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 25, 2008

One Crazy Week






















What the hell were they thinking?



This has been one crazy week, so pardon me while I wander way off the reservation. There will be no pontificating in this post, no finger-wagging, tell-it-like-it-is, set-the-record-straight lecture explaining the real nature of life here in Los Angeles, the city America loves to hate. I won’t whine about the looming actor’s strike, nor carp about the lingering reverberations of the WGA stoppage.

I will, however, discuss the weather.

Why (you might ask) this sudden lack of bile, this absence of heavy irony, this refusal to bite the gilded hand that has fed me for these past thirty years? Has my eternally half-empty philosophical glass suddenly filled to the brim with 100 proof Knob Creek Kentucky Straight Bourbon? Did I win the Mega-Lotto and jet off to some tropical paradise accompanied by a dozen nubile love slaves culled from the casting couches of Hollywood, eager to indulge my every whim?

Sadly, no.

But the Gods of Tinsel Town have indeed deigned to smile upon me. Not the wide, diamond-encrusted, 24 carat grin of Fantasy Land, but an honest smile welcoming me back into the warm embrace of a sit-com – and not one of those nightmare-on-wheels, single-camera comedies, but a real multi-camera show shot in front of a live audience, as God and Desi Arnaz intended.

That job that was jerked out from under me a few weeks ago? It came back. One of set lighting crew left the show for greener pastures, thus opening a slot for me – so with five episodes left on the schedule (four, after last week), I’m back on the regular crew of a sit-com for the first time in three years. True, this chariot will turn into a pumpkin come the end of June, but such is the finite reality of sit-com life. It happens to everybody sooner or later: even the crew of “Back to You” -- the high-octane, star-studded Kelsey Grammar vehicle we all thought/hoped/prayed might lead the Industry back to the Promised Land of multitudinous sit-coms – is suddenly floating belly-up in the pool, roughly seven years ahead of schedule.

It just goes to show, in the immortal words of William Goldman: “Nobody knows anything.”

Not that it was an easy week. Monday and Tuesday were typical lighting days for a sit-com – we did our work without unnecessary abuse – but Wednesday’s blocking and pre-shoot day spanked us for 12+ hours, most of which were spent doing actual work. This is hardly the death march pace of an episodic show, but homie don’t do episodics no more... Still, after shoot night, and an unusually long Friday hanging lights on the new swing sets for next week’s show (thanks to Monday’s holiday, we have just two days to get ready for the next show, rather than three), I was one tired puppy.

But it was a good tired. It’s nice to be back.

Meanwhile, the weather went all the way around the bend. Monday was another sweaty ordeal in the Tandoori oven of broiling desert heat, but by Friday, a cold and blustery rain was pelting LA for the first time in weeks. We went from summer to winter in three days. Riding such a meteorological roller coaster is pretty much the norm in other parts of the country, but we’re used to more stable (read: boring) weather out here on the west coast.

Then there were the tornadoes...

Granted, these twisters were nothing compared to the lethal vortexes of doom that have already killed dozens of people in the Midwest this spring -- but still, tornadoes in LA? Earthquakes, fires, and an occasional flood are the usual Act ‘o God vectors of death and destruction here on the west coast. These are bad enough -- none who live under the tectonic Sword of Damocles here in California could watch the news these last two weeks without an inward shudder. What happened in China will happen here sooner or later – “later” meaning sometime in the next 30 years, according to the recent grim pronouncements of earthquake experts. Granted, California survived the last three quakes (Landers, Northridge, and Loma Prieta) with a couple of hundred dead and a few billion dollars worth of damage – but none of those quakes even reached 7.0 on the Richter scale, nor lasted more than 15 seconds. The monster quake in Szechwan apparently shook for something like three minutes at close to 8.0 -- a magnitude ten times greater for more than ten times longer than anything experienced by a major urban population center in California for the last hundred years.

Despite our stricter building codes and widespread programs to retro-fit older structures, three minutes of that kind of shaking would reduce most of LA and San Francisco to rubble. Our buildings probably wouldn’t come down as fast as those in China did, allowing people a better chance to escape, but in the end, the damage would far exceed that done by Hurricane Katrina, over a much wider and more densely populated area. After the ground stopped shaking, a total rebuild of the physical infrastructure would be required. Whatever future Los Angeles and/or San Francisco emerges from that cloud of dust will be nothing like the cities we know today.

