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Sunday, April 10, 2016
Pilot Season -- Part Three
Back to the Gulag…
Paramount. I was thrilled to walk through the gates of this historic studio for the first time back in 1980, but that job only lasted four days. Two decades later, I returned for a longer stay, but after doing three shows over the course of five years, it was time to work elsewhere. Other than a brief return to load in and wrap out a couple of short location shoots doing pickups for an episodic drama, I haven't been back since -- and truth be told, wasn't looking forward to another stint at this venerable studio.
My misgivings were unfounded. A lot has changed at Paramount over the past decade, mostly for the better. That came as a welcome surprise, because you just can't beat the history of this place. Inside the Gower Street entrance -- past the guard desk and through the metal detector -- hangs a huge blow-up of this production still featuring Orson Welles and Joseph Cotton in Citizen Kane, one of the greatest movies to come out of Hollywood.*
And it was made right here on these sound stages back in the days of RKO Pictures.
I'm not really sure why this means so much to me -- maybe because I came to this town nearly forty years ago, drawn by the history of Hollywood and determined to get into the movie business. I did that, but the era of classic films was pretty much over by then, so I moved in a different direction. Maybe that's just as well, but if dreams spun from the holy trinity of naive hope, enthusiasm, and youthful ignorance seldom come true, those dreams never completely die -- they just find expression in other ways. Although I only worked on one truly good movie in all those years, I did get to see Orson Welles in the flesh (however oblique that encounter was), and had the priceless opportunity to sit across the crew dinner table from Joseph Cotton in the wee hours before dawn during three nights of filming a miserably crappy low-budget feature. To his credit, Cotton did not allow the obviously low quality of the production to affect his performance. He was a total pro, and very generous with his time, telling us some great stories about working with Welles in the Golden Era of Hollywood.
I can't adequately express how very cool that was.
But that was then and this is now, and here I am back at Paramount for one last pilot season go-around. The first three days were lost to a sudden, intense illness that struck out of the blue, but I reported for duty early the following Monday. That entire week was a bitch: up at 4:30 every morning for a ten hour beat-down hanging, powering, and adjusting hundreds of lamps. I've worked tougher pilots in the past, but was younger then -- and at this point, each additional year is another stick on this aging camel's back
I've written about the rigors of pilot season before, and won't rehash all the details here. Each phase of a pilot moves to a distinct rhythm, presenting its own set of challenges. The first phase is the heavy lift of getting the lights up and burning on the main and swing sets. There's so much to be done -- and the pressure is on -- but there's also a certain freedom, since the director, actors, and A.D. crew haven't yet laid claim to the stage. We have to work around the construction and set dressing crews, of course (and when I'm up in a man-lift, there always seems to be something in my way), but at least we're left to solve our problems as we see fit. That first week is relentless march of physical toil, each day punctuated by three breaks: morning coffee (actually a breakfast break), followed by an hour off for lunch, then another short break in the afternoon. Our days are measured by those breaks, starting at 7:00 each morning and working until after 5:00 each afternoon, which means that for the seven days that make up Phase One, a pilot feels a lot like a normal construction job.
Everything will change once rehearsals start, because Phase Two is all about the actors, director, and AD crew, who occupy the stage during the morning and early afternoon hours while we shift to late afternoon calls. But since rehearsals follow an open-ended schedule, we often have to wait a while -- up to an hour or two -- as the director and actors work out the kinks. So although we'll get to sleep late during Phase Two, we'll also start and finish late... sometimes very late.
Then comes Phase Three, when the show is filmed over the course of two or three days, with the final performance in front of a live audience. By then, most of our lighting work is over. Our job then is to make sure the lights keep burning where and when they're supposed to, and make any last-minute adjustments to accommodate the creative whims of the producers and director. That can happen with no warning at all, which means the pressure will not dissipate until the filming has been completed.
After that, it's Phase Four -- the wrap -- four days during which we'll return to the daily schedule of Phase One, but with the end goal of leaving a clean, empty stage once all our lighting equipment has come down, been sorted, counted, and returned to the lamp dock. This will be another intense siege of physical toil at a time when everyone is tired and beat-up from the previous two weeks of effort…but wrap also means there's light at the end of the tunnel, each day another step towards freedom -- and sleeping in for a week.
We finished pushing the big rock up the steep hill of Phase One -- and although lighting all those sets is a punishing, tedious ordeal, we made big progress every day. There's a real sense of satisfaction in that, which -- given we're working for cable-rate peanuts -- just might be as good as it gets on this job.
Meanwhile, I'll sing along with the late, great Merle Haggard in Working Man's Blues while we move on to Phase Two…
Next: Pilot Season Part Four
* In a recent Facebook discussion about this classic, a young woman who declared that she has "an expensive film and television degree," stated that she found Citzen Kane "boring,"and that "it's just a dude movie about dudes." My jaw dropped at that one. To each his/her own, I guess...