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 7, 2018

Failure: Part Two


                                  "It ain't all sunglasses and blow jobs, kid"

(This is my second meditation on the subject of failure - to read the first, click here.)

There are many ways to fail in Hollywood, but for those who work below the line, failure generally comes in the form of being fired -- an ugly experience that can feel very personal. Even when you see the hammer coming, it's hard to wrap your brain around the reality of getting fired when it finally drops. All you can do then is pour a few drinks, curse the forces that brought you down, then take a long look in the mirror to figure out why it happened.*

Cliche's don't ease the pain -- and there are many that laud the phoenix-rising-from-the-ashes qualities of failure -- but eventually it might sink in that you really are better off. Getting fired blows away the rust of complacency, extracts you from a situation that may have been problematic to begin with, and liberates you for something new.

Yeah, I know: that sounds like another convenient, worn-out cliché, but such clichés endure because they're stood the test of time.

The calendar pages fly off the wall back to the summer of 1986, when the gaffer I was then working for took a low budget, non-union feature -- and as his Best Boy, I pretty much had to go along for the ride. Not that I was happy about it, mind you. We were making good money doing commercials at the time, working for relatively short, intense periods, and enjoying lots of free time for other pursuits. Blowing off such a sweet deal for the relentless grind and comparitively lousy pay of a low budget feature (a world I'd worked very hard to escape) felt like a huge step backwards, but work relationships in the film industry are a bit like a marriage: to maintain the partnership, you're in it for better or worse.

Besides, if I didn't take the job, somebody else would, which meant that person would be working for my gaffer doing my job with my crew for the next two full months -- a process that forges tight bonds through the mutual suffering endured while overcoming difficult, frustrating challenges on a daily basis. Memories are short in a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately town like Hollywood, where (like it or not) we're all replaceable. If I turned down the movie, there was no guarantee I'd still have my Best Boy slot doing commercials once the feature was over. Besides, I'd been getting much of my work from this gaffer for several years at that point, and not taking this feature would mean having to fish for day-player gigs over the next two months. Day-playing work is sporadic at best, so I'd probably make as much or more money doing the movie despite the crappy rate.

There was no way around it: I'd just have to suck it up and strap myself to the low-budget whipping post for the next eight weeks. Once the flogging was over, we could all go back to our fat, happy life making commercials.

Still, this one looked like a royal pain in the ass, with Gary Busey and Yaphet Kotto starring in a drama about a Vietnam vet who served time in prison after the war, and is being released on parole as the movie opens. "Buck Mathews" then returns to his small hometown, which is being terrorized by a violent drug-running motorcycle gang, whereupon -- surprise -- he ends up battling the bikers with his old pal played by Kotto. Bloody mayhem ensues, in the form of decapitation, endless gunfire, and explosions galore. When the Evil Bikers make the mistake of murdering Buck's wife, he morphs into an Everyman Superhero and unleashes his terrible vengeance upon them. 

The song "Eye of the Tiger" blares all through this exercise in cinematic idiocy, of course, since the movie's producers were also responsible for the tune. We can only hope there's a special, very hot little room in Artistic Hell waiting for serial offenders like the Scotti Brothers.

Most of the movies I'd worked on up 'til then were steaming piles of formulaic crap, so the quality of this project didn't really bother me, but the filming would take place in the parched desert regions north of LA during the hottest stretch of the brutal SoCal summer. Working an occasional hot day is one thing -- doing eight straight weeks in that withering heat is something else. With a script that sucked, money that sucked, an hour-long drive each way to start and end every work day, a star fresh from an extended stint in drug rehab, and a co-star with no apparent sense of on-set camaraderie, the next two months promised to be an ordeal for all concerned. To me, this gig felt more like a prison sentence than a form of gainful employment.

Still, you do what you've gotta do. As the old timers used to snarl, always with a bitter grin: "It ain't all sunglasses and blow jobs, kid."

The first day went pretty much as expected -- long, hot, and no fun at all. Gary Busey was as tightly-wound as a new spool of thread. Tense and unsmiling, he stayed on set much of the time whether on camera or not, a foul-smelling cigar clenched in his teeth from morning 'til night. Yapphet Kotto remained a consistently sullen, glowering presence throughout, whether by design (an actor staying "in character" to maintain a certain level of internal continuity) or simply because that's the kind of person he was.** I have no idea why he felt the need to be so grimly unpleasant, but with our two main actors radiating such dark energy, this was the antithesis of a loose, happy set.

The week ground on, one ugly, sweaty day after another. Filming scenes with a large motorcycle gang isn't easy, and our First AD -- a big, burly man aptly nicknamed "Bear" -- worked his ass off, somehow keeping his cool amidst that swirling cauldron of heat, dust, and confusion. By the time Friday rolled around, the entire crew was fried. With a late call, we arrived on set knowing we wouldn't wrap until sometime early the next morning.

