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 22, 2013

The Maus Haus

When you wish upon a star...

I’ve been pretty hard on Disney since the inception of this blog, and for good reason.  As a corporate entity, Disney is as tight-fisted as they come, routinely forcing some of the leanest and meanest deals on below-the-line crews in the industry.  Having done too many commercial shoots at their big theme park in Anaheim – a place I loved as a kid, but came to loathe as an adult – I've long been repelled by Disney's top-down, stiff-necked management style.  The individual Disney crew members assigned to help my crews move, power, and deploy our lighting and grip equipment in and around the park were great, but it was from them – once they learned to trust us -- that I first heard the term “Mousewitz.”

So it was with mixed feelings that I rejoined the lighting crew pulling a familiar splintery oar below decks of the same Disney slave-ship I worked last year, a sit-com aimed at an audience of tweenagers. The crew and cast are great from top to bottom, but the cable-rate money sucks, and -- wouldn't you know it -- the director on the first show of my return just had to be this clown, who managed to make everyone work much longer and harder than necessary over the course of two endlessly tedious shoot days.   

How this fool still gets hired to direct anything remains the deepest of mysteries, but I suppose he's living proof just how absurd Hollywood can be -- and a useful reminder that in this town, cream ain't the only thing that floats.

Fortunately, the next few episodes had different directors at the helm, at least one of whom was very good.  As we left for home at the end of our third lighting day, he was still on set working out the next day's logistics with the camera coordinator -- and that extra effort paid off.  By doing his homework, he was able to move us smoothly through the next two days of filming without doing eight takes of every shot.

I just hope we get to see him again.

Over my thirty-five-plus years in this business, I’ve rarely heard a good word about Disney from anyone, and most of those positive comments were in reference to the good old days well before my time.  When it comes to paying below-the-line crews, the modern corporate Disney is as cheap as they come, routinely -- and as a matter of policy -- grinding us into the dirt.*

So how, you might ask, could I possibly write a post that says something nice about Disney?

Good question – and believe me, I never thought this day would come… but that was before our show a few weeks ago.  No, the UPM didn't walk on set to announce that we'd all be getting paid full scale from now on instead of the cheap-ass cable rate -- that kind of thing only happens in the land of the Big Rock Candy Mountain, where the sun always shines and unicorns fart rainbows -- but Disney did bring another Make-a-Wish family onto the stage to watch us film a couple of scenes.  

By definition, every Make-a-Wish family has been handed the short end of the stick in life -- you don't get into that program without first receiving a catastrophic diagnosis concerning the health of a child.  Terminal heart conditions, cancer, and other terrible maladies strike young and old alike, and although this is always horrible news, it seems particularly poignant -- and unspeakably cruel -- to see a child who has yet to sample the full menu of life handed such devastating news.  It's brutal on the whole family, forcing them to grapple with something that simply should not be.

This was the second Make-a-Wish Family I'd seen come on set during filming, but I was pretty busy the first time around -- this time I watched as they were seated just behind the cameras to get an up-close view of the process.  The whole family was clearly excited to be there, especially the cute little tyke at the center of attention.  Maybe eight or nine years old, he was the grinning essence of wide-eyed innocence.  At one point, our lead actress came over for an extended, light-hearted conversation with him and the rest of his family.  Just a kid herself in so many ways, she sat down on the floor cross-legged in front of them and showered attention on the little guy, asking him questions to kick-start an enthusiastic back-and-forth, one kid to another.  She was just wonderful with him and his family... and when she finally had to go back in front of the cameras, one of the camera assistants took the little guy out on set with the slate, then coached him through calling out the scene and snapping it shut as all four cameras rolled.

The entire crew stood and applauded as the boy -- a huge smile on his face -- was led back to his family.  I don't think there was a dry eye on that stage.  Mine sure as hell weren't.  

Occasionally I'm privileged to witness a moment when this business turns out to have a great big heart after all, and on those days I feel a whole lot better about being a part of it.  Every day on stage is a job for us, but for these kids and their families, a set visit with the show's stars is something very special.  Since that day, another Make-a-Wish family came on set, and during a break in the action, all four of our actors gathered around to focus their attention on the little girl, making her feel like she was the most important person in the world -- which she was, in a way, if only for those twenty magical minutes.

I can't say enough about the young actors on this show and the way they treat these Make-a-Wish kids -- watching them beam energy and affection towards someone who so desperately needs a little relief from reality is heartwarming, to say the least.  I get choked up just thinking about it.

When I asked around, it turned out that getting the Make-a-Wish people involved happened much further up the Disney food chain than I'd suspected. I couldn't find out just how far up or who made it happen, but that's not important.  What matters is that a corporation best known for being utterly ruthless about saving money (or more accurately, not spending money) is actually capable of doing Something Good on a regular basis... and even more impressive, not calling attention to themselves for doing so.  This doesn't seem to be a PR stunt, but something that comes from a heart I never suspected Disney had.

As our ever-more complicated world grows short on absolutes, we all have to grapple with the reality of navigating through a landscape rendered in shades of gray rather than the stark black-and-whites that make passing judgement so much easier.  That can be confusing... and now it turns out that a corporation I've been lambasting at every opportunity for many years now (with compete justification) turns out to be not quite so bad after all.  Still bad, but not all bad, all the time.

Go figure.  I guess there really is something new to learn every day.

* Just one more one reason I’m really looking forward to seeing this film...  

And thanks to Bruce for -- however unwittingly -- providing the title for this post.


Devon Ellington said...

Glad to hear something good's come out of all this, and that, in spite of the lousy rates, you're on a show with a good cast and crew.


Michael Taylor said...

Devon --

Nothing's all bad, I guess... but now I'm leaving this one to go back to my old show. The only constant, it seems, is change.

Thanks for tuning in...