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, May 14, 2017

The Big Sigh

                               "To every thing there is a season, turn, turn, turn..."
                                                         The Byrds

I knew this would happen at some point, but didn't expect it quite so soon -- and such is life, where you're never really sure what might be around the next corner. I opened up my laptop the other morning to find an e-mail from one of my favorite people in LA, a Best Boy I did a lot of work with over the past ten years. It was just a quick note to say hello, and that he was on a job with another BB I know very well -- two great guys I always enjoyed working with.

For the very first time since I left LA, I felt a sudden implosion in my chest, then sighed the Big Sigh. Had it been possible at that moment to teleport myself back to LA just for the day to work with these two guys, I'd have done it in a heartbeat... but that part of my life is over. The sooner I embrace this reality -- and stop gazing back at the road already traveled to focus on the path ahead -- the better.

I'm officially retired now, no longer a juicer, so the time has come.

This space achieved a landmark of sorts recently, as the 500,000th visitor alighted here from wilds of cyberspace. The number itself is meaningless, of course -- that and five bucks will buy me a small cup of Starbucks finest -- especially when it was probably just a handful of actual humans and God knows how many CyberBots responsible for all those hits over the past ten years. Still, back when this blog took its first halting steps, any notion that it might endure long enough to accumulate half a million hits (regardless of the source) was inconceivable. With nothing beyond three posts written for a very different purpose, it morphed into something far beyond anything I'd envisioned. Slowly, bit by bit, three or four hits a week became twenty to thirty, and then -- on a good week -- considerably more.

It turned out there was a hunger on the part of film students, industry newbies, and all sorts of people for the no-bullshit truth about working below-the-line. Not a massive hunger, mind you -- only the most popular posts here attracted more than a couple of thousand hits, which is barely a sneeze on the internet -- but it was enough to signal that a scattering of people across the country and beyond wanted to hear the unvarnished reality of toiling in the trenches of the film and television biz.

None of this was planned, of course, but I kept stumbling along until it finally occurred to me that putting up a post every Sunday might be a worthy goal. If I didn't always meet this self-imposed deadline, it wasn't for lack of trying. 

I wish I could claim it was an original idea, but I had no clue what a "blog" was until reading this introduction to "Peggy Archer's" Totally Unauthorized in the LA Times. I had no inkling that I'd follow my fellow IATSE Local 728 juicer into the blogosphere, but two years later -- thanks to a series of unlikely events -- that's what happened. I soon realized there were other other industry blogs out there, and that I was only the latest to join an informal and disparate group of film industry professionals sharing their experiences with a growing legion of readers. In short order, more industry blogs appeared -- The Hills are Burning, The Anonymous Production Assistant, and The Black and Blue, among others -- and now there are dozens of industry blogs out there, offering advice, commiseration, and all kinds of detailed technical advice.

For a lot of reasons, meeting the weekly deadline of 12:01 p.m. every Sunday has become something of a chore lately, which tells me it's time to back off the throttle and shift into a lower gear. This became glaringly apparent a couple of months ago when I had an idea for a post, then sat down to write about the importance of leaning into whatever challenges the job throws at you on set -- to "just say yes" rather than find some excuse to say no. But after a few minutes at the keyboard, this began to ring all too familiar -- and sure enough, a quick search of the blog turned up a post from 2012 beating the very same drum, with the exact same title.


Hey, it happens. Spring turns to Summer, Summer turns to Fall, and Fall turns to Winter -- "to everything there is a season" -- but this was a flashing red neon sign that it's time for change here at Blood, Sweat, and Tedium. 

You might be surprised how much work has gone into these posts, but it never seemed to be enough. I spent countless Sunday mornings (including this one) sweating through yet another draft as the clock ticked towards high noon, trying to hammer a post into shape and get it just right.

I never did, of course -- there was always room for improvement -- but sometimes you just have to give it your best shot and move on. Indeed, that's why I imposed the Sunday 12:01 deadline on myself in the first place: to avoid an endless journey on the Möbius Highway chasing the shimmering mirage of unattainable perfection.

                         This was me around 11:55 every Sunday morning...