Another fucking Fraturday...

We sweated through the afternoon, then broke for lunch as twilight approached. The rest of our "day" would be night work in cooler temperatures, at least, but filming at night requires a massive quantity of lights, cable, and power distribution gear. By the time we'd set up for the master shot, our equipment truck was nearly empty, which meant that come wrap, every last lamp, stand, distro box, gang box, cable, and stinger would have to be lugged back and properly stowed before we could head for home and our day-and-a-half off.

The night dragged on until we set up for a scene where the motorcycle thugs were scripted to force a woman's car off the road, then smash the windows, drag her out into the dirt, and abuse her mercilessly -- and then, of course, "Buck Mathews" would come to the rescue and save her from what writers of the early 19th century referred to as "a fate worse than death."

Here, the narrative muddles. With just two juicers on my crew, I was busy helping to power and adjust the many lights out in that dark field, and thus nowhere near the camera. I could see an animated discussion going on around the car, but had other things to deal with. As I heard it later, our stunt coordinator was unhappy with the type of glass being used in the car, and dug in his heels when it came time for the window-smashing and actress-dragging. I was told he refused to take part, but the director went ahead anyway... and the actress suffered cuts on her thighs and legs as the bikers dragged her across broken glass on the car seat -- cuts bad enough to send her to the nearest hospital emergency room.***

Shortly thereafter, one of my juicers rolled his ankle in a pothole, and he too was taken to the hospital. Working one man short, we soldiered on through the night, and I didn't hear until later that four more crew members from various departments had suffered sprains working on the rough terrain. At one point, all six  -- one actress and five crew -- were being treated in the same emergency room, where the suddenly overworked ER staff wondered what the hell was going on with this movie. A good question, that. 

When that grueling night finally came to an end, and the truck was nearly wrapped, the gaffer informed me that the producers were in the process of firing our DP. It seems they weren't happy with the dailies, and had decided to go with another DP -- which meant a new lighting crew, so we too were getting the axe.****

Oddly enough, I had mixed feelings. Although my rational brain was delighted to be off this shit-show, I didn't like being fired. Maybe it was wounded or misplaced pride (or simple stupidity), but having endured that first miserable week, my emotional loins were girded to finish the job. Worse, the new electric crew couldn't start until the following Tuesday, which meant after our short weekend, we'd have to come back for one more Monday sweating our balls off under the hot Saugus sun working for the new DP.

Awkward.

But we got through it, and when the day was finally over our 1st AD insisted that we meet him at Tips, a legendary watering hole famous for its exotic, pricey, and extremely potent mixed drinks. Once we'd gathered around a table, "Bear" pulled out a hundred dollar bill and bought us all a round as thanks for coming back to suffer through one more miserably stupid day. It was a nice gesture on his part, and a welcome sendoff back to the fat and happy world of making commercials.

Or so I thought... but things don't always work out the way you want. Apparently that one nasty week kindled a latent desire in the heart of my gaffer to do features, which is why a few weeks later we gathered in a small North Carolina town called Tarboro -- where it was just as hot with the added misery of suffocating Southern humidity -- to shoot another low budget movie.

Out of the frying pan, into the fire.

Still, this one had a better, happier cast and crew, in a lush and beautiful part of the country I hadn't seen before -- a job we wouldn't have been able to take if not for being fired off that piece of crap biker movie.****  

So if you get fired one of these days, take some time to lick your wounds, then start looking for the silver lining in an otherwise dark, depressing cloud. Getting the axe always hurts, but it just might turn out to be a blessing in disguise.



* The experience of being fired above-the-line seems to be very different than what most of us encounter below-the-line.

** 
Maybe Kotto made the mistake of reading the script. Just how bad is Eye of the Tiger?  Hoo boy... an old friend recently sent me the DVD, so I sat down to watch some of the worst writing and acting I've ever seen on screen. Gary Busey brought his usual manic intensity to the role of "Buck," and Seymour Cassell soldiered through a badly written role, but the rest -- including Kotto -- were just awful. 

*** I tried to suss out the details of that night, calling the gaffer and one of my juicers to find out what they remembered.  I even contacted the DGA to get in touch with "Bear," our 1st AD, figuring he could fill me in on exactly what happened, but he didn't respond to my e-mails. 

**** The rumor on set was that the producers used a porno lab to process and print the film, since it was cheaper than a mainstream film industry lab -- which might account for the poor dailies -- but who knows...




Sunday, September 2, 2018

Just for the Hell of It: Episode 48

                                            Uh, no...                                                

This photo appeared on FB a while back, which I hope was just a gag... then again, it might be fun to watch from a safe distance as the next train rolled through and sliced these crossovers and the cable within like a hot knife cleaving through butter -- preferably with the genny under a full load.

