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, April 1, 2018

Arrangiarsi!



                               
Although I now live far from Hollywood, I keep stumbling across filmmakers up here in the woods north of San Francisco. The local community center put on an evening in honor of John Korty
not long ago, showing clips from many of his low-budget independent films, with Korty at the microphone telling stories and answering questions. I've heard his name for decades, but knew nothing about him -- and now I run into the man and chat for a few minutes every couple of weeks at the local post office.*

Then there are the Hollywood ex-pats the locals keep telling me about -- a retired editor here, an ex-sound man there, and recent Oscar winner Frances McDormand, who has been popping up in local venues over the past couple of years. Brad Pitt was in these parts for a week or two last summer directing a movie, and of course, the legendary Walter Murch lives a few miles down the road.

I haven't met any of these people, mind you, and probably never will, which is fine. My days of rubbing shoulders with Hollywood are over.

Despite the rural atmosphere, this little coastal backwater is fairly sophisticated when it comes to film. While making my usual grocery/post office/hardware store rounds recently, I was puzzled to spot the image at the top of this page stapled to a telephone pole, headed by the word Arrangiarsi!*

The poster advertised a new film by that name being presented in a single screening a week later, but having no clue what the word meant, I went on with my business. A few days later, I noticed a weathered VW van downtown with Arrangiarsi! spray-painted in big letters along the side -- and as I  passed by, out stepped an intense but friendly man who looked to be in his early 40s. I asked him what it was all about, whereupon he introduced himself, kicking off a fifteen minute conversation during which he explained that "arrangiarsi" is a term used by the people of Naples to describe the creative manner in which they've learned to deal with the vicissitudes of life. Whatever fate hands them, be it good, bad, or ugly, they find a way to work with it and make the best of things.

For a more thorough and much more satisfying explanation, you'll just have to watch the film. Intrigued by what he had to say, I went to the screening... and was blown away. I loved it.

Matteo Troncone embarked on this project armed with some experience as an actor, but he'd never made a film of his own. He worked on a shoestring for seven years to make this movie, learning as he went along, spending five of those years living in that Volkswagon -- essentially homeless. That, my little Droogies, is true grit. He managed to wangle several trips to Italy, dealing with lost footage due to camera issues (Cannon does not come off well in this...), numerous personal setbacks, and the seemingly impossible challenge of making a feature-length film on pocket change and favors.

I could spend a couple of weeks trying to write a review that would fully express the lyrical beauty of his film, but my efforts wouldn't equal this one by "Stu," one of eleven reviews posted thus far on the Arrangiarsi IMDB page.

"For someone who loves Italy and pizza as much as I do, the slightly cryptic title of this film was intriguing.  While I wasn't familiar with the term 'arrangiarsi,' I somehow expected the usual well-worn combination of travel and food documentary: the familiar shots of glorious rolling Tuscan hills, mouthwatering pasta, and endearing gesticulating local characters.  What I wasn't expecting was not only all of that, but also a cultural and gastronomic history lesson, personal roots exploration, and spiritual odyssey."   

"Troncone, a San Francisco native, is of Neapolitan extraction, and after an epiphany into his deep emotional connection with the land of his forebears, he embarks on a personal and at times quixotic pilgrimage to explore what it means to live life like a true Neapolitan, embracing the Naples spirit of making the most of the situations life hands you (the arrangiarsi of the title), documenting his sometimes arduous personal journey along the way." 

"The result is a fascinating blend of three constantly intertwining themes: an alternative and partisan history of southern Italy, which served as a welcome counterpoint to the conventional narrative; an unabashed celebration of the divine creation that is true pizza Napolitano and the labor involved in its deceptively simple ingredients (if you've never seen a self-massaging buffalo, well you're in luck); and above all Troncone's own pilgrim's progress in his quest for spiritual balance through acceptanc of his ancestral and internal north-south divide.  The conclusion is deeply satisfying and packs a surprising emotional wallop."  

"One lesson that emerges from his travels is that true acceptance doesn't mean blandly looking on the bright side, or enduring a mindless fatalism.  He reminds us that while it is easy to feel joy when fortune smiles on you, we only fully experience life when we embrace all situations, positive and negative, head-on.  As if to emphasize this lesson, Troncone bravely lets all his angels and demons have their moments on screen, both in his moments of pizza-devouring bliss, and the times when he (as he puts it) is 'about to go full Italian', equanimity be damned." 