I've enjoyed this ten-year ride, but it's time to reclaim Sunday mornings for myself -- so that's a wrap on the Sunday Post.*

I plan to resume work on the book based on this blog very soon -- a task I began several years ago, but had to shelve when it turned out I really couldn't make a living, write a new post every week, and put a book together at the same time. I'll keep you posted on the progress of that project, if and when there's something to report.

I hope this blog managed to shed some light on the reality of working in an industry that everybody -- except those who toil in the belly of the Hollywood beast -- seems to consider "glamorous." Many thanks to all of you who took the time to comment or send e-mails over the years, sharing your own stories, thoughts, questions, and suggestions. Absent your feedback, this blog would have run off the rails a long time ago.

I'm not abandoning this space just yet. Whenever I get sick of working on the book (trust me, that'll happen...) and have something to say, I'll post it here -- just not every Sunday.  

In the words Arnold the Terminator, "I'll be back."

Meanwhile, the Great Wheel keeps on turning, right in tune with the seasons -- but time is as fleeting as it is precious, and the seasons pass all too soon, so get out there and have a great summer..

* For anyone new to this space -- or who simply doesn't have the time/patience to wade through a pile of dusty cyber-archives -- here's a link to the more-or-less greatest hits. That list hasn't been updated for quite a while, but will take you to some of the better offerings over the years...  

Sunday, May 7, 2017


            Apropos of nothing in particular, a storyboard sketch from "The Wild Bunch"

Yeah, I know -- this has to be just about the worst post-title ever... but the one I've been hacking away at this past week just isn't ready to publish, and until it is, I won't. As the late, great Orson Welles used to intone while doing those sad, drunken Paul Mason commercials in the twilight of his career, "We will sell no wine before its time."

Which means I've got nothing but filler this week... except for this entirely dazzling two minute spot purportedly put together by a Visual Effects Artist for the express purpose of selling his twenty year old car. As one of my fellow juicers on set used to say (and still does, actually), this one is "epic!"*

It's definitely worth a look, so check it out.

As foThe Wild Bunch -- if for some unfathomable reason you haven't seen this movie, you owe it to yourself to rectify that situation. Yes, it's a western, and although I realize the current generation views westerns as quaint, dusty cinematic relics irrelevant to these modern times (which means they must not have seen the films of Budd Boetticher or  Anthony Mann, either), this one is worth your time. And no, not for all of Sam Pekinpah's infamous slow-motion violence, but for the tight, elegant, compelling construction of The Wild Bunch -- it's all muscle, without an ounce of fat. Any of you would-be/wannabe/someday directors out there can learn a lot from this movie -- so don't turn up your noses while waiting for the next bloated comic book CGI spectacular to hit the screen. Sit down and watch The Wild Bunch, a movie that exemplifies the best of old-school, pre-digital film making. Just remember to open your mind and check your preconceived notions at the door.**

Meanwhile, I'll be back when I have something ready -- and not before...

PS: a little add-on here, five hours later.  If you click on over to Dollygrippery, you'll find a link to a fascinating and informative clip with two special effects artists talking about the work they did on several of the Alien franchise sequels. I must confess that I've only seen the original Alien -- none of the follow-ups -- but that didn't matter. The discussion will doubtless thrill the Alien fanboy crowd on levels I'll never understand, but there's so much more than that. Watch and listen, and you'll learn a lot about the realities of the modern film industry.

* You know who you are... 

** Years ago, I BB'd a commercial on location in Monterrey, California, where we used the local state college film department's stage, green screen, and lights to do a couple of shots. Three film students were assigned to help us -- one to run the dimmer and two to do... whatever.  The dimmer op was great, but other two were useless. One wore a beret and kept muttering about "putting my reel together to take to LA," while the other apparently considered us to be money-grubbing, sold-out Hollywood barbarians untutored in the fine art of film. Doing my best to bridge the gap while ignoring her vague hostility and utterly unearned arrogance, I noticed a poster for The Wild Bunch in a hallway, and asked if she'd seen it. 
"We watched some clips," she sniffed.  
"That's really not enough," I explained, "you have to see the whole movie to appreciate it."  
She stared at me as if I was a baboon who'd suddenly gained the power of speech, yet was babbling nonsense -- at which point I just gave up...

