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Wednesday, April 29, 2009
No Background, No Laughers
In space, no one can hear you scream...
I stood at the craft service table contemplating the vast selection of donuts arrayed before me, feeling a bit like a customer eyeballing the lineup of baby-dolled honeys in one of those pay-for-play pleasure palaces that make Nevada a destination location for adventurous tourists from all over the world. “Whatever you wish, sir,” cooed the imaginary donut-voice in my head. “Glazed, chocolate-dipped, chocolate-dipped with nuts, jelly-filled, cream-filled, powdered sugar, candy-sprinkled, or plain?”
That indeed was the question: which of these high-fructose, trans-fat laden, artery-clogging heart attack bombs did I desire?
“Desire” was too strong a word, really. These were just donuts, after all, not scantily-clad young women eager to fulfill my every primal craving in return for a wallet-full of cash (or credit, so I’m told). I wasn’t even hungry, having inhaled a plate of scrambled eggs, bacon, and hash browns from the breakfast spread barely an hour before -- but the sad truth is, actual hunger has nothing to do with it. The availability of seemingly limitless quantities of free food on set is the only real perk* the crew gets to enjoy while working on a sit-com pilot, and this cornucopia of comestibles is available only during the two or three blocking, pre-shoot, and shoot days near the end of the process. In the first week of a pilot, there’s usually no craft service at all – nothing but a five gallon bottle of water to slake our thirst. Crafty sets up shop in the second week to feed the actors, writers, producers, director, and AD’s during rehearsals. At that point, grip and electric don’t come in until late afternoon – and our first order of business is to orbit past the steam tables at craft service to scope out the leftovers. Sometimes that food is very good indeed, but it can be a hit-or-miss proposition. The day you come in really hungry and counting on those leftovers will invariably be the day the above-the-liners hoovered up everything in sight, leaving nothing but stainless steel trays half-full of tepid water.
Until we get to the all-you-can-eat block-and-shoot days, the only safe strategy is to come to work “having had.”
As this blog continually strives to convey, making a movie or television show is often an exceedingly tedious endeavor, larded with endless fiddle-fucking around by one department or another. The cameras won’t roll until everything is exactly right, which means if your department isn’t causing the delay – in which case you are extremely busy – then you’re stuck waiting for the metaphorical paint to dry. This held true on the pilot I just finished: while camera, grips, props, set dressing, sound, hair, makeup, or production frantically scrambled in response to yet another foot-stamping hissy-fit on the part of our petulant little tyrant of a director (who we dubbed “Klaus,” due to his startling resemblance to the late Klaus Kinski), the rest of us had to remain alert and ready to hit the throttle hard the moment the AD started barking. In the meantime, many people found reasons to stare into the blue glow of their cell phones, but given the close proximity to large quantities of food, the temptation to wander over and graze at craft service -- hungry or not -- was usually overwhelming.
In the end, we stuff our faces more out of sheer boredom than anything else, which is one reason so many veteran Hollywood work-bots look a lot more like Rush Limbaugh than Michael Phelps.
We had a lot of extras -- otherwise known as “background” – on this block-and-shoot day, along with a couple of dozen “laughers,” people paid to sit in the stands and laugh at the presumably humorous lines in the script. The writers already do this, of course, chuckling in unison and right on cue at lines they’ve read, heard, and re-written dozens of times already. This is not genuine laughter, but rather a reflexive nervous reaction typical of many herd animals. With only eight to ten writers on a cramped set, it’s not long before the actors recognize the writer’s particular laughter – and since we’re shooting this multi-camera pilot without the usual live studio audience or warm-up comedian, the “laughers” were hired to help out at the rate of $75/day. They earned every penny, too, cracking up with great enthusiasm at all the punchlines, every time -- even the really lame jokes, which were abundant in this particular pilot.
Multi-camera sit-coms** are meant to be shot in front of a live studio audience, which makes doing a sit-com pilot without that audience a very strange experience. Absent the countdown to showtime, and the arrival of all those people in the seats, it’s easy to lose track of the time. A sound stage is a windowless, climate-controlled environment where the concepts of “day” and “night” have no meaning except as lighting cues when we move from one set to another. It might be high noon or 3:00 a.m. outside those big stage doors, but the only way to gauge the passage of time inside is by the arrival of the next meal -- and there are lots of meals during the block-and-shoot days, during which the crew is practically force-fed like those hapless geese from which the infamous pate de fois gras is extracted. Although there’s always something to whine about in an Industry that both caters to and depends upon so many massive (and massively insecure) egos, the one thing we can rarely complain about is any lack of food on a shooting set. When working on a crappy production, the offerings might be more akin to prison food than anything you’d actually want to eat, but at least it’s free – and if you’re lucky enough to be on a hit show, the food can be very good indeed. Even when the scheduled meals aren’t particularly great, there’s always the Horn of Plenty at craft service.
