Long before "The X Files," there was Project UFO
Note: This is the second in a series about the grip arts. If you're currently on the home page of the blog, you can scroll down to read Part One. Otherwise -- if you teleported in via smart phone or followed a direct link to this post -- just click the link in that last sentence to find the first one...
As it happens -- a long time ago in a galaxy that now seems far, far away -- I moved past the larval stage of my Hollywood career as a Production Assistant and began Phase Two: gripping. The job that finally propelled me from the ranks of PA-dom for good was on the grip crew of a crappy non-union, very low-budget movie, where I first encountered the concept "getters and setters." As the new guy with very little experience, I was the "getter" responsible for running back to the grip carts or truck to retrieve whatever piece of equipment was required. I would then hand the high-roller, C stand, sandbag, flag, net, or silk to the Key Grip -- the "setter" -- who would proceed to deploy the equipment in the proper manner, thus allowing the shot to proceed while I absorbed one more lesson on how to be a grip.
As so often happens in this business, one job led to the next, landing me on the grip crew of yet another cheapie feature a few months later. The second movie was even worse than the first, but the quality of these films didn't matter: I just wanted to keep working and learning in the process of finding my own niche in the Hollywood machine.
“In the car,” I replied. “What do I need?”
The swivel-snap would have to wait.
The pusher gave me some good-natured shit about my shiny new belt and tools the next morning (“You gotta bury those things for a couple of weeks”), but at least I didn’t feel like quite such a rube anymore -- and if I wasn't quite a real grip yet, at least I was on my way.
The old me -- the pre-Hollywood me -- would have nodded, thanked him, then turned around and left the building. But I'd learned that meek, polite behavior leads nowhere in this town, so I persisted, explaining that I’d been working on non-union features and really wanted to be a grip and yadda-yadda-yadda. At first this just seemed to piss him off. He frowned and his face got red, then he launched into an angry tirade about how my entire generation was just a pathetic bunch of pussies who -- among our many personal, sartorial, and grooming faults -- had gone and lost the war in Vietnam. “Kids nowadays are afraid to work hard or go up high in the perms,” he yelled. “They get headaches, they get tummy-aches, they're always looking for some goddamned excuse to stay on the floor.”
“Then get your ass over to Paramount. They're hiring permits right now. You work hard and go up high and you can have yourself a great career. And don't tell 'em I sent you, either. Now get the hell out of here.”
Each of those 12 hour days began and ended in the chilly darkness of winter, offering an intense learning experience along with an up-close view of life on a major studio lot during the production of the very first Star Trek movie... and one thing that I learned was that in many ways, Big Time Hollywood really wasn't all that different from the lower stations on the industry food chain. One clue came six hours into that first day with the half-hour lunch break. Paramount was an immense facility, and I had no idea where to go.
"Follow me," said one of the real grips on the gang, a card-carrying member of IA Local 80.
So I followed him to Paramount's Western Street, a back lot of Old West sets and dusty dirt streets where countless movie and television westerns -- "oaters" in ancient vernacular of old Hollywood -- had been filmed. Having seen so many of those shows on TV while growing up, then studying the Western film genre in school, this was very cool indeed. Up the stairs behind a saloon set we went, and there on the second floor overlooking the Old West were dozens of men relaxing on worn-out couches and whatever chairs they'd managed to scrounge from around the lot. Some were eating brown-bag lunches, but most were drinking beer and smoking dope. I politely turned down offers to share a toke (my first day working on a major film studio lot didn't seem like a good time to get high), but nobody held it against me.
Thus was another layer of Hollywood's "glamour" peeled back before my eyes, as I saw that getting some traction -- and paying work -- in this town was just another game played by ordinary people in a decidedly un-ordinary place. All I had to do was learn the rules of this Brave New World, then make the most of every opportunity that came my way.
And that meant I had as good a chance as anybody.
Next: Thirty Days
* When the town is so busy that every union member of a given craft is either working or “off the books,” studios are permitted to hire people off the street. In my case, that meant working on “the gang” -- the grip rigging crew -- doing the many low-skill-but-labor-intensive grip tasks required to keep a production moving forward. Working as a permit is the first step towards earning membership in the union. The Sam Goldwyn Jr. Studios -- where I got my first union work days -- has a long and storied history in Hollywood, and is now The Lot.
** A “pusher” is the equivalent of a foreman, directing -- pushing -- the crew to get the job done.
*** You have to work 30 union days in one year (either as a permit, or on a feature or TV show that signs with the union during the course of the show) to be eligible to join the IA.