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Sunday, December 9, 2007
Working Sick and the Freelance Code
We've all seen those blood-and-guts documentaries on PBS or Discovery Channel featuring a long-lens shot of a lion chasing some hapless zebra all over the African veldt until tooth and claw finally win out over hoof and, uh... black-and-white vertical stripes? (Like adrenal-crazed lemmings, these metaphors sometimes run themselves right off a cliff...) At any rate, the moment inevitably comes when that doomed zebra, down at last in the big cat’s jaws, seems to relax and accept the grim dictates of fate, as if silently acknowledging that its golden days of wandering the Serengeti are at long last over.
My own zebra moment came late one night when the cold/flu bug that had been nipping at my heels the previous eight days finally caught up with me and went for the kill, sinking its fangs deep into my throat. We were well along on our day-into-night filming for “The L Word”, Showtime’s Sapphic soap opera, up at Yamashiro, the quasi-famous Japanese restaurant tucked into the Hollywood Hills overlooking Los Angeles. Yamashiro is a nice place. A couple of lifetimes ago, I took a girlfriend up there for a lovely evening sipping drinks while a lunar eclipse darkened the full moon until it resembled a thoroughly bruised Blood Orange hanging in the smog-choked skies over Hollywood... but that was then and this was now, and now it was all work. Back from a particularly lousy catered dinner (already picked over and left for dead by a ravenous horde of extras by the time we finally went through the line), we proceeded to block, light, rehearse, and shoot the first of several scheduled night scenes.
I’d been feeling crummy all afternoon, listless and foggy-brained, but kept soldiering on as best I could. With nightfall came the feverish/clammy flash of hot and cold chills (always a bad sign), and a couple of hours later, the little house of cards inside me teetered, then collapsed in a heap. Dazed and weak, I wandered away from the herd -- the lights, the cameras, the endlessly mooing extras -- feeling truly rotten: my head pounding like a jackhammer as a fever coursed through my suddenly ponderous and uncooperative limbs. I sank down onto a smooth stone stairway next to an exquisite Japanese garden through which flowed a gentle stream - doubtless a phony stream created by hidden electric pumps (a Hollywood stream, if you will) – but such details don’t matter much when you’re feeling that bad. The soft murmur of water on rocks had a soothing effect as I stared out at the immense and suddenly magnificent vista below. If there’s one time LA actually looks good, it’s at night. Laid out before me like glittering jewels on black velvet were the gleaming glass skyscrapers of downtown to my left, the shimmering towers of Century City off to my right, and dead ahead, not-so-fabulous Hollywood itself, illuminated by a huge and monstrously garish sign that blared “TV Guide” into the night sky.
Yeah, that’s Hollywood for you -- class with a capital “K.”
Staring out at the man-made firmament, I realized it was over. Not life itself (the Hollywood jungle isn’t quite so lethal as the African veldt), but my role in this shoot. I’d hoped to tough it out through these last two cold nights, then log a final day unloading the lighting truck at the rental house. “Mind over matter,” I told myself, “the spirit rules the flesh” -– and for eight-and-a-half days, it did. Alas, words aren’t always enough. One last fat paycheck to stuff under the mattress before unemployment would have been nice, but a moment arrives when money becomes an increasingly abstract concept. Feeling like one of those spindly, weak-bodied, hydrocephalic Area 51 aliens (if lacking their extraterrestrial brain power), I pressed the button on my walkie-talkie and advised the gaffer to replace me for the following day. He told me to go home before I became Typhoid Mike and took the rest of his crew down with me.
He was right, of course: I was totally useless at that point. Moving with the man-under-water sluggishness of one of those old-fashioned helmeted deep sea divers, I could no longer perform any real work. Still, I hated to leave the shoot under such circumstances. This is the only the third time I recall having to leave a job early in thirty years -- not that I’ve been blessed with particularly robust health, but because like most below-the-liners in Hollywood, free-lance workers are considered “daily hires,” and thus not eligible for sick pay. As far as the producers are concerned, we’re all more-or-less interchangeable and easily replaceable cogs of the machine. When one is bent or broken, they just order another from the inventory. But since there’s no such thing as a paid sick day for the vast majority of Industry workers, either we suck it up and go to work coughing and sneezing, or we don’t get paid. The situation isn’t so dire if you’re on the main crew of a television series or feature film, where everyone eventually needs a day or two off. You still won’t get paid for those days unless your immediate crew “covers” for you (does not report your absence or have you replaced with a healthy worker), or unless you have an extremely understanding and fair-minded production manager* -- but at least you won’t lose your job. The free-lance day-player enjoys no such job security, and will be replaced in a heartbeat should he call in sick or have to leave work early. He is then stuck at home burning through boxes of Kleenex while the new (and healthy) guy makes the money. Given this stark economic reality, it’s no surprise that few maladies short of an intense and disabling fever, projectile vomiting, or explosive diarrhea will keep the average day-player home.