Sunday, April 30, 2017

As Good As it Gets

                                          Ah, Nancy Travis -- be still my heart...

While waiting in line at the local not-so-supermarket the other day -- Senior Discount Tuesday -- I couldn't help noticing the cute young checker ringing up the groceries. She wasn't more than twenty, one of those rare rural flowers with the sly smile of an angel and a face that might never need makeup. Yeah, she had a little gold ring in her nose, but her warm smile, bright eyes, and buoyant, sunny attitude -- not yet jaundiced by the slings, arrows, and corrosive cynicism of real life -- more than compensated.*

In a town where livestock outnumbers the locals (the sign on the main road reads "Population 350"), a smile like hers is just about as good as it gets. 

A few weeks ago I notedfew things I'd miss about Hollywood once I left for good. Now that my only real "job" is to keep myself fed, make sure the fire in the wood stove is still burning, and come in out of the rain -- oh, and shave once a week, whether I need it or not -- I've got a few more additions to that list.

I certainly don't miss the pre-dawn alarm clock, the twelve-hour-plus work days, or the soul-crushing, back-breaking weight of 4/0 and five-wire banded cable... but I do miss the shared sense of purpose in being on set. Going to "coffee" (breakfast) with the rest of the crew was often the highlight of every rig day, full of good-natured carping and laughter. The mornings of shoot days were much the same, our set lighting crew forming a circle to eat, talk, and laugh after filling our plates at the craft service table.

Come to think of it, I miss craft service too, although that's probably a good thing. Ten pounds have melted from my waistline over the past two months without any effort whatsoever on my part, doubtless because I'm 400 miles from the nearest craft service table.   

What I really miss now is the the people.  Not all of them, mind you -- there are a couple of stick-up-their-ass DPs, legend-in-their-own-mind directors, and the occasional huffing, strutting First AD (for whom Otto Preminger must have served as a personal role-model) that I don't need to see again, but they're the exceptions.

And of course I miss all those beautiful women in Hollywood, whether they worked behind or in front of the camera.  

Now before you all start clucking your tongues, shaking your heads, and wagging your collective index fingers at me for being a dirty old man, I'm not talking about anything carnal here. Given my age and general state of physical decrepitude, I've been watching that game from the bench for a while now, but having the chance to talk with all those women on set is one perk that really can't be replaced. When working on a film crew, I belonged there on set -- we were all part of a family -- which meant that at the right time and place, I had the opportunity to talk with anyone and everyone, including many spectacularly beautiful women who would never even make eye contact with the likes of me out in civilian life, much less engage in conversation.

Maybe I was just kidding myself, but I figured those conversations might help bridge the awkward Morlock vs. Eloi gap that often yawns between below-and-above-the-liners, and thus strengthen the social glue that binds a crew together. Besides, it just felt good to connect with my fellow travelers on the journey that every show really was... and if that person happened to be a stunningly beautiful woman, so much the better.

Back when I worked on the The Bill Engvall Show, I loved to chat with co-star Nancy Travis, who was as warm, friendly, and gracious as she was beautiful. I had a bit of a crush on her, of course, and she knew it -- women always know. Ten years later, I was taking a break outside the stage of my show when she walked by on her way to the set of her show, Last Man Standing.

"Hey, my boyfriend!" she smiled, then gave me a big hug. 

You'd better believe that made my day. 

This kind of thing just isn't going to happen out here in the real world. Absent the cinematic immunity of being part of the industry family, I'm just another gray-haired geezer shuffling towards the grave while waiting in line at the not-so-supermarket on Senior Discount Tuesday.

Hey, ten percent makes a difference -- every little bit counts once those Hollywood paychecks stop rolling in... 

Then it was my turn, and as she rang up the tab, we chatted about this and that; the endless rain, the equally relentless flood of tourists that swamp our little town on weekends, and the Big Decision she has to make soon about which college to attend next fall. 

The stuff of ordinary life. 

Forty years ago I'd have been doing back-flips and making a complete fool of myself to get this young woman's attention, but it's all different now. At this point, just basking in the radiant glow of her smile is enough --  like warming my hands in front of a hot fire of a cold, wet winter day.

And she didn't forget to take that ten percent off my bill...

* Seriously -- I'll never understand the appeal of a nose ring...