It all starts with a hot breakfast buffet -- scrambled eggs (or egg whites for those on diets), hash browns, bacon, sausage, pancakes and/or waffles, and hot oatmeal. Three hours later, platters of small sandwiches appear: turkey, tuna fish, salami and cheese, or sometimes roast beef. Three hours after that (six hours after call), we break for a catered lunch. Something else will appear three hours after lunch -- hot dogs, pigs-in-a-blanket, and/or soup – and three hours later, another hot meal of pasta and salad or chicken (usually from Pollo Loco or KooKooRoo) arrives. This "second meal" is usually a “walking meal” rather than a sit-down affair, which means that the work goes on (and we still get paid while we eat), whether or not we actually stand while eating. This is more like in-flight refueling than a real meal -- I can’t count the times I’ve been halfway through a “walking meal” that I had to put down so I could sprint to the top of a 12 foot ladder and adjust a lamp for the gaffer or DP. The food has usually gone cold by the time the task is completed to the boss’s satisfaction, but unless production actually breaks us for a sit-down (read: unpaid) meal, the work always comes first.
Beyond the craft service table -- available to everyone on set -- is a craft service room where the better snacks, bottled water, and decent coffee/ tea is kept. On a typical sit-com episode with only a handful of extras, the craft service room is usually open to all – but on a tight budget pilot or an episode featuring an unusually large contingent of background, the room is often reserved for principle cast, production, and crew only. It’s understandable – with all that time on their hands, forty extras could strip the craft service larder bare like a swarm of locusts in half an hour. With only so much money in the budget (and producers loathe to cough up more), Crafty must be as fiercely vigilant as a mother hen guarding her clutch of eggs.
That’s why the signs “No Background in room” and “No Laughers in room” were taped to the craft service room doors on this last pilot. Although the economics of such exclusionary policies are sound, this kind of thing always bothers me. The background and laughers are among the lowest paid people on set, and they know it. Heaping insult upon injury, they are then further demeaned as Untouchables not welcome at our table – they do their work just like the rest of us, but aren't allowed a bottle of water or peanut butter cookie from the inner sanctum of that craft service room.
Restricting the good stuff to the crew is typical on larger shoots such as episodics and feature films, where it’s not uncommon to see a “Crew Only” sign above the crew craft service table, while the extras are relegated to their own table loaded with cheaper stuff. If this feels all wrong, it's certainly nothing new: human societies employ class systems of one sort or another the world over. Whether you live in England, India, China, or Hollywood, those with a higher social status or greater perceived economic value enjoy better treatment and higher quality material goods. The class divisions are stark on a sound stage, where the warming tables in network green rooms are loaded with delicacies for the above-the-line crowd -- tasty treats the crew is never allowed to touch. Life is cruel here among the humans on Planet Earth, where the one thing you can count on is that shit always rolls downhill -- and the closer you are to the bottom, the deeper it gets.
The confusion, logistics, and sheer momentum of a large production tend to overwhelm any pangs of guilt or envy at being on the wrong side of such separate-but-unequal treatment -- which is to say that although the crew is well aware of it, we pretty much ignore the whole thing. Every now and then, though, some of that awareness manages to seep through the chaos. The best example I ever saw came on a big Dr. Pepper commercial I did back in the early 90’s, a job that employed hundreds of extras for three weeks, and finished up with an all-nighter at a drive-in movie theater in Orange County. For all three weeks, those “Crew Only” signs had kept the extras at bay, restricted to their own decidedly cheesy craft service table. As we broke for lunch at midnight on that final work "day", everybody – cast, crew, and extras – had to file past the prop truck to get to the caterer. Prop departments seem to attract people with a good (read: bent) sense of humor, and this particular prop crew had a well-deserved reputation for quietly outrageous behavior -- and once again, these guys came through: dangling in the breeze from the back of the prop truck, in full view of everyone passing by, was a fully inflated blow-up plastic “love doll,” her mouth and legs open wide to accept all comers.
And there, taped to her flesh-colored torso, was a white sign that read “Crew Only.”
*Other than the paycheck, of course. Contrary to what many civilians seem to think, being around actors on the job – even famous ones -- isn’t what most who toil in the Industry consider to be a “perk.” Unless, of course, these actors happen to be exceptionally charming, friendly, down-to-earth, and intoxicatingly gorgeous females. Yes, I’m talking to you, Nancy Travis...
** There is no other type of sit-com, period. Single-camera comedies, no matter the subject matter, are not considered “sit-coms” by anyone who does the heavy lifting below-the-line. For reasons that elude me, TV critics and others who watch the industry from afar continue to confuse these two separate and distinct genres of television comedy.