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)

Friday, February 27, 2009

Back to the Grind

It’s late Friday morning in nice quiet neighborhood of South Pasadena, where three of us sit in the dining room of a beautifully restored Craftsman home reading the paper – Lee with the front page, Chris perusing Sports, while I ponder the increasingly dismal economic news in the business section. After reading about the latest breakdown in SAG’s negotiations with the producers (not the news any of us was hoping for), I turn to “Dilbert” for a dose of workplace absurdity I can relate to.

With things looking bleak and bleaker, sometimes a laugh is the best you can hope for.

From the next room, the morning quiet is suddenly punctuated by the desperate, choking moans of an attractive young real estate saleswoman being stabbed in the belly by a cold-eyed psycho killer -– qu’est ce que c’est? -- another brooding loner with a murderous thing for blonds. It’s tough enough trying to sell real estate these days without being targeted by a twisted mind channeling demonic impulses that always seem to end up with blood on the carpet, and another slowly cooling body on the living room couch.

Hard times, indeed.

No, I haven’t gone over to the Dark Side, or joined some Mansonesque cult bent on slaughtering yuppies in their natural habitat. That I’m once again in such casual proximity to senseless bloody violence can mean only one thing: I’m back in the traveling circus of episodic television.

Yeah, I know – I swore I’d never do this again, but beggars can’t be choosers these days, and when the phone suddenly went quiet last week, I officially became a beggar. The single offer that eventually came in over the wires was for this long day on a popular major-network crime drama. What was supposed to be a one-day call morphed into three additional days next week – or more accurately, two long days followed by a movies-‘til-dawn all-nighter on Friday that will blow my weekend to smithereens.

All-nighters are just about my least favorite thing in this silly business. I did more than my share of night work during the first twenty years of my so-called career, and have tried to avoid it ever since. Working ‘til three or four in the morning is one thing – at least you still have a chance to get to bed (and maybe to sleep) before the sun actually comes up – but movies-‘til-dawn means working all through the long cold night, then wrapping several tons of equipment back to the truck in the blinding glare of that big yellow thermonuclear ball we call the sun. You drive home in a state of wired, bleary-eyed exhaustion to a fitful sleep, waking up in late afternoon feeling like death warmed over. A hot shower, coffee, and some food helps – soon followed by copious quantities of alcohol -- but nothing really works as well as another night of sleep, after which you begin to resume human form.

The problem now is recovery time. In my twenties and thirties, I could bounce back pretty quickly from working nights. On my first real movie, I worked as a PA for three straight weeks of nights, arriving on set in late afternoon and driving home in the slo-motion stampede of morning rush hour commuter traffic in LA. This was a rude introduction to Hollywood reality, but fueled on a high-octane blend of hope, youth, and anxiety, I could take it. Not anymore -- I need three or four days to fully recover from an all-nighter now, and would have to be seriously desperate to accept a job working consecutive nights. Unfortunately, night filming is impossible to avoid, especially when toiling in the dark alley of episodic urban crime dramas.

In a way, a career in the biz is a bit like a marriage: for better or worse, the good with the bad, one as much a part of the whole as the other. Working nights is definitely “the bad" part of the deal.

But that will be next week, and this is now. Here in leafy South Pasadena, the only sounds pervading this lovely neighborhood come from a few crows overhead, listlessly complaining to each other, and the occasional flock of big green parrots (twenty or more) careening through the sky, frantically squawking as though the Devil himself was on the wing. With their bright red heads, these birds are much bigger than the green and yellow parrots of Hollywood.

Southern California, the entropical paradise.

We shoot a few exteriors first, to move our killer into the Death House, then go inside to shoot the actual murder. It takes all morning and well into late afternoon to grind out “coverage” of the brutal, bloody stabbing (masters, two-shots, “turning around” and close-ups), and every time the camera moves, so do the lights. We’re using a battery of HMI pars -- 4k’s, 2500’s, 1200’s, and a couple of 575’s – most of which must be repositioned with every new shot. This poses no problems until the sound department starts moaning about our ballasts. None of these are particularly noisy, but sound mixers tend to be nerdishly obsessive about delivering as clean a track as possible, and after being forced to endure the constant squawking of all those parrots and crows outside, this mixer is in no mood to overlook the quiet whisper of small cooling fans inside our ballasts. I can’t blame him, really – he’s just doing his job -- but now we have to put all our ballasts outside the house, feeding cables back in through open windows to power the lamp heads. Every time the camera moves, it sees another batch of cables, so we have to yank them out and find another window where the lens can’t see. This keeps us moving fast all day long and into the night.