It was hard to watch the televised images from China this week, seeing all those weeping parents standing helpless at the edge of a mountain of rubble that had been their children’s school, and is now their tomb. If you got through that dry-eyed, you’re a better man than I.

Me? I’m just hoping those California earthquake experts are wrong.


Now, about that billboard pictured above...

I’ve never seen “Sex in the City,” HBO’s long-running portrayal of the sexual/emotional travails of four 30-something urban women. Not only am I in the wrong demographic for this sort of show, but I don’t have HBO. Maybe it was a great show I really should have seen – but I’ve missed a lot of great shows on HBO, many of which are lined up on my Netflix queue. It’s a good bet I’ll go to my grave never having experienced the full wit and wisdom of Carrie Bradshaw and her three friends.

Life is a finite endeavor. The banquet may be rich, but choices must be made.

So here comes the movie version of “Sex in the City,” and from what I read, female America quivers in anticipation. That’s great -- I hope everybody looking forward to this film gets to see it and has a wonderful viewing experience. But judging by the enormous billboard that stared me down while I was stuck in rush-hour traffic coming down Highland Ave the other day, whoever is marketing this film might be taking that audience for granted. Although I never saw the television show, I have seen many photos of S.J.P as Carrie, and she’s always looked like an interesting woman: smart, sassy, and sexy – and above all, very human, with all her strengths and frailties etched upon her face.

But this billboard is just awful, depicting the latest incarnation of Carrie Bradshaw as the mutant spawn of some unholy union between a Beluga whale and Medusa -- her enormous shiny pink face buffed, puffed, and botoxed to the max, jutting out from a monstrous mane of hair that looks like a nest of flaming snakes. And then there are those eyes: Stepford orbs of a metallic turquoise hue not found in nature, a color straight from the digital palate of Photoshop. This Carrie Bradshaw does not appear remotely human, but rather like some ghastly animatronic simulacrum “imagineered” by armies of brain-dead worker drones in their underground lair deep beneath Disneyland.

I'm no art director or marketing expert, but this is the most unflattering picture of Sarah Jessica Parker I've ever seen.

Maybe it won’t matter. Maybe the fans of “Sex” will ignore this horrendous image, and flock en masse to theaters everywhere. But man, that is one butt-ugly billboard.

Carrie, they done you wrong...

Sunday, May 18, 2008

So You Want to Come to Hollywood...


Rule Number One: be very careful where you park.


Every now and then I get an e-mail from a film student living/studying somewhere far from Southern California wondering if he/she should come to LA and join those of us already chained to the spinning gears and grease-stained levers deep in the bowels of the Hollywood Machine. From the tone of their messages, it’s clear that these young men and women are passionate about film, and feel the call to make their own personal pilgrimage to the Mecca of Movie Land – and they want advice on how best to get started on a career here in the dark pulsing heart of the Industry.

These are never easy questions to answer. Part of me wants to scream “No! Turn back before it’s too late!” But I know how they feel -- I too was an outsider who came here to work behind the curtain of the Emerald City -- so I do my best to offer cautious encouragement. Finding the right path in life is hard enough for young people without having some grumpy old fart throw a bucket of ice water on their cherished fever-dreams.

I’m not sure that any advice I can offer is actually helpful. Hollywood was a very different place when I came here thirty-plus years ago, hoping to breach the walls of the Industry. Back then, a huge number of feature films and television shows were being filmed in Southern California, as well as productions based out of Hollywood filming on location all over the country -- usually with a full crew from L.A. For those without connections, the mainstream movie business above-the-line was a very exclusive club, while the unions erected sturdy defenses to make sure those who sought work below-the-line cooled their heels outside the studio gates.

This was not – and is not – an easy business to crack.

