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)

Monday, December 24, 2012

'Tis the Season


                         Rudolph on Laurel Canyon Boulevard


"Darkness has a hunger that’s insatiable, and lightness has a call that’s hard to hear...” 

Closer to Fine, by the Indigo Girls

Working in film and television can be an endlessly frustrating endeavor. The potential for complications magnifies exponentially whenever the high-octane blend of talent, ego, and money (the essential building blocks of every successful production) come together to make a movie or television show. Tensions are inevitable whenever such volatile ingredients are combined, and the pressure of delivering a new cinematic baby into this world can bring out the worst in people.

We all have our own reasons for being in this industry, whether in pursuit of lofty-but-elusive artistic visions or with both eyes fixed on the more primal mandates of our inner Reptilian Brain. I’m not sure it really matters why we’re here – whatever the motivation, we’ve chosen to play out our professional lives in the arena of the film and television industry, and having made our proverbial bed in the shadow of the Hollywood sign, here we must sleep.  Many of the difficulties that plague the film-making process are beyond human control (weather has an enormous impact on location work, among other things), but even in the absence of such external forces, a clash of insecurities, egos, and ambition can lead to rash decisions, long days, and needless confusion on set. The collateral damage of these mistakes is considerable, usually in the form of suffering endured by everyone on the crew when things go off the rails.

This is not an easy business on any level. As the old timers were fond of reminding me when I was a wide-eyed young pup: “It ain’t all sunglasses and blow-jobs, kid.”

True, that. Nobody understands the vast gulf between the glossy image Hollywood projects to the outside world and the hard realities inside the Dream Factory better than those of us who live and work in the belly of the beast. Indeed, peeling back that glittering veneer to reveal the wheels and gears spinning within was one of my prime motivations for starting this blog, and I’ve tried not to pull many punches in describing that reality.  Still, my desire to “tell it like it is” can lead me to dwell on the negative at times, shooting arrows into every fat Industry target that waddles by. I won’t deny how much fun it can be to lampoon the myriad layers of absurdity and excess that abound in this business, nor that the process of writing about it allows me to vent the buildup of attitudinal toxins that might otherwise fester amid the darker recesses of my soul.

 And no good can come of that.

But as the year comes to a close, it’s time to put down the bow and arrows and remind myself how fortunate I am to be working in such a crazy business. Some gigs are worse than others, of course, and getting stuck on a crappy production run by pompous, arrogant fools – “legends in their own minds” – is never fun. In today's economy, few of us can afford to quit a bad job unless there's a better gig ready and waiting, which means having to endure and just gut it out.  Like every line of work, toiling below decks in Hollywood can be good, bad, and/or ugly, but one very real blessing about this industry is that every job is temporary. There’s always light at the end of the tunnel.

Bad jobs make for good stories, though, which is why you hear and read about so many productions gone bad here and elsewhere in the Industry blog community. Every veteran can recount his/her share of these horror stories – such tales come with the turf -- but as I look back on thirty-five years here in Hollywood and beyond, it’s the good times and great people that stick in my mind. It’s been a long road and a tough, uncertain journey at times. More than once I thought I was done with Hollywood – over, kaput, finito – but time proved me wrong. Whether persevering here at the cinematic whipping post was for better or worse, I’ll never know.  By definition, the path not taken must forever remain a mystery, but here I am and here I'll stay until the bell finally rings.

In closing out 2012, there will be no angry arrows fired in this post. The New Year ahead will doubtless provide plenty of grist for the bitter mill of righteous anger and indignation, so I’ll hold my fire for now.

Meanwhile, may you all have a wonderful holiday season, and emerge from the tinsel and brightly colored lights to find whatever it is you seek in the year to come. And as always, thanks for tuning in, especially those of you who took the time to comment on posts or via e-mail. Absent such feedback, I’m just another old dog on a short chain, howling at the Hollywood moon – and it’s always nice to hear an occasional howl in return.

 Merry Christmas.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Perspective


Attitude enhancers might help, but a good sense of perspective is essential...


Whether you’re a PA, juicer, DP, or an A List actor, it’s all too easy to lose your sense of perspective in this business. As you become accustomed to a certain level of responsibility and compensation, anything less begins to smell like sour milk. Having worked so hard to get to where you are and earn your position (and rate of pay), you hate to see it slip away – and that’s when the grumbling begins. But although I’ve never been a believer in the popular (and incredibly irritating) pseudo-spiritual maxim “Everything happens for a reason” – a phrase usually uttered with a serene, beatific smile – there certainly is a reason behind everything that happens. Having to acknowledge and accept that reality has been a constant over the course of my career, in the ongoing process of adjusting my own perspective.

Back when I was riding high in the world of television commercials during the mid-80’s to the late 90’s, life was sweet. While preparing my taxes one late March, I realized that my income the previous year totaled $65,000 after working only a hundred days -- and this was back when 65K was actual money. Adjusted for inflation, that would be close to $110,000 in today’s funny money, or better than a thousand dollars per day.

Believe me, if I was making a thousand bucks every working day now, I’d be one very happy camper.

But I’m not. With my cable show now on hiatus until January, I clocked 184 days (only two of those days at full union scale) to approach $60K this year. With cable rate so common in television these days, it’s become a case of quantity over quality – working more for considerably less money.

As my old friend Jimbo used to say: “How the mighty have fallen.”*

Indeed... but as I talk with people in other walks of life, it seems they too are getting by on less and less. Other than those insatiably greedy bastards on Wall Street and far too many politicians at every level of government, working people all over the country have taken a serious hit in income – and those are the lucky people with jobs. Viewed in that light, I’ve got nothing to complain about. I worked steadily through this year, with good people, keeping the bills paid and pumping hours into the pension/health care plan – and if there never seems to be enough money, what else is new?** There are millions of people out there who would love to make thirty bucks an hour working thirty-five or so hours each week while getting paid for forty-five. Cable rate or not, I’m among the lucky ones.

While pondering all this, I recalled a long rainy day on location many years ago. We were filming a commercial in Camarillo, fifty miles north of LA, long before so much of the agricultural land up there was paved over and turned into a pastel smear of wall-to-wall suburbs. After we ran the cable, fired up the genny, then lubed and built the arc, I ended up on a ladder manning the big smoky lamp in a steady gray drizzle while the rest of the crew – set lighting, camera, script, grips, art department, everyone – huddled in the shelter of a wide porch on the big old house serving as our location. Standing out there in the rain, it didn’t take long for me to start feeling sorry for myself.

As the junior member of the crew, running that steaming arc was my cross to bear, but that didn’t mean I had to like it. Clad in leaky rain gear that soon had tiny rivulets spiraling down my neck, I was all the more miserable having to watch the rest of the crew stay high and dry.

Woe was me...

At some point in the afternoon, I turned my attention to the surroundings. Past a fence off to the left was a spinach field that stretched as far as I could see into the damp gray mist. There, bent over at the knees, were a couple of dozen farm workers amid those perfectly straight green furrows carved into the dark, wet earth.   No rain gear, no shelter, no honey wagon for relief – just soggy clothes and endless acres of spinach to pick before dark. And when their long. wet day was done, they’d slog back to some crummy tar-paper shack to dry off and rest up for another back-breaking day that would start the following dawn. For all that, each of those workers might bring home twenty-five bucks a day.

I watched them work, realizing that at commercial rate, I was being paid ten times that amount for my ten hour work day, plus thirty minutes of paid drive time each way and drive-to money at thirty cents/mile for using my car outside the studio zone. All told, I’d probably end up bringing in close to three hundred and fifty dollars that day – and when our work was done, I’d climb into a nice dry car to head home to a warm apartment and a hot shower. The next morning I’d sleep in, secure in the knowledge that working one rainy day had paid my rent for the month.

Those farm workers? The poor bastards would be out there tomorrow and every day until all that spinach was picked, then head on to the next farm to harvest another crop. Suddenly I didn’t feel so wet anymore. My perspective re-booted, I smiled my way through the rest of the day.

I never forgot that wet afternoon, and try to keep it in mind as my own working career circles the drain doing these low-rate cable shows. If it takes better than a week’s paycheck to cover the rent and utilities these days, I’m still able to work with good people and have a few laughs in the process. The high-flying days are long gone for me, but I’ve made the adjustment – and maintaining that sense of perspective just might allow me to limp the rest of the way to the finish line with a smile.

That’s the goal, anyway.  