Hey, I'm not proud of it, but there's still a 10 year old deep inside that won't die until the rest of me does...

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Those who write -- poets, novelists, screenwriters, and even the humble blogger -- can't help but develop a respect for writing and the writers who do it well. Anybody who has stared at a blank screen or struggled with a troublesome scene/passage/paragraph that for some reason just doesn't work knows how hard the process can be. This is true even if you do it just for fun, where the stakes are low, but it's particularly tough for those who want to make a living at the keyboard.*  As discussed here previously, many come to Hollywood in pursuit of this elusive goal, but few succeed.

Still, it can be done. It's important to remember that.

I recently heard from a former Production Assistant who worked on my one truly good run in the sitcom world. She'd kicked around as a PA for a few years, and after a stint as office PA on Two and a Half Men, realized it was time to make a move. Her resume landed a job as Line Producer's Assistant on my show, and the next season bumped her up to Assistant Production Office Coordinator -- but in her heart, she wanted to write, and let it be known to the higher-ups. Lo and behold, a Writer's Assistant job on a new show resulted, which got her into the Writer's Room until that show was cancelled, but she was on her way. She worked W.A. gigs in three more Writer's Rooms before applying to the Warner Brothers Writer's Workshop as a comedy writer... but didn't make the cut. Some introspection led to the realization that her real interest and strength was drama rather than comedy, so she spent the next year writing spec scripts as samples, then applied to the Warners Workshop again, and this time was among the nine applicants (out of two thousand) accepted. When the workshop ended, she got her own chair in the Writer's Room of a new one-hour drama for Netflix.

She made it. It wasn't easy, but her patience, persistence, and hard work paid off.

Another success story comes from a fellow industry blogger who came to LA several years ago, then worked as a PA in various capacities, all the while writing his own feature and television scripts. One thing led to another, and now he too sits in a Writer's Room chair -- and again, the key to getting there was the holy trinity of patience, persistence, and hard work.

There are no shortcuts. You have to learn the craft while figuring out how the system works in Hollywood, and neither will happen overnight. The good news is that he's passing on some of what he learned the hard way to younger writing wannabes in his resurrected blog. If writing for the film/television industry is your goal, check it out and spend some time absorbing his advice.

The only true  constant is change, of course, and according to this article, the Writer's Room as Hollywood has known it may be a thing of the past. That doesn't really matter, though. Broadcast networks, cable networks, and streaming networks all need lots of content -- scripts -- so until some propeller-head from Silicon Beach develops artificial intelligence algorithms able to write better and cheaper than humans, there will be an ongoing demand for fresh voices and new approaches to telling dramatic and comedic stories. The opportunities will be there, but the wannabe Hollywood writer will have to seize those opportunities to make something happen.

In the words of "Chris," the slow-witted hunk in Steve Martin's Roxanne, "Carpe the diem."

***************************************

Here's a lively interview with Krysten Ritter, star of Jessica Jones, a show I've never seen and probably never will.  Still, I was impressed with her work in Breaking Bad a few years ago, and found this interview -- in which a very animated Ms. Ritter discusses her approach to acting -- to be fascinating.  Plus, she's published a novel that seems to be well-written and possibly worth reading, unlike the overhyped lump of self-indulgent alliterative flotsam recently excreted by the endlessly irritating Sean Penn.

When an accomplished industry pro sits down to discuss their craft, it's usually worth listening, so check it out... and yes, you could just read the interview highlights on that page, but do yourself a favor and listen.

For another good interview, here's a talk with Nick Offerman, who (to quote Wikipedia) is "An American actor, writer, comedian and woodworker who is known for his role as Ron Swanson in the NBC sitcom Parks and Recreation, for which he received the Television Critics Association Award for Individual Achievement in Comedy."    

He's appeared in The Founder, among other things, and had a particularly memorable role as Karl Weathers in Season Two of Fargo. Offerman is an interesting, down-to-earth guy who's easy to listen to and root for -- as opposed to a hot mess like Johnny Depp. The recent Rolling Stone piece on Depp is a depressing read, and yet another object lesson on the dangers that come with riding the Hollywood roller coaster of success.

The lesson: be careful what you wish for...

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"Every study has shownd that a lack of sleep is really dangerous for you. Every study says it, but the film industry chooses to ignore them."