That said, my timing was pretty good. The huge success of “Easy Rider” had already helped break the studio-picture stranglehold, fostering a thriving sub-industry of low-budget, non-union features -- mostly cheesy exploitation pictures of one sort or another, following the path blazed by Roger Corman. It was in this churning cauldron of opportunity that my generation of Hollywood outsiders were able to get a start.

Much has changed since then. Canada began to siphon off TV movies from the U.S. back in the early 90’s, offering favorable currency exchange rates, friendly cooperation from the locals, and urban locations easy (and eager) to stand-in for cities in the United States. This didn’t worry me at the time, since I was then firmly entrenched in the soulless (but lucrative) world of television commercials, with no desire to work the four-to-eight week productions typical of TV movies. But like a ravenous hog, the Canadian government smelled a good thing, and by the mid-90’s, offered extremely generous government subsidies to any U.S. producers willing to bring their shows across the border. It didn’t take long for the mass exodus north to begin – first a trickle, then a flood. Within two years, my hard-won but reasonably stable life as a commercial gaffer had spiraled down the drain, leaving me high, dry, and gasping for air.*

There’s still a lot going on in Hollywood, but Canada is now a major player on the feature film/television scene. Increasingly fat state subsidies continue to lure ever larger chunks of production from Southern California to New Mexico, the South-East, and the East Coast. Even Michigan, once the manufacturing hub of the automotive world and now a cornerstone of the Rust Belt -– became an active player in the film subsidy game. This has been bad for Hollywood and those of us who work here, but it’s good for young people who now have opportunities to break into the film business without making the long trip west: they no longer have to come to Hollywood to get a start in the Industry.

But if the e-mails I receive reflect the sentiment out there, these kids aren’t really interested in whatever film/television scene is developing in their local or nearby communities. Whatever’s going on around the corner, they still want to come to Hollywood, where they think the action really is.

I can’t fault them for that. I felt the same way, deciding to head south for LA rather than attempt to penetrate the tight-knit and decidedly cliquish film scene in my own local market of San Francisco. In retrospect, this was probably the right choice for me: I needed to be immersed in the rugby scrum of low budget features, to meet people and learn the skills in a rough-and-tumble environment offering boundless opportunity. I came to LA a decidedly unfocused young man, sure of only one thing: I wanted to work on movies. Everything else was up for grabs. Most of the young film students who e-mail me are way ahead of where I was at the time -- they seem to know exactly what they want to do.

In some ways, what drew me here still holds: there’s lots of churn in LA, and the resulting turnover inevitably creates opportunity. If your ultimate goal is to work on feature films as a cameraman, editor, or producer, LA is probably where you need to be. You want to write for television? Sure, come to LA -- but don't even think about coming until you've written a few really good scripts. There’s no guarantee it’ll happen for you here -– far from it -- but if you don’t come, you’ll always wonder what might have been. Life is full of enough regrets without adding more to the pile. Besides, it’s only by coming here that you'll find out if the dream you’ve nurtured for so long is the path you really want to follow. If not, you can always go back with a pocketful of good stories to tell the hometown folks.

But if writing and directing films is your dream, I’m not sure slogging through the Hollywood jungle is the best way to make that happen. You might be better off honing a script until it "sings," enlisting actors from local theater groups, then use a cheap high-def video camera to make your own film. Do it hook or by crook, with bubble gum, bailing wire, and credit cards if necessary: just do whatever it takes to shoot and edit your film. At that point, you’ll have learned more about the reality of making movies than you ever thought possible -- and if you still want that Hollywood career, then maybe you do have what it takes. Send your movie to film festivals, get it out there to be seen by the public -- maybe even win a prize or two. That way you’ll have something to show – a calling card – that could help take you where you want to go a lot faster than simply driving a beat-up U Haul out west in the hopes of landing a production assistant job on the first low-budget nightmare that will have you. This is an Industry based on the high-stakes gamble, but it's a love/hate relationship at best. The truth is, Hollywood has always been scared to death to lay down those big bets, and thus continually seeks ways to minimize that risk. If you can prove you’re not a long-shot toss of the dice -- that you have the talent and drive to deliver -- then Hollywood will want you as much as you want it.

