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, December 6, 2015

Just for the Hell of It -- Episode 30

A sharp-eyed reader (thanks, Kafka) reports that the photo I used to illustrate a recent post depicts Cecil B. DeMille directing Paulette Goddard in Paramount's Reap the Wild Wind. The on-set technicians in that photo  -- who were more-or-less the subject of the post -- remain anonymous, of course (like the rest of us who work below decks), but such is life.

Another reader (thanks, Tom) sent a link to the poster for that movie, which -- typical of the era -- is rather lurid  and over-the-top. I doubt anybody seriously considers Reap the Wild Wind to be one of Cecil B. DeMille's "greatest," but Hollywood never lost a minute of sleep worrying about the false promises and overblown hype required to sell movies to the viewing public.

Same as it ever was...


Commenting on another recent offering, JD said:

“Hmmm....tedium on set? Read a book, play cards or an actual board game that makes you think like Scrabble or chess, learn some new skill, learn to tie some new knots (like the masthead knot!)or just wall yourself off in your own little cell phone world. Such a difficult choice. I once did some minor truck repair while on location. A friend knits, etc.”

First, there's the matter of appearances. In a business where perception is reality, reading a book or playing cards/board games in plain sight on set can give others (like the Key Grip, Gaffer, DP, director, and producers) the impression that you're not really paying attention. Even a small paperback is hard to stuff in your tool pouch when you have to jump up and get back to work, and if left unattended while working on a busy, chaotic set, that book might disappear. Depending on the type of show, there's often a bit more slack on a soundstage job, where the crew can rotate duties -- some staying "in the pocket" of the Gaffer to handle whatever comes up, while others retreat to the Gold Room and get off their feet for a few minutes to read, watch TV, or whatever.  This works so long as nobody abuses the privilege, and everyone remains tuned to their walkie-talkies, ready to answer the call the instant something is needed on set. 

So it's there on set -- much as I'm loathe to admit it -- that cell phones really do fill the bill. Since everybody from the producers to the extras has one, nobody raises an eyebrow when you pull out your cell and boot up. Never mind that you might be reading a long article from The New Yorker or Atlantic Magazine (or even an e-book) rather than checking for messages, the cell phone is accepted as an essential part of life on set nowadays.  
Knitting? Sure -- the Best Boy on my current show brings her knitting to work, when she leaves the ukelele at home, anyway. As for learning knots -- you bet.  While working on the grip rigging gang at Paramount thirty-five years ago, I spent much of one day learning to tie a bowline knot, an essential skill for grips and juicers alike. Card games at lunch and after work are not unheard of, and I've seen an occasional quiet chess match underway. Haven't seen Scrabble yet, but my experience is far from universal.  
So yes, there are indeed many ways to deal with the inevitable tedium of life on set -- which is a good thing, so long as everybody understands that the work always comes first.

Another (non-industry) reader left a comment on that same post: 

"In most jobs outside the movies there is almost always more work that can be done.  The one without the phone is asking questions, getting ready or starting the next thing.  The one with the  phone is quickly checked out.  I've started doing a meeting and making sure the folks with phones have a long list of the projects they need to complete.  Our conversations now go like this.

"How's it going on X?"

Puts phone down -- "I'm waiting on Y"
"Got it.  Did you look at your list for what you can do next while you wait?"

If you are early in your career (20's), keep your ears open.  The boss paying for your time will appreciate it.  And the client paying by the hour and watching will appreciate it eve ore.  Some paying clients are older-- zoning out on their $250/hr will be considered rude, no matter how justified it is (and in some cases it is).

Now on the long public transit rides to and from a location (in my work) -- I'm all for the phone, the Kindle, etc.  That is your time."

I agree with much of that -- and in the civilian working world, the kind of cell phone use we see every day on set would probably get people fired -- but the film and television industry is a very different beast. The "work to be done" each day on set is clearly laid out in the call sheet. For the average juicer or grip, there's no point in thinking beyond that call sheet -- and since the work day will usually last at least twelve hours, there's plenty to do without thinking about tomorrow. Besides, worrying about the next day's work is the job of the Gaffer and Best Boy.

Still, there's usually work that can be done -- cleaning up and organizing the equipment and gel carts, and putting away gear that's no longer needed -- and in the days before cell phones, that work tended to get done without anything being said. Nowadays, not so much.

So long as the work gets done, it doesn't much matter how the crew spends their time on set. Problems can arise when a newbie producer or UPM notices all the grips and juicers sitting on apple boxes staring into cell phones while the cameras roll -- then begins to wonder if such a large crew is really necessary -- but a veteran producer/UPM understands that when it's time to move on and redeploy all that lighting/grip equipment for the next scene, those hands are needed to make it happen in a say and efficient manner.  

In a business where time really is money, that matters.


"Do not escalate your expectations."

William Friedkin's advice to wannabe filmmakers

I'm not sure who reads books anymore -- except women, of course. There are thousands of Book Clubs in this country, all but a handful made up of and run by women. If it weren't for female readers, the book business would probably have collapsed a long time ago. The sad truth is, most men would rather do anything in front of a screen -- channel-surf, watch movies, sports, porn, you name it -- than sit  down to read a book. In our oh-so-modern world, "reading" has come to mean cruising Facebook or Twitter, then falling down the rabbit hole following links.

I understand the appeal of FB, and (believe it or not) have had a Twitter account for a while now.*  I know what it's like to sink into the digital quicksand chasing link after link after link on the Internet, and (in moderation, of course) there's nothing wrong with that.

Still, there's no substitute for immersion in a good book, like the one discussed here last year.