That quote comes from a grim but thoughtful piece on Deadline Hollywood about the eternal problem of working long hours in the film and television industry. Long hours and minimal turnarounds came with the turf in the first twenty years of my career, when I worked strictly single-camera gigs. Like every other below-the-line veteran, I did some absurdly long days -- several of which ran more than 24 hours -- but from what I'm hearing, things have gotten worse the past few years. It's unclear whether this is due to the takeover of our industry by cold-hearted, bottom-line obsessed, keep-the-shareholders-happy mega-corporations, or the simple fact that there are only so many producers and directors available who actually know what they're doing. In this era of Peak Television and maximum production, a lot of inexperienced and/or cluess people are running things on set, and no good can come of that.

The latter half of my career was spent in the multi-camera world, where the hours were considerably shorter and the paychecks commensurately smaller. I didn't go there by choice, mind you -- circumstance forced my hand -- but after a while I realized that earning half my previous income in exchange for a lot more time off worth it to me. Unfortunately, not everybody has that luxury. More than a few below-the-liners told me flat out that they wanted every hour of overtime they could get to boost their paychecks. This is understandable given the cost of raising a family in LA, but it's an ugly way to live.

Still, with crews being pushed ever harder, something has to give or else we'll see increasing numbers of people injured or killed after falling asleep while trying to drive home at the end of stupidly long work days. I urge any Hollywood wannabes out there to read that Deadline Hollywood article carefully, then scroll through the comments left by so many industry veterans. They're telling you how it really is in this business. As I've said before, it's not for everyone, so take a good look before you leap.

****************************************

Next, an interesting piece about the appeal of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, a Fox show that ran for five seasons before being cancelled, only to be exhumed from the crypt by NBC for another 13 episode season. This is yet another show I've never seen, but since it was filmed on the sound stage directly opposite from where I worked on for five years, I watched from across the alley as it came to life in the first season, then prospered to become a hit.  Reading the many thoughtful obituaries by critics after Fox cancelled the show (before NBC picked it up) made me wish I'd paid more attention, but there's only so much TV any of us can watch in this era of Peak Television. Critics get paid to watch these shows, but the rest of us don't, so there are some things I'll just have to miss. Still, after reading all those memorials, I'm glad it's coming back. Anything that keeps the fans happy and an entire crew working is okay with me.

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Here's an interesting piece from the New York Times analyzing the prominent role comic book movies play in our modern culture.  These massive CGI spectaculars don't do much for me, nor do I understand why anyone past their 15th birthday is drawn to them, but it's probably a generational thing. Hey, there really is no accounting for taste, which means it doesn't matter what I or anybody else thinks. People like what they like, so there's no reason to explain -- but no matter what your taste in super-hero movies might be, this is a good read.

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Finally, the subject of location scouts came up in last month's post. In response, Nathan Gendzier -- a Location Manager who lives and works in New York --  sent this link to an entertaining piece by David Mamet on life in the scout van. If you've never been on one of those scouts (and even if you have), it's worth a read.*

That's all for this month.  Remain calm and carry on...


* Granted, some of us have a curious notion of what constitutes "fun"...

** If you've ever wondered what a Location Manager really does, here's an excellent interview with Nathan from the first season of Crew Call, thanks to the Anonymous Production Assistant.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Flameout in the High Desert

                 
                                          Words of wisdom...

On an internet forum hosted by my union local, a young juicer recently posted a question to the veterans with at least 20 years of membership.

"Is there anything you wish you had done differently early on in your career, or any action you'd recommend to the younger members who are looking to elevate and advance their careers?" 

That question generated a huge response, ranging from the cheeky ("Marry a Producer," "Go to law school," and "Get out while you can!") to the earnestly straightforward ("Take care of your body, show up on time, pay attention, have a good attitude, and keep learning"), and the cynical but spot-on ("Learn the difference between kissing ass and showing respect, then become proficient at both"), but the response that caught my eye was this: "Keep your mouth shut."

That's a piece of advice I could have used early in my career.

And so we flash back thirty years to the summer of 1988, during which the gaffer I worked for was in such demand that a dilemma arose: two lucrative commercial gigs filming in the same week. Unable to take both jobs, he summoned the sword  of Solomon and sliced that baby in two, taking the new client himself while delegating the other gaffing gig to me -- a beer commercial for one of our favorite production companies. Although I had very little experience holding a light meter, the D.P. for the beer spot was a grizzled veteran* we'd worked with many times, and who was willing to let me play Gaffer for the location scout and a two-day shoot up near the high desert outpost of Lone Pine, two hundred miles north-east of Los Angeles.

This looked like a win-win for our crew. While my Gaffer kept the new client happy (which could result in more gigs for us all in the future), I'd hold down the fort with the production company responsible for much of our work at the time while getting the added bonus of bumping up to Gaffer rate and a scout day. Shoot days are work, but scout days tend to be relatively stress free -- essentially a paid field trip wherein the director, producer, department heads, and key production staff visit each location to discuss the various shots and determine our respective equipment and manpower needs.

