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. 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 a bit of the face I see in the bathroom mirror every morning.  Perhaps he who lives in a house of glass ought not to throw stones.

But in that case, he 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.