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Not Again...

                              (Photo courtesy of Deadline Hollywood)

The ongoing Writers vs. Producers standoff appears to be going right down to the wire. On one side of that line is some give-and-take by both sides, then everybody goes back to work -- but on the other side awaits catastrophe. With the WGA/Producers talks suspended until April 25th, there will be just one week left to reach an agreement necessary to avoid the disaster of a strike. 

One school of thought considers this delay to be a good sign, indicating that serious proposals to bridge the gap are being hammered out by both sides in preparation for the resumption of negotiations. I sure hope so, but such brinksmanship can backfire if one side or the other balks for whatever reason -- and in that unhappy event, there will be very little time to regroup before they drive off the cliff together, taking the entire industry with them on a plunge into the dark abyss of a strike.

The last WGA strike lasted a hundred hard days, putting a big hurt on all of Hollywood and the industry beyond. There was considerable collateral damage -- we all paid a heavy price -- but those who were living paycheck-to-paycheck, unable to sock away a financial cushion, suffered the most. That was ten years ago, but the memory is still fresh, and nobody wants to feel that pain again. There's been some bitter grousing from below-the-line about what selfish, greedy assholes those writers are in bringing the entire industry to the brink of the unthinkable -- but there are two sides to every story, and from what I've read, the WGA has good reason to stick to their guns. Broadcast, cable, and the streaming networks networks have been raking in huge profits the past few years, while the writers -- thanks (among other things) to structural changes brought about by the ongoing digital revolution -- steadily lost ground. On its current glide path, the WGA health plan will go belly-up in four years unless the ground rules are changed. 

All those below-the-liners who are bitching about the writers need to stop for a minute to ponder how they would feel if their health plan was just four short years from bankruptcy. My guess is they'd be grabbing torches and pitchforks and voting to strike -- and they'd be right.

The upshot is this: if the producers aren't willing to share some of the wealth, there's going to be trouble for everyone.

Still, the merit of the WGA's argument won't make the juicers, grips, camera crews, script girls, set-dec and prop people, sound department, post-production workers, or any of the actors feel better should push come to shove with a strike in May. This won't be good for the non-union people in Hollywood either, because a lot of those suddenly out-of-work union crews will do whatever it takes to keep paychecks coming in, and if that means taking non-union jobs, so be it. I did my share of long hour, low pay, no benefits non-union work during the last strike, and although that sucked, I had no choice.* Shit rolls downhill, which means the entire Industry food chain will feel the immense pain of a strike.

As the old proverb goes: "When elephants fight, the grass gets trampled."

I hope it doesn't come to that. Yes, I'm out the game now, no longer dependent on work for my income, but a lot of my friends are still in the thick of it, and a strike will hit those people very hard -- and I really don't want to see that happen. I'll be keeping my fingers crossed that come Tuesday, the WGA plays hardball, but within reason. Shore up the health plan and extract better compensation for writers who are now working seasons half the length they used to be -- and are paid accordingly -- but don't insist on winning every single battle with the Producers.  

Take some and give some, then get back to work with the rest of Hollywood. Please.

In other news...

It's come to my attention that the "Follow by E-mail" feature of this blog hasn't been functioning for several weeks now. It used to work, but now it doesn't, so those who signed up to have each new post delivered to their in-box probably think I've bailed on the blog. 

Nope -- I've been posting, but as usual, technology (especially free technology) can't be relied upon to deliver the goods, which (although this is entirely beside the point) is one more argument against computer-controlled autonomous cars, "smart" refrigerators, and the useless, absurdly over-hyped techno-bling bullshit that is the "internet of things."


I have no idea what's wrong or how to fix it. In my experience, sending an e-mail report of a problem to is every bit as effective as shouting "stop!" at the incoming tide on the beach. So if you want to read those and any new posts in the future, you'll just have to do it the old-fashioned way and click on over here to BS&T. 

Trouble is, those who have been depending on that "Follow by E-mail" feature won't receive this post, and thus never know that it's no longer working. So that's that, I guess -- those readers are probably gone for good. All of which just goes to show (as if we needed reminding), that if you want something done right, you've got to do it yourself. 

You just can't rely on some stupid robot to get the job done...

* Jobs like this...