For those of you who haven't read it, that's your loss. I'm just a juicer, not a book critic.  I can lead the proverbial horses to the equally proverbial water, but I can't make 'em drink. That said, The Friedkin Connection is a great read for anybody interested in how great movies got made back in the 70's, particularly for anyone who thinks any movie made before Pulp Fiction isn't worth watching.  Tarantino's good, alright, but there were a lot more before him who were just as good or better in their own way and in their own time -- and William Friedkin is one.

Okay, so you didn't read the book… but you can still hear some of the best stories therein, because Friedkin recently sat down to talk with Alec Baldwin in front of a live audience, and 35 minutes of their discussion can be found at this link to Baldwin's terrific podcast from WNYC, Here's the Thing.

Do yourself a favor and listen to that podcast -- it's really good, and the stories of how Friedkin cast crucial roles in The French Connection and The Exorcist will blow your mind. By the end of it, you too might believe in The Movie God.**

Just don't assume that listening to that too-short podcast is the same as reading the book -- it's not, and until you do read it, you'll never know all the great stories Friedkin didn't have time to tell Alec Baldwin. Hey, Christmas is coming, so tell someone you love that you'd like this book as a gift, then read the damned thing.

You'll be glad you did.


Last, a quote (lightly edited) from my favorite movie critic, Mick LaSalle, who writes for what's left of the San Francisco Chronicle, about the MPAA's system of rating movies:

"The rating system has no basis in morals, just money. It’s designed to make sure that the violent summer blockbusters, which often cost over $100 million, get a PG-13 rating, so that they can keep a bigger slice of the box office, while maintaining their ability to merchandise products to children. The MPAA, which essentially works for the studios, doesn’t dare tamper with the big money, and so they jump at every chance to prove their virtue by beating up on better, smaller and more virtuous movies. The prohibition on love scenes, especially in light of the free rein given violence, is only one part of the problem...even worse, in my opinion, is the MPAA’s hysteria about language. Apparently they have an idiotic rule that one f-word is OK, but if it’s spoken twice, they must gather their skirts around them and confer an R-rating."
So remember, all you wide-eyed young film students hoping to make cinematic art in Hollywood: this town and industry have never been about the art, but always about the money.    
That is all.

*  Not that I do much with it other than flog this blog, mind you

** Friedkin offers some sage career advice for wannabe directors at the end of the podcast, so pay attention, noobs...


k4kafka said...

Friedkin continues to amaze...take a look at, "Killer Joe" (2011)

Michael Taylor said...

Kafka --

I haven't seen that one -- I'll have to add it to my Netfilx queue. Thanks...

JD said...

Your point of view on on-set downtime is that of a person on a soundstage, on location it can be a different story. In cold weather, DIT(s) and "other" camera people are hiding in their truck, electric heater blasting, a tarp covering the open door.....are they working, playing cards or?? Piece of cake for a Grip or Spark to disappear between setups as well. Lots of places an opportunities to catch a few moments of private time on location. With a radio, your never more than a moment away from set. How many times can you straighten the equipment on the carts, help organize the equipment in the truck, neaten up the stingers, Bates and distro? Does every G&E crew person need to stand at the ready, like a sprinter in the starting blocks, waiting for the sound of the Starters gun, as they roll on take marshmallow? No, I don't think so. You don't need to be given "busy" work, you just don't need to be seen goofing off.

Michael Taylor said...

JD --

I did twenty years of location work before falling into the sound-stage world of multi-cam shows (although my just-completed show featured way too much location work for my taste), and am very familiar with the dynamics of location work -- but you're right, nobody needs to do busy work. That said, you do have to pay attention and be ready to respond to whatever's happening on set. The degree of readiness required depends on many factors -- crew size, the nature of the job, how uptight your immediate superior happens to be, etc. -- but regardless, I haven't seen many opportunities for crew members to read books or play chess on the job other than during a lunch break. A few moments escape is one thing -- we're all familiar with taking a "wildcat five" -- but to indulge in the time-intensive, brain-stretching games suggested in your earlier comment during non-break times doesn't seem appropriate to me.

Then again, we all have different experiences in the biz, and a wide variety of perspectives. All I can say is, different strokes for different folks, and whatever works for you is the way to roll.

Thanks for tuning in, and have a Happy New Year!

JD said...

MT, first Happy New Year to you as well, second, admittedly a chess game would be a stretch, but stashing a book in you gear bag would not be. I didn't doubt that you've done your share of location shoots, so you know its a different game. Inappropriate is whipping out that cell, at each and every chance to read email, check Faceplant, look for work, personal calls, etc. Unless you're the BB and sending in an equipment order for the next day, then your wasting time on your cell, simple as that.

Michael Taylor said...

On a Disney kids show a few years back, I read an entire book in the Gold Room during one long, brain-dead shoot day. The DP was happy with the lighting on all the sets, so there was nothing for us to do. We kept one man on set to keep an eye out for burnouts, then rotated everyone on the crew in and out of set-duty all day long. Can't say I actually enjoyed that, though -- I felt like a slug by the day's end -- and it's the only time I seriously dug into a book at work. But sure, a juicer or grip can find a way to duck out for a while to do some reading on the right show.

Still, reading on set (what I was talking about) doesn't seem like a great idea to me. Like I said, whatever works for you...

JD said...

How about a post on the tools we and others carry (or don't)? Lately running into more and more G&E crew that carry virtually nothing (screwdriver and knife) or firmly believe that a Leatherman is the only thing they'll ever need. No tool belt, no tool bag, heaven forbid that you'd have a couple of feet of trick line on your person.

Michael Taylor said...

JD --

Good idea. Thanks...