Until your first feature flops, that is – and at that point, nobody will return your phone calls. But that’s the nature of the biz, and you’d better understand that before you head for the West Coast try to break down the doors of Hollywood.

Whatever path you take, it won’t be easy. Quite the opposite. Hollywood is a free-lance jungle all the way, and a risky proposition from start to finish. But every young Hollywood hopeful needs to find out just how committed he/she really is, and whether that drive stems from a burning need to do something, or simply the desire to be something. If you really want to direct, then find a way to direct: make short films, direct plays, whatever -- just do it any way you can. The lessons you learn in those first halting efforts will prove invaluable in the long run. But – and this is a crucial point -- if you find your motivation stems from the desire to be a director rather than to simply direct, that’s something else altogether. There’s nothing inherently wrong with being someone whose joi de vivre stems from wielding the power, prestige, and perception of glamour that comes with being a director – and if that’s who you really are, so be it. Just be aware that this means you may well be the kind of insufferably egotistical douchebag the rest of us hate to be around, much less work with/for. Still, when properly focused and channeled, such supercharged ambition can accomplish a lot in a hurry -- maybe you too will turn out to be the next Michael Bay or Jim Cameron.

Truth be told, I doubt it matters what I say. Young people are fueled by powerfully complex motivations leading them to do pretty much whatever they want to do, regardless of any well-meaning advice -- and on balance, that’s probably a good thing. We all have to follow our own dreams, chart our own path, make our own mistakes, and learn our own lessons. Sometimes the magic works, and sometimes doesn’t.  Whatever path is chosen will mete out plenty of grief, punishment, and misery along the way -- that much is unavoidable -- but the flip side is that you just might make your dreams come true. As long as young people aren't dreaming of becoming gang-bangers, drug dealers, serial killers, or kiddie pornographers, they’re better off chasing their own dreams (and learning those lessons) than following the dictates of others.

So to all of you planning to come here and tilt at windmills of Movie Land: whatever you think Hollywood might be like – the many illusions you’ve gleaned from movies, books, or magazines – your own experience will likely be completely different. In an Industry town, it’s rarely about the art, but usually about the money, and all too often, the acquisition of power. Try not to get caught up in that zero-sum game. Remember who you are and why you came here in the first place – and when in doubt, you won't go wrong following the advice of Davy Crockett (King of the Wild Frontier, in case you didn’t know): “Decide what’s right, then do it.”

One more thing: when you do come West, be careful where you leave the moving van. Take a lesson from the U-Haul pictured above, which was parked a little too long on the wrong street.


* At which point, it was goodbye light meter, hello gloves – and that’s when I discovered the world of sit-coms.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Hollywoodent

A blog called "Hollywoodent" recently posted a review* of two Industry blogs -- this one, and a very different sort of blog I happen to like a lot -- "Burbanked"(find it here.) Created by a USC Cinema student, "Hollywoodent" offers strongly-felt opinions on film, the media, and Hollywood, among other things. He discusses modern culture and technologies in ways I don't really understand -- but that's to be expected: where he's young, I'm old. While he swims like a fish in the digital seas, I remain landlocked in dusty deserts of the analog past.

He's the future. I'm history.

To his credit, he was very enthusiastic about "Burbanked," but his initial take on my blog could hardly have been more dismissive. I didn't much care for that, and let him know about it -- but I understood where he was coming from. Had there been a blog-o-sphere when I was young (and at one time, I too was consumed with seeing and making films), I'd probably have sneered at anything like "Blood, Sweat, and Tedium." When channeled through the turbulent, mercurial world of youth, human nature often leads people to devalue and dismiss that which -- due to inexperience -- they don't yet fully understand.

Not that there's anything particularly profound to be gleaned from my own blog, but it is the product of experience: my experience. I don't pretend to tell it "like it is," but rather to describe life in the Hollywood Machine as I have lived it. The process of life is a highly subjective endeavor, and our experiences -- and conclusions -- remain our own.

That said, I was gratified by the response of the young man behind "Hollywoodent" -- and if he still isn't a big fan of this particular blog, that's fine. I never expected (nor do I try) to please everyone who stumbles across this little patch of cyber-space. That way lies the Swamp of Frustration. Like it or hate it, this blog is what it is: a reflection of my own flaws and imperfections -- a work in progress. For whatever reason, "Hollywoodent" came back with a more thoughtful and considerably less snarky look, keeping both eyes open the second time around.