* Unfortunately, he’s not around to say that anymore. Jimbo -- a very hard-working gaffer, and one of the smartest people I’ve ever known -- died of a massive heart attack while trying to catch a plane for a tech scout with The Screaming Cameraman

** Not having enough money being the other constant throughout my career...

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Picks 'o the Week

The Disney-fuck-ation of America
                  Inside the Honeywagon...

Are you ready, America? According to the Hollywood Reporter, after subjecting audiences to four lousy-but-lucrative “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, the geniuses at Disney are reportedly planning a show based on – drum roll, please -- Big Thunder Mountain.

Yes, an actual movie premised on a roller coaster ride through a phony gold-rush era landscape in Disneyland. And if that’s not bad enough, they also have television shows or features in development based on The Haunted Mansion, The Matterhorn, The Country Bears, Mission to Mars, the Jungle Cruise, and Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. But the topper has to be "the ultimate theme park movie,” Disney’s “Magic Kingdom,” set entirely inside the park... an immense steaming turd that will supposedly be written by none other than San Francisco Bay Area literary darling Michael Chabon.

 Wow.  Go figure.

Clearly, Disney has no shame -- and apparently not much imagination, anymore -- but I’ve no doubt they’ll keep printing money hand-over-fist while shoveling such cinematic crap down the wide-open mouths of the viewing public.

**************************************

A couple of weeks ago I put up a post on the difficulty of trying to make it as an actor in this town. The LA Times went me one better last Sunday with a terrific piece about a young actor chasing his Hollywood dream. It’s a great read providing personal insight into just how hard that life can be, and the price paid by those who refuse to follow the straight-and-narrow path to a working life on the cube farm.

**************************************

Again from the Hollywood Reporter comes a column by my favorite blogging producer Gavin Polone, explaining why his old nemesis Jeff Zucker may well succeed at his new job running CNN, despite a sorry record of having driven the once-proud NBC right into the gutter before the corporate honchos finally wised up and fired him.

But according to Polone, a leopard cannot change his spots – and as NBC learned the hard way, the grinning, goggle-eyed homunculus named Jeff Zucker will bring nothing but trouble in the long run.

Good luck, CNN.  You're gonna need it.

**************************************

And now, a rant...

I hearby bestow the BST Asshole of the Month award to "Marky-Mark" Wahlberg -- former lame-ass rapper-turned billboard underwear model-turned actor/producer -- for his recent appeal urging the Canadian government to restore and boost film and television subsidies intended to lure more U.S. productions north.  I can't argue with Marky-Mark's claim that some his best working experiences  have occurred while filming in Canada, with Canadian crews -- he was there and I wasn't -- and if he had a fine time in the Great White North, good for him. 

My problem with Wahlberg isn't that he likes to work in Canada, but that he has the gall to ask for big government handouts to take productions north of the border.  As a wealthy, powerful player in the film and television business, Mark Wahlberg has the clout to film his projects anywhere he'd like, but now he wants other people -- Canadian taxpayers and American film workers -- to foot the bill.  That's bullshit. 

Tell you what, Marky-Mark:  How about we get rid of all tax subsidies from the provinces of Canada and the forty-odd states offering tax breaks in the U.S.?   Absent all those taxpayer-funded subsidies, then the competition for the film and television business could proceed on a level playing field.  If you want to shoot all your shows in Canada, go right ahead, but let's allow all the other producers to make their decisions where to film projects without being tempted by the sweet lure of  government bribes.

Until that happy day comes -- and don't hold your breath, folks -- BST extends a hearty FUCK YOU! to Marky-Mark Wahlberg, Asshole of the Month.

Those are your picks 'o the week.  Check 'em out...

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Directors: Part Four

Hack City

                                   He's a clown, all right...

“Hack: One who works for hire, especially with loose or easy professional standards. Performed by, suited to, or characteristic of a hack.”

 Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary


 A veteran writer/producer/show-runner once told me that as he saw it, “directing a sit-com looks a lot like being paid to have lunch.” Considering that this came from a man with more than twenty years of serious sit-com credits under his belt (including some of the biggest hits of the genre), who has watched hundreds of directors in action, that's saying something.

I’ve seen enough really good directors work to know that directing a multi-cam show isn't quite that easy, but it’s nowhere nearly so hard as crafting a pilot, then guiding it through the white-water rapids of pilot season to emerge with a series pick up and the daunting prospect of overseeing the writing and production of another twenty quality episodes. Nor can directing a 22 minute sit-com (with the considerable help of a camera coordinator to orchestrate the choreography of those four cameras) be compared to eight long days of filming an episodic drama, much less toiling the months required to bring a feature film in on time and budget.

Viewed from this perspective, I can understand the show-runner's stance on sit-com directors.

Still, having a good director makes a huge difference.  I’ve always been partial to seeing an older director at the helm of any production I’m involved with, be it a music video, television commercial, sit-com, episodic drama, or feature film. Having been around long enough to know what it takes to get the job done, a seasoned director rarely tries to reinvent the wheel on set, and is usually able to get the work done without jerking the actors and crew around for fourteen painfully tedious hours every day. During my early days juicing, then as I moved up to work as a Best Boy and Gaffer, I learned the hard way never to trust a DP under forty, and the same general rule applies to directors.

There are notable exceptions to all such rules, of course, since youth and inexperience do not preclude brilliance. Orson Welles might be the poster child infant terrible of Hollywood, and there's been some amazing work from modern young directors, but when working on a Disney kids show – perilously close to the bottom of the television barrel – ground-breaking artistic virtuosity is not required, nor is it in the budgetary scope of the production.* We’re happy to settle for mere competence here in Sit-Comland, rare though it may be.  All I ask of a director is to do his-or-her homework, make a real effort to understand what the writers and producers are trying to do, and bring a little wit and intelligence to the job of shepherding us through the shoot with as little drama as possible.

 In other words, I expect a director to be a professional – especially a veteran.

That doesn't seem so much to ask, which is why I was relieved to see a director of a certain age walk on the set of a show I worked a couple of years back. With a full mane of silver hair and decades of experience directing sit-coms under his belt, he seemed just the man to guide us through the week. There were warning signs of idiot/trendoid/hipster tendencies -- a humongous diamond earring gleaming from one earlobe, and a pair of ridiculous (and absurdly expensive) faded-and-ripped-to-shreds “designer” jeans – but given his long experience, I chalked that up to an aging man’s attempt to demonstrate that he’s young at heart, still relevant, and a serious pro at the television game.

Oh Mary mother of Jesus was I wrong. This clown turned out to be a complete hack, a man without a clue, and a “director” in name only -- proof positive that some people manage to climb the Hollywood food chain absent any artistic talent whatsoever.  It soon became clear that he was a poseur who had learned all the tricks of putting up a good front in adopting the appropriate lingo and authoritative mannerisms -- appearing to be a real director – but never bothered to figure out how to do the job in a competent, professional manner. Only in Hollywood (or politics, maybe) could such a fool manage to keep working all these years.

 Then again... perhaps my initial judgement was too harsh. It was possible, I mused, that he'd once been a good director, but had lost a step or three over the years and now relied on his name and reputation to eke out a living amid the lower circles of the genre. That so many multi-camera show-runners these days don’t seem to understand the difference between a good and bad director  -- and thus serve as enablers -- made such a scenario plausible, and the truth is, an aging director reduced to working on such low budget crap doesn’t really have anywhere else to go. For a director in that position, working a silly kids show is pretty much the final rung at the bottom of the ladder, below which yawns the bottomless abyss. Maybe the poor bastard was just hanging on by his fingernails and faking it the best he could, trying to salt away a few more paydays before plummeting into that cold, dark void. Which... once I thought of it, reminded me of the face I see in the bathroom mirror every morning.

Perhaps he who lives in a house of glass ought not throw stones.

But in that case, this guy shouldn't be such a pompous, preening dick on set. He really ought to be a little more gracious to the rest of the crew who had to put up with his snippy attitude and sloppy, lazy, reactive style of work. When a juicer on the crew sees something wrong in Take One of a scene -- clumsy dialog, staging, or redundant action -- that the “director” doesn't spot or bother to fix until Take Six or Seven, then something’s wrong.