The scout was a breeze, and the job seemed simple enough -- day exteriors for which we'd need a carbon arc, a small HMI package, and a Shotmaker** camera car.  But while the coordinator, Key Grip, 1st AC, Art Director, Production Coordinator and I rode the two hundred miles each way in a van, the director, producer, First A.D. and DP cruised ahead in a rented Mustang convertible, a sleek little hot rod with a pumped-up 302 cubic inch V-8 that rocketed them north a lot quicker than our lumbering passenger van. Not that it mattered, of course -- I was getting paid for a ten hour day no matter what -- but still, I liked the looks of that Mustang.

A few days later we made the drive again with the same Mustang leading the way. After spending the night in one of Lone Pine's small motels (it was tourist season, so the crew had to spread out to get rooms) everybody was up bright and early the next morning for our first day of filming in the Alabama Hills.***

The agency's concept for the spot was to have a thirsty cowboy lasso a passing semi-truck loaded with beer, then slide behind it hanging onto the rope until he could wrangle it to a halt. This is where the Shotmaker came in, allowing us to film the stunt man dressed in cowboy garb as he skidded like a water-skier down a dusty road through the rugged terrain of the high desert. We powered the big carbon arc directly from the Shotmaker's battery pack -- no grid needed -- and it ran like a train. The stuntman earned his money on that shot, but we got it with no real problems, and the rest of the day's work went smoothly. We wrapped at dusk feeling pretty good about ourselves

This was my first real job as a gaffer, and I let it go to my head. Part of this was my being relatively young and foolish, but a lot of it had to do with our filming location in the high desert. For reasons I'll never fully understand, working in desert locations always brought out the stupid in me, and this was no exception.

After showering off a day's worth of sweat and dust at the motel, I met the Key Grip  and Camera Assistant at Lone Pine's finest restaurant for dinner.  The booze flowed freely, and we had had a good time eating, drinking, and talking about the day's shoot. Among the many subjects discussed was that our director had made a point of continually referring to one of the ad agency people as "the Chicago art director." I had no idea what that meant, but the snarky glee with which the director deployed it -- and the fact that he had a bit of a sadistic streak -- signaled that it must be a loaded term.

Fueled by alcohol, I went on and on about that, amid much loud laughter. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a head turn at a table on the other side of the room, but in my boozy haze, thought nothing of it.

Strolling back to my hotel after dinner, I ran into one of my juicers, whose motel was another half a mile down the road, so I knocked on the producer's door and asked to borrow that hot little Mustang to give my set lighting technician a lift. It took some cajoling, but the producer finally surrendered his keys.

I dropped the juicer off at his motel, at which point I should have turned the car around and headed back... but with the desert (or the Devil) whispering in my ear, I aimed the Mustang south on US 395 -- four lanes of asphalt cutting straight through the parched landscape -- and floored the throttle. The car lunged forward like a heat-seeking missile, and with the speedometer nudging 100 mph, I glanced up into the starry desert sky, then flicked off the headlights.

                
                                          The desert made me do it...

Question: What was I thinking?
Answer: Thinking? I wasn't thinking at all.
Question: Why would I do such a thing?
Answer:  I have no idea -- as the Bud Dry ads of the early 90's posited: Why ask why?

I was way old enough to know better, but had yielded to an impulse in a moment of drunken hubris I can neither explain nor defend, and although this could (and probably should) have landed me in jail with a DUI -- or sharing the local morgue with anybody unlucky enough to be driving 395 at the same time as this fool -- disaster took a holiday that night. Instead, a jolt of adrenaline hit me like a bucket of cold water moments later, after which I eased off the throttle, turned the headlights back on, then motored back to the hotel at the speed limit, where I thanked the producer and handed him the keys.

In my motel bed at last, I fell asleep grateful that I'd dodged a self-inflicted bullet.

Up early the next morning and nursing the predictable hangover, there was a knock at my door. It was the producer, and he did not look happy.

"We have a problem," he said.

My first thought was that the recklessness of last night had somehow come to light, but that little secret remained my own. Instead, it seemed that the agency art director (let's call him "Jim White" overheard our conversation in the restaurant the night before, and was convinced that I'd been making fun of him for being a "Chicago art director."

To say I was confused is an understatement. We'd been discussing our director, not the agency or any of their people, and besides, what was the big deal about being a "Chicago Art Director?"

It turned out that in the highly competitive world of advertising (see: Mad Men), working for a Chicago agency was considered less prestigious than working in New York -- the short-person, Second City syndrome -- so "Jim White" assumed I was ridiculing his lesser professional status. Apparently he'd been stewing about this all night, then confronted our producer in the morning.

I offered to personally apologize if that would pour oil on these suddenly troubled waters. The producer left, but returned a few minutes later shaking his head. Some sins -- however unwitting -- are unforgivable, and this was one.

