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, April 26, 2015


                                The road not taken...

While wandering the wilds of cyberspace the other day, I came across this item, which sent my mind spinning back into the past. That's been happening a lot lately, which means either I'm getting too goddamned old, or it's time to go back to work.  

I don't much like the sound of the former, so I'll just wrap myself in the warm blanket of denial in choosing the latter… 

Well before I fell off the turnip truck and rolled into Hollywood, Noel Marshall and Tippi Hedren embarked on what would be a long and grueling production of an independent feature called Roar.  As the title indicates, the drama had a lot to do with big cats -- very big cats.  On their desert compound north of Los Angeles, Noel and Tippi had assembled an army of more than 130 lions, tigers, panthers and jaguars to use in this very expensive home movie.

Since every one of those big cats was real -- no CGI back in those days -- this was an exceedingly dangerous project. By the time it was over, seventy people on the cast and crew had been injured, including Tippi’s daughter (the young Melanie Griffith) and cinematographer Jan de Bont, who was nearly scalped by a lion that inflicted a wound  requiring two hundred stitches to close.

Between the ever-diligent legions of PETA and modern set safety protocols, I don’t think it would be possible to shoot a film like Roar in California these days. For better or worse, those were simpler times.

Noel and Tippi persevered through all the trouble, halting production when necessary, then gearing up again.  A violent storm ripped through the compound one night, releasing many of the big cats into the surrounding desert community north of LA. Several were shot by police in the chaos that followed. The storm also wrecked the crew housing facilities, dealing a one-two punch to the production. Given the start-stop nature of the job, crew members came and went, which is how half of non-union Hollywood ended up working on the movie at one time or another.

Meanwhile, I'd come to town and -- after a couple of months staring at the smog and wondering what the hell I'd gotten myself into -- I began working and gaining experience. By the time the Roar production got around to calling me, I'd left the PA ranks for good and was working sporadically as a grip-trician. I’d heard rumors about the movie, of course, and was intrigued by the idea of working around all those big cats, but the deal was lousy: $250 for working a six-day week.* That would have been tolerable if they'd provided me a place to stay out there while working, but with no crew housing left, my choice was to stay in a hotel on my own nickle -- which would eat up half my paycheck -- or make the 120 mile commute every day. Driving would be marginally cheaper (my car was a wheezing Oldsmobile V-8  that got 15 freeway m.p.g. on a good day), but adding two and a half hours of drive time to each twelve hour (or more) work day seemed like a deal-breaker.

Despite all that, I might have taken the job if they'd asked me to be a grip or juicer -- working with a new crew and gaining experience could have been worth it -- but instead they wanted me to run the generator, which meant I wouldn’t even be on set. Instead, I’d be stuck next to the genny breathing diesel fumes all day long.

Then there was the minor detail that I knew nothing at all about running a generator at the time.**

Still, I struggled with the decision. The deal sucked, but hell, it was a job on a movie... so I called a key grip for advice -- a very experienced guy I'd worked with and for whom I had a world of respect.  His reply was blunt, without a trace of ambiguity or hesitation.  
“Only an asshole would take that job.” 
I turned it down and moved on. My phone rang with other jobs, and slowly I gained experience, eventually moving up the ladder from juicing to Best Boy, and finally Gaffer.  As luck would have it, my Best Boy by then turned out to have been one of the many who’d crewed on Roar, and he had some great stories about that job. Still, he was from Texas, and some of his stories seemed a bit too good to be true, so I listened with a proverbial grain of salt. Sensing my skepticism, he brought a videotape to the set one day.  We were working long hours, and I told him I didn’t know when I’d have time to sit down and see the movie.
“Don't bother,” he said, with a knowing smile. “Just watch the first half hour.”  
So I popped the cassette into the VCR when I got home, then poured myself a stiff drink and settled in. The opening sequences in Africa were interesting, but nothing unusual, then the action moved to the main set, a big, rambling two-story house where the family lived.
My jaw dropped. I’d never seen so many big cats on screen before -- there were dozens of lions in front of the house, lying on the porch, inside the front door, all over the first floor, crowding the stairs and on up to the second floor. The actors waded right through that sea of lions as though they were just overgrown house cats. 
My eyes took all this in, but my brain could hardly grasp it. Everything my Best Boy had said was true, and then some -- if anything, he’d understated how many lions were on that set.  
Needless to say, his credibility rose considerably after that.  
There's lots of information on the web about Roar, including an eye-opening piece on that shows just how casual the entire Marshall/Hedrin family was about living with those huge cats, and a terrific post on Black Hole Reviews with photos from the set, including a gruesome shot of Jan de Bont's head after it was stitched up.
The New York Times weighed in with a brief review, and clips of Roar can be found on Utube -- the real action starts about seven minutes into the Part One, but you'll have to go on to Part Two to appreciate just how many of those big cats were on that set.
At this point -- thirty-five years later -- I still have mixed feelings about passing up my chance to work on Roar. I didn't know enough back then to understand that I could have worked my way off genny duty and onto the set as a juicer or grip -- especially once the production realized I had no idea how to run and service a generator. No doubt I'd have been scared as hell in such close proximity to so many big cats, but that was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and part of me will always wish I'd experienced it.
So it goes. Choices are inevitable in life, and none of us can do it all. Still, Roar is not dead and gone, but will soon be back in theaters. Although I can't really recommend it as a cinematic drama, it really is one hell of a spectacle, especially when you know the behind-the-scenes backstory.
Which you will, once you follow all the links in this post…

* Roughly $700 in today's funny money.

** A few years later I’d Best Boy a non-union feature in the snows of Vermont, where my men-and-equipment duties included running the genny and doing periodic maintenance -- changing the oil, filter, and fuel filters to keep the beast humming through those cold days and nights -- but all that lay in the future.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow.. unbelievable!!! i can't even imagine working around the lions and tigers without supervision.. holy crap.. i worked on THOSE AMAZING ANIMALS and we had to clear the stage as they brought them out and chained them down. OMG.. another great post with even more insight into the past. i have to wonder what the hell they were thinking.. k