That's all I could ask.

He's a very smart young man. If he can make films as well as he writes, we all may be hearing from him in the future.


*For reasons I don't understand, I was unable to link directly to the review. You'll have to scroll down a bit to find it. Just look for those infamous gloves...

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??

Damn...





*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.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Have Gloves, Will Travel: Working on Location

“This is a location, not a vacation.”
Every department head in the history of Hollywood, upon taking his crew on location...

Most Industry veterans have done their share of distant locations. My own working travels have taken me to Washington state, Wyoming, Montana, Texas, North Carolina, Mississippi, Vermont, Acapulco, and Mexico City, among other far-flung locales. Many of my Industry friends have worked all over the world – Europe, Africa, and Asia. You get to see new things and learn a lot on location, which is half the reason to go in the first place. For instance, I learned that Austin, Texas is a lot more fun than El Paso, that the tab on a sinfully delicious heart-attack-on-a-plate breakfast for three at Brennan’s in New Orleans can run past $160.00 (and this was twenty years ago), and that there’s nothing quite like watching a rising sun turn the magnificently rugged and snowy peaks of the Grand Teton Mountains a gorgeous shade of pink as the cold Wyoming night gives way to dawn.

I also learned that no matter how careful you are (no non-bottled water, no ice in the drinks, no salad whatsoever), if you spend enough time and eat enough roadhouse food in Mexico, you will get the dreaded Montezuma’s Revenge – and those first, gut-churning symptoms will sink their razor-sharp claws into your belly at the most inopportune time. In my case, it happened during the first thirty minutes of a three hour bus ride to a jungle location outside Mexico City.

Not a fun day, that.

Location work is mostly about suffering. All film work is, to a certain extent – the hours, the conditions, the pompous, power-crazed Id Monsters we so often end up working for – but the experience is invariably heightened by the simple fact that you’re on location. Like the old saw about hitting yourself in the head with a hammer because it feels so good when you stop, at the end of a location day, you feel great. You’ve endured, survived, and prevailed – and you did it working shoulder to shoulder with others who suffered right along with you in the trenches, far from the comforts of home. That shared pain and intensity of the experience may be intangible, but it means a lot.

Still, as the cautionary bleat goes: “It’s a location, not a vacation.” This warning -- usually intoned by the first Assistant Director in a futile effort to keep the crew from running wild on those first heady nights on location – seldom works. Those who listen, already know, while those who don’t (usually the younger ones), will soon be absorbing their own harsh lessons from the Joe Frasier School of Higher Education.

I’ve been on both sides of that equation. As a young grip/juicer, desert locations were my personal bete noir -- Death Valley in particular. Shooting in cities, mountains, and forests posed no problems for me: in those locations, I knew when to say when. But something about the harsh wasteland of the desert would spin my bearings every time, and I always seemed to end up in deep sand. Out there, I couldn’t resist drinking way too much the night before a long, miserably hot day in that most lethally inhospitable of environments. During our first night on a job in Furnace Creek (which, I was soon to learn, got that name for a reason), I drank enough red wine before, during, and after dinner that it later seemed an inspired idea to play a round of “Toad Golf” before turning in. There, on the hotel putting green under the luminous stardust of the desert night sky, the game went on until well after midnight.

You’ve never heard of “Toad Golf?” Neither has Tiger Woods, since I invented the game that very night. It’s simple enough: you find and/or place a toad on the putting green, then tap your foot very near the creature, which causes it to hop away. You keep doing this (never touching the toad, of course – rules are rules*), until the creature finally jumps into the hole. Just like the PGA, low score wins -- and since I was playing solo that night, 43 “strokes” took the trophy.

If this sounds moronic on a scale that would make Homer Simpson proud, all I can say is that it seemed like a good idea at the time. I was young. I was drunk. I was on location.