During my years in sit-coms, I grew accustomed to (and fond of) a very different pace, mainly because we did the bulk of our lighting from early afternoon into the evening hours after the actors had gone home. There was always a certain amount of last-minute scrambling during blocking and shoot days, but the broad strokes of lighting the sets was done in a relatively pressure-free environment. Episodics are a very different beast, requiring the entire crew to remain metaphorically crouched in the starting gate, like sprinters tensed and waiting for the gun. The only time you can fully relax is at lunch, a mere thirty minutes of freedom, but by the time you wade through the line of steam tables and load up a plate, you’re lucky to have fifteen minutes left to inhale all that food. It’s hurry-up, rush-rush, work-work, be-quiet -SHUSH! all day long. For 12 to 14 hours, we’re in a state of constant alert, ready to spring into action the instant our radios crackle.

Ah yes, the radios. It used to be that only production -- AD's and PA's -- had walkie-talkies, but now wearing a radio is de rigueur for grip and electric crews. Many crew members even buy their own “security headsets” – small earphones like the Secret Service wears – rather than rely on the bulky and cumbersome (read: cheaper) over-the-head earphone/microphone units typically supplied by production. I hate wearing a goddamned radio for a number of reasons – the extra weight I don’t want to carry around for fourteen hours, the remarkable way a radio manages to fall off my belt at the worst possible moment, all those little wires that inevitably catch on on things as I crawl/climb through a stage or location set, and the serious intrusion on my own personal space that comes with being tethered to an electronic leash. When the little voice inside my head starts yelling, I have to drop whatever I’m doing and kick into action. Radios are just a bit too Orwellian for my taste – and being an old dog, I'm not particularly fond of such shiny new tricks.

But even though I despise radios – halfway through the day, that little earpiece starts to feel like a big termite boring into my head – the business as we know it couldn’t run smoothly without them. Radios allow quiet, effective communication that saves time while avoiding the confusion generated in the past when loud bellowing between takes was the only way to communicate across a big set.

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, we're stuck wearing them.

The thing is, these radios must be equipped with a headset or earpiece, which production is supposed to supply. Otherwise, the radio is constantly blaring all over the place, driving everybody else crazy. Without the earpiece, you have to remember to turn the volume all the way down during rehearsals and takes, then turn it back up to receive any instructions. This gets old in a hurry, which leads to turning the radio down all the time, at which point you've pretty much defeated the purpose of wearing a radio in the first place. But without a radio, you’re forced to stick very close to another crew member who does have an earpiece, constantly asking him/her what’s going on. That doesn't work either.

To fit in and become a functioning, useful member of the crew (which is the only way you'll be invited back), you have to wear a radio with an earpiece.

I manage to avoid wearing a radio in the early morning – being the new guy, I’ll let the best boy give me a radio when he thinks it’s appropriate. We’re doing exteriors with no lights, so I don’t really need one yet. But once the camera goes inside the house, there’s no way to know what’s going on or be useful, so I ask the best boy for a radio and headset. He returns with a radio, but no headset.

“We’re out of headsets,” he says.
“Can’t you get one from production?”
“They don’t have any,” he shrugs.

Great. In a gesture of supreme futility, I dig an ancient earpiece from my tool bag – the same earpiece that didn’t work the last time I tried it – and am not at all surprised to find that it still doesn’t work. The microphone transmits well enough, but the earpiece won't receive, which means I’m unable to hear the gaffer or any of the crew. I try riding the volume knob for a while, but this just pisses off everybody else on the entire crew. A noisy walkie-talkie on a quiet set is worse than useless. Finally, one of my fellow juicers takes pity and lends me an extra earpiece he happens to have in his bag, and suddenly I can hear what’s going on.

At long last I’m more or less part of this crew. That’s the good news. The bad news is that now I too am fully plugged into the hurry-up, lets-go, shut-up-and-wait grind.

But it’s a job, and the way things are these days, I’m just glad to have it.

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