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, February 26, 2017


               The ship loaded, fueled, and ready for blastoff back to the Home Planet...
Forty years ago I rode into Hollywood on a motorcycle, a young man in search of himself. After two years at a JC, three more in college, and another three years working a pizza joint, then a deli -- all the while editing my thesis film -- I had no idea what to do with my life. True, I was captivated by film and movies, but as a kid from the sticks who milked our small herd of goats every evening for ten years, a life in Hollywood seemed the most distant of pipe-dreams.  

All I knew was that I'd managed to make a film -- in the process committing every forehead-smacking, Homer Simpson "D'oh!" blunder in the book (and then some) -- a 30 minute documentary in 16 mm black and white. It wasn't very good, but I'd learned that even a farm boy could make a movie.  

Next question -- could I make a living at this

In what I'm sure he felt was an earnest attempt to talk some sense into my head, one of my oldest friends (himself destined for law school) looked me in the eye and asked: "Do you think you're going to become some kind of star in Hollywood?"

I shook my head.

"Are you looking for a career?" -- that last word carrying more than a hint of sarcastic disbelief, as if seeking a career in the movie industry was hands-down the dumbest idea in the world.

"I don't know," was my reply. "I just need to go and see what it's all about."

That was the truth. I really couldn't imagine forging a career in Hollywood, mainly because I had no idea what that meant. I had a vague notion of what writers, producers, directors, actors, and cameramen did -- the tip of the cinematic iceberg -- but absolutely no clue what lay in the murky depths below the proverbial line. Still, I needed to put this movie thing to the test -- to shit or get off the pot -- and if Hollywood proved to be a bust, I'd just have to find something else to do in life.

At 26 years old, it was time.

Some of my ex-classmates were already there, working on Roger Corman movies, editing low-budget indie films, and working their way up the ranks of the camera department.  So down to LA I rode, on the proverbial wing and a prayer.  After three months of flailing, having spent most of my savings just getting by while failing to land any kind of job, I finally caught a break -- an unpaid PA gig on a feature with a budget so low it was shot on 16 mm film.  With eight dollars left to my name, I called home for a two hundred dollar loan to tide me over... and my parents  -- God bless them -- came through.  

I was so ready to hit the ground running. That gig led to the next, and the next, until I'd learned just barely enough to be hired as a grip (albeit the Worst Grip in Hollywood) on another low-budget, non-union feature, and was on my way.  Although I was never destined to become a producer, director, editor, or cameraman, that didn't matter. Others possessed the requisite ambition and drive to achieve those lofty goals -- I didn't.  

So I became a grip, a juicer, a Best Boy, a Gaffer, and then -- coming full circle -- finished up my career as a juicer. Having learned by then what I did best, I knew how to fully contribute my skills to the job at hand, how to have a good time with my crew on set, and how to survive in a very uncertain industry. Looking back now, I can see that's all I ever really wanted: to be halfway good at something, to earn the respect of my peers, and work with some really great people. Doing all that in the context of the film industry was just icing on the cake.

Some might consider this clearing a very low bar, and I can't argue with that -- but as far as I'm concerned, it's "mission accomplished."

Now my Hollywood adventure is over. In so many ways I still feel like that naive, dumb-ass kid who rode into town on a motorcycle, but if my aching back isn't enough to dispel this quaint notion, one glance in the mirror will do the job... which is why I left Hollywood driving a Uhaul, with yet another motorcycle securely tied down in the back. I still love to ride, but as Clint Eastwood once famously intoned: "A man's got to know his limitations."

I've learned mine, all right.

Back on the Home Planet for good, it hasn't been entirely smooth sailing. Four days after touchdown, my aging mom fell and broke her leg in three places. She died a week later, a gasping, skeletal shadow of the woman who gave me life, and although the advent of death at such an advanced age is hardly a surprise, there's no way to brace against the sudden door-slamming finality of that day

Now I sit at the keyboard surrounded by forty boxes (believe me, I counted...), each of which must be unpacked and the contents tucked away somewhere in this tiny house. What was once my escape-from-LA crash pad will have to be morphed into a home, and that's a big job. I'll have my hands full for a while.

Given all that, this isn't the time to write blog posts. It's not over -- I'll be back at some point -- but right now I need to turn my attention and energies to coping with the depths and dimensions of this new reality.  

Let's just call it a hiatus.

Stay tuned...


Anonymous said...

THANK YOU for yet another GREAT post.. i have had to tell people.. life changes and you have to change with it... keep moving forward.. thank you again for letting us kno that you are only on hiatus.. absorb the endless time in front of you and congratulations on finishing a job you started many years ago and that you are still standing and able to walk away!
always your friend k

Austin said...

Great reading your writing, thank you. I am sorry about your mother.

Look forward to reading again whenever you are ready.


Michael Taylor said...

Anonymous K --

Thanks -- glad you liked it... and I hope you're right about the "endless time in front of me"...

Austin --

Thanks for your kind words -- I really appreciate that.

Anonymous said...

Best wishes as well from another reader that enjoys the other part you've contributed during the years, not on set but off, your great writing.

Michael Taylor said...

Anonymous --

I've worked hard to make these posts readable, but there's no way to know if they come across that way without feedback like yours. Thanks!

Emilio Mejia said...

Congratulations on the new stage in life. What are you going to do next? Sorry if I missed another post about it. I'm three years into a camera assistant career, and I already have the perspective that I want to stop doing it before my body gives out. I hope I can do it with the same serenity as you are.

Also, my condolences for your loss.

Michael Taylor said...

Emilio --

I remember you from some of your previous comments -- and am glad to hear your Camera Dept career is well underway. The most recent post (after this one) discusses what's next for me -- getting settled in this new reality, then turning the blog into a book, and the latter project will probably take me a year, if not longer.

I can testify that there wasn't much serenity in my move from Hollywood -- it was a very stressful ordeal -- but such is life, and I'll recover. As for saving your body... my advice is to become an operator as soon as possible -- more money, more respect, and less heavy lifting, and the next step towards becoming a DP.

But you already know that -- I'm just shouting encouragement from the far side of the river. Good luck, and as always, thanks for tuning in...