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 11, 2008

That Was the Untitled Week That Was

Be careful what you wish for...

It’s Springtime in Southern California, which means Los Angeles is once again in the gentle grip of the “June Gloom” – cool foggy mornings that only grudgingly surrender to sunny, breezy afternoons. Leather-skinned sun worshipers, TV weathermen, and beach-town retailers hate the June Gloom, but for ordinary work-bots unable to afford life on the coast, this is a particularly sweet time of year. Soon enough the brutal desert sun will broil Los Angeles from dawn ‘til dusk in a summer seemingly without end: month after sweltering month of crushing, enervating heat. But that will be then – now, it’s still crisp and cool, with Jacaranda trees bursting out in full glorious bloom all over Hollywood. Some of these trees are more than forty feet high and thirty feet wide, creating a huge canopy thick with gorgeous purple flowers. Certain blocks around town are lined with rows of these magnificent trees, dropping clouds of blossoms on the streets and cars below – a blizzard that gathers in great drifts, like purple snow.

Unless you’re one of those cold-blooded human lizards who crave the cauldron of baking heat (in which case, why not just pack up and move to Phoenix?), this is the best time of the year.

It’s also still pilot season -- and as things turned out, the third time was the charm. After going 0 for 2 in the pilot sweepstakes, a last-gasp Hail Mary pass spiraled in out of the empty blue sky right into my waiting hands. The result was the Work Week from Hell: ten straight days of ceaseless toil, starting with a Thursday shooting promos for “Dancing With the Stars,” then jumping onto the pilot that drove us right through the weekend, the entire following week, and on to the distant shores of another Saturday afternoon. Things got a bit surreal for a while there -- six days in, I started checking the newspaper to remember what day it was -- and by that mind-numbing second Saturday, driving to and from work had become more like a playing some hyper-realistic, ultra-hi-def video game than the simple act of maneuvering my car through the physical world.

At that point, I’m not sure I could have recited my own full name.

Being fond of the part-time nature of this Industry -- I do like my time off, thankyouverymuch -– I wouldn’t ordinarily embrace such a scorched-earth run of work. But this is no ordinary* year, and there was no way I could turn it down. Besides, with the last nine of those ten days on a sit-com pilot, I knew the work would be easier than almost any other type of show.** The hard part of a sit-com pilot comes early, when the grips and juicers put in a solid week of 8 to 10 hour days pushing the big rock up the steep hill -- rigging the stage and sets for power, then roughing-in the basic lighting. At that point, the actors and director begin rehearsing on those sets from morning until mid-afternoon. We can’t do any lighting until the rehearsals are done, so our call times get pushed to 3:00 or 4:00 p.m., after which we work into the night – but no more than 8 hours, and sometimes less. Working at our own pace (and without any Assistant Directors shushing us and cracking the whip) is much less stressful than slaving under the production gun. Once the stage is rigged and roughed-in, there are usually only two long days ahead (the blocking and shoot days), so we get to sleep late and have a few hours of daylight to take care of other things every day before heading to work -- which has the added benefit of avoiding most of the heavy traffic to and from the studio. The same basic pattern applies if the pilot gets picked up by the network: each week we'll have three days of late-afternoon lighting calls, followed by the blocking and shoot day. For work-bots of a certain age (ahem...), this kind of schedule is infinitely preferable to the work-around-the-clock Death March of single camera comedies or episodic television. The trade-off (and there’s always a trade-off) is money: the shorter hours mean sit-coms are considerably less lucrative than episodics. But as far as this juicer is concerned, those bigger paychecks represent too many hours hacked from whatever’s left of my life – it’s blood money, and I’m all done bleeding for this Industry.

I hope.

Our pilot was called “The Untitled (insert writer/producer’s name here) Project.”*** Strange though it may seem (and it's not easy to have much confidence in writers who can’t even come up with a decent title), only half the projects filmed in any pilot season come with real titles. That’s how we end up working on things called “The Untitled Kevin Brennan Project,” or “The Untitled Susie Essman Project.” If and when such a pilot gets picked up for the fall season (neither of those did), an actual title will magically appear as if there’d never been any doubt. Still, nothing quite underlines the ephemeral and highly speculative nature of this now-you-see-it/now-you-don’t business so much as picking up a script labeled “The Untitled So-and-So Project.”

Truth be told, it doesn’t matter what they call it, so long as the paychecks are signed by someone with a real name.

The good news for me was that the rigging and basic lighting (the hard part) had already been done for this pilot a couple of weeks before -- at which point Somebody Important up the food chain slammed on the brakes after deciding one of the actors wasn’t quite right for the part. A pilot is an expensive and risky endeavor even when everything’s lined up perfectly, but if the most crucial element (casting) isn’t exactly right, the whole project is doomed before it starts – and doomed pilots tend to get smothered in the crib, along with their crews.

Once the casting issues were resolved (thus easing the danger that Somebody Even More Important would pull the plug on the whole project), the production company had a ten day window to complete rehearsals, shoot the show, and wrap the stage right down to a freshly swept floor -- a deadline cast in stone by the previous delay. With the stage under contract to another show (ready to resume filming their single-camera comedy, stalled by the WGA strike), our company had no choice but to work flat out for nine straight days.

So that’s what we did, tweaking, adjusting, and re-tweaking the lighting over the course of four not-terribly long days, before coming in early on blocking day with the camera crews. Blocking day (establishing and marking the camera moves for each scene on every set) went 12 hours, as did the shoot night, when we taped the show before a live studio audience. With the show finally in the can, we then had three days to take down, wrap, and send back every one of the two hundred or so lamps that had been so carefully hung and adjusted to make the pilot sparkle. Thanks to union regulations, we were handsomely paid for that sixth (time-and-a-half) and seventh (double-time) consecutive day – but union rules are fickle creatures that giveth and taketh away, which explains why we went right back to straight-time for the eighth and ninth days. I won't pretend this makes any sense at all, but screw it -- I had a fat week anyway you slice it. Really, I was just happy to be back on a sit-com of any sort.

It’s weird, though -- after ten straight days under water, I feel a bit like Rip Van Winkle, completely out of touch with what’s been going on out in the real world. What month is it, anyway? And who’s the President now – Obama, Hillary, or McCain?

Bush? Still??


*Right now, we’re all stuck between the rock of the WGA strike and the hard place of a looming – and potentially disastrous -- SAG strike. Given the recent bad news about “Ugly Betty,” this is not shaping up as a banner year for Hollywood work-bots above or below the line.

** Not all sit-coms. I did a lot of work one season on a show that was a sit-com in name only – yes, they shot with four cameras (occasionally in front of a live audience), but they had a bad habit of going off the studio lot to shoot lots of big locations -- at night, no less -- with a ten ton truck shoehorned full of BFL’s and cable. That show used enough equipment to make a feature, but seldom to good effect -- mostly it served to beat the living crap out of the crew each and every week, pounding them into the dirt by Friday night. This was no ordinary sit-com, but rather some kind of unholy mutant: the four camera episodic. Just thinking about that job makes my back hurt.

*** I’d never heard of this particular writer/producer before taking the job, and you probably haven’t either. If this pilot manages to get picked up, I might have a chance to land a spot on the crew – and in that case, I’ll be happy to tell you his name. But it’s a truism in Hollywood that loose lips really can sink ships, and I’ve got the sopping wet clothes to prove it. But that’s a story for another post.

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