"True to the spirit of arrangiarsi, Troncone literally and radically rearranged his life to realize this film, and the result is a one-man tour-de-force.  Practically every aspect was crafted single-handedly with the passion of a real aficionado and that love shines through.  And damn, that pizza looks good."

Well put, Stu.

Matteo is now on the road showing his film, selling out every screening thus far, including the most recent in San Diego, with future dates in Palm Springs, Tucson, Sedona, and Santa Fe -- and after that, the world, because why not? Having come this far on a wing and a prayer, Matteo Troncone is not about to quit until everybody has a chance to see Arrangiarsi!

That's a very good thing, and so is his film.

When he brings Arrangiarsi! to a theater near you, go see it -- you really will be glad you did.


* For more about John Korty, here's an article about his work in "Film Comment," and a great story about how he influenced Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas when they were still pups...

Sunday, March 4, 2018

One Year Later


                            It ain't easy, but at least it's not 4/0...

Tempus fugit, the ancients warn us, and I'm here to tell you those wise old graybeards got that one right. Your mileage may vary, but I find it hard to believe that it's been a full year since I blew one final air-kiss to Hollywood, then watched LA disappear in my rear-view mirror. Truth be told, it's been more than a year now (54 weeks, not that anybody's counting), and I really don't know where the time went. All I can say is that it went by fast -- very fast. Apparently all the clichés are true, especially the one about time flashing by at an increasingly rapid clip as the years pile on.

No shit, kiddos -- that one's for real.

So what's changed, you might ask, what have I accomplished, and what have I learned?

Not that anybody did ask, mind you... but given that this blog served as a chronicle of my last decade working in the film/television industry, it seems fitting to walk the same path now that I've exited the business. This may be of no interest to anyone other than me at the moment, but since most of you work in the industry (or want to), someday you too will age out, then hang it up and head out to pasture. Whether my experiences are relevant to what you'll encounter on that far disant shore is an open question, one that only you can answer when the time comes.

As to those three questions I posed -- everything has changed. Now that I don't live by the alarm clock or report to set every day at a given call time, I no longer must cope with the tedium of a long day on set by hitting craft service every half hour, there to wallow like a hog in the warm figurative mud of the See-Food Diet -- and voila, fifteen pounds mysteriously melted from my frame. I wasn't trying to lose weight, but apparently it makes a difference to have total control over one's diet, and to eat out of hunger rather than simply to ward off successive waves of boredom. The craft service table was a refuge, and in many ways I miss it -- but I certainly don't miss lugging around those fifteen extra pounds.

As to what I've accomplished... that's less easy to quantify. Unpacking and finding places to put all the crap I brought from LA provided a challenge I have yet to fully meet. I was pretty much exhausted after the big push to pack up and leave, and couldn't get much of anything done for a while. About the time I did start making some headway, the rains stopped, and I had to turn my attention outside, where a mountain of weed-whacking, brush clearing, chain sawing, and all manner of deferred maintenance awaited. I won't bore you with the bloody details, but it was a chore akin to the fifth task of Hercules (cleaning out the Augean Stables), except I lacked the convenience of a nearby river to run through it. As summer turned to fall, the wood-splitting and stacking chores commenced, a truly back-breaking job. Being fully occupied outdoors, I had neither the time nor energy to chip away at the chaos indoors, which is why deep into the Fall of 2017, the front bedroom of my small shack in the woods still resembeled the warehouse scene at the end of Citizen Kane.



Still, progress has been made, and if I'm way behind where I thought I'd be by now, at least the end is in sight -- there's now a faint glimmer of light at the end of this long, dark tunnel.

So what have I learned? Looking backwards through time (and now that the pain is forgotten, with the aid of increasingly rose-tinted glasses), I can see the entire arc of my Hollywood career much more clearly: an enthusiastic young man who knew nothing gradually becoming a worn-out old man who knows a lot, yet remains accutely aware of just how much he has yet to learn. But as I replay in my head the many varied jobs I've had, all the amazing people I met, and the adventures we shared on location and stage sets over the decades, I have a much greater appreciation for how much fun it really was. Yes, there was pain, yes, there was suffering -- and yes, I'll carry the scars from all that into my grave -- but there were always laughs along the way.

