New to this blog?
Sunday, June 12, 2011
“Be careful what you wish for, it might come true.”
(This is something of a companion piece to a post I put up a couple of weeks ago)
A fellow blogger who goes by the e-name of “12 pt” (short for 12 pt. Courier) replied to a recent post in which I'd gone on a rant about the long hours endured by those who toil in the abusive world of episodic television.
“All I'm trying to do right now is actually GET on set. 15 hours seems awesome to someone green with an open schedule and bills to pay.”
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I was in 12pt’s shoes: on the outside looking in, desperately eager to get on set – any set – to begin learning enough so that one day I would truly belong. My chance came working for free as a PA on a no-budget feature with a tiny lighting crew – just a Gaffer and two grips.
You can imagine how low the budget was given that the Gaffer didn't even have Best Boy...
I did a little bit of everything on that movie – schlepped strange looking equipment with equally strange names (“C Stand?” “Nine Light?”), brought coffee to the director, cleaned up cigarette butts on location, drove the set dressing five-ton, was drafted to appear on camera, synced up the film dailies as an assistant editor, and got my first taste of hauling cable and powering/adjusting lights.
I worked through a few long nights, too – movies ‘til dawn, we called them – in the process of receiving my first lessons of what would be a long and arduous continuing education in the realities of Industry life. At one point, two of us ran all the cable and set every lamp for a night shoot inside the Bradbury Building in downtown LA, a location that would later become famous as a key location in the classic film "Bladerunner."
And at the end of that long night, the two of us then wrapped every single lamp and every foot of that cable in the bright light of dawn. It was a bruising experience.
The upside was that I had a blast on that movie, which is a good thing since I sure as hell didn’t make any money. All my on-set labor was done for “non-monetary compensation” – the opportunity to learn. Being greener than the new grass of spring, that was fine with me. Back then I could bore you to death talking about the visual style of Hitchcock, John Ford, and Howard Hawks, but had no clue how to set a flag, tie a clove hitch, run power from a genny to the set, or operate a carbon arc lamp -- which meant I was worth every penny of my non-existent wages. Still, I had bills to pay like everyone else, which is why I reluctantly left the set to take the assistant editor job when it was offered. Even then the pay was minimal: fifty bucks a week, or around $180 in 2011 dollars. It was even less after deductions -- $43.77.
Yes, nearly three-and-a-half decades later, I still remember my first Hollywood paycheck. Some things you don't forget.
I also remember emerging from my celluloid cloister a couple of weeks later to find a contentious meeting between the director, producer, and the entire crew. After working a succession of 16 hour days for miniscule paychecks, they were pissed. Led by the Key Grip, they wanted something more for their pain and suffering. The discussion went back and forth, voices rising, until the Key finally rose from his chair shouting “I’m not an animal!”*
That got the producer’s and director’s attention. They had to do something... but with a threadbare budget, there was no slush fund of cash to quell a rebellion in the ranks. All they could do was offer the crew a symbolic victory of sorts – an acknowledgment that the situation was indeed untenable -- which they did by awarding everyone on the core crew a point and a half of any eventual profits. Although everyone knew such points were essentially worthless, the gesture calmed the storm.
The crisis was over.
Sometimes that's all it takes: a simple (if symbolic) acknowledgment of what the crew is going through and doing for you. As the saying goes, “if you’re gonna fuck me, at least give me a kiss” – and this time that little paper kiss was just enough. **
The shoot went on to suffer several more crises (including one in which our ex-stunt man producer engaged in a twenty minute screaming match with the male lead behind locked doors) until principal photography was completed. A month or two later we did a couple of weeks of pickups, during which I left the editing room to work with the gaffer on the night shoots. It was only then that I realized just how much I’d missed working on set, and how I hated being cooped up in that editing room all day long. There are people who love that kind of thing -– and God bless 'em, because it has to be done -- but it was suddenly very clear to me that my own Hollywood destiny lay elsewhere. Still, I couldn't bring myself to quit my first paying Hollywood job, and stuck it out in the editing room for another couple of months. Finally -- in one of those rare win/win scenarios that make everybody happy -- the production laid me off. They no longer had to pay me and I was suddenly freed from that dark, miserable prison. The icing on the cake was that having been laid off the job (rather than quitting), I was eligible to receive unemployment checks while hunting for my next job.
How sweet that was -- and another valuable lesson in the real-world dynamics of Hollywood life
The contacts I made on that job led directly to more work in the coming months. It took an enormous effort over the next few years to build a reputation and network of potential employers sufficient to keep my phone ringing. In essence, I had to work extremely hard to earn the privilege of working even harder.
This is how most newbies get started: making contacts on each job and gradually building a solid base of referrals and potential employers. They call it “networking” nowadays, but back then it was just what you did to keep moving forward. Few people come to Hollywood -- then or now -- with the talent to light up the sky like a meteor, and even those blessed souls can’t do it all by themselves. Everybody who succeeds at any of the myriad occupations that make up the film industry needed and received help of one sort or another along the way. They worked their asses off too, because unless you’re seriously connected in this town – in which case you’re certainly not reading this blog -- nothing will come easy.
12 pt. Courier is only beginning to learn how hard this business really is. From reading his blog, it seems his goal is to be a screenwriter, an ambition I never shared and -- no offense -- wouldn’t wish on anybody. If there's no escape from abuse below-the-line, life isn't exactly a picnic in The Writer’s Room either. Writers get paid a lot more than the rest of us when they manage to find work in Hollywood, but landing a spot on a writing staff -- or selling a spec script -- is a very high hurdle to overcome. The truth is, life for most writers in this town is considerably more uncertain and unstable than that endured by those of us who pull the oars below decks.
Still, miracles do happen, so 12 pt -- and you, should screenwriting be your dream -- may as well give it a serious shot and hope for the best. If not now, when? The only way to make sure the miracle doesn't happen is if you don't try. So by all means go for it -- and go hard -- whatever your goals in Hollywood might be.
Just remember, when those long 15 hour days start coming hot and heavy, that's exactly what you wished for...
* Thus beating The Elephant Man to the punch by a good three years...
** The movie never made a dime, of course. Like the gold dust at the end of “Treasure of the Sierra Madre, those points were gone with the wind...