A ring of fire encircles Southern California as I jot down a few quick notes for this post. Half a million people have thus far fled their homes before the advancing flames, while something like thirteen hundred houses were reduced to nothing more than ashes and tears. Newspaper and television coverage is extensive, featuring dramatic, heart-breaking images and stories of those stricken by this fiery holocaust. With temperatures hovering in the mid-90’s, and hot, dry Santa Ana winds whipping down through the canyons, it all feels rather biblical in a way – a bit like the end of the world – a feeling enhanced by the swarms of small black flies pestering all of us on the shooting crew. Unfortunately, that end-of-the-world feeling is nothing new here in LA.
Southern California may be going in up flames, but the show must go on – and at the moment I’m working with the set lighting crew filming “pick-ups” for “The L Word”, Showtime’s Sapphic soap opera now finishing up its fifth season. “The L Word” shoots in Vancouver, but since the storyline takes place in LA, they periodically pack up the cast and head south to film scenes in distinctive Southern California locations – the Sunset Strip, Malibu, the Hollywood Hills -- venues not so easily (read: cheaply) simulated in Canada. This morning, we started at a very modern glass and steel house perched high in the Hollywood Hills, and will later do a company move – all the equipment, trucks, cast, and crew – down to a café on Third Street in West Hollywood. Shooting pick-ups (individual shots or scenes needed to complete a film or episodic drama) is all about locations and moves. Lots of moves. I did two of these pick-up shoots for “The L Word” last year, the first of which shot seventeen separate locations in the first five days. That meant two or three full company moves every day, which is extremely demanding work. Arising at 4 a.m. to repeatedly unload, deploy, then re-load heavy lighting equipment over the course of 16 hours before dragging one's exhausted ass home is an unsustainable pace over the long haul. But the budget is sacred in television, so “The L Word” production has committed to a tight schedule for eight shooting days – the last three of which will be “splits” – half day followed by half night. We’ll be into the splits soon enough, which is where the going will really get tough. It’s a doable schedule, but the entire crew will be ground down to the raw, bloody bone by the time it’s over -- very likely early Thursday morning as the sun rises over Los Angeles. Lots of hours means fat paychecks, though, and with the looming writer’s strike (which could hit as early as November 1) threatening to torpedo the entire television season and cripple feature film production, everyone in Hollywood is working as hard as they possibly can right now. It feels a bit like we’re loading the ark in preparation for The Flood – only this flood, should it happen, will actually be a drought of a sort -- and in such a drought, everything burns.
Disasters of all kinds are an unavoidable part of the Southern California experience. If it’s not an earthquake, it’s a race riot. If not a riot, it’s the floods, and if not floods, we’re plagued by fire. Here’s my own take on LA life in an excerpt from “Brother’s Keeper”, a yet-to-be published novel.
"After that, nothing. Every morning I sat down at my desk, put on the happy voice, and worked the phone. It didn’t do any good. I was just another dog on a short chain, barking at the wind. July came and went, leaving a thin layer of dust and another pile of bills on the kitchen table, then August kicked in the door with a brutal heat wave made all the worse by a sudden influx of moist tropical air from a storm off the Mexican coast. All that humidity blended with the daily outpouring of automotive and industrial effluence to form a caustic atmospheric soup strong enough to sting my eyes. Southern Californians take a perverse sort of pride in their famously bad air, but even the leather-lunged natives were left reeling by this siege of smog, heat, and suffocating humidity. The only saving grace was the knowledge that this too would pass. Another couple of months would bring the Santa Ana Winds howling in from the desert, bone dry and fiercely hot, to blow all that smog out to sea. But every form of salvation has its price, and with the winds would come fire, great roaring walls of flame to char the arid hillsides and anything else in their way. And when the rains finally came, flooding and mud slides were sure to follow. It’s always something in this big, ugly mess of a city."
As so often happens during disasters, the current firestorm has at least one salutary function: bringing a badly-needed sense of balance to the typical navel-gazing Hollywood perspective. We in the Industry like to talk about how hard we often have to work, and it’s true – I once worked a 26 hour day on a shoot that left me so bruised and tired I could barely crawl home. But the hardest film job I’ve ever done wasn’t as tough as what those fire fighters (men and women) endure on a daily basis during their own busy season, when our world burns. Theirs is sweaty, exhausting, and dangerous work, breathing smoke and eating dust in an effort to save forests, houses, and lives. While the rest of us flee the intense heat, they walk right into the inferno, so if you’re still searching for heroes, don’t look to pampered movie actors or millionaire professional athletes -- look to the fire fighters.
But while they fight the flames, I sit here in shorts and a T shirt on the fender of a humming 750 amp generator that supplies power to the set, where the actresses stage another emotional cat-fight for the cameras. If the scenes we’ve been filming are to be believed, lesbian relationships are buffeted by more Sturm und Drang than those of the rest of us put together. Still, with Cybil Shepard, Jennifer Beals, and Wallace Shawn (he of “My Dinner With Andre” -- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/My_Dinner_with_Andre ) adding a touch of thespian class to the production, we’re making the best of it. If working on a lesbian soap opera as Southern California goes up in flames sounds a bit like fiddling while Rome burns, I suppose it is -- but I’m a juicer, not a firefighter. They do their job and I do mine. Ours is a very abstract world...
The cycles of destruction and renewal spin on in Southern California. Those who choose to work and live here either learn to take this in stride, move away, or slowly go insane – and sometimes, all of the above. The lucky ones find a way to nurture a fatalism allowing them to go with the flow and make the best of whatever happens, while the rest of us chew the worry rag and drink to forget the ticking time-bomb that will – as it has before – turn the world upside down with no warning whatsoever.
In the weeks following the devastating Northridge Earthquake in 1994(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1994_Northridge_Earthquake ), I worked a series of commercials in and around Los Angeles. While scouting locations in a van with the other department heads, the radio suddenly blared a warning of an aftershock, advising all vehicles to exit the freeways as quickly as possible. Since we were at that precise instant sailing across a very long, very high, and suddenly very vulnerable overpass, this was a decidedly uncomfortable moment. With nowhere to go but down, the only real question was how fast and controlled would be our descent -- and right then, I was anything but fatalistic about the immediate future. Burned into my brain was the indelible vision of so many elevated freeways and overpasses reduced to rubble in a matter of seconds... and I let out a profound sigh of relief that the van finally reached the relative safety of “solid” ground.
In that, I was not alone, and neither are the victims of this latest disaster, who for the most part will be made whole, in time -- just in time, perhaps, for the next tectonic, meteorologic, or man-made catastrophe. If not one thing, it'll be another. Southern California is what it is, and no amount of wishing can change that. We live and work here at our own peril, taking the good with the bad, and hoping against hope for the best.