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, December 16, 2012


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...


Steph Costumes said...

Beautifully said, sir. Thanks for the reminder to appreciate the good stuff we do have.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this.

Michael Taylor said...

Steph, Anonymous --

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

The Grip Works said...

Great post. I agree that a perspective reboot is necessary. I used to be a commercial saturation diver working on the floor of the North Sea off the coast of Norway and Scotland. When being a grip gets 'tough' . I need to refresh my memory.
I feel sorry for Jimbo - that his last moments on earth were with the screamer. I have a list of "Life's too short" people. that I do not work with.

egee said...

I work a relatively cushy job that pays me regularly (and well) and allows me time to spend with my family. Yet, I still complain...I definitely needed to read this!

Michael Taylor said...

Sanjay --

That's quite a contrast. I used to scuba dive off the chilly Northern California coast, but can't even imagine all the layers of stress involved with commercial saturation diving in the frigid, rough waters of the North Sea. Lucrative, yes, but that's serious work. In comparison, our business is a walk in the park.

Egee --

Dissatisfaction seems to be part of human nature. We grow accustomed to the perks of our own situation -- whatever it may be -- and assume them as normal, then begin casting covetous eyes on what we perceive as more and better. We all do it, I think, which is why I need to kick myself in the ass periodically and reboot my own perspective.

JRH said...

Thank you. This was a great post. I've been day playing a few days every few months since my last show ended early 2011 and it's been frustrating and disheartening.


Josh Waterman said...

Excellent post Michael. As someone in school right now trying to get into this industry, this just inspires me to work hard and take every opportunity I can get to get better at what I love to do

Michael Taylor said...

JHR --

With so many one hour dramas now being shot out of town, it's increasingly tough to make it -- and retain your health benifits -- as a day-player. It's the curse of the 400 hour rule. I've suffered through some horrendous dry spells over my own career, and understand just how disheartening it is when the goddamned phone simply will not ring. All I could do was hang in there and trust things would eventually turn around -- and thus far, that's always happened.

One thing's for sure, though --life isn't getting any easier in modern Hollywood. I hope you manage to catch a good wave of work in the New Year. Thanks for tuning in, and good luck.

Josh --

I admire your pluck, commitment, and drive in pursuing your dream. It'll take all three -- and a bit of luck -- to succeed, but good people with the right attitude can always find a way to get started in this business. As you can see from JHR's comment, sustaining upward momentum over the long haul -- even for someone with credentials and experience -- isn't an easy road. Just when you think you're on a roll, the rug can be jerked out from under your feet. Still, that's true of everything in life, whatever career you pursue, and for all it's problems, I don't see the film and TV biz going away anytime soon.

Keep your eyes and ears open -- meaning don't be afraid to ask questions and learn something new -- and good luck.