There's another factor, less tangible but equally important: having to leave a job early represents a direct assault on the hard-won sense of toughness and pride a free-lancer acquires and wears like armor down through the years. If there’s a Code of the Free Lancer, it’s this: when you take a job, you finish it, no matter what. However tough the going, you don’t complain – you just keep slogging right through to the bitter end. You pull your own weight and then some, and you never let the rest of your crew down. Ever. Inability to live up to the Code -- leaving early, regardless of the circumstances -- can induce a sense of failure, of weakness, of somehow not being able to cut it anymore: a defeated They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? state of mind that is highly corrosive to one’s sense of self. It takes years of ceaseless effort to establish a reputation as a good, reliable worker, and that reputation is on the line with every job. Anyone who frequently calls in sick or has to go home early due to illness or injury will soon acquire the fatal taint no free-lancer can afford.
This all may sound crazy to civilians accustomed to working within company structures that offer at least some minimal degree of protection – a safety net, of sorts – from the ravages of real life. Sick days are taken for granted in the middle-class working world, but the Industry makes few allowances for human frailties in the puffed-up, narcissistic, high-stress arena of television and movie production. No matter what anybody promises, there’s no such thing as a guaranteed job below-the-line, where the vast majority of work is by definition temporary. Since film and television projects have a built-in, reasonably well-defined ending point, every day counts. Most feature films are shot in two to six months, after which the on-set filming crew breaks up and moves on to other jobs, or into the demimonde of unemployment. This is true for those who work in television as well, where even the most successful shows shut down at the end of the season – and the less-successful ones go dark a lot earlier. Unless you happen to be plugged in with sold-gold connections (such as being the progeny of Sumner Redstone or Les Moonvies, in which case you’ll be working high above-the-line anyway), you’re subject to the natural boom-and-bust rhythms of the Industry. Even during the fat times, you’re constantly being judged on the basis of your daily performance, which means when jobs grow scarce, only the best (or best-connected) free lancers will be able to find work. Truth be told, this Industry runs top from to bottom on pure, triple-distilled, two hundred proof Fear: the fear of not being hired, of being left out in the cold, and that your phone will suddenly stop ringing. As most of us find out eventually, this isn’t just paranoia -- it’s reality. There's no such thing as job security in the film and TV business.
Every Hollywood freelancer (which ultimately, means most of us in the Industry) faces the question of whether or not to go to work sick. What should be an easy decision – don’t -- is anything but. Not only will staying home for a day or two knock the stuffing out of the week’s paycheck, if you’re a day-player, that’s it – you’re suddenly unemployed and thus without any income at all. Unfortunately, going to work sick can easily end up costing a lot more if in your weakened condition, you come down with an even nastier bug or virus lurking around the set. The worse your illness, the longer your recovery time – and going to work sick inevitably exposes the rest of your immediate crew, (not to mention the entire production company), to your illness. At best, going to work sick is highly inconsiderate to your fellow workers. At worst, this is extremely selfish behavior.
The dilemma is particularly acute during the cold and flu season, when illness on set is widespread. Working such long hours in close proximity to a large group of people grinds down the immune systems of everyone, turning the set into a large-scale Petri dish ideal for the dissemination of viral and other disease-causing agents. Many crew members are parents with young children in school -- children whose main function in life during the winter months is to bring home a seemingly endless variety of cold and flu bugs to mom and dad, who then go to work and share this gift of contagion with the rest of the crew. When somebody on a set starts sniffling and coughing, everybody else is likely to get sick as well: it’s just a matter of time. You can guzzle half a dozen packets of EmergenC every day, sip the bitter extract of Echinacea, chew AirBorne tablets all day long, and swab everything around you with rubbing alcohol, but you can't stave off the inevitable. Sooner or later, you’ll get sick-- and when you do, you really should stay home.
So, you ask, why did I work this last job while sick? Because I’m a fear-driven, me-first, do-as-I-say-and-not-as-I-do free-lance hypocrite, just like everybody else in Hollywood. I knew full well I shouldn’t go to work, but with the unemployment looming (and no other work on the horizon), I didn’t see any other realistic choice. That doesn’t make it right, though, and in the end, I paid dearly for my sins: not only did I miss the last two long days of that shoot, but by then I was so sick I had to turn down every job that did ring my phone for more than a week afterwards. At least nobody else on my crew got sick, which was just about the only good thing to come of all this.
Would I make the same decision again? Probably. The realities of free-lance work leave no good options when illness strikes. Caught in that old familiar jam between the rock and the hard place, you do what you have to and hope for the best – and sometimes that means being a selfish, inconsiderate bastard who goes to work sick.
* I had one such production manager with a heart of gold, who saw to it that I got paid for a day I called in sick during the filming of a sit-com called “Encore! Encore!” at Paramount. For that act of compassionate mercy above and beyond the call, she will always have a warm spot in my heart. God Bless you, Joanne Singer, wherever you are....