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, October 30, 2016

Just for the Hell of It -- Episode 39

                                       Yeah, I had to look it up too

 First up, the Quote(s) of the Week

"People in the broadcast television business have heard – and greenlit – so many patently stupid ideas through the years it's as if they are inured to even the blandest, most transparently terrible copy of previously terrible ideas. It's a special kind of industry ouroboros of insipidness.”

Writing like that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I've been such a fan of Tim Goodman's television criticism since he first hit the pages of my hometown paper back near the beginning of this ugly new millennium. Now writing for the Hollywood Reporter, Tim crafted that short paragraph for his recent review of a new show called Conviction, which, it seems, is not really worth watching.

No surprise there -- after all, it's a broadcast network drama on ABC, which is pretty much the kiss of death. Not since the days of Lost have I succumbed to the lure of a BCN drama, and I'm still not sure why that show managed to suck me in... but it did.  Since then? Nothing.  When it comes to dramatic shows, it's cable or bust on my TV -- and if the day ever comes when I get a truly decent internet connection, I may leave cable behind too.

But you've gotta give Goodman props for daring to use a word like "ouroboros" in a review of a TV show -- a term I'd never heard of until now.  

Geeze, television actually can be educational -- who knew?

Here's a paragraph from Brightness Falls, Jay McInerney's* 1992 novel in which the lead character -- a young and very ambitious literary editor on temporary exile in LA from New York -- offers his perspective of those who live and work in Hollywood. 

"For all the hours of work, the community was infused with a sense of its own glamour. The end product of all their labors cast a reflected glow back onto the meanest laborers in the industry. The typist was animated by the consciousness that her drudgery transmitted lies that might be spoken by stars on screen, while agents and producers, driving their expensive cars to important meetings were understandably tempted to believe that they were the stars of the real drama, of which the public saw only the puppet version."

It figures that McInerny -- a creature of Manhattans upper west side who has almost certainly never dirtied his hands on or off set -- would consider a typist to be one of Hollywood's "meanest laborers."

Jay, dude -- if you think sitting at a keyboard is tough, try wrangling a truckload of 4/0 sometime…

Still, there's some truth in his paragraph. Although we who work deep in the belly of the Hollywood beast know all too well the down-and-dirty reality behind the gleaming veneer of glamour the public perceives, most of us are aware of that "reflected glow" radiating off the big and small screen. We're loathe to admit it, of course, hiding behind a crusty mask of been-there/done-that, show-biz-is-no-big-deal cynicism, but there's a real difference between driving home dirty and sweaty after a day on set and returning home in a similar state from another day at the plant toiling for the Department of Water and Power. 

Granted, the work done by the DWP plays a vastly more crucial role in the daily life of our society than anything extruded by Hollywood. Although it might seem that everyone these days requires a daily dose of screened entertainment as much as they need oxygen, just try doing without electricity, drinkable water or waste disposal services in a big city for a couple of weeks -- then tell me what really matters.

Life looks a lot different when the toilets don't flush anymore.

Besides, while they'll never bask in so much as a shred of that oh-so-ephemeral and illusory glamour (reflected or otherwise), DWP workers make good money, enjoy great benefits, and unless they seriously screw up, are pretty much guaranteed lifetime employment until retirement rolls around. Meanwhile, the free-lancers of Hollywood -- which is most of us -- remain hunter-gatherers scratching for our next meal out on wilds of the celluloid/digital veldt.


Next up, a fascinating interview with Peter Berg, director of Deepwater Horizon, a film that -- although sniffed at by the critics -- paints a visceral picture of just how wrong things can go when the pressure to save money from on high overrules common sense and real-world experience. The oil companies in the gulf were not at all interested in cooperating with Berg on his project, which makes the movie all the more intriguing. This interview is definitely worth a listen.  


I have to thank old friend and fellow juicer Matt D. for sending me a link to a piece written for Film Comment by writer/director Larry Cohen, with the provocative title: I Killed Bette Davis  -- and if that's not enough inducement to read it, nothing I could add will do so.

My very first feature as an honest-to-God juicer was a picture by Larry Cohen called Full Moon High, which we shot over the course of a couple of months in the summer of 1980. The production was non-union, of course, and low budget in every sense of the term, with all the abusive absurdity that entails, but at the time I was thrilled just to be working on a movie.   

Larry was a trip. When we broke for lunch on our first day of filming, waiting for us was a table with paper plates, cold cuts, Wonder Bread, and a few condiments with which to make our own sandwiches. That seemed a bit much even to me, with my very limited experience -- but the DP  -- a screamer from Day One -- went full ape-shit ballistic. 

Needless to say, that never happened again.

Still, Larry Cohen wasn't an asshole, but just a very enthusiastic, energetic writer/producer/director -- a one-man-band playing as fast as he could to make his movies with very little money. In some ways, he followed the footsteps of Roger Corman, but without  the low-budget factory infrastructure Corman created to crank out a seemingly endless series of D movies. Larry made a minor splash with his 1974 horror film It's Alive  (which totally sucked, I'm told, but the TV trailer was pretty good for its time), establishing him as a guy who could make a movie with bubble gum and bailing wire -- and people like that do tend to be a bit obsessive.   

While shooting a long day of pick-ups for his then-latest move Q: The Winged Serpent, at Larry's house in Benedict Canyon -- a rather tony neighborhood not far from Beverly Hills -- I noticed a PA rolling blue paint on a large piece of canvas in the backyard. Later that day, the grips hung this makeshift blue screen up on high rollers, then Larry put David Carradine in front of it and filmed him as he unleashed long bursts of machine gun fire towards the LA sky.  

The gunfire echoed through the canyon, after which I waited for the LAPD to show up, guns drawn... but they never came. Simpler times, I guess. Nowadays we'd all end up splayed on the pavement under the guns of a SWAT team for the evening news.

As you can see from this trailer, the movie -- like all of Larry Cohen's efforts -- is a real mess, but you have to give the man credit for finding a way to get them done in the first place, and managing to make a living doing something he clearly loved.  

In some ways, he's still at it. Years later -- many, many years later -- I took a three day gig helping to shoot pickups for a movie called Captivity.  I knew nothing about it, but soon discovered the movie was a cheap knock-off of the bloody Saw franchise -- in other words, torture-porn. That was a god-awful experience, so I bailed once I'd fulfilled my three-day commitment… but while researching this post, I discovered one of the co-writers of that pile of sadistic celluloid crap was none other than Larry Cohen.

The things we do for a paycheck...


Last up, another short Martini Shot commentary from veteran writer/producer Rob Long, revealing his own deep-rooted fear that arises every time he approaches the gates of a studio -- a fear I totally understand.

That's it for this week.

* Jay McInerney blazed across the literary firmament with his debut novel Bright Lights, Big City back in 1984 -- a date which once symbolized the Big Bad Scary Future to those of a certain age, but is now just another year back when we were a lot younger and life was considerably simpler. It was a good book for its time -- one that made a big enough impression to drive me to the keyboard after years of thinking about it.  

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