own seemingly sturdy wings had come apart in mid-air, sending me on a free-fall plunge right back where I started.
Go directly to Jail. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.
But if the jail was only metaphoric, there was still no going home. Bent but not broken, I got back on my feet a lot older and maybe – just maybe -- a little bit wiser.
I've been working and surviving in Hollywood for more than thirty years now, through the ups and downs, all the while returning to the San Francisco Bay Area often enough to claim it as my true home. In all the ways that matter, it is – family and the oldest of friends are still there, and I'll root for the Giants to my last dying breath -- but after three full decades, LA has a way of seeping into your blood. One lesson you learn fast down here is that things are seldom as they first appear, and although Southern California is in many ways a horrendously ugly hell-hole, it’s not All Bad, All the Time. There are pockets of beauty here too, tucked away amid the vast urban desert. And although The Industry, as we call it, is nothing like the glamorous playground so many civilians (those of you at home, remote in hand, basking in the flickering glow of the Cathode Ray Gun) often assume it to be, there are occasional flashes of light and clarity here as well. Floating like smoothly sculpted pieces of driftwood amid the daily tidal surge of greed, ego-stoked absurdities, and jaw-dropping excess, are the occasional gleaming, random, and oh-so-ephemeral moments of grace. The trick lies in keeping your eyes and heart open so you can appreciate those moments before they vanish.
I'll do my best here to peel back the shiny shrink-wrap and offer a glimpse of the real Hollywood as I've experienced it: the heavy-lifting, dirt-under-the-fingernails side of the Industry you don’t read about in tabloids. What you won’t find here is any sort of “insider” celebrity gossip. Most of us who work in the Industry see and hear things that would indeed make juicy tabloid fodder, but only a fool or trust-fund baby has the luxury of fouling his own nest by talking out of school. The Industry has big enough ears that a little loose chat could easily put my so-called career in the corn, and at this late date, I don't have enough time to grow another pair of wings. Accordingly, names will be changed to protect the innocent and guilty alike. So if it’s Hollywood gossip you're looking for – who said/did what to whom behind his/her back – then click your way over to the celebrity blog-o-sphere, or else run down to your local 7-11 for the latest tabloid trash.
But if you want to hear the truth as I’ve lived it, about the real Hollywood --the blood, sweat, and tedium in the shadows behind all those bright lights – stay tuned.