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Sunday, September 18, 2011
The Thrill is Gone
Once upon a time – a few years out of school with a head full of Hollywood dreams – I loved nothing more than to bust my ass all day or night on set, then hang around the truck after wrap sipping a beer while listening to “war stories” from veteran crew members. Work was fun, with every day on set a new adventure. Later, while working as a Best Boy, then Gaffer, I was one of those telling the stories, but now -- after so many years toiling under the shadow of that big white Hollywood sign -- when my work day is over, I just want to go home. At this point, working on location or in a studio sound stage is just a job.
The thrill is gone.
If this is supposed to bother me, it doesn’t. I’m at least fifteen years past harboring any serious ambitions for this business, and although I didn't get around to everything I'd wanted to at the start, I did a few things I'd never even dreamed of, met a lot of great people, and had some big fun in the process. At this point my only remaining goals are to do a professional job every day, have as good a time as possible with the crew, and make it across the finish line on my own terms under my own power. The latter is not a given. This kind of work is physically punishing, exacting a heavy toll on one’s body over time. I know several fellow juicers who were forced to retire early due to an accumulation of job-induced physical maladies that finally made it impossible for them to answer the bell -- and I’m not interested in joining them in the Permanent Disability Club.
That's why I'm making my last stand in world of multi-camera sit-coms, which is the closest thing I’ll ever find to a safe harbor. But if working these shows is an order of magnitude easier than being tied to the whipping post of episodics or features, that doesn’t mean it’s easy. A lot of lamps need to be hung and powered on that pipe grid every week for a sit-com, and there’s usually only two of us (with some help from the ground crew) to make it happen. This is real work, and it gets harder every year.
Still, there’s something to be said for sucking it up, ignoring the pain, and finding a way to get the job done, whether that means walking the set walls, working atop a twelve-step ladder, or performing the occasional (and highly illegal) EVA when necessary. There’s a very real satisfaction in meeting such challenges – quietly, with nobody else noticing – on a daily basis. It means I can still do the job, pull my weight, and really earn my weekly paycheck.
That much is essential. Should the day ever come when I look around and realize I’m just dead weight on the crew – no longer able to fully contribute – I’ll drop my tool belt for the last time and walk away.
All this doesn’t mean I’m not still interested in what’s going on with the present and ever-evolving future of our industry. I haven’t withered into one of those bitter, don’t-give-a-shit dinosaurs whose sole remaining joy in life is playing Dr. Buzzkill on every job – the sour curmudgeon who’s forever telling everyone in earshot how fucked everything is now and how much better it all used to be back in the good old days -- but there’s no denying that the magic which drew me to Hollywood in the first place has pretty much evaporated into the LA smog. Mostly this is a matter of time and experience -- the cumulative weight of all those years on my shoulders. When you’re young, Hollywood is a bright and shiny place full of endless possibilities, but time has a way of narrowing the horizon and the path ahead. Ride the roller coaster long enough, and you come to know every twist, turn, and stomach-churning drop on those rails -- and along the way, where all the bumps and bruises are.
But you also learn to adapt to the unique rhythms of each job, how to pace yourself over the course of brutally long days, and -- most importantly -- you learn what matters and what doesn't on set. When to walk and when to run. You also learn to deal with change – and I’ve seen a lot of changes in this business over the years. If things weren’t necessarily better back in the day, they were a lot simpler when most stage and location productions ran on Direct Current electricity, and carbon arcs were the state-of-the-art BFL. Film ruled the movie and episodic television world, while video was left with the sloppy seconds of sit-coms, soap operas, game shows, news, and sports programming. Alternating Current now dominates the film and television industry*, HMI’s and high-output fluorescent lamps are standard equipment for location filming, and the digital video revolution has shouldered film into an ever-shrinking corner of the biz. By the time I take off my gloves for good, 35 mm film may have joined the daguerreotype on the ash heap of history, and LED based lamps could well be reshaping the foundation of set lighting technology.
The changes have been dizzying, but the more things change, the more they stay the same.** I see this time and again in some of the new Industry blogs that have popped up in the last year or two. Although everything about the Industry continues to evolve at a rapid pace, young people still come to the business with the same enthusiasm and commitment that brought me to Hollywood so many years ago.
I thought about this while reading a post by a recent college grad-turned blogger describing his experiences working with some local pros on an indy film in the San Francisco Bay Area. Having worked in varying capacities on several projects (including extra work), Jessie M. seems to be honing in on Grip/Electric while keeping an eye on a possible future in the camera department. In this latest job, he finally had the opportunity to learn what it means to be a core member of the crew on a real film -– a heady feeling I remember well -- and it seems the young man is now well and truly hooked, for better or worse.
The irony in writing a post titled “The Thrill is Gone” that references another blog post called “The Novelty Never Wears Off” does not escape me, but it's just a matter of viewing the business from opposite ends of the Industry roller coaster. Jessie M. is just starting his wild and wooly ride, while the finish line of my own Hollywood journey looms closer every day. In thirty years, he may understand and share my current state of mind – the thrill fading away – but maybe not. We’re all different, with our own approaches to life and the biz. Still, entering the film and television world is a bit like the experience of young love; a hot, all-consuming fire that feels like it will burn forever. The passage of time cools every fire, but if you manage to avoid the jaded bitterness that afflicts some Industry vets, all that heady excitement can evolve into something deeper and more resonant -- something you can’t even separate from your own self.
The thrill may be gone, but I still walk onto the set with a smile every day. After all these years the Industry really is in my blood -- and if going to work is no longer much of an adventure, it's still a pretty good job. Besides, I couldn’t wash Hollywood out of my system if I tried. This town and the Industry that made it are a part of me now.
That much, at least, is forever.
* Somewhere, Nicola Tesla is dancing on Thomas Edison’s grave.
** Let’s face it, all the clichés are true...