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, February 1, 2009

Back to Basics

Beggars can't be choosers...

For the free-lance Hollywood work-bot, the rhythms of life often go through wild swings between working constantly or not at all. The transition from one extreme to the other can happen with suddenness of flipping a switch: one day you’re gainfully employed on a television show, movie, or pilot, and the next thing you know it's over -- and once again you're adrift in the horse lattitudes waiting for the phone to ring. Maintaining some form of mental/emotional balance in such an inherently unstable world is a crucial coping skill for every Hollywood free-lancer: learning how to go with the flow and make the best of the situation at hand.

After nearly ten weeks of steady unemployment (some if it due to the holidays, but mostly thanks to the endless dithering of SAG), my telephone rang late Monday afternoon with a rigging call at one of the studio lots. I spent the following day as part of a five man crew sending several thousand pounds of cable up high on a stage for a television pilot.

It seems the pilots are back, albeit not in great numbers. Hopefully more are on the way, and soon.

All in all, it was a good day. Whenever I spend two months away from anything having to do with the Industry, I seem to forget everything I ever knew about work. “Rust never sleeps,”as Neil Young once said, and rigging is a nice way to scrape off all that mental corrosion. Two of us stayed on the floor to run “the mule”(an electric hoist), sending the heavy coils of cable forty feet up, while the other three guys pulled them in and laid the cable out along the catwalks for the lighting crew of the pilot to deploy as needed. This kind of work is physical without being overly punishing, and at the end of eight hours, my arms, shoulders, back and legs let me know I'd done something real. Ten big bins that were full of cable when we arrived in the morning sat empty now, with all that cable high in the perms as we headed back towards the parking structure in the low sun of late afternoon.

There's a basic human satisfaction in a day like that, doing an honest day's work at a steady pace, absent all the sturm und drang of actual filming -- the tension and yelling and shushing from a small army of assistant directors and production assistants. I felt good walking back to my car, and as so often happens in a business where random coincidence can make the difference between a good week and another unemployment check, happened to run into a familiar face on the way -– a gaffer who needed extra guys for the next three or four days of stage and location filming on his show.

“You available?” he asked.
“You bet,” I replied.

So just like that, a one-day rigging call turned into a full week's work.

Things are seldom as simple as they seem, though. Had this not been such a brutally dry period, I probably wouldn’t have taken the job at all – not because the show happens to be crappy (although it is, for the usual reasons: bad premise, bad writing, and bad acting), or that the crew sucks (they’re good guys I enjoy working with) – but because the director is a classic genial idiot: a nice fellow who doesn’t have a clue what the fuck he’s doing. I've done enough work on this show to know the pattern, and it's always the same -- this guy wastes the first half of each day doing take after take after take of some stupidly simple scene any real director could knock out in twenty minutes. By the time we break for lunch, we're invariably three hours behind schedule (or more), and as the magic twelve hour mark draws near (at which point double-time kicks in for the crew), panic sets in. Suddenly the day turns into a frantic elbows-and-assholes scramble to get the scheduled work done.

“A fish rots from the head,” as the Chinese* say, which means there’s no way a crew can make up for such a lousy director. Working like this makes me feel like an idiot, but when a director is allowed so much slack without a producer willing to jerk his choke-chain, he's not about to change.

I knew damned well what I was getting into, and it went pretty much as expected – a couple of fourteen hour days followed by a grueling fifteen-and-a-half hour Friday-into-Saturday to finish the week. Those long hours meant getting around five hours of restless sleep every night, which made each succeeding day all that much harder. Having been there and done that more times than I can remember, I was mentally prepared for it -- and that makes all the difference.

Having been burned by this show in previous seasons, I’ve turned down several offers to day-play with these guys, but that was before our economy went into the current death-spiral. It’s amazing how a couple of months of hearing bad economic news while waiting for the phone to ring can re-boot one’s perspective on the matter of what constitutes acceptable employment. As I look around at what's happening, and at all those thousands of suddenly unemployed people desperately looking for work, I realize how lucky I am to be in a business that tends to ride out tough economic times reasonably well. Hollywood is taking some real hits, but at least the studios aren't shutting down like the assembly lines of GM, Chrysler, and Ford.

If life isn't exactly hunky-dory in the Industry these days, things could be a lot worse.

I'm just glad to be working again. There's even a bright side to working on such a lame, poorly-run show: Stupidity + Ego + Confusion = Long Hours/Big Paychecks. That I no longer enjoy working such long and punishing hours doesn't really matter right now. We're getting back to basics, and long hours come with the Hollywood turf.

As they say on HBO’s incomparably wonderful show The Wire:
“It's all in the game, yo.”

* A phrase rather famously applied to Ronald Reagan during his benighted presidential reign...


Leetal said...

Sometimes those really tough shows remind you what really matters in life and what you want from it. Of course, such thoughtful reflection is giving to the fact that the job is short and temporary and you don't have to ever come back.

Michael Taylor said...


You're right -- the other edge of that sharp free-lance sword is always having at least a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel...

The Grip Works said...

Lovely post as usual Michael !
I've become a regular lurker on your blog. Its a good way for me to keep up with whats going on in the world of movies across the seas.
We don't seem to be suffering too badly in India. I have heard of a few films being pulled for lack of finances, but not too bad. I've got my fingers crossed, having just entered the world of paternity and the added responsibilities that come with it.