Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Little White Lie

“Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.” Walter Scott

Just don't do a Milli Vanilli...

Note: As always, the following is based on my own experiences working in Hollywood over the years. Your mileage, as they say, may vary – and readers are always welcome to disagree.

The first (and biggest) hurdle confronting most newcomers to the film and television industry is getting enough work to survive. Failing this most basic test means going home with your tail between your legs, which is why finding the next job -- and the next, and the next -- becomes an all-consuming obsession for every Hollywood newbie. Not everyone figures it out. People who truly belong here learn how to get jobs and stay employed, while those who can’t stomach the economic uncertainty endemic to free-lance Industry life eventually move on in search of a steadier source of income. You don’t have to be special to make it here – you just have to want it bad enough, and not everybody does.

There’s no shame in this. Just as everyone isn’t meant for the suit-and-tie straitjacket of the corporate world or the constipated monotony of life in the fluorescent glow of a cube farm, not everybody is cut out for the down-and-dirty end of the film and television Industry. If you’re not, then find something else to do with your life. You -- and everyone else you might otherwise work for or with in this business -- will be better off in the long run.

Once you’ve managed to achieve a certain level of success below-the-line, though, a different problem can occasionally arise: a work call will come in that you really don’t want to take.* You’re available, but just don’t want to accept that particular job. Maybe the gig would require working for a Best Boy, Gaffer, or crew that you’ve had bad experiences with before, or the call is for a low-budget, flat-rate movies-‘til-dawn night shoot that would put you out of action (and thus unable to take a better job) for the next couple of days. Then again, your reason could be more primal -- maybe the hot babe you’ve been chasing for weeks has finally agreed to go out with you on the very day of that job...

Hey, neither man nor woman lives by bread alone, and what’s the point of working if you can’t carve out a little quality time to do some actual living?

I’ve turned down jobs for all those reasons and many more over the years, but the “why” doesn’t really matter. Whoever called you for the job doesn’t care about your needs, your desires, or your life – he/she just needs a body to show up at call time and do the work, and hopes you will solve their problem by saying “yes.”

But what if you want to say “no?”

It depends. Like so much of life, Hollywood operates in a gray zone with very few absolute truths to guide you. If you happen to know the caller well enough to feel secure that he or she won’t delete your name from their list, you might be able to tell the truth and beg off the job. Otherwise, you’ll just have to lie.

“Thanks so much for the call. I’d love to work with you guys, but I’m already booked.”

It’s unfortunate, but admitting you’re available and simply don’t want to work a given job is often a mistake. During the twenty-plus years I worked as a Best Boy, then Gaffer, the one thing I really didn’t want to hear when offering somebody a job was “No thanks. I'm not working, but one day's work will just ruin my unemployment.”**

In other words, the prospect of working on my crew for a day -- and thus further cementing our professional relationship for the future -- wasn't worth the effort. Maybe this says more about me than them, but that kind of refusal just pissed me off. If the person instead turned me down because he/she was already booked for the day, that was fine, even if I suspected the conflicting job might be fictional. At least they'd been smart enough to feed me a lie I could swallow.

It's almost perverse, but telling the lie -- that you're already booked -- makes the best of a bad situation, and can even enhance your reputation in the mind of the caller. Other Best Boys are calling you, so you must be really good, right? The perception of being in demand can help create the reality.

At its core, Hollywood is an elaborate mechanism built for the express purpose of creating big beautiful lies. Acting is a skilled form of lying, writing scripts is the clever, highly organized telling of lies, and for many producers (and virtually all agents/managers) lying is a way of life. Other than straight-out documentaries, the vast majority of productions we help put up on screen are designed to create a compelling fiction – a polite term for the word “lie” -- to enthrall and entertain the viewing audience. Television is the worst, with every program bought and paid for by companies who then pummel the hapless viewer with loud, slick commercials (a lie by any other name is still a lie) every eleven minutes until the show is mercifully over. Given that the entertainment industry as a whole has long been a swamp of 200 proof, triple-distilled mendacity on every level, we who do the heavy lifting can be forgiven the occasional harmless and expedient little white lie.