I recall a particularly dismal night-exterior shoot in Griffith Park during a very heavy El Niño winter back in the 90's. We got the first setup lit by dusk -- a 12K and operator high up in an 80 foot condor, HMI's everywhere lighting the background, with tungsten units hitting the foreground and actors, every lamp covered with a rain hat... and then came the deluge. Oh Lord, did it rain, a hard, driving downpour that simply would not let up. We kept filming, of course, relighting as needed from setup to setup, but before long we were all drenched. The rain gear I had at the time was no match for El Niño. As the Gaffer, I didn't have to run cable or man the HMIs, but I still got totally soaked -- and I mean totally, right down to water squishing up between the toes inside my boots.

Right about then the D.P. looked up from the camera eyepiece with an expression of utter and complete disgust.

"This is fucked!" he declared.

Something about the complete absurdity of that moment and the look on his face (this from a famously stoic D.P. who rarely complained about anything) just cracked me up, and I doubled over with laughter. Granted, that wasn't much consolation ten hours later as I helped my crew wrap hundreds of feet of muddy cable at 3:00 in the morning, but you take your moments of levity when and where you can.

Perhaps the only true blessing of getting old is being able to relive these memories for the best they offer, reliving the joy while no longer feeling the pain. The past year has taught me what a gift this is, and that for all the frustrations, indignities, and humiliations that accompany aging, I'm fortunate to have made it this far. Too many of my industry friends didn't -- good people cut down in mid-life, who never got a chance to look back and enjoy the long view. One of them died last week of a heart attack, just three months from filing his retirement papers.

I miss those people, each and every one.

Such the cruelty of life. If you live long enough, everyone and everything you know and cherish will be taken from you. We lose it all in the end, every last shred, and are left standing naked and shivering on the crumbling lip of the abyss awaiting our turn. But if there's no escaping that grim fate, there's no point dwelling on it either. The hard truth is, all any of us has is the moment -- this moment, right now -- and as I sit here one year later, warding off the winter chill in the flickering light of a blazing fire, things are all right.

That's just about all I can reasonably ask for.

Most of you are a light years from any of this. You're still working hard to build, maintain, and advance your career, and have neither the time nor inclination for such cud-chewing rumination. Being in the middle of it now, with the end nowhere on the horizon, you're living in the moment -- as you should be. Still, it's worth pausing every now to look around at where you are, what you're doing, and at people you're working with who help take the sting out those long hours on set. Without them -- and all the laughs -- working below the line wouldn't be much fun at all.

But if for whatever reason you're not having fun, not working with people you enjoy, and not laughing at some point every day... then it's definitely time to make a change.

It's your life, kiddos, and you only get one shot -- so make it count, and appreciate what you've got while you can. Time, precious time, will slip away faster than you think.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Sweat the Small Stuff

                                             The big stuff...

There's an old saying that makes the rounds from time to time: "Don't sweat the small stuff -- and it's all small stuff."

I must have heard that one hundred times over my career in Hollywood, usually uttered by people for whom I had (and have) the greatest respect. At first glance, it makes a lot of sense. After all, we're just making movies and television here, not  -- to mangle yet another worn-out cliche -- performing brain science or rocket surgery. Although every big job is daunting at the beginning, once you start breaking it down, that Large Problem turns out to be made up of many smaller problems, each of which can be solved once the department heads and crew put their minds to it -- and by the time that process has run its course, the Large Problem is no more. Still, many people (especially newbies) can be overwhelmed by the scale of a given project, be it a huge set, a difficult location, or a series of exceedingly complex special effects, and that causes them to lock up, paralyzed by uncertainty. When this happens, those soothing words can serve as a pat-on-the-back to help bring them back.

The message -- don't freak out, stay calm, and carry on -- certainly rings true when pondering the cosmic big picture. Even if we manage to avoid blowing humanity to Hell with nuclear weapons, then find a way to slow and reverse the pace of global warming enough prevent massive sea level rise, ocean acidification, resource depletion, and the inevitable geopolitical conflicts that will erupt when millions of climate refugees flee the inundated coastal regions in a human tsunami, we're still doomed. At some point in the distant future, our sun will enter its death throes and begin to expand.  In the words of a noted British astronomer, the fierce heat from that growing thermonuclear furnace will boil the oceans dry, then "lick the earth clean," reducing this lovely blue pearl -- where all the dramas of human and pre-human life have played out over billions of years -- to a charred black cinder drifting through the frozen void of space.

Compared to that bleak cosmic inevitability, our little problems here in the film and television industry really are "small stuff."