"He says that if you're on set, he won't be," the producer said.

So that was that. While the crew went out to shoot with my Best Boy handling the gaffing chores, I lounged around the motel room for a while, then floated in the pool most of afternoon, sharing the cool chlorinated water with a group of fat, pink German tourists -- all the while contemplating the sudden crash-and-burn of my nascent gaffing career, and wondering if I'd ever work for this director and his production company again.

That was one very long day.

Night fell, and the crew returned. I waited a while, then knocked on the director's door, prepared to get my head chewed off... but he listened to my apology, then waved it off with a grin. The day's work had been accomplished without any problems, so no harm, no foul.

Vastly relieved, but more than a little chagrined, I sat quietly in the van on the long drive home. I'd be paid for my day of enforced leisure, but a much bigger financial penalty was coming. This job was a two parter, with the location shoot followed by four days of filming on a soundstage -- and since "Jim White" would be there with the agency, I was no longer on the crew. My loud mouth at that drunken dinner would cost me a paycheck roughly equal to $3500 in today's inflated dollars.

That hurt.

By some miracle this incident didn't kill my gaffing career, but on the next job with the same production company, our director's gleefully sadistic streak emerged. At each of many stops we made during the day-long tech scout, he would grin, then point me out to the cluster of agency people and announce "Here's the guy who called 'Jim White' an asshole" -- after which they'd all turn as one to stare at me like visitors to the zoo observing a potentially dangerous ape.

I'd done nothing of the sort, of course (although by then I'd begun to wish I really had called the "Chicago Art Director" an asshole), but having earned this karmic payback in ways neither the director or producer would ever know, I just had to stand there and take my medicine. All in all, it was just another day cracking the books in the Joe Frazier School of Higher Education...

Still, a little on-the-job humiliation was nothing compared to the disasters that easily could have happened up there in Lone Pine, where -- among other things -- I finally learned to keep my goddamned mouth shut.


* Before becoming a DP, he'd been the gaffer on many big Hollywood features, including Blade Runner.

** That was then, of course - this is now...

*** The list of movies shot in and around Lone Pine over the years is very long.


Sunday, July 1, 2018

A Thin Line


                                    "It's a thin line between love and hate"
                                    The Persuaders

A recent post on Facebook got my attention, a short sentence absent any photo, cartoon, meme, or other visual aids to serve as frosting on the digital cake, nor was there the usual twist of ironic/bitter snark so typical of social media these days. Instead, it was a simple, eloquent statement straight from the heart of a Key Grip with the better part of three decades experience working on sets all over the globe -- ten words that expressed what might be the one essential truth in the dark, beating heart of our industry:

"I have a love/hate relationship with the film business."

That sentence resonated deep within, and if the flood of affirmative comments it triggered are any measure, in most veterans of the film community. We've all been there, many times.  Young people just getting started don't yet know enough to understand this: they come all bright-eyed and smiling, full of enthusiasm, idealism, and hope... but bit by bit that gets beaten out of them. Those who belong will wrestle with the tradeoffs, compromises, and hard choices demanded by this business, and in the end find a way that works for them -- those who don't will turn sour, bitter, and angry -- and that's no way to live.    

I've said it before and I'll say it again: this business really isn't for everyone.

Although I haven't yet had the pleasure of meeting that Key Grip, we've communicated via the internet since the early days of this blog, and I've followed his far flung cinematic exploits via social media ever since. I won't reveal his name, or the dozens of movies he's suffered through, but trust me -- you've all seen or heard of the movies he's done. For the sake of anonymity, let's call him "Sam."

His home is on another continent, but Sam works all over the world... and therein lies the rub, because that means working on location. As a family man with a wife and kids, he must endure the strain of long separations that come with the turf of feature films, where the comfortable rituals and routines of home life are replaced by the relentless demands of a tight production schedule, and the need to "make the day", week in and week out in often harsh conditions over the course of two to six months. This can be rough enough when you're footloose and single in your twenties, but for a family man with rapidly growing children, it's a wrenching ordeal. 

Although I never had to leave a wife and kids behind during my career, I've paid the price exacted by working on distant locations in one way or another -- the alarm clock and/or hotel wake-up call dragging me to a decidedly unwelcome state of semi-consciousness, still tired and sore on the fifth day of a six-day week after two months on location, when the only thing that made sense was to spend another few hours in bed. It was easy to hate this business at times, and wonder why the hell I ever went to Hollywood in the first place.

As Sam put it: 

"I'm about to leave for two months work in Eastern Europe, then in November I go back to start on (insert famous director's name here) new movie for another four months. My family will join me over Christmas and the New Year, but there will be long periods of separation. My kids get depressed and so do I. On the other hand, I am hugely grateful for the living I earn and the great places I go and the people I meet."

