"The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers."
Dick the Butcher, from Henry the Sixth, Part 2, Act 4, by William Shakespeare
Dick the Butcher, from Henry the Sixth, Part 2, Act 4, by William Shakespeare
I’ve written about this kind of thing before, so if you’re tired of hearing it, just click on over to
The Anonymous Production Assistant,
The Hills are Burning,
or any of the other informative and entertaining industry blogs on the right side of this page -- because it's a safe bet most of them are in a better mood that I am right now.*
For years I've heard horror stories from crews who work at up-tight, terminally constipated studios like Warner Brothers -- where you can't even ride a bicycle across the lot without applying for and receiving a permit (which can take a month to get), and where every worker using any sort of man-lift absolutely MUST wear a “safety” belt hooked to the lift itself. One reason I made a certain small studio in the Valley my “home lot” more than ten years ago was the refreshing absence of such top-down formality. So long as I did my work in a timely manner without hurting myself or anybody else, breaking any equipment, or pissing in the sink, everything was fine. There have always been rules on my home lot, of course, but so long as I didn’t fuck up or make a public spectacle of flaunting them, I wasn't expected to follow the absolute letter of the law -- because my immediate superiors (people who actually know what they're doing on set) fully understood just how stupid those rules really were.
I don't want any part of that.
As a short-timer now -- the clock ticking at under two years and counting -- I'm not about to do anything that might ruin whatever years I have left once my tour of duty in Hollywood is over. The Home Planet is calling, and I intend to return in one piece.
But I also want to do my job the way I see fit, without being tied down like Gulliver by brain-dead corporate Lilliputians and their thousand-and-one stupid, suffocating rules dreamed up by nervous white-collar drones who live, work, and worry in a very different environment than mine. With 36 years toiling on set under my belt, I know damned well how to do the job in a safe manner. The way I go about it might look dangerous to the average stick-up-his-ass studio suit -- the kind of well-manicured tool whose idea of a serious physical challenge is teeing up a golf ball on Sunday -- but it isn't. Not if you do it right.
It’s hard for the uninitiated to fully grasp what a problem this poses. The process of lighting a sit-com set requires making endless adjustments to accommodate changes in the blocking -- we have to move or add lights to keep the actors properly lit wherever they go on set -- and that’s not so easy after twenty-odd lamps plus the usual array of grip equipment (meat-axes, flags, and teasers) have been carefully rigged and adjusted. At that point, there’s never enough open space for a man-lift to approach the pipe grid -- where any changes have to be made -- which is why I take the lift right up to the existing lamps and grip equipment, then climb up on the rails to reach the pipes and do my work. Wearing that absurdly restrictive "safety" belt makes it impossible to climb beyond the middle rail of a man-lift, and even that is strictly against the rules. Wearing the belt, my only choice is to move every lamp and piece of grip equipment in my way, then take the lift up to the pipe grid to complete my work, and THEN put everything back -- or rather, replace and re-adjust the lamps before turning the man-lift over to the the grips so they can re-set all of their equipment.
And when the director changes the blocking, we have to do that all over again.
Following this new rule would cause us to burn through hours accomplishing work that could easily be done in minutes, perfectly safely, by experienced technicians who know what they're doing. In a business where time really is money -- and especially with our new compressed schedule this season -- this kind of brain-dead bureaucratic stupidity is not only counter-productive, it's utterly infuriating.
Worse, although the “safety” belt might prevent me from falling out of a lift (along with preventing me from doing my job), being strapped securely into the bucket will certainly result in serious injury or death should the lift itself fall over. Granted, that’s unlikely to happen, but if it does, your only hope is to jump free of the damned thing before it hits the floor -- and the “safety” belt won’t allow that.
But wait, there's more. Ever since the advent of small hand-held laser pointers, gaffers have used them to direct the placement of lamps on set.*** Not all gaffers are good at explaining exactly where a lamp needs to go -- they know what they want, but have trouble communicating the specifics to the crew. I can't count the times I've followed a gaffer's instructions to the letter, only to have him frown, shake his head, then explain that the lamp was supposed to go on the pipe behind or in front of where I hung it.
Communication is a two-way street, and some of this confusion is doubtless my fault, but I do my best to pay close attention. Still, if a picture is worth a thousand words, the hot little dot of a laser is worth at least a paragraph. To avoid endless blather and needless confusion, the gaffer simply aims that dot exactly where he wants each lamp, and we get work.
We've been working this way for years with no problems, but a couple of weeks ago our gaffer received an e-mail edict from They Who Must Be Obeyed in the production company banning laser pointers from the set.
Why? No explanation was forthcoming, but I'm sure the parent company's paranoia about potential legal liability is behind their ceaseless efforts to baby-proof the workplace, taking yet another safe and efficient tool out of our hands and making our lives on set all the more difficult.
This kind of fear-based micro-managing bullshit drives me up the wall. The corporate Scrooges and their lawyers persist in trying impose a top-down grid pattern on an industry that makes custom-made products in a hands-on, time consuming process that can't be reduced to the dull and predictable rote of an assembly-line. Paying close attention to safety is a good thing -- a lot of people would be in a much better place today if the Midnight Rider producers had given just a little thought to keeping their crew safe -- but attempting to idiot-proof every last thing we do on set is as impractical as it is impossible. The best way to keep everybody on a production safe is to hire good, experienced people who know what they're doing, then let them do their jobs. But since the lawyers don't understand anything about the down-and-dirty process of making film and television, they instead try to construct a legal Maginot Line of suffocating rules and regulations designed to keep their clients safe from liability.
It won't work. If they want to idiot-proof their sets, they'll just have to be careful not to hire idiots. It's that simple.
Where's Dick the Butcher when we really need him?
There's only one positive thing about all this -- it'll make it a lot easier for me to hang up the gloves for good when the time comes.
Nineteen months to go, now. The clock is ticking...
* Unless, of course, you're reading this on a smart phone, in which case (or so I'm told, since I have yet to join the smart phone army), you won't find a blogroll on this page. Listen, people, using a smart phone to read a blog is like taking a sponge bath instead of a shower -- it'll get the job done, more or less, but the experience isn't nearly as fulfilling.
** At my home lot, Best Boys are employees of -- and paid by -- the studio, not the production company.
*** On sound stages, for the most part. I haven't found as much use for laser pointers on location jobs.