What finally sealed the deal was learning that he'd showed up two hours before call on our first shoot day (mostly to beat LA’s legendary rush-hour gridlock), but apparently didn't bother to use that time to plan an approach to the day's filming.  Having already spent three days rehearsing with the actors, you'd think he'd come to the set fully prepared to get the work done in an efficient manner, and thus inflict the least pain on all concerned. Instead, this fool must have taken a nice long nap, unless he frittered away two full hours polishing that ginormous diamond embedded in his ear.

With the cast and crew on the clock, he proceeded to burn the entire morning fumbling through take after take after take until lunch, at which point we were two hours behind schedule.  As the minutes ticked away towards the end of the day, he had to rush through the remaining scenes, finally resorting to shooting the rehearsals in a futile attempt to save time.  It didn't work.

Fuck him. The guy’s a hack, and a lousy one at that. If I was as bad at juicing as he was at directing, I’d now be spending my days rummaging through those big blue bins every morning to cash in a few recyclable bottles and cans, then limp back to my cardboard condo for another cold night huddled under the Sixth Street Bridge.  Instead, this clown -- encased in a golden bubble of ego and incompetence -- climbed into his eighty thousand dollar sports car and burned rubber heading for home.

Which tells you a lot about the reality of life here in Hollywood.

But that wasn't the worst of it.  As it turned out, he'd already been hired to "direct" the next two episodes as well, which meant we were in for two more weeks punctuated by his periodic hissy-fits -- because, you see, The Great Man requires a funereal silence on set at all times to fully access his immense talent...

Two more weeks with a clown at the helm.  Nobody on the crew was laughing about that.


*  Being John Malkovich, by Spike Jonze was a good one, and although I’ve yet to see it, everything I’ve read and heard points to the young Behn Zeitlin having walked on water with his first feature “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” 

Note: Previous posts on the subject of directors can be found here, here, here, and here.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

A Great Mystery Resolved

                                    Well, maybe...

Regular readers of The Anonymous Production Assistant blog haven’t had much to chew on lately. For whatever reason (hopefully, the collective responsible for that site has been too busy working to have time for posting on the blog), the elusive authors of TAPA have put up only a few posts over the past couple of months. However, he/she/they do update the site’s twitter feed from time to time.

Here in the dark and musty recesses of my Luddite cave, I have yet to embrace the digital hula-hoop of Twitter. I just don’t see the point. Yeah, I know, the Arab Spring uprisings that recently overthrew at least two despotic Middle Eastern regimes were in part fueled by Twitter (and hey, good for them), and young thumb-talkers the world over seem to be hopelessly addicted to the modern ritual of texting and tweeting 24/7 -- but being that I’m no longer a hedonistic twenty-something hell-bent on checking out every trendy new restaurant, bar, and after-hours club while tapping out up-to-the-minute digital missives to all the friends and followers I don’t have on the portable personal communicator I do not own, Twitter isn’t for me.

Old dogs, new tricks – you know the deal. I stand against the incoming tide here, but maybe that’s what slightly older people (ahem...) are for -- to question the storm-surge of “new” that is constantly pounding on and inundating our cultural shores.*

 Not that it does any good, mind you. Sometimes resistance really is futile.

Anyway... I noticed something in the TAPA’s Twitter feed about a long-standing mystery finally being solved, and indeed, if a recent comment on a four-year old post is to be believed, perhaps we now know why the prop department has long been saddled with the responsibility of supplying and wrangling the vast array of director’s chairs every show keeps on stage. If you’re still in school or haven’t yet had a chance to spend time on a television show or movie set, you wouldn’t believe how many of those fucking things clutter up the aisles of the average production. Since these chairs are used mostly by the legions of producers/writers/hangers-on, you might think dealing with them would be a job for the set PA.  That's what I thought at first, but it turns out those chairs fall under the aegis of the prop department. I’ve asked numerous prop people over the years why and how this came about, but despite their unanimous eye-rolling irritation at having to do directors-chair duty, none could explain.

 Until now.

Maybe...

 * Well, that and dog food. In the bleak, zero-sum dystopia that awaits us all, once you young whippersnappers finally get sick of our endless carping about new-fangled techno-crap, you’ll start throwing every whining gray-haired geezer you can catch into the nearest chipper, then hauling our freshly-minced corpses off to the Alpo factory... 

** Scroll all the way down to the bottom of the “comments” section.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Hardest Job on Set


One day last spring, I headed on over to the weekly farmer’s market to pick up a bag of oranges, a tub of strawberries, and whatever fresh produce looked good. There, I ran into an actor friend I’ve known for a while – not a star, but a working actor who has managed to make a living supporting his wife and kids in this business for the past twenty-odd years. You name it, he’s done it -- commercials, episodic television, sit-coms, infomercials, theater. I've seen him on stage and on screen, and the man knows his craft.  He’s good. After the usual hand-shaking and grinning, I asked what he’d been up to.

“I had a really rough gig the other day,” he said, trying to contain a smile. “I had to lie on a table for an hour an a half getting a massage from Jennifer Love Hewitt.”

I raised one eyebrow.

“Your wife know about this?”

She did.  It turned out he’d been cast as a client of Ms. Hewitt’s character in a Lifetime show called The Client List, and was well-paid for his trouble.

As the saying goes, that’s nice work if you can get it.

Working in the film/television industry offers a unique perspective on actors, watching them struggle to carve a solid career out of nothing. Unlike those of us who work below-the-line, an actor brings no tools to the workplace -- no gloves, voltage testers, crescent wrenches, hammers, or screw guns. Instead, an actor steps into the lights and in front of the cameras armed with nothing but his-or-her own figuratively naked self.

That takes guts.

Every now and then I’ll run into a fellow juicer or grip who harbors a dark, festering bitterness towards actors. Guys like that labor under the assumption that actors have it easy -- after all, an actor doesn’t have to carry crushingly heavy rolls of cable, wrangle big hot lamps or deal with lethal charges of electricity, nor do they wrestle with twenty foot steel pipes, sixty foot trans-light backings, or walk six-inch beams up in the perms while working forty feet above the stage floor. Encased in a protective cocoon of wardrobe, perfectly-coiffed hair, and carefully applied makeup, an actor very rarely faces anything resembling physical danger on set, nor has to work up an honest, physical sweat on the job.  All an actor has to do is hit the marks, say the lines, and kiss another beautiful girl, right?

And seriously, how hard can that be?*

Adding salt to this perceived wound of relative inequity, actors get paid a ton of money compared to the rest of us, making more in a single day on a television show than most juicers or grips can bring home after a full week of bruising labor. And those are just the bit players and guest stars -- the core cast of even a low-budget cable show typically make more in a week or two than I'll make over an entire year. As for a hit show on one of the major broadcast networks, the sky’s the limit. During the final seasons of “Everybody Loves Raymond,” Ray Romano grossed one million, four hundred thousand dollars for every weekly episode.

Some back-of-the-envelope arithmetic revealed that it’s taken me nearly thirty-five years of working in Hollywood – essentially, an entire career -- to earn what Ray made in one week of his show. That a single person on a television show can take home more than a million dollars per week while working alongside crew members whose paycheck for the same week will reflect roughly one-thousandth of that amount is typical of the extremes endemic to Hollywood. It’s understandable that a guy on the short end of that stick might feel some resentment. I’ve felt it myself from time to time... but deep down, I know full well this is really just an ugly blend of ignorance and envy.

Yes, the actors make truckloads of money and their every whim is catered to on set... but look at what they do.  The actors performance can save a production that might otherwise spiral into the toilet.  A movie or television show can survive bad lighting, cheap sets, shaky dolly moves and clumsy direction, but no production -- no matter how perfect -- can overcome bad acting.  Everything hinges on those actors, and they know it -- and if you think they don't feel that pressure, think again.  The rest of us can muddle through a bad day on set, but not the actors.  They have to be really good every single day of production.

A skilled actor makes it look easy out there in front of the lights and cameras, but from where I sit, actors have the hardest job on set. Image this: You show up for work, where a wardrobe person dresses you, a makeup girl applies the war paint, then a hair stylist adds the finishing touches and voila, it’s showtime – at which point, blinded by the lights, you walk out in front of anywhere from thirty to three hundred complete strangers and are expected to deliver the goods, becoming a character who is probably nothing at all like your own true self. Given the realities of scheduling single-camera productions, scenes are often shot way out of sequence (two of the movies I worked on shot the final scene in the script on the very first day of filming), which means there is no flow of continuity for a screen actor to inhabit. He or she is expected to deliver a perfectly modulated blend of emotions custom-tailored to each particular scene, and do a great job every time. Word travels fast in this business, and if an actor doesn’t (or can’t) deliver the goods on camera, every casting agent in town will hear about it.  In a very real way, an actor's career rests in the balance with every new job.

