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, January 1, 2017

The Icepick

                                              Such a glamorous business...

I didn't plan to work the wrap on this show, which was scheduled to run through December 23d. The prospect of driving 400 miles on Christmas Eve without having had a decent night's sleep all week did not appeal to me... but I do like to finish what I start, and wrap is part of the job. Still, I didn't change my mind until I remembered those three days I'd missed while sick, which left a sharp burr under my metaphorical saddle in the form of one decidedly puny paycheck. 

When working a relatively short job like this, at some point in the process -- in the shower after work, when trying to fall asleep after a 14 hour day, or while waiting for the director to stop fiddle-fucking around and just roll the goddamned cameras, already -- I will be unable to resist looking ahead and doing the math: the number of work days times my daily guarantee plus overtime equals... how much money over the course of the entire job?

This is always a mistake, but the inherent lack of security that comes with the life of a free-range juicer long ago rendered me unable to follow the sage advice of Kenny Rogers:

"Never count your money while you're sittin' at the table..." 

Given the vagaries that beset every production, it's seldom possible to calculate the exact amount, but you can come up with a ballpark figure -- and once out, that cat can't be stuffed back in the bag. I made my calculations early in this job, and the resulting number then became cast in stone as The Money I Would Make On The Show. In a weird sort of way, this phantom sum had the effect of turning me into a pale shadow of Fred C. Dobbs* (absent his murderous impulses, of course), jealously guarding that number and determined to allow nothing to cut into the grand total of "my goods."

                                           Those sick days... give 'em back!

But then came the cursed illness that subtracted three days from the week's paycheck, and it felt like the Gods of Hollywood had reached right into my pocket and taken that money away. It didn't matter that we still had six consecutive days of filming left to go -- which, thanks to union rules, would deliver one very fat paycheck just before Christmas -- because I'd already deposited that as-yet unearned money in my mental bank account.  

It was those sick days that called to me now, bleating like three lost goats back in the days of my rural youth...

So I decided to work the wrap. Not all of it -- working the entire week would put my back up against the wall of familial obligations and the pressures of the holiday season -- but I could do the first couple of days, at least, and recoup some of that lost income. 

Trouble is, those would be the really hard days of this wrap, when all the heavy metal -- lamps, stirrup hangers, and cable -- was due to come down. I'd have to miss the end of the wrap, those easy days that reward a beat-up crew with a little taste of gravy at the close of a tough job... but that couldn't be helped.

So I showed up rested and ready to work on Day One, and like an idiot, chose to wrangle a couple of dozen 100 foot/100 amp Bates cables by myself, throwing them from the cable carts into bins for transport back to the lamp dock. Depending on the type and thickness of their insulation, those cables weigh anywhere from seventy to ninety pounds apiece, so the normal practice is for two juicers to load a bin, either by alternating throws or two-manning each coil of cable -- but with the other juicer on the floor busy wrapping the rest of the 100 ampers as the guys up-high lowered them down, I charged ahead to load the entire bin.

Big mistake. This would have posed no problem thirty years ago, but that was then, and now -- about the time the bin was halfway full -- I felt the familiar stab of a red hot icepick in my lower back. I stopped immediately, did what I could to stretch out those back muscles, then finished loading the bin very gingerly.   

Now I had to get through another day-and-a-half of hard labor, which meant working  carefully, and I'd have to keep it to myself. If the Best Boy were to find out, he'd probably  send me home, and that's not how I wanted to end my final wrap day in Hollywood. 

The damage was done over the course of many years, thanks to the endless heavy lifting the business of lighting demands. The irony of this is brutal. That creating the most ephemeral of substances -- light -- should require such an absurdly heavy array of equipment would be funny if it wasn't so tragic, because nobody winds up a career as a juicer with a healthy, pain-free back.  

This will dog me for the rest of my days, but such is the legacy of the film industry lifer in a business that leaves its mark on us all. Still, having dealt with it for a while, I know the drill. It's all part of the deal in an industry where sometimes you just have to suit up and play hurt.    

Once the cable was done, I was able to spend the rest of the day and nearly all of Day Two working in a man-lift, bringing lamps down to the guys working the floor, which doesn't put too much strain on the lower back. Besides, working in a man-lift is a blast. I've always enjoyed it, and this was likely my last chance. Whatever happens in retirement, the odds of me being asked to hop in a man-lift and get some work done lie on the far side of slim to none.  

As Day Two finally came to an end, I shook hands all around and said goodbye to the crew -- guys I'll never work with and may never see again -- then walked out of Paramount Studios and into the parking structure for the last time. I never dreamed I'd say this, but I'll miss that place, and I'd be lying if I told you there wasn't a lump in my throat as I walked to my car... but there was also that icepick in my throbbing lower back reminding me that it really is time to go.

Like it or not.   

And on that note -- Happy New Year to you all.

* If you don't recognize the name Fred C. Dobbs is, it's high time you brushed up on your film history. He's only one of the most iconic figures in the history of Hollywood, in one of the best classic movies this town ever made...


Anonymous said...

A really great post! You will find that you will miss those days less every week as you get reintroduced to that thing called LIFE! . This next chapter of your story will be a freedom like nothing else you've experienced and you will find it nothing less than awesome.. going forward you will finally be in complete charge of every minute of every day. I hope you will continue with this blog for a while as you still have so much to share. Your friend k

JD said...

Is this possible a typo? "chose to wrangle a couple of dozen 100 foot/100 amp Bates cables", I've never run into anything longer than 50' bates in either the 60 or 100A flavors. My least favorite is banded feeder.

Anonymous said...

JD. have you worked the CBS lot.. Tom Hartz purchased them about 12 years ago and a heavy blue plastic 3 inch long clamp at each end holding the tie rope.. it kills your shoulder and your lower back takes a real beating.. k

Michael Taylor said...

Anonymous K --

Thanks -- I hope you're right about the years to come...

JD --

Most of the dimmer packs we use on soundstages are at least 200 feet from the pipe grid, where that power will do its work energizing the lamps -- and some are more than 300 feet away -- and with at least 24 channels, that means a minimum of 48 100 foot/100 ampers just to make up the "waterfall" (the initial power run from dimmers up high) and run along the deck of the catwalks to the various power drops. From there, we use whatever is needed to reach the pipe grid or stage floor -- 25, 50, or 100 foot lengths. I've seen 75 foot 100 ampers at some studios, but not at Paramount. Given the tendency of well-worn Bates connections to heat up during use (and we had a few that got smoking-hot on this last show),it's best to have as few breaks in the line as possible -- thus those back-breaking 100 footers. I don't mind the banded feeder so long as it's well annd truly banded -- but when the banding is every ten feet, those things drive me nuts. For me, though, the real motherf*****s are those older, solid, heavily insulated 100 footers, some of which -- I'm told -- weigh up to 110 pounds. That's just ridiculous...

JD said...

Sorry guys, I'm East coast and haven't worked at any (by your standards) large studios/soundstages. I don't think we have anything that would compare to the size of the facilities you have in California. Hence my comment on the bates. I stand corrected.

Michael Taylor said...


No worries, brother -- we all know what we know based on our own experiences, and those are determined by where we work, the kind of work we do, and who we work with.

I think Anonymous K must have mistaken you for a JD out here in Hollywood... but she's right about those particular banded 100 ampers, which are essentially braided -- adding a good ten to fifteen pounds to a normal Bates extension. I hate those damned things...