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Sunday, May 29, 2011
Hollywood: Is It Worth It?
What do you think, Howard?
(photo courtesy of Aviation Explorer)
While hanging lamps high amid the pipes late one afternoon during the last few weeks on the show, one of set dressers walked out into the middle of the set where I was working and gave me a Meaningful Look. I paused from my labors to meet her gaze. Being that she was -- and is -- a very attractive young woman, this wasn’t hard to do.
"Hey, Scooter -- what's up?"
“Are you okay?” she asked, her head cocked to one side.
“I read your last post. It was pretty dark.”
“I didn’t really see it as dark,” I shrugged. “That’s just how it is.”
The look on her face made it clear this was not a satisfactory answer.
As it turned out, she’d compared notes with another member of the crew who had a similar reaction to the post, and both were wondering if something was wrong.
Well of course something’s wrong: I’m getting old. The relentless process of aging -- everything I once took for granted now slipping through my fingers -- is the last great and enduring insult life has to offer. After a certain point, aging ceases being a joke and morphs into an endless series of stinging bitch-slaps, each stiffer than the last, from which there is no comeback, no recovery, and no lasting relief. The sole remaining refuge from this rising black tide is a good stiff drink or three, the temporary palliative effects of which allow me to face the ugly truth that the only thing worse than getting old is not getting old.
Perspective is everything. The rictus grin of the Grim Reaper that awaits us all will materialize soon enough, and I’m in no hurry to grasp his cold, bony hand.
Okay, now that’s getting a little dark...
But driving home with the existential post-shoot blues? That’s not dark -- that’s just another swing on pendulum of life. Same as it ever was.
A reader named Emilio left an interesting comment about that post.
“I'm just finishing up school and plan on moving to L.A. to start a career in the industry, and blogs like this one really keep me going. Where others might see negativity in a post like this one, I am very much looking forward to it. Working on student films the last couple of years, I have felt these post-wrap blues myself plenty of times. It's definitely bitter-sweet to get that rest but have the realization that you're not going back to that same environment. The question I would ask of a professional such as yourself is: is it worth it? Would you rather be doing something else?”
Emilio doesn't fuck around – he asks the Big Questions.
Every life is a long and winding road of decisions, compromises, triumphs and disappointments. Playing the cards you’ve been dealt, you'll win some and lose some, reacting as best you can to each new situation along the way and hoping you made the right choices. Work is just another zero-sum thread in that unfolding tapestry, where the act of choosing one career path precludes other possible choices, leaving those paths unexplored. None of us has the time to do it all in life. We have to pick and choose along the way, and some of those choices – including a select few that mark real turning points – are made on the fly, without much forethought. It's human nature to dream and scheme about our potential futures, but life and careers sometimes pivot on chance and happenstance. One day you open the door to find a totally unexpected opportunity ready to shake your hand, and suddenly everything changes.
No matter how carefully you might plan and maneuver, success is often just a matter of being at the right place at the right time -- and being prepared.
I didn't head for Hollywood chasing dreams of becoming a juicer. I didn’t even know what a “juicer” was –- or a grip, or a set-dresser, or anything else about the reality of working in the biz -- but with a zeal born of desperation, I was determined to find a way to work on movies for a living. I hit town a young man on a mission, and if things didn’t work out, I’d just have to go with Plan B.
Except... there was no Plan B. In the great tradition of the Westward Expansion in the 1800’s, my own quest was pretty much Hollywood or bust.
After several months during which my savings dwindled to nothing -- just before the tide finally turned, I had all of eight dollars left in the bank -- I caught a break in the form of a job working for nothing on a shoestring production making a very low budget feature. I called home to borrow a couple of hundred bucks, then put my head down and got to work. During the course of that job I met two people who would, each in a different way, help me get paying industry work down the road. The production secretary called a few months later with a tip that led to a PA job on another feature, this one with a much bigger budget. On that movie I met a lighting crew that needed an extra pair of hands to help them shoot three straight weeks of all-nighters. Seeing my willingness to hustle, they took me under their collective wing and taught me the basics. Over the next couple of years, both the Gaffer and Key Grip hired me to work occasional low-pay jobs, and eventually I learned enough to earn a spot on their regular crew as juicer.
