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 16, 2011

Menda City

Lies, lies, and more lies...

“You said it yourself, Big Daddy. Mendacity is a system we live in.”

From Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

I hate to lie. Always have, ever since I was a kid. Maybe that’s because my mom drummed the mantra “Honesty is the best policy” into my head as I grew up, or that the penalty for youthful lying – or getting caught, at least -- was a bare-assed spanking from the heavy hand of my Dad. Still, I fudged the truth enough over those early years to learn how complicated life can become when one lie leads to the next until the whole creaky structure collapses under its own compounded weight.

Mom was right, of course – normal life tends to run a lot smoother if you just tell the truth and man-up to the consequences. Then again, she never had to work in Hollywood, where lying pretty much is the norm.

Still, there are lies and there are lies. Last Sunday’s post pointed out how a timely and otherwise inconsequential lie can be exactly what the situation calls for -- but don’t push your luck. As The Anonymous Production Assistant recently advised, newbies and Industry wannabes should be very careful about inflating their resumes with bald-faced lies. Enshrining such mendacity in the black and white of print is seldom a good idea.

That doesn’t mean a newbie should stick to the Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing but the Truth all the time, though. The best piece of advice I brought with me to Hollywood was “Don’t be afraid to make a fool of yourself.” With that in mind, on my very first day as an unpaid PA thrilled to be working on an extremely low budget movie, the producer asked if I’d ever driven a five ton truck. “Sure,” I blurted (the first of many lies I would tell in my then-nascent career), and half an hour later found myself sitting in the cab of that massive truck at the rental yard pondering the intricacies of a five speed manual transmission equipped with a two-speed axle. I grew up driving stick-shift cars, but until then the biggest vehicle I’d ever piloted was a Volkswagen bus. The prospect of navigating this bulky leviathan through the crowded streets and freeways of Los Angeles was terrifying.

Fear can be a highly effective motivator. Facing my first Hollywood crisis, I confessed my ignorance to the rental clerk, who gave me a quick primer on how and when to use the red button to switch between low and high range – a simple mechanism that effectively doubled the five forward gears to create a ten speed transmission – and soon I was piloting the massive beast back to the production office in the San Fernando Valley.

During the next two weeks of pre-production, I drove that truck all over LA to pick up, load, and unload furniture with the set dressing crew. The experience was an education in and of itself. Among other things, I learned that large vehicles share a secret brotherhood of the road in the fearsome traffic of LA. Riding high above all those pesky little cars, the drivers of city buses, eighteen wheelers, garbage trucks, and big delivery vans act as blockers for each other, holding the cars at bay to allow another truck or bus to make progress through the gridlock. Soon I was doing it too, helping my elephantine brethren out as we battled traffic together. The cars had speed and maneuverability, but in that lumbering five ton, I had sheer bulk on my side – and sometimes size really does matter. Thirty-four years later, I still recall the sweet sound of screeching brakes and an angry horn blast from the Cadillac I deliberately moved over on after the driver refused to acknowledge my patiently blinking turn signal in the thick traffic of West LA – but the instant he saw that truck swerving towards his car, he got the hell out of my way.

I grinned all the way back to the office, feeling like the King of the Road.

That first Hollywood lie allowed me the opportunity to prove myself to the production team, who then knew that if I told them I could do something, I’d do it.* So when the producer asked if I could synch up dallies as an assistant editor, I didn't hesitate to tell another convenient lie. Having conquered the ten-speed five ton, I was one newly confident kid. Besides, I’d handled lots of 16 mm film in college, so how hard could it be?

Harder than I thought, as it turned out – especially when the camera assistant neglected to clap the slate for a printed take, leaving me to match sound and picture with a set of rewinds, a squawk box/synchronizer, and a moviescope. Putting in twelve hour days under fluorescent lights staring into that tiny screen was a new and humbling experience, but at least I was finally getting paid. Fifty dollars a week.

Although the editing room proved a career dead-end for me, that job allowed me to keep working and getting paid long after the shooting crew was cut loose to look for their next gig. Those several months as an assistant editor provided a bridge to the next stage of my LA adventure, and added further motivation. Sometimes you have to learn first-hand what jobs you really don’t want to do before you can find a better fit. For me, the physical inactivity and repetitive drudgery of those long days in the editing bay were a sign that I needed to go in a very different direction.

Honesty may indeed be the best policy in real life, but sticking to the absolute literal truth can hold you back during the crucial early phases of an Industry career. This business was created by people who weren't afraid to take risks, roll the dice, and deal with the consequences. Although a producer or UPM might admire your honest admission of incompetence (in my case, that would have been "Uh,no, I don't know how to drive a five ton truck," or "Synch up dallies? Nope, never done that..."), the job will then go to the next PA bold enough to say "yes," and make it stick.

"Nothing ventured, nothing gained" may be a tired old cliche, but it's true. Every career move in this business is a gamble, and you can't let a fear of failure hold you back. Just be straight with yourself, at least, and make sure that if everything does go sideways, the only real damage will be to your pride and that particular job opportunity. If boldly rolling the dice entails a serious risk of doing horrendous property damage or getting somebody hurt, step back from the precipice and think again. Don't just close your eyes and leap off the cliff assuming that you'll somehow learn to fly before smashing into the rocks below. Be bold but smart, following your own good instincts, and with any luck at all you'll pull it off to emerge stronger, more confident, and much more employable. If you don't fall on your face too often, taking such calculated risks can eventually lead to learning enough that you won't have to lie anymore -- and by then, you'll have built the foundation of a solid career.

There's no way of knowing what direction my own Hollywood path might have taken had I stuck to the truth during those early years. Maybe I'd be living in the luxury of a gated mansion in Beverly Hills with my third trophy wife by now rather than in the relative squalor of a rent-by-the-month Hollywood hovel. All I know is how things did work out, and I can live with that. I certainly don't advise spewing lies like a politician on the stump in your efforts to get ahead, but sometimes the situation calls for a roll of the dice, stretching the truth, and hoping for the best.

Such is the nature of life in the free-lance jungle that is Hollywood.

* Click here for another tale of lying, failure, and the sweaty-palmed experience of incomplete success


Mark said...

Is it a lie if you intend to do what you said?

Michael Taylor said...

Mark -

Maybe not, but there's a difference between saying "I can do this" and "I intend to do this" -- and therein hides the lie.

But you do what you have to do to get ahead in Hollywood and in life, so as long as you manage to come through in the end -- and don't hurt anybody else in the process -- then no harm, no foul.