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, November 6, 2011

Yes or No?

It all depends...

(This is a follow-up to last week’s post concerning the value of knowing when to say "enough")

Over at The Hills are Burning, AJ recently posted a few rules of the Hollywood road for Industry below-the-liners under the general heading of “You’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do.” Her list is brimming with hard-earned wisdom that any wannabe or newbie griptricians would do well to absorb... but I’d offer a caveat to one of AJ’s nuggets:

"I may be tired and want a day off, but when a call comes in for work, I'll take it anyway because who knows what great things this job may lead to."

This is certainly the right approach most of the time -- suck it up to do a good job, meet and impress a new crew, and come away from the experience with a check in the mail and further opportunities for future employment. That’s how you expand your network of contacts and eventually move up in the business. The one exception I'd add to that rule is when you’re too tired to bring your “A” game to the job -– if for whatever reason you really do need that day off -- then you might think twice before taking the call.

When a Best Boy or a UPM you've never worked for calls out of the blue, it’s usually because he/she got your name from a trusted source, which means you’ve begun to build the foundation of a solid reputation. That's a very good thing, but a budding reputation is a lot like a fragile young plant breaking through the soil into the sunlight -- it must be carefully nurtured to take root and grow strong. Your mom was right when she warned “You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression,” so when you take a job with a new crew, you'd better be ready to deliver. If you show up tired, cranky, or otherwise unable to work up to your usual high standards, you may be blowing any further chance to work with that particular crew. Not only will the Best Boy (and his entire crew) conclude that you’re not nearly as good as advertised, but you’ll have burned the person who recommended you for the job in the first place, thus making him-or-her less likely to throw your name in the hat for another gig.

At best this represents a squandered opportunity, and at worst, you might have done yourself some real damage. Other than getting paid for your work -- always a plus -- that's a lose/lose outcome. Ours is a performance-based Industry where reputations live or die based on word-of-mouth. Given that word travels fast in this business, if the buzz is that you're an unreliable quantity (for whatever reason), your working reputation -- and income -- will suffer.

I torched a couple of bridges early in my career by getting greedy and taking calls when I was too fatigued from overwork or had indulged in way too much fun the night before. Hard drinking and chasing women (or whichever gender floats your boat) on a school night is something most young workbots are going to do -- hey, what’s the point of living if you can’t have some fun? – but timing is the issue here, and heavy partying the night before working with a new crew can be a huge mistake.

There's a potential bonus in having the discipline to decline a job you're not rested and ready for (assuming you turn it down the right way) -- the Best Boy who wanted to hire you will suddenly understand that your services are in demand. If he thinks that some other BB already nabbed you for a gig, then maybe you really are as good as your reputation.

This kind of defensive subterfuge might sound like a stretch -- and it's not something you want to make a habit of -- but I have reason to believe it worked for me early in my career. In any event, it's better to skip a job and preserve your good reputation than stumble through the day and make the Best Boy wish he'd called somebody else. Sometimes discretion really is the better part of valor.*

It's always a judgement call -- only you know what you're truly capable of, and the only real way to find out is by doing it. When first getting started or still finding your Industry legs, you'll take every paying job that comes along. That's what I did, and in the process, learned what my own limits were by pushing the envelope. When I pushed too hard, I tried to learn from those experiences and not make the same mistake again.

Instead, I found lots of brand new mistakes to make... but such is life, a bruising process from start to finish.

The instant nature of modern communication makes it hard for young griptricians (and other budding below-the-liners) to make a truly thoughtful yes/no decision. Pagers and telephone answering machines were the latest in must-have technology when I was getting started, allowing a relatively fat cushion of time to ponder the pros and cons before returning a work call. Nowadays, a Best Boy marches right down his cell phone contact list to hire the first person who answers, or else texts everyone on that list instantaneously and waits for a return text/call. In the modern heat of the moment, making a considered decision isn't easy, so most young juicers and grips just say "yes" and hope for the best.

Still, choosing wisely -- taking the pulse of all relevant factors at the moment -- can make a big difference to a newbie on the way up. So the next time work (or life) is coming at you hot and heavy, allow a moment to think when your phone rings with a job from a new source. Hard as it is to say "no" to any work, if you're not ready or able to give a full hundred percent to that new employer, you might be doing yourself a favor by letting it go.

* The proper quote (which I didn't know until looking it up) is "The better part of valor is discretion," from Henry the Fourth, by William Shakespeare.


CJ said...

This is the conversation more vets should have with newcomers. Yes, you need to be hungry but know what your limits are and be honest about them, with your BB,with your Key, with your Gaffer, with yourself.

I know my cirrcumstance may be different, but anyone who's worked in this world knows what I'm talking about.(For newbies, work your first Music Video, big budget or not, and then you may understand.)I have to thank my friends at the local for turning me onto your site.

Michael, thank you for your site, your kind words, and for the knowledge you share. Keep up the good work, maybe we'll run into eachother someday.

Michael Taylor said...

CJ --

Several years ago I tried to explain to a civilian friend just how miserable it really is to work on music videos. He wouldn't hear it. "You don't understand," he said, with an idiot/innocent grin. "See, I really love music. I think it would be a blast to work on music videos."

Uh, I was the one who didn't understand???

Unable to think of a polite reply to such profoundly clueless ignorance, I just shook my head and changed the subject.

Every industry newbie should have the opportunity to work on music videos. Much like boot camp, the experience will provide them a useful measure with which to judge all future industry jobs.

Glad you like the blog. Maybe our paths will cross down the road.