It took two lean and hungry years of hustling hard and jumping on every opportunity, but I was finally on my way.
I think it's a lot harder for new arrivals to make any headway in Hollywood these days. Being smart, clever, and ambitious isn’t enough anymore. With so many bright kids emerging from college hell-bent on carving out their own Hollywood careers, a newbie has to mount a serious full-court press just to catch a break and get started – and that’s only the first step on a long, hard road. The real work of building a career comes later.
This is the nature of free-lance life. If you're looking for steady employment and a regular paycheck, take a job at the Post Office. You're unlikely to find either in Hollywood.
But I digress.... To get back to Emilio's question: has working in the belly of the Hollywood beast, riding the roller-coaster of highs and lows over the years and enduring the insecurity and uncertainty endemic to the biz really been worth it?
I’m not sure there’s a simple answer. Had those timely breaks not materialized, and helping hands not reached out to give me a boost at so many crucial stages along the way, I'd probably have had to find another path in life. God knows what that would have been, but it’s possible everything would have worked out fine, leaving me fat, prosperous, and happy at the far end of the rainbow. Then again, I might have ended up in some dead-end office job living out a life of quiet desperation, or worse, made enough bad decisions to spin off the rails and tumble down among LA’s legions of urban unwashed living under freeways and huddling in cardboard condos beneath the Sixth Street bridge. It's not that hard to do -- people smarter than I'll ever be have stumbled and fallen through those cracks.
For better or worse, living out any of those scenarios would have meant missing the chance to climb from grip-trician to juicer to Best Boy to Gaffer, then slide back down the slippery ladder of success to where I am today, a juicer again.
I'll never know what might have happened -- all I know is what did happen, and for me, things worked out in Hollywood.* All I can say with reasonable certainty is that I’d never have lasted slaving away in a cube farm – strapping on a suit and tie to toil in the corporate grid pattern was not for me -- so I probably ended up where I belong.
Leaving all the pointless “what if” speculation aside... yeah, I think it was worth it. This business flew me all over the country working on features, commercials, music videos, and industrial films, at a time when air travel was still fun and easy. I watched a sunrise bathe the snow-capped Grand Teton Mountains in a golden glow, saw another stunning dawn emerge from the blackest of nights over the Pyramid of the Sun outside Mexico City, and once got to sit in Howard Hugh’s pilot seat aboard the Spruce Goose.** During my time in this crazy business, I’ve seen a lot, done a lot, and met so many truly amazing people over the years -– behind and in front of the cameras -- all while getting paid for it.
If some of it felt like blood money, that doesn't matter anymore. The pain (and the money) are long gone, but the memories remain.
Would I rather be doing something different? It might have been nice to play lead guitar for the Rolling Stones, or patrol center field and bat cleanup for the San Francisco Giants, but those cards were never in my deck. All in all, I'm okay with the way my years in Hollywood unfolded -- and if I wasn't, it's a little late to do anything about it now.
The business is changing fast, the old ways crumbling under the sledgehammer of the digital revolution. Although the current challenges I face are in some ways very different than those that confronted me thirty years ago -– I’m on the way down now, no longer heading up -- some things never change. I still have to prove myself every single day on set. The moment I start slacking off under the assumption that being a veteran means I no longer have to carry a full share of the work load, my days in this town will be numbered. With that in mind, maybe I’ll be able to keep answering the bell long enough to leave Hollywood on my own terms, and not get kicked out the back door.
The free-lance Industry life isn't easy, but life is hard no matter what path you choose. If you decide to heed the siren call of Hollywood, work hard, have fun, and be ready to grasp opportunity with both hands when it appears. Do that, and some of your dreams will likely come true -- maybe not all of them, but enough so that when you finally look back, you'll feel it really was worth it.
* More or less. It’s not as if I came, saw, and conquered, but I’ve managed to make a living in this town for thirty-plus years and have some fun in the process. That may not be much, but it counts for something.
* Yep, the very same pilot seat in the photo above. Having grown up crazy about airplanes as a kid, this was a big deal to me at the time...