But that'll be then and this is now -- besides, we don't live and work in the context of the cosmic big picture. Instead, we grind it out one day at a time, and given that forgetting to pay your rent, mortgage, credit cards, and/or traffic tickets on time can result in significant personal and financial repercussions down the road, details are important.

I got to thinking about all this after reading a couple of comments here.  The first came from "D," a veteran dolly grip with thirty years of experience under his belt, who runs the excellent industry blog Dollygrippery.

"I knew when I started having "work dreams" that I was actually a member of the "industry."  Now I have dreams all the time.  Usually involving not being able to lay track.  Last week I had one in which I got fired because I coudn't do a relatively simple dolly move.  In the dream, the DP said, "You're just not good enough."  Funny after almost 30 years, my insecurities bubble up in my dreams." 

The second was from a veteran sound mixer I've known for decades, who retired two years ago.

"I still have work dreams.  They usually hearken back to my days as a production mixer.  In my dreams I am on the set and they are shouting "Roll Sound" and I realize I left the recorder at home or there is no tape in the recorder and none on the cart."

I can relate -- every industry pro can.

I doubt many of us are truly able to shake our insecurities regarding work during the course of our careers. I'm past that now, but certainly suffered a plague of insecurities during my early years as a Best Boy, then Gaffer -- where a bad decision on my part could cost my employers a lot of money, make my department head look bad, and maybe cause those who hired us to reconsider the wisdom of that decision. I never slept well the night before starting a new job, chewing the worry-bone wondering if I'd overlooked something that might bring the shoot to a screaming halt  the following day.

It's hard to get out from under the shadow of such worries -- all the stress and hard work of getting (and keeping) a career going drives them deep into our emotional aquifers, there to bubble up whenever we let our guard down. That pressure has to be relieved sometime, and it often happens in our dreams.

Worrying about details -- the small stuff -- wasn't any fun at all, but it kept me on my toes. That's a good thing. Experience helped, of course, and I calmed down somewhat after a few years, but the steady drumbeat of those anxous work-dreams served as a warning not to get too comfortable. Although I can't speak for anyone else, my feeling was that being totally confident and utterly untroubled about anything that might happen on the job was a sign of pride -- "one of the seven deadlies," as a grizzled character in Urban Cowboy uttered way back when -- and it's axiomatic that pride goeth before a fall.

A department head has to project confidence, of course, whether or not he/she really feels it. You can't allow your crew to get the idea that you don't have your shit together on set -- and a big part of making sure that you don't get caught with your metaphorical pants down is to look at the job from every angle to anticipate what could go wrong, then make sure your ass is covered.

I recall the exact day it hit me that I'd never be able to fully relax as a gaffer. We were in a van scouting locations for a commercial to be filmed in and around San Francisco: the Director, Producer, DP, Art Director, and the Key Grip, Steve Cardellini. Yes, that Steve Cardellini, inventor of the eponymous clamp that soon became standard issue in grip departments all over the world. I always enjoyed working with Steve, who was a great guy, a terrific grip, and a gifted inventor -- the man could rig anything, anywhere, with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of utility.*

As we rolled across the Golden Gate Bridge on our way to the next location, he confessed to having awakened at 3:00 a.m. the previous week, worried that he might have forgotten to order a particular piece of equipment for the next day's shoot. He hadn't, of course, but the nagging worry was still there... and that's when I realized that if Steve Cardellini -- a much better Key Grip than I was a Gaffer -- still suffered from these middle-of-the-night terrors, there was no hope that I'd ever shed them.

Oddly enough, that made me feel a lot better.

Hey, we're all human, and every one of us screws up from time to time. The important thing is to minimize your mistakes, and one way to do that is to pay attention to the details. Since every Large Problem is made up of many smaller problems, "the small stuff" turns out to be very important -- and if ignored, one little problem has a way of snowballing into something much worse.

Consider the wisdom of Ben Franklin.

"For the want of a nail the shoe was lost,
For the want of a shoe the horse was lost,
For the want of a horse the rider was lost,
For the want of a rider the battle was lost, 
For the want of a battle the kingdom was lost,
And all for the want of a horse-shoe nail."

Ignoring the details might not lose a kingdom in our business, but it can damage your good reputation -- and once lost, that's hard thing to recover. The details matter, so if you want to have a long and successful career, you'd better ignore the warm and fuzzy comfort of shopworn clichés, and make damned sure you sweat the small stuff.


* Steve is still with us, of course -- alive, well, and happily retired for the past ten years.