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, August 14, 2016

Last Tango in Hollywood


"You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you might find you get what you need."
The Rolling Stones


After six weeks of gainful unemployment, the alarm at 4:30 in the morning comes as a rude awakening -- literally -- especially for somebody who absolutely hates to get up early.  

That would be me.

I'm fine once the sleep has drained from my head -- the world at that hour a dark, peaceful place quietly awaiting the dawn -- but transitioning from the dreamspace of O-Dark-Thirty to the physical realm is brutal. If I'm lucky, I'll awaken moments before that alarm blares, but more often it wrenches me from the warm embrace of Morpheus into a dizzy state of WTF? confusion.

With the long-awaited mid-summer frenzy to get the new fall TV season up and running finally upon us, arising before the crack of dawn is now my workaday reality. I was sure the big rush would start a couple of weeks earlier, and thus had begun to wonder if maybe I’d been “retired” without even knowing it -- which can happen in a town where the no-mans land separating temporary from permanent unemployment remains as unfathomably mysterious as the Bermuda Triangle. So long as you’re working or have a firm promise of work, you’re good, but when the phone just…won't…ring, a guy starts to wonder.*

Thus I was very glad to receive a call to help a new show get airborne back on my home lot, even if it meant setting the alarm for 4:30.** It’s just a temporary gig -- I’m not on the core crew -- but there’s a chance they’ll put me on as their regular "extra guy" as the show marches through their thirteen scheduled episodes on the road to Thanksgiving. That could mean anywhere from one to four days a week, depending on how many swing sets the writers decide they need to generate some laughs.

If this isn't exactly what I wanted, it just might be what I need for my Last Tango in Hollywood. But if I don't get that extra-man gig, or it turns out to be only one day a week… well, I'll drive off that bridge when I come to it. There are no rules for this tango, which means I'll dance as fast or slow as is necessary to make things work.

It was good to be back on the lot. There's an energy in a new season that feels a bit like spring training in baseball, when hope is in the air and anything seems possible -- each new show holding the potential to catch fire and run for a hundred episodes. Five-ton trucks were everywhere, offloading sets, set dressing, greens, cameras, peds, dollies, and sound gear. Forklifts buzzed back and forth, bringing heavy loads of lighting and grip equipment to the stages. The intermittent rumble of air compressors filled the air, punctuated by the staccato beat of nail-guns and the high-pitched scream of chop saws ripping through wood, all of it blending with ever-present reek of diesel exhaust to form a dense, chaotic sensory stew. Familiar faces were everywhere, all of them grinning, happy to be here.

Me too. It felt like coming home. 

The first week and a half on a show is a special time. With no actors, producers, or directors around yet -- just the construction crew, set dec department, grips and juicers -- the stage is ours.  We work through each day at our own pace, bobbing and weaving through the sets to the beat of several boom-boxes. The various departments continually bump into each other, everybody in each others way, but we make it work. Despite the crowding, everybody's still grinning.  

Given that we're working on an air-conditioned sound stage, getting paid full scale, and not getting our asses kicked, there isn't much not to like. The only thing better for me would be to sign on as a member of the core crew, but that's not in the cards this time around.

We go at it all week, hanging, powering, and adjusting lights, following the old familiar rhythms: two hours of work, then "coffee," followed by three hours of work before breaking for lunch, after which we're back at it until quitting time. Getting up so early every morning means going to bed early each night, and soon each day begins to blend into the next -- lather, rinse, repeat. Before I know it, Friday is here, my final day helping this crew get their show off the ground.

Towards the end of the day, the gaffer asked me to move a couple of big studio 5 Ks that had been hung and powered early in the week. Since then, the construction department moved a very large set piece at the request of the director/producer, so now both lamps were in the wrong place to do their job. Trouble is, many more lamps, meataxes, flags, and teasers had been rigged along those pipes before the set piece was moved, which made the job of getting up to those 5 Ks a real challenge. It took several minutes of very careful maneuvering -- inching the lift forward, then up, again and again -- to avoid banging into any set walls or lighting equipment while getting the bucket close enough to reach the first lamp. At that point I still had to stand up on the top rails of the lift to get the job done.*** With another steel pipe in the way, I couldn't just loosen the clamp and slide the lamp to it's new position -- instead, I'd have to "jump the pipe," which meant loosening the pipe clamp all the way, taking the fifty-plus pound lamp up and off the pipe, bringing it under the cross pipe, then lifting it back up and onto the correct pipe and sliding it into place.

If I had unfettered access to the lamp, this job would have been a breeze -- instead, I was perched on the top rail, leaning forward as far as possible in a decidedly precarious position.  A mistake here could drop and destroy that big lamp, seriously damaging the set in the process, which would make this the last day I'd ever work on the show.

Still, I was happy for this assignment. Doing a tricky job that demands total concentration feeds the beast within, scratching a psychological itch that would otherwise go unattended. When fully engaged in such a task, the rest of the world and its troubles vanishes -- all that matters is what's right in front of me: getting this job done right, with no drama. 

For reasons I can't really explain, that satisfies in a way nothing else can.


That's a Studio 5 K on the left -- the juicer's head provides an idea how big the lamp is

I moved the cable safeties so they couldn't impede the jump, but still offer some security if something went wrong.  After running a rope over the pipe, I tied it to the lamp, then dropped the other end to the Best Boy on the stage floor. When he was ready to take the weight, I loosened the pipe clamp, lifted the lamp off the pipe, pulled the lamp under, then -- with the help of the Best Boy and that rope -- raised it back up and onto the pipe. With the clamp still loose (but not so loose it could come off the pipe), I untied and released the rope, then slid the lamp to its new position and securely tightened the clamp with my C-wrench.  

One down, one to go.

The second lamp also had to be jumped, but was much easier to reach. Unfortunately, it had been rigged with a bad hook: a crappy pipe clamp that's flat instead of curved inside -- a toothed angle that keeps the lamp on the pipe until the clamp is securely tightened. A lamp this heavy should never be hung from a bad hook, but apparently somebody wasn't paying attention when they put it up.

There's no finger pointing -- I'm not throwing anybody under the bus -- but I let the Best Boy know that he should weed out those bad clamps and send them back to the lamp dock. He tossed me a good one, then I ran the rope over the pipe again and tied off the lamp. With the Best Boy gone off to put out a fire elsewhere on the stage, I tied the rope off to the lift.

That's another official no-no from the Safety Patrol, but part of knowing the rules is understanding when and how to break them.

I climbed atop the rails again, loosened the clamp and lifted the lamp off, letting it dangle by the rope while I pulled the bad clamp off and installed the good one. With that done, I threw one arm over the pipe, and used both hands (and most of my strength) to lift the lamp back up to the correct side of the cross pipe. After sliding it into position, I tightened the clamp, then re-powered and aimed the lamp. The task accomplished, I untied the rope and brought the lift down, my part in helping get this show up and running officially over.

It's been fun, but exhausting, and I'm looking forward to sleeping in for a few days. The next time I walk onto this stage -- if I do -- it will be as an eight-hour day-player putting my shoulder to the wheel of a working show. And although that's not what I was hoping for, it's the best I can hope for under the circumstances.

I guess it'll just have to do.


* Not that there's any such thing as a "firm promise of work" in this town, of course -- such promises usually aren't worth the paper they're not printed on

** As luck would have it, back on the very same stage I helped wrap a six weeks ago -- and where I spent several seasons filming this show

*** Standing on the rails is strictly illegal at every major lot. This particular studio threatens to fire anybody caught doing so and ban them from working on the lot.


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