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, February 26, 2012

The Wrap: Day One

From Order to Chaos

So where does Disney Executive #436 get to park?

As I drove up Gower Street through the pale light of dawn towards work early Monday morning, two tall, gangly trannie hookers – one a blonde, the other brunette – leaned into the street giving me the come-hither eye.

This is Hollywood, all right, where (in the words of a fellow juicer) “The best looking girls on the street usually turn out to be boys.”

These two were a long way from “best looking,” though. Indeed, both were very rough around the edges, but since sunrise marked the end of their work shift -- and considering what they’d been doing all night to make money -- the ragged look was understandable.

With a nod to the guard in the parking lot, I headed across the street towards the traffic signal at Sunset and Bronson... and if it seems many of my recent posts have opened at this intersection, that's because much of what I observed there for a minute or two every morning was vastly more interesting than any of the work we did on stage. Let's face it -- this show was a steaming pile. The actors are great kids: talented, pleasant, and hard working, but although the show looked great thanks to the efforts of our Gaffer and DP, the three episodes I witnessed were hopelessly lame. In effect, this show is a non-animated cartoon featuring one-dimensional characters mouthing inane, brain-dead lines for a very young and apparently uncritical audience.*

Working on such a god-awful product brings me to reconsider a position previously staked out on this little patch of the Internet -- that for those of us who toil below the line, the quality of the show doesn't really matter. Work is work, I said at the time, and it's our obligation to bring the same level of professionalism to every production regardless of how crappy the resulting product turns out to be. That much holds true -- you give your best effort on set every day, regardless of the circumstances -- but it's a lot easier to feel good about your work when the show itself strives just as hard to be clever, snappy, and funny.

This show was none of the above -- and in comparison, made my last one (a cute-but-silly adult comedy) look like Shakespeare. Fortunately, we had a terrific DP, excellent grips, and a set lighting department I'd been unable to work with for nearly five years. Altogether they made a great crew... but every day I watched the young writers for this show come on set, pencils and rolled-up scripts in hand, and wondered how they could pound out such bland, brainless drivel and still look at themselves in the mirror.

Then again, every one of those writers was taking home a much fatter weekly paycheck than I ever will - the cranky old juicer who still lifts heavy objects for a living - so who am I to judge? Our writers were just trying to make a living too, at a craft that’s immeasurably more difficult to break into and succeed at than mine. It’s incredibly hard to land a professional writing gig in Hollywood, and those who do are justifiably grateful for the opportunity. Still, it can’t be easy to sit down at a keyboard every day applying one's carefully-honed writing skills to such a simple-minded kid’s show, especially when working for the tight fist of Disney.

There's much that I'll miss about this business when I finally kiss Hollywood goodbye, but working for Disney is definitely not on that list, and for good reason. Disney productions are famously cheap, driving the hardest bargains at the expense of those who do the heavy lifting -- and if beggars can't be choosers these days, that doesn't mean we have to like it.

And so began the wrap. We hit the swing sets first, where the swamp had been drained and four hundred large potted plants that served as set dressing for the jungle were being dragged off stage one truck load at a time. While two juicers worked on clearing the floor, the rest of us went up in man-lifts to un-patch the soccapex and hundred amp connections, then -- one by one -- pull down two hundred-plus lamps and stirrup hangars from the pipe grid. The considerable quantities of heavy, dusty cable up high will have to wait until later in the week when there's less crowding on the stage floor.

Where the actual filming of a show is a stop-and-go process involving long periods of watchful-waiting punctuated by frantic bursts of activity, wrapping is all work, all the time. With the constant activity on the stage floor -- set dressers, props, grips, and construction (de-construction, actually) crews, we can't go too fast up in the man-lifts. You don't want to run over anybody's foot with one of those lifts, and dropping anything -- a lamp, stirrup hangar, or bates extension -- could really hurt someone down below, so we work at a careful, measured pace. With five or six days to get this thing done, there's no rush. We just have to get into the zen of grinding it out, minute by minute, hour after hour, until the clock says our day is done.

