Nik Wallenda walks with The Beast
A funny thing happened at work the other night – not “funny ha-ha” but funny-strange. It was late on a Friday, shoot night, and after eleven hours of rehearsals, blocking, and filming, we were an hour into a ninety minute wrap. With a huge swing set due to come in at 6:00 a.m. the following Monday, our task was to strip the entire pipe grid over the swing-set area of all lamps and cable so that the grips could raise the grid fifteen feet unencumbered by any of our equipment. When they'd finished, this entire section of the pipe grid would hang just below the perms, a good thirty feet above the stage floor.
Due to the non-disclosure agreements we all have to sign these days when starting a show -- not to mention the “No Blogging, No Texting” signs plastered all over the stage walls and doors -- I can’t say much about that new swing set, but given the need to raise the grid so high, it would be a monster, and doubtless a pain in the ass to light.
But that was next week’s problem; right now we had a mountain of lamps and cable to wrap. With one man on the catwalks above pulling up the power feeds, three of us worked in man-lifts clearing the set walls and grid while the Best Boy organized the mounting chaos on the stage floor. Working steadily, I stuffed my lift with babys, tweenies, 2Ks, and Zip Lights, then with lamps dangling from the rails, maneuvered into position beneath a Baby 5 K hung from a trapeze above the pipe grid. Due to its weight and my own precarious position in the fully-loaded lift, it would be pushing things to get that lamp, but the more I looked at it, the more I wanted to try.
That's when the Best Boy came around a corner and saw what I was thinking.
“Let him drop it,” he said, gesturing up high, indicating that the man on the catwalks above should loosen the ropes and slowly lower the lamp to the floor.
He was right, of course. The standard method of bringing down a lamp hung on a trapeze is for someone to go high, drop the two tag lines, then lower the trapeze/lamp rig using the center strain line. Other than in the most unusual of circumstances, it makes no sense to do it any other way. Trying to pull that lamp off the trapeze into my lift would be worse than stupid -- it would be wrong, and I knew it. There was no remotely justifiable reason for me to attempt such a stunt. Indeed, lowering the lamp from up high is exactly what I'd have ordered my crew to do if I was in the Best Boy's shoes.
But for some reason I was fixated on wrapping that light; pulling the cotter pin, releasing the knuckle, then taking the weight and easing the big lamp into the lift. Caught up in the moment after a solid hour of wrap, I felt something akin to a compulsion to get it done -- and for some perverse reason, now that I’d been expressly told not to, I wanted to do it even more. With the urge all but irresistible, I was that close to giving it a try... but instead I barked at the high man to drop the tag lines and lower the lamp. He followed orders, allowing the Best Boy to reel in that 5 K with no risk to anyone or anything whatsoever. No muss, no fuss. And yet, like some hormonally-addled teenager who'd just been grounded, I felt a stab of disappointment.
What I couldn’t figure out was why. It’s a long time since I was young enough to suffer from testosterone poisoning.
Thirty minutes later, we were done. I washed up, said my goodbyes for the weekend, then headed for home. Cruising through the empty late-night streets, I kept wondering why I’d been so determined to take that 5 K down the stupid way, the dangerous way, the wrong way. Ignoring the Best Boy would that have been an act of willful and entirely unwarranted disrespect, and worse – if I’d managed to slip and drop that lamp -- it would have put him in the difficult position of explaining to the UPM exactly why the senior juicer on his crew had needlessly destroyed an expensive lamp while acting like an idiot. There’s no acceptable explanation for such behavior, and the backlash could have made it difficult for this particular Best Boy to hire me again. In the worst-case scenario, the UPM might have insisted I be fired, and I wouldn’t blame him. When a juicer can’t be trusted to follow orders, then he or she has made the transition from asset to liability – and aging, untrustworthy liabilities do not get called for work.
Having come to no satisfying conclusion by the time I arrived at my apartment, I poured a double shot of Knob Creek, mixed in a little water, then sat down to stare into the night and contemplate my own unknowable self. It’s been suggested that those of us who gravitate towards such an inherently unstable business do so because we just aren't willing to grow up and take a “real” job – that in effect, we ran away to join the circus. There’s probably some truth to that, in which case perhaps I’m just another ungracefully aging misfit incapable of embracing the staid and sober reality of responsible adulthood.
Or maybe I’m just a fool at heart.* I really don’t know.
As the bourbon slowly vanished, it occurred to me that on this very night – while we’d been shooting the show – Nik Wallenda was walking a tightrope strung over Niagara Falls for no good reason other than that he really wanted to. He felt the need to test himself doing something difficult and dangerous, and in the successful aftermath, experience the brief-but-giddy endorphin rush that makes a man feel like he’ll live forever.
There can be no valid comparison between retrieving a forty pound movie lamp five yards off the floor and walking a damp two-inch steel cable across the thundering cauldron of Niagara Falls, but it's plausible that the impulse stemmed from the same ancestral roots. Caught up in the momentum of a big wrap, maybe I needed to perform a mildly difficult, slightly dicey task simply to prove to myself that I still could -- that I’m truly alive in the primal sense of the word – and in the process, feed the beast within.
As a bonus, I might catch a quick ride on the Euphoric Endorphin Express.
I'll never know what would have happened if the Best Boy didn't appear just then. I might have pulled that 5 K down with no problem, or maybe I'd have stupidly destroyed a lamp that would cost the production company nearly three thousand dollars to replace. Then again, I may well have decided to let the high man do his job and lower the lamp. By their nature, "what-ifs" remain eternally unknowable.
But I do know that channeling The Beast Within allows me to do things my cautious, survival-oriented brain would ordinarily reject as unnecessarily dangerous. Juicing is an inherently risky job – if the electricity doesn’t get you, gravity is always waiting to take a shot. Accidents can happen when working from man-lifts, on ladders, and atop set walls, which is why I work hard to get through each day with a minimum of risk to me and everyone else. But the job can’t always be done in a timely or efficient manner while following the supposedly safe-and-sane Industry rules that have been laid down by lawyers who have no clue what we do for a living. So we violate those rules on set – every grip and juicer I know – on a daily basis. How far each of us strays across that line is an individual decision, but for me, every day on set is a balancing act between the Fearless Beast and the Wary Brain. Maintaining the proper balance allows me to get the work done without needless or excessive delays, and in a business where time really is money, that matters. But knowing when to reign in The Beast is crucial, because left unchained, that creature will hurt you. Or worse.
Which, I suppose, just goes to show that I’m still not too old to learn a little more about myself – and live to work another day.
* There are a few women in my past who would probably second that motion...