And lo, did I pay for the intemperate nature of my sins. The sun rose at a truly ungodly hour, kicking off a rude and jarring death march straight into the Seventh Circle of Hell – the really hot one -- a day of brutal, head-pounding misery that stretched from the crack of dawn until well after dark. By then I’d sweated out most of the poisons, and in the process, learned a little something. Not enough, as it turned out: more such lessons were to follow, since despite my suffering, the lure of strong drink in such fiercely exotic desert locations proved stronger than my memories of pain. In time, those lessons sank in – although truth be told, I’m not certain whether I actually learned the fine art of self-control, or if those desert location jobs simply stopped coming.

All I know for sure is that I never played “Toad Golf” again.

Going on location is definitely no vacation. On features, location work generally means toiling six days a week, at least 12 hours/day, for two to four months. Slaving away at such a grueling pace is like trying to row a boat across the ocean, where that one day off each week looms in the distance like a precious island paradise in a vast, sweaty sea of work: a day to sleep in, do laundry (or have it done), catch up on the news and/or with people back home, and see the local sights to the extent possible. By the end of this lovely day off, you almost feel human again – but then suddenly it’s Monday morning, and time to crawl back in the boat. After a few weeks of this, The Movie pretty much becomes your life. Time distorts as each grinding day slowly bleeds into the next, and before you know it, another week has passed in a blur. Everything else fades away: the past, the future, and whatever might be going on in the world. There is only the here, the now, The Movie -- and the crew with whom you spend those 72 to 84 working hours each week.

Lest you think I exaggerate: I once worked as the set lighting Best Boy on a non-union, very low budget feature** filmed in rural Vermont, from October into December of 1987. Our deal memo called for the crew to receive overtime only after working a cumulative total of 96 hours a week. In trying to wring the very last drop from each and every dollar, the producers had budgeted for 16 hour work days – and the bad news was that we did indeed get overtime after some of those seemingly endless weeks. Towards the end, we were shooting night exteriors from late afternoon until dawn -- in the snow -- with a three man lighting crew. Working that job was like being in an eight week boxing match. It took months to recover.

But if we suffered up there in the snows of Vermont, we also had a great time. The actors were wonderful – the late, great, and always ebullient John Randolph, a young Lukas Hass, and the lovely Leah Thompson, who was a real sweetheart on that film. I think every guy on the crew had a crush on her for those two long, cold months. Our 45 minute drive to work every morning was a trip across the Appalachian Trail into Currier and Ives country -- a narrow two lane road winding through the snowy mountains, where smoke rose from the chimneys of little cottages in the distance. As we crested a ridge early one freezing morning, we saw a bare tree coated in pure ice, every delicate branch glowing like tropical coral in the golden rays of the morning sun. The drive home in the crew van was another story -- always in the dark, all of us bone-tired from the day’s work. But being on location means finding a way to make good things happen, and one of the crew (my fellow juicer) happened to have the full soundtrack of “Apocalypse Now” on cassette tape – all the dialog and music of the film – so we'd roll through the cold, dark Vermont night listening to the story unfold, mesmerized.

“Don’t get off the fucking boat...”

If this sounds crazy (and I was among the dubious naysayers the first time he pulled out that tape player), it turned out to be a great idea. The long drive back to hot showers and warm beds seemed a lot shorter under the spell of those tapes – and we were all sorry when the story finally came to an end. It was like going back to a time before television, when radio reigned as the modern miracle of the era.***

The days were long, hard, and very cold. We froze our asses off wherever we went – and then there were those awful nights in the snow -- but at one point, I got to spend two days in the warm caboose at the tail end of an old troop train, my only task being to keep a small generator running to power the lights in the cars up ahead. All day long, that train rolled through the snowy mountains and hills, along a flowing creek in the bright winter sun. For a California boy who’d never seen much snow at all, this was a unique and incredibly beautiful experience.

But if I had fun, it sure as hell wasn’t any vacation – it was a location.



* No toads were harmed during the course of this game.

** “The Wizard of Loneliness

*** This was well before the days of Ipods and cell phones. I doubt such a wonderfully communal experience could even happen nowadays – the crew members would either sink into their own isolated world of earbuds and chosen music, or be yakking on their cell phones.