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, 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

6 comments:

k4kafka said...

"over-paid Mandarins "...You are indeed a poet, sir...

Peggy Archer said...

Also, any time one has to do anything spectacularly shitty (pull up the shit-covered cable, stand on set all day with Michael Bay, clean up after the elephant, etc..) one generally make the 'living the dream' reference.

Penny said...

I had to belly laugh at the photo, Mike! I still remember my first encounter with a "curious" friend of ours, who wondered if I might wear paler make-up or don a blonde wig. REALLY? I'm ghostly white as it is!

Oh yeah, "livin' the dream". And my haunting continues Oct. 1st with our "curious" friend... Wish me luck!

Michael Taylor said...

Kafka --

Thanks. Just remember, we are the dirt beneath their feet...

Peg --

I haven't had the dubious pleasure of working with Mr. Bay, but know all about those elephants and the shit-covered cable. "What, and quit show business?"

Penny --

Well, they say blondes do have more fun, but some of The Curious One's requests truly are beyond the pale.

Good luck on the new job...

Claudia said...

Your writing is captivating!

Michael Taylor said...

Claudia --

Thanks -- glad you liked it. And thanks for tuning in...