Wrap is a dirty job that has to be done right, and nobody's idea of fun, but it's work. Under the circumstances, I don't suppose there's a dime's worth of difference between those of us toiling for Disney -- writers and juicers alike -- and those trannie hookers out there working Gower Street. We each sell our skills and services to keep the bills paid, smiling at the customer through clenched teeth while doing it for the money.

So it goes in Hollywood, out on the street or in a sound stage.

* Tweeners do not seem to share my low opinion of this show, which is doing very well among the target demographic.


Yes, this is Oscar Sunday, and no, I'm not going to write about it. From my perspective, the Oscars have always been a bloated exercise in narcissistic onanism... or is it onanistic narcissism? Puh-tay-tow, puh-tah-tow, you make the call. I could forgive all that if the show itself was at least somewhat entertaining, but it's not. Not to me, at anyway. Your mileage, as the saying goes, may vary -- and if so, more power to you. At any rate, I had my say about Oscar's big night a while ago, and see no reason to keep beating a dead horse, even if it is plated with gold.

I'll probably tune in for a bit, but if past Oscar extravaganzas are any guide, twenty or thirty minutes will be all I can take -- at which point I'll flip on over to AMC for "The Walking Dead." The zombies on that show are a repulsive lot, but at least they don't make weepy, long-winded speeches...


A.J. said...

I might be one of the few people that doesn't mind doing a wrap out. Unlike putting up the rig, there's no fussing over whether or not a lamp has to move 3/4 of an inch to the right, or wondering if we have enough cable to make the run, or vying for the attention of the gaffer to sign off on every little thing. The basic orders more or less become, "Shit's gotta come down and wrapped one way or another."

You're right in that it's not anybody's idea of fun, but as far as assignments go, it could be worse.

I'm looking forward to reading about Day Two...

Lakshmi said...

Was thinking about this (or something similar) yesterday. It was an old BBC interview of Amitabh Bachchan, the biggest superstar in Hindi cinema (long before it became 'Bollywood') that sparked the thought. He mentioned something to the effect that while people may call cinema as 'perfection,' 'art,' etc., it is really about making money. If the movie does well, everyone makes money. If not, the opposite is the case.

I was wondering if what goes on on a film set, day in and day out, in grinding repetition, is ever perceived as art by the people who work so hard to keep the show going. Maybe it's simply another day of work, artistic or not?

C.B. said...

Love your post. Couldn't agree more.

Michael Taylor said...

AJ --

I hear you, and agree that the relaxed pace of a wrap is much less stressful than a frantic pre-light or shooting on first unit. Once you get into the Zen of it, wrap is fine -- but it usually takes me a full day to get into the whole order-from-chaos thing...

Lakshmi --

It's mostly work, day in, day out, but every now and then a magic moment will emerge up from the grind: a long dolly shot that really works well, a car stunt done to perfection, or the first take of an exceptionally funny or poignant scene that really clicks.
Occasionally during rehearsals, an actor will blow a line in a way that allows the other actors in the scene to run with an instantaneous improvisation that can leave everyone -- actors and crew, gasping for breath from laughing so hard.

I live for those moments, when the drudgery vanishes, the pain of an aching back suddenly lifts, and I'm reminded why I got into this business in the first place. I don't know if that qualifies as "art," but it's a wonderful experience.

Yes, this is a business first and foremost -- a job we all do to earn a living -- but it's also show biz, and when everything comes together, show biz really is magic.

CB --

Glad you liked it. Thanks for tuning in...

Ultra said...

I know the set you're working on (I've been on it before). Small world. I was on a different show that I love, and even spec'd. It really is an odd part of Hollywood, and I really love your musings.

Michael Taylor said...

Ultra --

Yeah, it is a strange part of Hollywood -- lots of history down there, and other things too...

Thanks for stopping by.