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Sunday, December 12, 2010
Back to the Hammer
Because it feels so good to stop...
After six weeks off – during which I limped my way through a long week doing the cable transplant, caught a few more days of rigging work, then made a brief escape to the Home Planet – I'm back in harness on the show. It was good to be away and now it’s good to be back, for all the usual reasons. Still, if everyone seems happy to be gathering once again for the shared purpose of making the next fifteen episodes, all is not sweetness and light. A few faces on the crew are missing, some gone to other (non-cable rate) shows, but at least one who was given the boot, a victim of some mysterious intra-departmental strife. You never really know what’s going on within other departments, but an Industry built upon a foundation of enormous and extremely sensitive egos inevitably seems to require a periodic human sacrifice. The lack of active volcanoes or equally inactive virgins here in Hollywood rules out more traditional means of appeasing an angry deity, leaving only the brutal-but-effective ritual of throwing another hapless innocent -- the sacrificial lamb, so to speak -- under an onrushing bus. But in the zero-sum game that is Hollywood, one person’s loss is always someone else’s gain, which is why the new faces on set were all nervously smiling,
They know just how lucky they are.
Shit happens, as the bumper sticker says, and with some frequency here in Tinsel Town. I’ve worked on more than one movie that started out all smiles, then rapidly devolved into a virtual slaughterhouse -- wholesale firings of entire departments from one week to the next for no glaringly obvious reasons. Clearly somebody was unhappy about something (usually a director or producer, although at least once the culprit was a churlish, two-faced DP), but each of those shows ended up wrapping with a very different crew than started out. Most of the time I survived the pogroms, but not always. Our DP got fired one long, ugly week into a highly forgettable low-budget biker film, and since the DP hired the gaffer who then hired the crew, we were all thrown overboard while the survivors (and our replacements) sailed on to complete the show.*
Having been on both sides of that grim equation, I can tell you it sucks. I hate to see good people get “disappeared” unless there’s an extremely serious problem -- and that’s the thing: it’s rarely a serious problem, but more often a matter of perception. Some Very Self-Important Person takes offense at a perceived slight or sees something he/she doesn’t like, and bingo, the slaughter commences. One sit-com I did years ago started out great -– we re-shot the pilot and three new episodes, then went on our first one-week hiatus. We returned to find an entirely new camera crew: four new operators, focus pullers, and dolly grips. The starting twelve hadn’t done anything wrong -– the shows looked fine -- but the executive producers decided they'd feel "more comfortable" with their regular crew from a previous show. What made this such a cruel twist was that the new television season was by then well underway, with all the other new shows fully crewed up, leaving those unlucky twelve people high and dry while desperately seeking day-playing gigs to survive the duration.
The producers who pulled the trigger paid for their sins in the form of some well-deserved bad karma. When that show didn't get picked up for the back nine (to complete a full season of twenty-two episodes), it was dead by Christmas, after which it took them five long years to steer another pilot through the white water of pilot season all the way to the upfronts and a series pickup. Five years of repeated failure is an eternity in the world of television.
Another sit-com I worked on signed a well-known and very experienced director to do the first thirteen episodes. That meant the producers were contractually obligated to pay him for every one of those shows, even when they fired him after the first three. I never learned why he was canned, but heard through the grapevine that he then made a conscious decision to refuse any other work that came his way during the next four months just to make sure those producers had to pay him every penny of the $300,000 or so he was due.**
Nothing so dramatic happened on my current show, where just one innocent ended up having his heart ripped from his chest on the bloody sacrificial altar. He'll certainly be missed, but other than that, it felt really good to get back to work that first day. I was a bit rusty at first -– it’s amazing how quickly the skills, rhythm, and discipline essential to doing this job properly can slip away -– but the old programming returned soon enough. Once again I was reminded how much I’d missed the sheer physicality of the job: the climbing, straining, and occasional heavy lifting required to hang and power so many lamps. There’s an undeniable satisfaction in such basic, real-world work that's hard to find anywhere else.
After three days of lighting, though, came the blocking and pre-shoot day -– and that’s when I remembered just how tedious making a sit-com can be. Working with a new director, the cast and crew were unusually subdued, and the resulting slow pace made the minutes pass like hours. The entire (seemingly endless) blocking day felt like having my teeth pulled out one by one sans anesthetic, but we finally got through it and a similarly deliberate audience shoot the following night to put a merciful end our first week back.
As I walked out the big stage doors into the late night chill -- and towards the weekend -- I remembered the call-and-response answer to the eternal (if apocryphal) question, “Why do you keep hitting yourself in the head with a hammer?”
“Because it feels so good when I stop.”
That’s it in a nutshell: Work is a fine and necessary endeavor, but the one thing you can count on through the ups and downs of every work week is that it always feels so good when it stops...
* Sometimes it's all for the best. That movie starred a fresh-from-rehab and thus extremely tense Gary Busey, which made for one uptight, uncomfortable set. Getting canned was a blow to the DP, but personally, I was happy to be off that god-damned show.
** As I understand it, had he been hired by another show during that time, our producers would have been off the hook for his salary.