That’s pressure.

Sometimes an actor – for whatever reason – has trouble making it look easy, struggling with the process. On my show last year, we had a guest star one week who just wasn’t getting it done during rehearsals. A well-known industry veteran, she couldn’t get in synch with the script, the other actors, the producers, or the director. As show night approached, they were all shaking their heads and mentally writing that episode off as a disaster, a big bump in the road of an otherwise smooth season. It was too late to replace her, so they’d just have to grit their teeth and get through shoot night -- then forget about it and move on to the next episode, and another guest star.

Given that actors are acutely sensitive to what’s going on around them, there's no doubt she picked up on that suffocating cloud of negativity. She knew it wasn’t going well, and that the producers, director, and fellow cast members were not happy, but she came to the set every day and fought her way through each rehearsal -- and on shoot night, in front of a live audience of three hundred people, she absolutely nailed it. Her performance knocked the ball out of the park.  It was a great thing to see.

From the looks on their faces, it was clear just how amazed and relieved every one of those above-the-liners was -- really, they were happily stunned -- and although that actress must have felt a giddy rush of vindication, her demeanor betrayed nothing. She smiled and took her curtain call like it was just another day at the office.

So don’t ever make the mistake of thinking actors have it easy just because they don’t sling cable or lug sandbags all over the set. They’ve got their own cross to bear every day at work, and that sucker is heavy.  


* I can't speak to reading scripted lines or kissing beautiful actresses, but -- as I found out a long time ago -- hitting those marks and not making a complete fool of oneself on camera is very hard indeed...

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Wet Sunday


                        "Please do not try to get drunk..."

A wet, gray Sunday dawned here in LA, and after a rather trying week on set -- lots of scrambling on this particular show -- I've got nothing ready to publish... so here's a photo from a pilot I worked on last spring, where the Prop Department stored three cases of non-alcoholic prop beer in one of the craft service refrigerators during the rig week.  Knowing there would be a small army of set construction workers, grips, and juicers on stage (and since not everyone out there is aware that O'Doul's beer does not contain alcohol), Props was careful to label their stash in a manner aimed at discouraging anyone tempted to sneak a bottle or two.

It worked.  Nobody messed with the prop beer, although given that shoot night was still a week away, I'm not exactly sure why this low-octane beer needed to be kept refrigerated -- but the list of things I don't understand about this business gets longer every year...

We shot the pilot and moved on.  As usual, it wasn't picked up by the network, but didn't quite die and go to Failed Pilot Hell either.  Somebody up there in the executive suites must have liked the idea, because the same crew shot a new and hopefully improved version of that pilot a few weeks ago.*  Whether the end result will earn a series pick-up -- probably as a mid-season replacement -- remains a mystery at this point.

Time will tell.


* The same DP, Gaffer, and Best boy, but minus me, the other juicer, and the dimmer op, who are all working on other shows...

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Picks 'o the Week


             Who says production doesn't have a sense of humor?

Gavin Polone has another new post up on Vulture, this time addressing the festering boil that is runaway production. Where each of us stands on this issue depends where we sit -- if you live and work in Canada, New Orleans, North Carolina, New Mexico, New York, or any one of the forty-odd states beyond Hollywood that offer tax incentives designed to attract television and feature film production, then you may not agree with him -- but his analysis of the situation in a thoughtful, well-written post is worth reading by anyone in our industry.

 KCRW's "The Business" scored a fascinating interview with Rob McElhenny and Glenn Howerton, the young creators, stars, and showrunners of the FX cable hit "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia." Anyone hoping to make the leap into writing, producing, and beyond can learn something about the process from the road traveled by these two, one of whom -- familiar with the fickle nature of success in this town -- kept his night job as a waiter during the first season of production.

Showrunner by day, waiter by night. That's a story you don't hear every day.

On a recent "Martini Shot," Rob Long offered a brief meditation on the realities of becoming a professional writer in Hollywood -- and the truth behind "taking a meeting" in a town that often seems to exist for no other reason than to inflate a giddy balloon of false hope, then shoot it down with a fire arrow. Love Your Script is a good one.

Last but not least -- and apropos of nothing in particular -- here's a short Utube clip from the good old days when Saturday Night was fresh and sharp and funny.  Needless to say, that was a long time ago.

Those are your tips 'o the week. Check 'em out... 

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Hot and Hotter

                  Or should I say "dumb and dumber?" 


In a recent post at “The Hills are Burning," A.J. discussed how hot lamps can get on set, especially the smaller versions originally designed for use on location shoots. On stage, we typically use the big studio models of Babys (one thousand watts), Juniors (two thousand watts), Seniors (five thousand watts), and Teners (ten thousand watts).   Most studios have racks upon racks of these old lamps on hand, and since they pretty much last forever,  thousands are still in use all over Hollywood and beyond.  At every studio I've worked in over the last fifteen years, ordering a Junior from the lamp dock will bring a bulky Studio Junior  to set rather than the more compact Baby Junior.

A modern tungsten-filament lamp isn't much more than a high-tech kitchen toaster with a polished reflector at one end and a focusing lens on the other.  Like a toaster, a tungsten bulb works by funneling lots of electricity through a thin wire until it glows, so  it's no surprise that such lamps heat up during use.  The trouble is, heating a wire is a very inefficient method of creating light, somewhat akin to using a sledgehammer to open a can of tuna: it works, but you lose a lot in the process. Depending on the type of bulb (and who you believe), at least 90% of the electrical power flowing into a tungsten bulb is wasted as heat rather than turning into visible light.

Consequently, all tungsten lamps burn hot, but being physically smaller -- with less surface area to dissipate the intense heat from the bulb within -- the Baby Baby, Baby Junior, Baby Senior, and Baby Tener run noticeably hotter than their larger studio counterparts.*

Most juicers wear gloves whenever possible while working on set to minimize the danger of getting fingers burned. But you can't always wear hand protection and still get the job done, and besides, gloves can only do so much -- if you're careless handling any lamp that's been on for more than a few minutes, it can scorch you in a heartbeat. As evidenced by the photo above (and despite the fact that I damned well know better), I still get caught up in the metaphorical heat of the moment on set from time to time, and occasionally there's a price to be paid for moving a little too fast. A Baby Senior that had been burning for half an hour administered that burn in less than a second during the frenzy of a commercial shoot on stage a few years ago.  It was a very dumb move on my part that hurt like hell, took weeks to fully heal, and left a scar that's still visible today -- one of many earned over the years.

Needless to say, I’ve been more careful since then, and suffered no further scarring burns... but tomorrow is another day on set, presenting endless opportunities to get hurt.

I intend to be careful.


* You can compare the  various permutations of Mole Richardson's current tungsten lineup in their rental catalog here.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Phoning it In

                 Sometimes you really do see something new...

When someone gives less than his/her full attention or best effort to any given task, this is often described as "phoning it in." We’ve all had the misfortune to work alongside people like that at one time or another, and I always wonder how such slackers manage to stay employed. The answer is usually simple enough: they’re connected, whether through accident of birth or having at one time been in a position to bestow favors now being cashed in. It’s frustrating to be stuck working with these me-first jerks, whose sloppy, lackadaisical efforts piss everyone off. For whatever reason, they just don’t give a shit anymore -- if indeed, they ever really did -- and this lack of effort or concern shows everything they do (and don’t do...) on set. Such people are toxic to crew morale. By phoning it in, they force everybody else to pick up their slack in getting the job done.

I haven't been in that situation for a while now. Nobody phones it in on my current show, which is a good thing, because there's precious little real satisfaction in working on a show written for the 6-to-12 year-old demographic. Week in and week out, the dialogue is silly, the actions slapstick, the scripts utterly predictable. I never thought I’d miss the relative sophistication of a multi-camera show written for grown-ups, but I do now -- and if my old show seemed rather silly, it was a Shakespearean production compared to this one. A job is a job, though, and in these troubled economic times, I’m happy to have it. We get flogged a bit from time to time, but have yet to be well and truly tied to the whipping post -- and the checks (small though they are) come right on time every Thursday.

As the Black Knight said, "I've had worse.