Nobody will know (or care) so long as you tell a sincere and convincing lie, with the best and only universally acceptable excuses for not accepting a job being that you’re sick, out of town, or already booked on another job. Be sure to thank the caller for thinking of you, and – unless you really don’t want to work for that person again -- tell him/her that you’d love to work with them in the future. Never burn a bridge if you don’t have to. In such a fickle business, a job you don’t want today might be one you’d love to have a year or two from now.

You do have to be careful, though – the expedient lie should be employed only as a last resort. Keep it quick and simple, and don’t elaborate. This is a lot easier when leaving a voice mail message, of course. Telling such a lie during the course of a phone conversation can get sticky in a hurry once the caller starts quizzing you about the details of a job that doesn’t actually exist. Hollywood is a big little town, and getting specific as to who you’re supposedly working for and the nature of the fictional production will exponentially increase the risk of your convenient lie coming to light -- and in this business, reputation is important. You want to be known as hard working and reliable, not a serial liar. Getting caught in a single expedient lie won't necessarily ruin your reputation, but it can't help -- and if you make a habit of telling careless lies, your phone just might stop ringing.

In these hard times, turning down a crappy job is a luxury few of us can afford. Work is work, and one lousy day isn't going to kill you. Besides, you never know what will happen -- I've met some great people on really lousy jobs who would later help me get more and better work down the line. Still, to lie or not to lie is a judgment call depending on you and your individual circumstances. As Walter Scott pointed out (and Milli Vanilli learned the hard way), life is a lot simpler when you stick to the truth -- until for whatever reason, you can't.

And then it might be time for the little white lie.

* With no personal experience above-the-line, I can’t speak to the customs and formalities up there in big-money heights of Mt. Olympus.

** When collecting unemployment, you are required to report any paying work – and the pay for a one-day commercial or going into overtime on a TV gig can roughly equal that weekly unemployment check. So why spend a day working when you can make the same money for staying home? That’s a subject for another post...

Next week: Lies, lies, and more lies...


Anonymous said...

"You don’t have to be special to make it here – you just have to want it bad enough, and not everybody does."

From what I've seen in the 15 years I worked in LA is that you just have to show up and breathe. I'm not saying this about you or your craft, but I've seen some pathetic people out there in other trades - freshly minted insufferable college grads come to mind....

Mike said...

I don't care what it is you do, you have to work hard to get to the top of your trade. There might be some lucky breaks at times, but if you make it, you have to be a pro.

Penny said...

Weighing in if I may, I agree with your response to Anon, Mike. Do the job well or don't bother.

But Anon should also know by now after 15 years that Hollywood is like a fickle Diva Entity. Try to woo it and it'll kick your ass to the curb for expecting anything less than what you should be doing in the first place if you want to be there.

Flip side; the Diva can occasionally be kind if you expect absolutely nothing from it.

Just speaking from current my experience with Hollywood! :)

Michael Taylor said...

Anonymous --

Having no idea what line of work you're in, I can only offer a generalized response. I too have encountered human deadwood -- mouth breathers -- in every avenue of life, in every Industry craft and non-industry job, all over the country. There are always people who, for whatever reason, just don't give a shit about doing solid, professional work. They do just enough to get by and nothing more. I've run into a few juicers and grips like that here in Hollywood -- along with the occasional clueless UPM or producer who would do us all a favor if they'd quit Hollywood to take a job selling shoes -- but for the most part, the people I've been lucky to work with are an impressive lot, be they union or non-union.

While it's true that many of the current generation of recent college grads come to the Industry with an inflated sense of self-worth and entirely unrealistic expectations, I imagine most of them will have that kicked out of them soon enough. Unless such young people are very well connected (in which case they may never wise up), the Industry does not suffer such fools for long.

Mike --

Nicely put.

Penny --

Managing expectations might be the key to retaining one's sanity in this crazy business. Striving for success is a bit like chasing that shimmering mirage in the distance on a desert highway -- you never quite seem to grasp it. But once you stop running so hard, sometimes it will tiptoe up behind and tap you on the shoulder.

Go figure...

Thanks to all of you for tuning in...