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, January 11, 2009

Paying Your Dues

"Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die."
Albert King

The Anonymous Assistant recently ran a series of pithy, dead-on posts about paying your dues, and the profound difference between the almost entirely cerebral world of film school and the very real, very gritty nature of life in the Industry. Having graduated from the former to the latter, his words ring with the clarity of truth learned the hard way – which really, is the only way.

I didn’t go to a real film school, but rather an institution offering a limited if lively film curriculum run by a handful of passionate, knowledgeable, and articulate lecturers. None were full professors, as I recall – with no actual film program or film major, the best the school could was to hire and support these lecturers -- but that didn't matter. They loved movies, and did a great job communicating their passion to the students. I fell into their clutches more or less by default, since nothing else in the academic realm held much interest for me at the time. The school had a very flexible approach, allowing a properly motivated student to slide into almost any sort of independent major, so long as a professor in a more-or-less related department gave it the okay. And that, my little droogies, is how I ended up majoring in “Aesthetic Studies.”

Yeah, I know how ridiculous that sounds -- and believe me, on those rare occasions when I've had to confess this little tidbit to my fellow crew members on a job, the result is always a good belly laugh.

There were benefits to such a loose form of study. I took some great classes, watched hundreds of movies, made a few of my own student films, and helped with the projects of my fellow young film fiends. All of this infused me with a passion for process of making movies, some of which remains after all these years. Interesting though it was, most of what I learned in school (with one notable exception) proved utterly useless in Hollywood. I had no clue what a grip, gaffer, or a best boy was. I couldn’t identify (let alone properly use) the most basic tools of the film making trade: a C stand, flag, or an apple box. I didn't know what any of the following were: a Big Eye Tener, Baby Senior, Baby Junior, Baby Baby, 2K Zip, beaver board, bazooka, grumpy, rosemary, becky, ubangi, menace arm, mombo-combo, high roller, block-and-falls, spider box, 4/0, threefers, banded cable, gang box, lunch pail, a trapeze, crank-o-vator, or a "BFL." These items, each of which provides a means to solve one of the vast panoply of problems that confront every film crew, may as well have been from another planet.

Sure, I could bore you silly blathering on about the films of Goddard, Edgar G. Ulmer, Sam Fuller, and Nicholas Ray, but when it came to doing anything remotely useful on a professional film set, I didn’t know shit, nor did I have a clue just how astonishingly, colossally, abysmally ignorant I truly was. Which was just as well, really -- otherwise I might have been intimidated by the bottomless depth of my ignorance. As it was, I just blundered in, asking a lot of stupid questions and doing whatever I could to help out. I had a lot to learn, and just like everyone else who eventually became an Industry veteran, I learned it all through the bruising process of paying my dues, taking graduate-level courses from the Joe Frazier School of Higher Education.

There’s just no way around it -- if you want to earn the respect essential to any kind of success in Hollywood (above or below-the-line), you’ve got to pay your dues. I’m not talking about union/guild dues, either, although you’ll end up paying your share of those too. Paying your dues means experiencing the full spectrum of horrors your chosen path has to offer: slaving for long hours and lousy money doing what you’re told, whether or not you understand it. Eventually some of it begins to stick, as you learn to anticipate and be ready for the problems that confront every day of filming. At the same time, you begin to recognize who knows what they’re doing and who doesn’t, and thus who to follow and who to avoid -- a useful skill, that. Sometimes you’ll end up working for sadistic shit-heads who know only one way to do things – their way – and if you don’t toe the line, these bastards will make your life miserable on the job. In time, you’ll work for enough different people to learn that there’s almost always another way to solve the problem, and that yelling doesn’t really help. You’ll learn what it takes to perform under the most difficult circumstances: toiling all night in the rain, slaving from dawn ‘til dusk in the broiling desert sun, or working in the disgustingly fetid alleys of the big, dirty city.

It's all part of the process of becoming a pro.

Occasionally someone -- through the intervention of a Higher Power -- will manage to attain a position of responsibility beyond that warranted by their level of maturity or experience. Sometimes they’re good enough to pull it off, but even these unusually talented people have a hard time earning the true respect of their crew. When a less talented newbie is promoted above his/her level of competence, a professional crew will nod their heads, smile, and get the job done in spite the burden under which they toil, but the process won’t be much fun for anybody involved.

I’ve done my share of those jobs. One was a long day on a commercial working for a gaffer who had experience as a grip, but had never done even single day working as a juicer. The guy hadn’t paid his dues – any of them. As a gaffer, his ignorance was as deep as it was wide. In and of itself, that’s no crime: ignorance is merely a lack of knowledge, and at one time or another we were all as ignorant as dairy cows about the business. But what got under my skin was how proud this clown seemed of knowing nothing about electricity, running power, or setting lamps.

“I do the lighting,” he declared, in a snotty, dismissive tone. “My Best Boy handles the electricity.”