Although there’s some truth to the cliché that we “see something new every day” on set, there aren't many real surprises in the world of multi-camera sit-coms, which tend to wallow in the warm mud of formulaic plot and characters. During a recent block-and-shoot day, though, I saw something very new indeed -- something I’d yet to witness over the course of thirty-five years in Hollywood: a director literally phone it in while directing a scene.

Actually, I heard him, because that director wasn’t even on set, but working on another sound stage way across the lot, shooting a different show at the studio. As the guest director for one of our previous episodes, he was obligated to complete that show -- and during the editing process, Somebody Important decided that a short scene needed to be shot again Given that he was very busy working his regular show, production arranged for him to direct the re-shoot – a scene involving three actors and four cameras – via an Iphone set to speaker mode with the aid of a video link set up during a five minute break.

So it was that four camera operators, one sound crew, a script girl, two Assistant Directors, and the rest of the cast and crew watched three actors followed the dictates of a tinny voice emanating from an Iphone held aloft by our production manager. I didn’t see any material difference between what we shot that night and the very same scene we’d shot a few weeks ago -- it certainly wasn't any funnier -- but such evaluations are well above my pay grade. The Disney Corporation does not concern itself with the opinions of those who lift heavy objects deep in the bowels of the sausage factory.

It's their world.  I just work in it.

Still, I’d never seen a director do his work over the telephone, and hope I don’t see it again. Such a level of abstraction – an entire crew and actors obeying that ridiculously disembodied voice like puppets controlled by invisible strings – creeps me out, representing a dark vision of a potential future Hollywood I have no wish to inhabit.

Although when it comes to wrangling 4/0, I just might appreciate the ability to phone it in...

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Halloween

An October Surprise
                       Now that's what I call a skeleton crew...


Given the shoot-now/air-later nature of television, the Halloween episode of any show must be shot well before the end of October.  Editing takes time, and if pickup shots, re-shoots, or ADR are needed, the producers will have to make room in an already-crowded schedule.*  The more lead-time before the air date, the better, and since most broadcast network shows don't start their season's filming until late July, that  means shooting the Halloween episode in August or September, during the suffocating heat of Southern California's infamous fire season.  I've sweated my way through many a long, sweltering autumnal afternoon rigging cable and lights around tombstones, caskets, and spider-web encrusted crypts carefully laid out by the art department.  Although the end result always looked great once the set was lit after dark, getting there was no fun at all.

Then again, they don't pay us to have fun, do they?

Cable television marches to its own drummer, which is why the very first episode of my current show this season (shot way back in early June) was the Halloween show.  Fortunately, our show is filmed on an air-conditioned sound stage, safe from the brutal SoCal sun. I've done enough 14 hour day-exteriors over the course of my career, thankyouverymuch, and am quite happy to work on the climate-controlled confines of a sound stage.**  

Still, it felt a bit odd once that big haunted house set was lit.  With all the Halloween decorations and moody lighting, it really did feel like the onset of the holiday season, but when I headed off stage at lunch, I was back in the middle of another sunny spring day in LA. Working in such constantly shifting states of unreality is the nature of life in the make-believe world of film and television.

It's what we do. 

So it's back to work tomorrow, where the producers of my show have a Halloween treat in store for us -- an "October Surprise" in the form of yet another four day work week.  Yes, once again we'll cram five days of labor into four, ratcheting up the pressure on the entire crew while shaving one entire pay-day off the weekly budget.  Good for the producers, bad for the crew, and what else is new?  I don't know their excuse this time, but don't much care.  Their rationale doesn't really matter.  The way things are these days, they can do pretty much anything they want and we just have to take it.  They have the money, and money is power. The Disney Corporation is among the One Percent, those cigar-smoking plutocrats with their white-tasseled, platinum-spiked golf shoes planted firmly on the jugulars of those of us who do the sweating, get the bruises, and perform the heavy lifting essential to harvesting their record profits.

If there's any justice in this world -- or beyond -- then Walt Disney's ghost will be one very unhappy spirit haunting a particularly dank and dismal graveyard come Halloween night.  But truth be told, I'm not sure I believe such justice can happen anymore.

Still, a guy can dream...


* Additional Dialog Recording, otherwise known as "looping," wherein an actor watches a previously filmed scene on a monitor, then re-records his or her lines -- in effect, lip-syncing -- until the producers are satisfied.

** A couple of months later we shot Christmas episode in the midst of a suffocating heat wave.  The "when" isn't really a factor -- Christmas in July is just like any other work week here in the bowels of the television sausage factory.



Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Really?



Wow... I had no idea. Hollywood has long been the land of terminal excess and over-compensated absurdity, but this is just ridiculous.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Happy Elephants

Time for a little "inside baseball"
                    Three Happy Elephants in action...


This blog generally avoids wandering into the nuts-and-bolts weeds of technical matters regarding set lighting -- there are other blogs out there that do a great job of covering such issues, and my own interests lie elsewhere -- but in light of last week's discussion (and the endless quest for clarification), here's a photo showing two 650 watt Tweenies and a 1000 watt Zip (soft light) mounted underneath Happy Elephants screwed into the set walls. 

I'd rather use a Grumpy for this kind of thing, since a Grumpy has two baby pins, one facing up and the other facing down -- but all the lamp dock could offer us that day was a small herd of Happy Elephants, and in this business, you make do with what you've got.  When using a Grumpy, if the gaffer or DP takes a look and decides that the lamp should be six inches higher, it's a quick and easy fix, with the added option to mount another small light on the unused pin if necessary.  You'd be surprised how often we do this in the multi-camera world, and in that regard, a Grumpy is more versatile than a Happy Elephant.

Since sound stage sets typically have a pipe grid hung above, we can always mount small lamps from telescoping stirrup hangars clamped to the pipes, but that usually requires a man lift to get up there, and some of these sets are too cramped and narrow to maneuver a lift where it needs to be.  It's usually quicker to use a ladder and wall-mounts to set small lamps, and in a business where time = money, that can make a difference.  Besides, nobody wants to spend any more time lighting than is strictly necessary.  Still, there are circumstances where it's better to use a stirrup hangar.  If a scene includes a door being slammed hard -- and sit-coms are all about domestic conflict -- a wall mounted lamp (whether it be on a baby plate, baby plate with an offset arm, a Grumpy or Happy Elephant) can shake when that door hits the flimsy set wall.  If there's any chance that shaking light will show up on camera, we'll take the time to hang the lamp from the pipe grid, which is not connected to the walls.

For the same reason, we always hang a Source 4 (which throws a precise pattern on a wall) with a stirrup  hanger.   Otherwise, that pattern can visibly shake after a door slam as if an earthquake just hit.

Given that all three of the lamps in this photo are under-slung, the proper term is "Unhappy Elephant -- the name telling you whether the the lamp needs to be slightly above the set wall, or a foot below.  When the gaffer calls for "a baby on a Happy Elephant," he-or-she is telling you to mount the device with the pin pointing up, while the term "Unhappy Elephant" means the lamp is to be under-slung.

In a perfect world, I'd rather use a baby plate and sliding offset arm with a double pin than a Grumpy or Happy Elephant.  An offset arm allows the lamp to be mounted top or bottom, with an additional fourteen to sixteen inches of movement using the slider.  You can even rotate it all the way back in the other direction if necessary, which saves the time of moving the baby plate.  In the multi-camera world, once the actors are on set and ready to go, production really hates to wait on lighting -- even when a last-second change of blocking by the director requires a re-light -- so the ability to make the needed adjustments quickly is priceless.

When extending a slider all the way, though, you have to make sure that plate is screwed solidly into the top of the set wall -- and never forget the cable safety.  Due to the leverage involved,  I don't like to use any lamp bigger than a Tweenie with a slider at full extension.  I've done it using a Baby many times, but only when there wasn't a viable alternative.

All of these wall plates are meant for studio work on sets built for filming, not on location in the real world.  Screwing anything into the walls of a civilian house or office is a good way to make the Location Manager turn purple, cost the production additional money, and burn a bridge for the next film crew that comes along.  You'll also make the rest of your set lighting crew -- including the Gaffer or Best Boy who hired you -- look very bad.

If you want to remain employed, avoid doing that at all costs....

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Still Fried


                                 Life on the lamp dock

The door is still locked, the phone off the hook, and the drapes still pulled -- and I'm not coming out until I feel like it. Right now, I don't feel like it.  With no pearls of below-the-line wisdom to share this week, here's a photo I snapped while on a mission to the studio lamp dock last year. If you're in the biz, you'll probably understand -- if not, you'll doubtless be baffled by the terminology.