And there's the compensation at the core of this tradeoff: being well-paid to go places and see things most people don't, and there enjoy the experience of bonding with a good, tight crew, meeting the daily challenge of tackling a difficult job, solving the problems as they arise. There's always light at the end of that tunnel -- every movie has an end-date* -- so you march through it one step at a time, crossing the days off the calendar as each slides into the next, and when the final day has come and gone, you blow off all that pent-up steam in the bittersweet ritual of the wrap party... and then you go home.

Such is the nature of the film business, which in some ways harkens back to the days of explorers like Columbus, Cortez, and Pizarro (without all the swords, blood, and killing, of course), leaving hearth and home for adventure and treasure. It's never easy, but it's the life you choose when answering the siren call of movies. Although there were a couple of times over the years when I very nearly cut the cord with Hollywood, fed up with that life and feeling the hate, something always kept my blade sheathed until things got better -- which always happened.

Sometimes you just have to keep the faith and ride out the storm to calmer waters.

I made my bed in Hollywood, for better or worse, and there I slept (albeit uneasily at times) through the good and bad at home and on location. Now that I'm retired, the latter half of the love/hate equation has faded considerably. I remember the good times, the laughs and adventures, and can almost forget the long hours, the endless waiting, the miserable days under a brutally hot sun, the long nights working 'til dawn in rain or snow, and the terminal exhaustion at the end of each grinding week. 

Almost... but not completely. I'll carry the scars and the bad back from all that to my grave, and although this may sound a bit self-serving -- and perhaps more than a little perverse -- I'll do so with a humble but undeniable sense of pride.   


* That date isn't always cast in stone, of course -- which reminds me: if you've never seen Hearts of Darkness, you really should...

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Selling Out


                                  Product shot of onion rings for a TV commercial 
                                               Photo by Rossmoor Warren 

"The green reed which bends in the wind is stronger than the mighty oak which breaks in a storm."
Confucius
                                       
When I was in college during the late Pleistocene, a story made the rounds about a warning that supposedly hung above the entrance to the UCLA Film Department: 

"You've already sold out!"

This seems like a quaint notion these days, but the early 70's were still awash in the social, political, and cultural turbulence of the 60's, when going along with the mainstream in any way was seen as of buying into the establishment, bowing down to The Man, or -- in the vernacular of the day, "selling out." 

Mike Nichols summed up the mistrust and generational confusion of that era in this seminal scene from the The Graduate, a film that resonated with many of us at the time. The salient message, I suppose, is that it's never easy being young and facing the big decisions of life:  it wasn't then and isn't now.  

I had to plumb the depths of Websters to find the appropriate definition of the term "selling out," descending all the way to the second level of the intransitive verb form:

"To betray ones cause or associates especially for personal gain."

How this applied to the world of movies was uncertain, but unlike so many other fields of study offered by the university, film offered a clarity untethered to the mundane realities of making a living. There was a thriving independent scene at the time, but most of those filmmakers labored in the shadows of a world lacking the instant-access digital connectivity that defines modern times. For every John CassavetesRoger Corman, and George Romero -- each an indie giant in his day -- there were many more like the Kuchar brothersStan BrakhageScott Bartlett, and Bruce Conner, pioneers of experimental cinema whose efforts rarely lit up the cultural radar beyond a small circle of artists and the avant-garde.*

Although I found some of their experimental work intriguing (in particular, Bartlett's OffOn and Conner's A Movie), it was the classics of Old Hollywood -- films by Orson Welles, Howard Hawks, Anthony Mann, Budd Boetticher and others, along with the work of foreign directors like Jean Renoir, Marcel Pagnol, Louis Malle,** Jean Luc Godard, and Francoise Truffault -- that fully seduced me. I was never a fan of Fellini or Antonioni (for my money, Andrew Sarris earned a plaque in the Film Critics Hall of Fame for coining the term "Antoniennui"), but hey, different strokes for different folks. 

Although Hollywood was done making the kind of movies I'd fallen in love with, something even more exciting was happening: a new wave of raw, edgy films from a young generation of writers, directors, and actors. Easy Rider had been released a couple of years earlier, driving the first nail into the skull of mainstream Hollywood while opening the door for movies like The French Connection, The Last Picture Show (filmed in black and white, no less), Dirty Harry, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Play Misty for Me, and even LeMans, which -- with the brooding presence of Steve McQueen -- offered a gritty, decidedly unglamorous look at the world's most famous endurance auto race. 

All in all, 1971 turned out to be a pretty good year for movies.