This kind of white-gloves, holier-than-thou, Executive Gaffer attitude really rubs me the wrong way, but it doesn't get in the way too much so long as His Royal Highness the Gaffer has an experienced crew to get the job done. On this job, though, the crew was just those two -- the Gaffer and his Best Boy -- which is why I got a panicky phone call on the morning of the shoot. They were filming in an airport terminal (always a pain in the ass), with Mr. I-Paint-With-Light holding his meter and pointing while the poor Best Boy ran around like a greyhound chasing a rabbit, trying to lay the cable, unload and set up the lamps, get them burning, then adjust them to the fickle whims of this Executive Gaffer. The Best Boy knew his stuff, but working alone in a cluster-fuck of confusion can bury the best of us, and he just couldn’t keep up. By the time I got there, the set was mess. It took both of us working flat out for several hours to catch up and get things running smoothly.

So how did such a pompous jerk manage to become the Gaffer on this job? It should come as no surprise that his Daddy happened to be the director – a textbook case of nepotism gone bad. The kid hadn’t even come close to paying his dues, and everybody knew it but him. Last I heard, he was still stumbling his way up the ladder of success, trying to become a cameraman. I pity his gaffer and crew...

I can't imagine that anybody would go all the way through one of the top film schools – USC, NYU, UCLA, or any of the others – with the intention of becoming a juicer, grip, or boom operator. A few will concentrate on cinematography with the goal of becoming a DP, but that’s as far below-the-line as most film students can see. I don't blame them -- there’s no reason to pay/borrow fifty thousand dollars or more for a film degree to prepare for a career hauling cable or carrying sand bags. Film school graduates see themselves occupying the top ranks of the Industry – they want to make films, not get their hands dirty, and I hope they get to do just that. We need more smart creative people at the top to keep this Industry from turning into an assembly line pumping out mindless dreck like “Marley and Me” and “American Idol.”

On your way to the top, though, it's useful to spend a little time below decks, where you can get a feel for what it actually takes in the way of lighting, grip, set dressing, props, and everything else -- the sheer human effort -- to make possible your four minute steadi-cam homage to the astonishing opening sequence in “Touch of Evil.” A little hands-on knowledge can make you a lot better at what you’ll eventually do up there above-the-line, where a whole new set of dues await to be paid. In the end, there’s simply no substitute for putting in the time, paying attention, and learning how everything works. You might have all the protean talent of a young Orson Welles, but if you don’t learn how the system works – and how to work the system – it's all too easy to crash and burn. More than a few very smart, extremely creative people got a little sideways trying to take shortcuts, and instead of enjoying long, successful careers, went up in smoke here in the shadow of the Hollywood Hills.

Don't let that be you: pay your dues and learn your craft the right way.

But if things don't work out up there in the land of milk and honey -- and the attrition rate is high on those lofty peaks -- you just might find yourself facing a choice between leaving the Industry altogether or working below-the-line. In that case (assuming you've got what it takes), give it a try. It's not an easy life, but nothing in this business comes easy, and there are compensations down here. And on that note -- in all the hundreds of Industry blog posts I've read during the past couple of years, nobody has described the the pain, pleasures, and satisfactions of crawling up through the ranks below decks quite so well as "D" from "Dollygrippery."

This one came straight from the heart, and he nailed it.


The Grip Works said...

Hi Michael,
Happy New Year !
I love your post, and have forwarded it to a bunch of directors and producers I work with who insist on hiring Nitwits to man the posts that could really do with experience. Here in India we have a unique problem of having completely useless AD's. There has been a big shakeup in the way things work in India in recent years. Some for the good and some for the bad. One of the worst things that has happened is the functioning of the AD department. It used to be that the AD's were creative assistants to the Directors, and the set was run to a large extent by production. Now, trying to follow the "Western" model, Bollywood is chasing its own tail. We have a bunch of young inexperienced "AD's" whose only ability really is being able to speak English and use Movie Magic'c Scheduler. They haven't a clue what it takes to run a set. They have no real understanding as to what it takes to set up a shot. They have nto paid their dues, and make the crews life miserable. For some reason, producers dont see this, and if they do, dont seems to be doing anything about it. These AD's are all aspiring directors, not producers, so the administration part of film making is not important in their scheme of things. So most of the time we have to get the job done in spite of these jokers not with their help.

Michael Taylor said...

Happy New Year to you too.

We've got our share of poseurs here as well, mostly masquerading as "producers," being paid tons of money to order the hapless and hardworking PA's around. Meanwhile, the UPM is busy trying to grind the crew's rates down by another dollar per hour.

Ambition-fueled bullshit seems to be the great unifying force across this universe of film.

Same as it ever was...

AJ in Nashville said...

Michael - After this long-overdue visit to your blog I feel compelled to say again say once again what a joy it is to read and comprehend. Between your site and Kay's, I feel as though I'm able to live the full breadth of the Hollywood experience (minus the intelligence, sweat and skill, of course).

This again was a wonderful peek inside your fascinating world. Paying dues is something that's common across all professions that are or should be considered 'crafts,' and it's always amazing to me to see how those who try to take shortcuts never really seem to 'get it.' Happily though, they are rarely truly successful. Hopefully kharma and The Peter Principle eventually kick in.

Great post. I hope all is well with you, my friend. I owe you a note sometime soon.