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, May 26, 2013


“Hell, if you can make me forget about life for an hour, I’m in your corner.”

Tim Goodman, of the Hollywood Reporter 

Like the movies that preceded it (and theater + vaudeville before that), television programming is designed to divert our attention from the realities of our own everyday lives, while giving us something to share around the proverbial water cooler.  Whatever your personal viewing taste -- reality programming, game shows, sports, scripted comedy, or edgy cable dramas -- a good show can offer a lot more than mere distraction, but diverting the viewer's attention away from reality has always been the primary directive of television.*  What may not be so obvious is that working on the other end of the Toob can serve the same purpose, albeit in a very different manner.  Sooner or later, those of us who make those programs also need a little shelter from the storm.

On a sit-com a few years ago,  one of my fellow juicers just couldn't seem to find a comfortable rhythm on the job. "Billy" (not his real name) was an impulsive, headstrong young man with a mercurial temper, and he attracted trouble like a magnet.  Some people just can't seem to get out of their own way in life... and sure enough, one day the UPM stormed into the set lighting Gold Room in a cold fury, right on the ragged edge of firing Billy.

As usual, the problem was equal parts silly, stupid, and totally avoidable.  Running a few minutes late, Billy had bypassed the studio's multi-level parking structure to park his truck on a back lot street near our sound stage -- a space being held for one of the show's Big Cheese above-the-liners by the set PA.  When she gently protested that he couldn't park there, Billy snarled "fuck off," then locked his truck and headed for the stage.  Newly embarked on what she'd assumed would be a fun, exciting career in Hollywood, this sweet young PA had not yet developed the armor to deal with such blatantly rude behavior, and she fled to the UPM's office in tears.

Billy wasn't really a bad kid, but he had a hard time dealing with any seemingly arbitrary authority, which is why he couldn't take orders from a neophyte PA -- but when it came to work, he was hell on wheels.  Barely 150 pounds dripping wet, he had the quick reflexes and wiry strength of an athlete, and routinely ran rings around me while we were lighting.  He could hang and power ten lamps in the time it took me to do three or four, and if no man lift or ladder was immediately available, he'd climb the set walls to scamper along the three-inch ledge like a monkey, hanging lamps one after another.

Billy's notion of a work day was to do it all as fast as possible, then get the hell out of there.  Having long since been disabused of my own romantic notions about the film and television industry, I could relate.  Although we usually manage to have some fun over the course of a day on set, all things being equal -- which they seldom are -- most of us would rather be somewhere else indulging in Real Life than toiling on set all day long... but since nobody will actually pay us for that, we put in our time and make the best of it.

Unfortunately, "real life" off the set isn't always blissful romp through a lush and verdant Garden of Eden.  Shit happens out there, where problems can morph into thorny dilemmas with no easy resolution.  When the sky turns black and the hard rain begins, sometimes you just have to keep your head down and slog on through it until things get sorted out -- and at times like that, work can be a lot more than just a place to earn a paycheck.

It can be a sanctuary.

I was reminded of this while reading one of AJ's recent posts over at The Hills Are Burning, in which she wrote about dealing with an avalanche of real life problems amidst a strong run of work.  It happens to all of us at one time or another... and in a dark coincidence, the seas surrounding BS&T were in turmoil around the same time.  Between the endless demands of work and suddenly-escalating stresses on the outside, it felt like I was hanging on by my fingernails for a while there -- and that's when the upside of working in such a time-intensive business became apparent.  Having a place to go five days a week where the problems that need solving require a high degree of in-the-moment concentration can provide an emotional buffer from the occasional chaos of civilian life.  As its own highly artificial world, a film set offers the balm of work to hold at bay the pain and trouble waiting outside the soundstage door for the drive back home.

Like all forms of denial, the escape is only temporary.  No matter how long the work day or how short the turnaround, we all have to face up to our real life dilemmas in the end, but having a daily respite from the storm can help by providing time to work things out in your head.

I did my best to help Billy, letting him air things out during quiet times in the Gold Room, and suggesting that the daily routine on set could be a refuge from the storms of life rather than just another source of trouble.  During one of those conversations, he told me a story that hinted at the depth of his problems.  While he was growing up, his mother (who suffered an unhealthy fondness for "controlled substances") had a string of decidedly skeevy live-in boyfriends -- and one of those temporary step-dads had a nasty habit of striding across the living room to kick the young boy in the ribs, hard, for no apparent reason.  When that happened, Billy would grab his dog and retreat to the dark, dusty safety of the crawl space under the house.

It's no wonder the kid developed such a hair-trigger personality.

I'll never know if my efforts did any good, but Billy managed to finish the season without getting fired -- and when the show returned for Season Two, he didn't come back.  Although the job was his for the taking, he'd decided to leave the circus of Hollywood to work as an independent contractor in the construction business, where he wouldn't have to chafe under the yoke of above-the-line bullshit.  He figured to be a lot happier being in a position to call the shots in serving his clients -- and from what I heard later, that's pretty much how it worked out.

There's no denying that Hollywood is a very different kind of business that doesn't suit everybody.  Billy certainly wasn't cut out for it, but for those of us who are, the shared sense of purpose, teamwork, and camaraderie in working with a good crew can provide a very real sense of community -- a sanctuary -- when you really need it.

And when I finally hang up my gloves for good, that's something I'm going to miss.

* Television has a more sinister agenda, of course: seducing the viewers into buying consumer goods they don't need and often can't afford -- but that's a subject for somebody else's blog...


Anonymous said...

Haha this is a great story. However, this is creepy. I KNOW a "Billy". I hope it's not the SAME person! He actually was in the movie business (as an electrician), worked in construction and now is older and trying to get BACK into Lighting. And oh yes, his attitude STILL gets him into trouble! Some people never learn..tsk tsk.
I often ask people's motives for wanting to work in the movies. What are their goals and WHY do they want it SO badly? Yes, we mostly love movies and want to be a part of making them, but surprisingly, the ulterior motive often (once we cut away that layer of "why do you want to work in Hollywood?-because I love movies" ) relates to things like approval (fame or from family or people we went to school with..having celebrity friends..'I want to win an Oscar', etc) or just for the money. You're right though..I actually find the most amusing behind the scenes stuff (and don't own a tv myself); the people make it SO worthwhile. Some of the personality types are absolutely unique and I LOVE everything about it! When it's time to hang up the gloves, you bet the stories will entertain for generations!

Michael Taylor said...

Anonymous --

Could be the same guy, I suppose, although there are plenty of "Billy's" in this troubled world. If so, I sure hope he can get his head together this time. Otherwise, he -- and everybody around him -- is in for a bumpy ride...