Much as I was thirty-five years ago.

I'll be back when I've got something worth posting, but given that the baseball playoffs are currently underway, that might be a while.  We all have our priorities, and for a baseball fan, this is the best time of the year.  When not at work, I'll have my eyes on the Toob or my ears glued to a radio broadcast for the next couple of weeks, until the World Series has been decided.

If time and inspiration permit, I'll put something up.  Otherwise, see you in November...

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Fried

                                   I've got... nothing...

It was a hard week, folks.  Given the extremely low budget of my show (pretty much the bottom of the multi-camera barrel), the ambition of our writers never ceases to amaze me.  Week in and week out, they send scripts down from the Writer's Room with scenes requiring ever-bigger swing sets and flashier visuals.  This approach makes a certain sense given that our show is essentially just a live-action cartoon written to hold the attention of young, easily-bored children, but it poses endless challenges for those of us who do the heavy lifting required to bring those visions to life.

Then there's the matter of the four day week...  I've never been on a show that worked so many four day weeks in one season.  Most of these were due to holidays, but last week -- for reasons best known to those in the executive suites -- we were given only four days to crank out a show that is normally extruded over the course of five days.  Since most of the crew works on a daily rate, this translates into doing the same work in 20% less time -- meaning 20% less pay -- and this while working under a cable contract that's already paying us 20% under union scale.

I'm sensing a pattern here -- and where some might see this as a sterling example of "greater productivity," I see the crew getting fucked.  Again.

The Gaffer and Best Boy did the cranial work of figuring out the logistics, but it was up to the juicers -- the ground-assault infantry of set lighting -- to climb the steep and rocky slopes, then plant the flag atop Mt. Suribachi.*  As always, that's what we did, keeping everybody above-the-line happy.  In the end, it worked out for us as well, since a decision was made to move one of the main sets big trans-light backdrops several feet back -- which meant we had to move several big lamps on the pipe grid and add another half dozen lamps to cover the wider area down below.  Rather than do the work on expensive overtime after finishing the show, production opted to bring us in for another eight hour day.

So we got our five days after all, and with the weekend finally here, I'm fried.  I've got nothing.  Zip, zero, zilch, nada, naught, bupkis.

Maybe it's time to take a break.  I sense the need to catch a second wind here at BS&T, because when I'm fried, I get grumpy, and when I'm grumpy, I've got nothing good to say to or about anybody. So rather than shout "Get off my lawn!" at the rest of the world, I'm just gonna shut the door, pull the drapes, and sit here in the dark for while to let the batteries recharge.

I'll be back...


* If you don't understand the reference, you should.  It's an important piece of your own history, kids.  Google it...


Sunday, September 30, 2012

End of an Era

           photo by Gary Friedman, Los Angeles Times

(Note: today's post wanders a bit off the Hollywood reservation -- something I try to avoid in a Sunday post -- but this is what I felt like writing about, and I've learned to trust my instincts at the keyboard.)

Thousands of Californians between the state capitol in Sacramento and the putative entertainment capitol in Los Angeles got a once-in-a-lifetime thrill when the space shuttle Endeavour -- bolted atop a customized 747 – made one last victory lap of the state where she was born before returning to earth for good as the main exhibit at the California Science Center near downtown LA.

I followed television coverage from our Gold Room as the decommissioned ship was ferried south over Santa Barbara and Malibu, at which point the entire cast and crew of my show poured from the cool sanctuary of our air-conditioned sound stage into the hot sunshine.  There we waited, the anticipation mounting. Although this well publicized fly-by seemed a bit silly to me beforehand – something of a stunt, really – I found myself caught up in the moment.

It had been a long time. As a kid, I was just becoming aware of the larger world beyond my family’s secluded rural enclave as the U.S. space program and the space race with the Soviet Union played out on national television. Those early 60’s launches of the first American sub-orbital and orbital flights received saturation coverage from all three networks, which meant that from well before the final countdown until splashdown (and beyond), there was nothing else on TV. With no cable or Internet back then -- just ABC, NBC, and CBS -- those early televised space flights became the national hearth around which we all gathered for a shared experience that brought Americans together in a way I haven’t experienced since.*

Following the success of the Mercury Program came Project Gemini and Skylab, which built the technological foundation for the Apollo program that would send the first men to the moon and back. This is all ancient history for the digital generation, which hadn't yet been born when the last Apollo mission splashed down. They’ve heard about it, of course, and seen dusty old videotapes of key moments in the space race, but there’s no way they can feel or really understand the life-and-death drama of those early days when each launch represented the highest of high-wire acts -- each and every one performed without a net.

Sometimes you really do have to be there.

The end of Apollo brought the Space Shuttle program, a fleet of four sophisticated space-trucks designed to serve as the primary orbital launch vehicle for astronauts, large satellites, and the components required to construct the International Space Station. If it fell short of the initial plans – which called for a launch every two weeks – this was due more to unrealistic optimism on the part of NASA management than any lack of effort by the small army of engineers and technical support people. The first launches and landings of the shuttle had the same edge-of-your-seat excitement of the Project Mercury days, but as shuttle after shuttle went into orbit and returned, the process settled into the measured rhythms of routine. Major networks stopped covering every launch, leaving that to CNN in favor of morning TV gab-fests featuring lame pseudo-celebrities blathering about nothing.  Going into space seemed all too easy now, no longer even newsworthy.

Then came the numbing shock of the Challenger disaster that killed seven astronauts, a pointed reminder that there will never be anything “routine” about rockets and space travel. Riding a pillar of flame into the heavens is every bit as dangerous as the phrase implies. Seventeen years later, the Columbia -- our very first shuttle – broke apart and burned up during re-entry, killing seven more highly-trained and motivated men and women. Stunned by these two tragic bitch-slaps of sobering reality, we could  no longer take a shuttle flight for granted anymore -- launch or landing, it was all a high-stakes roll of the dice now.

Through those tragedies, the space station was completed, the Hubble Telescope launched (with later missions to correct the vision of a flawed mirror and service the gyros and cameras to extend the service life and expand its capabilities), and countless other missions successfully accomplished. For all its shortcomings and the terrible cost in lives and treasure, the shuttle has been a brilliant success.

And now it’s over. For the first time since I was a little kid milking goats back on the farm, America lacks the capability to launch people into orbit. Granted, the recent (and to me, miraculous) landing of the Curiosity Rover on Mars represents another quantum leap forward in planetary exploration, but when it comes to pure human drama, sending robots into space is no substitute for manned space flight.**

The vast majority of Americans only saw the shuttles on television. They were built here in Southern California, and occasionally returned from space to the desert north of LA when bad weather precluded a Florida landing, but most of the action took place back East.  The nearest I came to a close-up look was while shooting a commercial (for Tang, naturally) on a mock-up in Downey during the early 80’s. That was fun, but far from the real thing.  Infinitely more impressive was seeing one of the shuttles begin its descent to earth over the San Francisco Bay Area back in the mid-90’s. The ship was scheduled to land in Florida around 7:00 a.m. EST, which meant I had to set the alarm for 3:30 a.m. here on the West Coast, then stand outside in the wintry pre-dawn chill of Northern California, yawning and shivering while looking up, waiting for something to happen.

I wasn’t sure what to expect – maybe a tiny dot moving against the backdrop of stars – and thus was utterly unprepared for the bright orange arrowhead that appeared high overhead a few minutes later. Silently gliding across the dark sky, it looked about the size of a 747 at altitude, glowing like a charcoal briquette burning at peak temperature in the barbecue pit.  In fact, it was much hotter than that.

My jaw dropped. Having followed the space program my entire life, I was well-versed in the speed of re-entry and those amazing heat shield tiles designed to keep the shuttle from burning up like a meteor, but actually seeing them in action – and knowing there were seven people inside that glowing charcoal briquette – completely blew my mind.

I watched the orange arrowhead disappear into the east, and four minutes later, heard the faint-but-distinctive twin sonic booms that mark re-entry of a shuttle to the atmosphere. Twenty minutes later, the ship was safely on the ground in Florida.

Forget about going back to bed – I was so jazzed at witnessing such an astonishing sight that sleep was out of the question.

