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Sunday, November 8, 2015
Then and Now
The studio where my current show is being shot is unlike any I've ever seen.* We have four permanent sets and three additional areas reserved for swing-sets, two of which are on an elevated section of the stage that can only be accessed by equipment carts and man-lifts via a 15 foot long, 4 foot high ramp that must be removed whenever we need to shoot on two of the permanent sets. After the grips move that ramp, anything on wheels stays up there until the ramp is back.
This was completely bizarre to me at first, but after four months of work it feels more or less normal… which just goes to show that you can get used to almost anything after a while.
What I haven't quite been able to get used to is the serious grind this show has become. It was right from the start, of course, but fool-that-I-am, I assumed the rough patches would would have smoothed out by now, with the crew settling into a good working rhythm. In some ways that happened -- we know what to expect now, and are prepared to deal with it -- but if anything, the sheer idiocy behind so much of what we do each week is getting harder and harder to take. I can't be specific about this (for reasons that should be obvious…), but I can tell you that the subject matter of a show makes a big difference. It shouldn't, but it does -- and working on such a brain-dead children's show is very hard indeed. The kid actors are great -- they work hard, hit their marks and deliver the lines -- but there's not enough lipstick in the world to pretty up this pig. My last show (which was Hamlet compared to this drivel) had its challenges, but was a lot of fun to work on. The only fun this show offers comes from the bond forged by the shared misery we all shoulder together, a mutual appreciation for utter absurdity, and the resulting gallows humor that allows us to cope. But as powerful as that bond is, it only goes so far -- and with five episodes left in this season, it'll be all I can do to belly-crawl through the finale just before Christmas.
And right now I don't even want to think about the possibility of us being asked back for another season…
We're all feeling it, as evidenced by the reaction of one of the grips when I asked him how it was going the other day. Leveling a dead-eyed stare at me, he pointed the index finger of his right hand at his head, then cocked his thumb and said: "Click, click, click…"
It's that bad.
So now I'm praying that one more season of something deceit (please, Gods of Hollywood, not another fucking kid's show…) will materialize from the ether early next year. I'd really like to close out my industry career with at least a few shreds of dignity.
But that might not happen, in which case I'll do what I have to do, and then -- when the time comes -- exit stage left at a brisk pace with no regrets or second thoughts about calling a wrap on my own Hollywood adventure.
One way I deal with the frustrations of this show is to carve out a couple of minutes every day to take a good look at some of the many wonderful photos of old Hollywood hanging in the staircases, hallways, and bathrooms of the studio -- which serve as reminders that we on this crew are part of the long continuum of the film and television industry here in Hollywood. All those photos are good, each for a different reason, but one of my favorites leads off this post. I don't know who took it or who anybody in this photo might be -- not the actress or director, and certainly not the various technicians, who were among the nameless multitude of human cogs that kept the industry machine running back then.
Kind of like me, nowadays -- which is why I feel a certain kinship with them.
I like the way this photo captures all sides of the on-set equation; the actress smiling for the camera, the focused but studied indifference of the first assistant, the operator hidden behind that enormous blimped camera, and the intensity of the director issuing orders while standing atop a ladder.**
Those we've all seen before… but look at the right side of the frame, where down on the stage floor below are eight or nine technicians -- grips, juicers, prop men, and/or set decs, I imagine -- doing then what we still do now during a long day of filming: waiting for the wheel of production to turn so we can resume our work. In a very real way, I am those guys and they are me -- except the men in that photo are probably all dead by now, and although this show is doing its best to kill me, it hasn't succeeded yet.
The photo isn't labeled, so I don't know when it was taken or the name of the film being shot. My guess sometime in the late 30's or early 40's -- but other than that absurdly humongous camera, things really aren't that much different on set nowadays. Cables and paper still litter the stage floor while the crew stands or sits, quietly fighting the endless boredom and fatigue while waiting, waiting, and waiting for the cry of "Cut!"
The struggle to maintain one's focus and keep a good attitude on set over the course of a long day remains eternal, forming a through-line of continuity from the earliest days of the industry right up to today. The only real difference is the lack modern technology -- there were no walkie-talkies and cell phones back then, and although we've come to depend on such digital baubles, I'm not sure they've actually improved things on set. In Hollywood and elsewhere, change usually comes as a zero-sum equation, with whatever is gained coming at the cost of a loss somewhere else.
Looking at this photo, I can't help but wonder what the scene on set will be like forty or fifty years from now, when I'll be long dead and gone, just like the people in this photo.
I'll never know -- that's for me to wonder, and you (the young ones, anyway) to find out.
Meanwhile, we soldier on, week by bloody week, marching towards Christmas...
* It's also in danger of being torn down sometime next year. The private equity company that owns the property plans to cash in on the construction boom that's currently turning much of Hollywood upside-down. If and when that happens, we'll lose yet another link to our past.
** You can bet OSHA and the Motion Picture Safety Passport people would not be pleased by that nowadays...