"Humans don’t mind duress, in fact they thrive on it. What they mind is not feeling necessary."
I met an old friend recently for a long, beery lunch at a legendary Hollywood watering hole, where we talked about the old days and the new days, how much has changed and how much hasn't -- and who we once were as opposed to who we are now.*
A lot of water has flowed under that bridge.
We met thirty years ago while working on a low budget feature filmed up in the Northeast woods of Vermont. I was the Best Boy Electric, he was a grip then living in Texas. Having spent ten years working my way up in Hollywood, I'd developed an eye for below-the-line talent, and urged him to come to LA, where I knew he'd have no problem getting work. For whatever reason -- insecurity, a girl back home, whatever -- he didn't bite, but we got him on our set lighting crew as a juicer the following summer on another low-budget movie shooting on location in Mississippi. Again I advised him to head west, where I was about to move up to gaffer, and promised him a place on our crew shooting commercials.
Still, he stalled, and it was the grip crew of that feature who finally enticed him out to Hollywood. They put him to work for a while, but eventually I managed to pry him away to work on my crew. He was really good -- very smart, strong, and physically capable, and had an absolutely wicked sense of humor that made my life on set as a beginning gaffer a lot more fun.
In time he got an opportunity to join a crew doing big union movies, and left for a series of long location features in Colorado, New Orleans, and beyond -- movies you've all seen or heard of. He was destined for much greater things than my crew could offer doing commercials, and eventually worked his way up to be a big-time rigging gaffer who does the kind of 200 million dollar cinematic spectaculars seen by the entire civilized world.
In professional terms, he's far eclipsed anything I ever did in this business, and now earns as much in a month or two working one of those mega-movies as I make in a year.
Hey, did I mention that I had a sharp eye for talent?
It was great afternoon, during which the subject of bonding through pain came up, because so often that's what it means to be on a film crew. Working brutally long hours in miserable conditions -- suffering while getting it done -- is part of the job. In some perverse way, it might even be the best part of a hard job, because that's where you find out who you really are, what kind of people you're working with, and what it means to need and be be needed on a crew. Some jobs are easy enough that we can cruise through our days at half-throttle, but the truly challenging ones require everybody on the crew to put forth a maximum effort. Working shoulder to shoulder on a job like that, enduring the pain it so often takes to do the job right, forges a bond you never really forget.
This is something those who serve in combat or play professional football -- our culture's warrior and gladiatorial classes -- know very well, and what so many of them miss once that phase of their lives is over. The tight bonds formed between those who suffered together -- their squad, their team, their crew -- can only be understood by those who were part of and endured the ordeal. Nobody else really "gets" it.
Let's get one thing straight: in no way am I equating working on a film crew with serving in the military. The former is a well-paid and relatively cushy job where the worst thing that might happen is working all night in the rain, getting cold pizza for a third meal, then having to take a short turnaround before coming back for more punishment -- and although that's a bitch, we don't have to endure the 120 degree heat of the desert while carrying a hundred pounds of gear in hostile territory where most of the indigenous inhabitants would like nothing more than to shoot or blow us all to hell. We lose a little sleep and endure plenty of tedium and needless stupidity, but soldiers in the kill-or-be-killed arena of a combat zone risk of losing everything the rest of us hold dear -- their eyes, hands, arms, legs, balls, their sanity... and should the worst happen, their lives. We get to work around smiling, beautiful women much of the time, graze at a well-stocked craft service table whenever hunger strikes, then sleep in a comfortable bed after work at home or in a company-paid motel room -- and although we might occasionally experience the urge to strangle a clueless producer, writer, director, D.P. or fellow work-bot, we never actually
I got to thinking about this while reading reviews of a new book by Sebastian Junger, called Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging
In Junger's words:
"This book is about why tribal sentiment is such a rare and precious thing in modern society, and how the lack of it has affected us all. It's about what we can learn from tribal societies about loyalty and belonging and the eternal human quest for meaning. It's about why -- for many people -- war feels better than peace and hardship can turn out to be a great blessing and disasters are sometimes remembered more fondly than weddings or tropical vacations. Humans don't mind duress, in fact they thrive on it. What they mind is not feeling necessary."
I think he's on to something. I've said it more than once on this blog: ours is a tribal business, and if Sebastian Junger is right, maybe that's one reason it can be so hard to leave: because once you go, you've left your tribe for good. The issue Junger shines a spotlight on then becomes unavoidable -- now that you're out, will you ever really feel necessary again in that same tightly bonded, team-oriented way?
There are doubtless exceptions, but I suspect the answer is "no" for most people. It takes years to learn the skills required to become a fully contributing member of any team endeavor, and few of us have the time, energy, or motivation for that once our days in the business are done.
Although what we do in the film/television industry doesn't compare to what soldiers, cops, firemen, and medical personnel experience in the life-and-death crucible of their workplace, this Hollywood life is the only real job I've ever known. The bonds forged with my fellow juicers -- and the black humor that helped get us through -- as we suffered, endured, and prevailed through difficult circumstances are what I'll miss the most when I finally leave my Industry tribes behind.
I'll say it again: what makes this business worth all the pain and suffering is not the finished product up there on the silver screen, but those we meet and suffer with in the process -- the people.
* A dark, quiet little cafe where -- rumor has it -- movie stars, agents, and studio executives used to bring their mistresses for discreet meals back in the good old/bad old days...