All these memories from the past were swirling through my head while waiting for Endeavour to fly overhead, generating a complex stew of emotions.  In so many ways, this last fly-by would draw the curtain on half a century of America pushing ever further into space -- in an effort that helped define the 20th Century for our country.  Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo all came to a more-or-less scheduled end, but this felt different.  For the first time since NASA was created, the end of one major space program will not lead directly to another with clear-cut goals.  After fifty years of pressing ever forward, we seem to have lost our way in space.

A wave of excitement rippled through the crowd, and suddenly there it was, flying low and slow right over the studio, much closer and bigger than I'd expected -- two enormous vehicles joined in flight, gliding through the sky above Hollywood.  The assembled crowd (cast, crew, and office staff from several shows being shot on the lot) let out a loud cheer punctuated by giddy shouts of joy.  There was an almost childlike sense of shared wonder, awe, and of being part of something much larger than any one of us.  This was something special.

For all its familiarity, the space shuttle remains a highly visible symbol of what we as a people can accomplish once we set our minds to it.  That will be worth remembering in the challenging days to come, offering hope that maybe we can solve the myriad bad-and-getting-worse problems plaguing us here on earth.  If this flyover was a bit of a stunt, what the hell -- our tax dollars built the shuttle fleet, so it's only fitting that we had one last look at Endeavour before she was forever grounded.  As silly as it might sound, there was magic in the air as the shuttle passed overhead.  Much to my surprise, I got a little choked up and misty-eyed at witnessing a moment that marked the end of an era.

Then it was gone, the sky above Hollywood empty again.  The excitement over, we all trudged back on stage to the unreal reality of television for another twelve hours of grinding out the sit-com sausage.


* Not until the tragedy of the Twin Towers and 9/11, that is -- but where those early NASA missions represented the best of human achievement, the crucible of 9/11 forged bonds of a very different sort.

**  Truth be told, I’m not sure we can afford that kind of drama anymore. Although I have believed in the space program my entire life, I don’t  see much point in sending people back to the moon, and the notion of a manned Mars landing anytime in the foreseeable future strikes me as pure fantasy. Given that we face such monumental challenges here on earth – truly existential crises – we need to put our creative energies and collective shoulders to the wheel of saving this planet before sending people to other celestial bodies. I’m fine with launching robots into space and humans into orbit as necessary, but putting a man or woman on Mars can wait.  

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Wednesday Tips 'o the Week

              Who says production doesn't have a sense of humor?

But first, a low-intensity rant:

Here we go again... my gmail inbox filling up with items like this: “There are a total of four messages awaiting your response. Visit your Inbox...”

Yes, it’s LinkedIn, still knocking on my digital door and demanding attention.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I don’t do LinkedIn. With the countdown clock ticking towards my own exit from Hollywood – a few years and counting -- there’s really no point. What ambitions I still harbor in life have nothing to do with the film and television industry. When it comes to Hollywood, I’m over and done, last years news, a mustard-stained hot dog wrapper blowing down the street and into the gutter.  I’m just playing out the string here, folks, so whoever you may be, there’s no earthly way linking your professional identity to me -- an aging, broken down, They Shoot Horses Don’t They?, ready-for-the-glue-factory juicer -- could possibly help advance your career. Besides, as I must continually remind myself, these missives are probably generated by a cold and soulless computer program rather than actual people, and can be disappeared by a light touch of the "delete" key.*

LinkedIn -- a minor irritant in this sea of trouble we call life...

In other news, Gavin Polone – having apparently survived the wrath of Nikki Finke – wrote a great post explaining why TV is better than movies these days. Maybe you'll agree and maybe not, but he makes a compelling case.  As always, Polone is an interesting read.

KCRW’s “The Business” has a fascinating interview with writer/director Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine ) discussing his new movie "The Place Beyond the Pines" and the delicate balancing act between art and business in making movies. I’ve tackled this subject before, but in my case, the discussion is pretty much academic -- there’s a lot of craft (and sweat) to juicing, but not much art. For a writer/director, though, that’s a very different issue, and Derek has an interesting perspective worth hearing. As an added plus, the interview was conducted in a restrained, intelligent manner by the show's producer Darby Maloney rather than the usual frenetic grilling by regular host Kim Masters.  I like Kim's show, but really wish she'd learn to shut the fuck up and let the interviewees speak without continual interruption.

Last but not least – and strictly for entertainment value – is this little gem, a two-minutes-and-change Utube clip of young actor Hunter Davis channeling the aging great Ian McKellen in a dramatic reading of “Baby Got Back.”

If you haven’t already seen it, do so. It’s not to be missed.

Those are your Tips 'o the Week.  Check 'em out...


* Yes, I understand  that LinkedIn works for some of you, and that's a good thing.  But -- in the immortal words of Devo -- it's not for me...

Sunday, September 23, 2012

An Easy Day

                                  And an Uneasy Night

“I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel. I focus on the pain, the only thing that’s real”
Trent Reznor

(Note: this post was supposed to go up in early August, when I'd almost finished writing it -- but then along came this from the Anonymous Production Assistant... and since I try to avoid posting anything that might appear to be ripping off or aping a fellow Industry blogger, back on the shelf it went. This has happened before and will doubtless happen again. No harm, no foul...)

I’ve chosen to play out the string on my Hollywood adventure in the arena of multi-camera sit-coms for one main reason: although the process of cranking out each episode isn't really easy, it’s much less physically taxing than working on episodics, features, or commercials. After a couple of decades getting my ass kicked doing all of the above – along with the sonic assault and mindless tedium of too many music videos -- the rewards from working an endless succession of 16 hour days were no longer worth the pain and suffering extracted from my aging hide.

It took me a few years to understand and accept it, but multi-camera sit-coms turned out to be my salvation, enabling me to hang on to the industry health plan benefits and build up a pension fund that would otherwise be truly pathetic.  I certainly won't be riding high when I cross that finish line, but would be in a much worse position if I hadn't stumbled into sit-coms back in the late 90's.

Due to the standard eight hour daily guarantee, a typical week on a smooth-running multi-camera show often entails less than 40 hours of actual work on set, but with overtime, the paycheck generally reflects a 45 hour week.* The three lighting days (which precede the blocking and shoot days) seldom go the full eight hours, and during a particularly easy week (a “bottle show,” with no swing sets), those lighting days can be very short and sweet. While working as a regular day-player last two seasons of “Will and Grace,” some of our lighting days were over and done in less than 90 minutes... for which I was paid the full eight hours. This was an extreme exception to the rule – and meant we were beating the guarantee in a very big way – but after so many years working together, that crew had their show fully dialed in.

 I haven’t done any ninety minute work days since then, but every now and then I’ll be on a show that gets us in and out of a lighting day in four or five hours, usually because all the swing sets haven’t yet been finished, thus limiting what we can accomplish. This happened many times on my last show, and on the day I’m thinking of, we had only one simple three wall swing set to light. That didn’t take long, after which the Gaffer headed home while we put all the equipment away. The Best Boy cut us loose barely three hours after our call.

 It felt great to go home with the sun still high and much of the afternoon ahead – almost like playing hooky from school when I was a kid -- but that night I found myself tossing and turning in bed, unable to get to sleep. This is rarely a problem for me while working a show. After dragging my bone-tired ass home after a hard day, I usually slip into the dark folds of sleep shortly after my head hits the pillow, with no hamster-wheel of churning cranial activity to delay the process.

 But on this night, that wheel was spinning fast.

I was happy to have beaten the guarantee, but the more I thought about it –and for reasons I can’t fully explain -- it felt a bit like I’d cheated somebody.  It's not like we'd pulled a fast one on the production company, but had simply run out of work to do, and were following the unwritten rules of the multi-camera road.   Besides, when the Hollywood system hands you a gift horse, you take it and run as some small measure of payback for all those flat-rate jobs, low-budget non-union night shoots in the rain, and brutally short turnarounds suffered in the past.

Still, I hadn’t busted my ass or even worked up a serious sweat that day, nor were my muscles or back sore from the endless heavy lifting that pretty much defines the working life of a juicer. This easy day came as a gift, but for some perverse reason I found myself staring into the wide open mouth of that proverbial gift horse. Fully awake now, sleep banished beyond the bedroom door, my brain churned on, generating a series of unanswerable questions. Is this what my Hollywood adventure has come to, with me a human pack mule so accustomed to the heavy loads and cutting bite of straps digging into flesh that a work day absent such pain feels somehow wrong and devoid of satisfaction or meaning?   Have I succumbed to the grip of some perverse, self-inflicted variant of the Stockholm Syndrome, so beaten down by all those decades of hard labor that I now accept – or worse, need – a regular dose of pain and exhaustion to feel anything real? Have the wings that brought me here as a young man been so thoroughly clipped over time that flight is no longer an option, leaving the bleak prospect of slogging head-down through deep sand and choking dust towards the finish line of retirement... and if so, what does that say about my post-Hollywood future? Have I become so conditioned to the lash that I'll miss it once I do cross that finish line into the supposedly green and tranquil pastures of retirement?

Will I miss my daily ration of pain and suffering?

Big questions, one and all, with no answers forthcoming. Long after I’d given up the quest, Morpheus crept back into my bedroom and took me down, leaving these sharp questions dangling in the void over my head like the Porcupine of Damocles. But when the alarm finally went off -- much too early, as usual -- all those questions had vanished with rising dawn, gone if not forgotten. Answering the bell requires no thought at this point, so without further pondering, I staggered out of bed and headed off to work into the morning sun.

But the dawn cannot put off that Day of Reckoning forever.  It's coming, and those questions will have to be answered -- and I have no idea what the answers will be.


 * Long before I got into sit-coms, everyone on the lighting crew received a twelve hour guarantee, and was thus was paid for 60 hours per week – which included 20 hours of overtime. Later, the guarantee dropped to 54 hours/week, and applied only to Gaffers, Best Boys, and the dimmer operator.  With digital taking over from film, the weekly guarantee is now typically only 50 hours, with juicers considered “daily hires,” and thus getting only an eight hour daily guarantee -- and much of the work pays at cable rate.  Lord knows how much more will be whittled away by the time I exit Hollywood stage left, but my suspicion is I’ll be getting out just in time... 

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Steve Sabol: Filmmaker


At the risk of being branded a God-hating, America-bashing communist infidel, I must confess that I’m not much of a football fan. I’ll usually tune in a particularly compelling playoff game or two along with the Super Bowl – and followed the unfolding saga of Brett Favre’s late-career renaissance down the stretch a few years back – but my days of tuning in Monday Night football or spending every Sunday on the couch watching highly-paid mesomorphic mercenaries pound each other’s gray matter into mush on the gridiron are long gone. I can still watch a few minutes of a typical NFL game on Sunday, but don’t ask me to sit through the whole thing. The game itself just doesn’t interest me anymore.*

Still, there’s no denying the enormous impact Steve Sabol and NFL Films had on football, the NFL, and the shared culture of our country. Football may have come to dominate the stage of sports in America absent the aid of NFL Films, but it’s safe to say that without Sabol and his brilliantly innovative approach to covering games, that ascent would have been a lot less rapid. Even today, when I stumble upon an old NFL Films game film while flipping through channels, I have to stop and watch. The camera angles, slow-motion shots, editing, darkly emotional symphonic music and dramatic narration by the Voice of God combine to form an epic spectacle I simply must watch. I’m powerless against it. Steve Sabol found his niche early and stuck with it, a brilliant filmmaker who revolutionized the cinematic approach to covering America’s game.

While reading his obituary, I was surprised to learn that in addition to being a football fan and college player, he was an art major in school. Maybe that explains his deft touch with those game films, which – upon further mulling – remind me a bit of Leni Riefenstahl’s groundbreaking camera work and editing in “Triumph of the Will.” While Riefenstahl glorified the Third Reich and Aryan athletics, Sabol created wonderfully evocative and effective propaganda to glamorize the game of football. Leni Riefenstahl enjoyed a much longer life, and used her time on earth to explore a wider spectrum of artistic endeavors, but he deserves enormous credit as a filmmaker.

As a baseball fan, I can only imagine what might have happened if Steve Sabol had turned his considerable talent to America's ex-pastime instead -- and if so, baseball just might still be on top.  In the right hands, such is the power of film.


* This is probably because I’m not a gambler.  The prospect of betting on games (or anything else) does not speed up my heartbeat or quicken my pace – and most of the football fanatics I know (men and women) are very much into betting.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Living the Dream

        Shows come and shows go, but the dream never changes...


“How you been?” he asked, a stocky grip in his mid 40’s, clad in the requisite summer-in-LA work uniform of tank-top, cargo shorts, and work boots.  His shaved head gleamed with a thin sheen of sweat in the early morning sun.  I hadn’t seen him since we’d worked together on a sit-com over at Paramount, several years before. 

“It’s another day in Paradise,” I smiled, shaking his outstretched hand. “How about yourself?”

“I’m just livin’ the dream,” he replied, with a lazy grin.

This exchange of clichés took place at the intersection of Gunsmoke Avenue and Gilligan’s Island Road, just down the block from Mary Tyler Moore Ave on the CBS Radford lot in Studio City.  We chatted for a minute, then went our separate ways, he to a TV pilot on Stage 9, me to another day wrestling cable on the rigging crew.  For the rest of the day, I couldn’t get that phrase out of my mind:

Livin’ the dream...
            
Sarcasm is ubiquitous below-the-line, much of it gentle, but occasionally delivering a laser blast of existential angst hot enough to burn the rust off weathered steel.  Deftly deployed sarcasm remains one of the hidden joys of working in this Industry, where those people skilled in the art give vent to the collective frustration that accumulates in the course of any group endeavor, helping to release the pressure.  Such individuals can be worth their weight in gold when it comes to maintaining crew morale. 
            
“Livin’ the dream” is a fine example, hinting that although such a blessed state of being might be a reality for some (ahem: the over-paid Mandarins who breathe the rarified air in the executive suites), it will only come to the underworld below-the-line in that gauzy golden future when pigs wing their way over the frozen wastelands of Hell.  Even on the best of days, toiling-below-the-line rarely approaches anything resembling a dream state... yet there are occasional moments of grace when the hard, dirty realities of work suddenly morph into something else: the ephemeral magic that results when all the elements in a shot come together to create something much bigger than the sweaty sum of all those parts.*  Sometimes that flash of magic happens behind the cameras, or when the transcendent beauty of a hard-earned sunrise or sunset on location suddenly wipes the slate clean and allows you to forget the tediously repetitive nature of the past twelve-to-fourteen hours.**

Times like that remind me why I came to Hollywood in the first place.

I’ve experienced many such moments on the job – an unseen pack of coyotes wailing in the dark well after midnight during a night shoot in the desert, watching the sun emerge from the inky blackness of night at the foot of the Pyramid of the Sun outside Mexico City, drinking in the snow-tipped Grand Teton mountains bathed in the pink glow of sunset, or racing across Las Vegas at dawn on the back of a camera car after a long night of filming, trying to get to the last location of the “day” for a sunrise shot.  I could only nod my head in agreement on that occasion when the director -- normally a crusty, aloof kind of guy -- turned to me on that camera car.

“Sometimes I think this is the real reason I’m in this business,” he grinned. 

These moments are as personal as they are fleeting, springing from an altered reality akin to that of a drugged state, separate and distinct from the normal mundane flow of life – and as such, they really are what make this line of work worthwhile.   Those images will accompany me to the grave.  
           
But if they represent the best of times, the worst of times also come in that other dream-like state: the nightmare.  Filming exteriors in a cold, driving rain or while baking in the supernatural heat of Death Valley, or working in the fetid streets and alleys of Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles – a filthy, stinking hellhole that became the Calcutta of America during the 80's and 90's. Certain directors love to film in locations with an abundance of edgy urban "charm," and all too often that means the alleys that serve as open sewers for the massive homeless population.  You can’t really blame these wretched souls, so battered by the storms of life that they have nowhere else to live and nowhere else to “go,” but working in such conditions is a nauseating experience.  All you can do is follow the example of cops and paramedics who work down there every day, fending off the inevitable work-related stress and disgust with a wry, cynical, and wonderfully jaded black humor.  A good (if slightly bitter) laugh is the first – and often only – line of defense against the absurd and frustrating realities of the job. 

Besides, very few get drafted into this business -- most of us ended up here chasing something we couldn't find in the outside world.  The fact remains that we made a conscious decision to tilt at the windmills of Hollywood, and had to work very hard to succeed.  We chose this life, so when running power cables in the rain, moving heavy lights for the umpteenth time after 17 hours, or grimly slogging through rivers of raw sewage downtown, I've always tried to keep one thing in mind: 

I’m just livin’ the dream...


* Shots like the one described here. Yeah, I know -- I included a link to this same post a month ago -- but maybe some of you missed it...

  ** Exhibit A