I was hooked, and couldn't wait to get my hands on a Super 8 camera to start making films. The resulting efforts were nothing to write home about, but tapping into the energy of the creative process was high-octane fun. When the time came for my thesis project, I tackled a more ambitious challenge: a thirty minute documentary shot on 16 mm black and white film. That I had no real clue how to proceed or what I was doing didn't phase me, but such is the blissful ignorance of youth. I suppose that's what a college thesis is all about -- curing such ignorance -- and it certainly accomplished that task. Soon I began to learn the realities of making a real film the hard way. Getting it shot and edited for the college-mandated public screening took a lot longer than I'd anticipated, but once that was done -- and after a suitable period of post-collegiate procrastination -- I finally made the pilgrimage to Hollywood, a moth drawn to the cinematic flame. Like so many others who came from the outside, I got a start working on crappy low-budget movies, where I picked up the basics of gripping and juicing on set, and learned first-hand just how much of an intense, sustained effort was required of everyone on a crew to get a feature film made. 

It was a blast for a while. After fumbling my way through school, actually working on a professional set was a real thrill, but as the years passed, the grind of toiling on one lousy movie after another wore me down until the thrill faded to black. Three years of living hand-to-mouth while working so hard for such little money hadn't resulted in much apparent progress. Sure, I'd learned a lot, but the IA local I tried to join told me to go fuck myself, and without that union card, I saw no realistic prospect of making a living wage anytime soon, much less working on real Hollywood movies. What began as a great adventure was now mired in deep sand.  

Feeling as burned out as I was bummed out, the notion of making my own films was the farthest thing from my mind. At that point, I just wanted to make a halfway decent living.

My rising discontent came to a head one morning after a grueling week of day-playing on a highly forgettable low-budget feature called Fade to Black, which culminated in a movies-'til-dawn night shoot at the famous Grauman's Chinese Theater in the heart of downtown Hollywood. We shot a few scenes inside, then moved outdoors to film a stuntman do a high fall from one of the tall spires of the theater for a scene that would be the climax of the drama. We finished at dawn, then began the long wrap as the sun rose over Hollywood Boulevard. While carrying the last of the equipment to the truck, I stopped to chat with one of the LAPD cops who had been providing security -- and for reasons long since forgotten, mentioned that I was fed up with getting my ass kicked while making shit money on these low budget movies. He asked how much I'd made the previous year, so I told him. 

He just shook his head.

"Something's wrong if you're only making twelve grand a year in the movie business," he said."***

I knew he was right -- but what could I do about it?  

The early years in this business can test you, push you, and occasionally drive you right up to the lip of the abyss, calling into question who you are, why you came here, and what you ever hoped to achieve. There are times you'll have to make hard decisions and hope for the best... but every now and then an apparent miracle will materialize from the ether -- a bolt of alchemic lighting with the power to turn lead into gold.

Not long after that ugly morning on Hollywood Boulevard, a Key Grip I'd never met called out of the blue to offer me a commercial. He didn't care that I was more of a juicer than a grip at that point -- he just needed a Best Boy -- and thus began an eighteen month run doing commercials and occasional music videos for a new, young, hard-charging production company that was already making their mark in Hollywood. They worked a lot, and suddenly so did I: over the next year-and-a-half, my annual income quadrupled.

That, I liked. The hours were still long -- 14 to 18 hour shoot days were typical -- but we rarely worked more than three days in a row, after which I'd turn in an invoice for anywhere between $1200 and $1800. This was during the early 80's: in today's dollars, that would equal $3000 and $4500, respectively.  

That's nice work if you can get it.

My world turned on a dime. Work was fun again, even if I wasn't all that comfortable as a grip. I enjoyed the intensity of doing commercials, where we had to find a way to get the shot no matter what, where the catered meals were actually good rather than the cheapest swill a low-budget producer could find, and where the paychecks after each job were fatter than I'd ever dreamed. When it came time to go back to juicing, I remained in the world of commercials, working for a series of Best Boys, Gaffers, and DPs, and the good times just got better.

In my heart, I knew I'd sold out. Having come to Hollywood to make movies, I was instead helping manufacture glossy advertising for the shit-sandwich of television. But if "selling out" meant finally making a decent living while having a great time traveling all over the country, then sign me up and send my soul to Hell. Working on commercials might be morally bankrupt, but with their intense focus on extremely high production values, at least they strove for some form of excellence, unlike the schlock horror movies and sophomoric comedies I'd suffered through up 'til then.

It wasn't all sweetness and light, of course. Work is still work, and our total concentration on the visuals turned many of those jobs into tedious ordeals, particularly when doing "product shots" -- those glistening, painstakingly lit close-ups of whatever hamburger, candy bar, automobile, or bottle of beer the agency was trying to sell. The setup and tweaking of product shots often seemed endless, and the filming could go on even longer. One of the first commercials I did was for Chuckwagon Dog Food, during which we shot thirty-seven consecutive takes of a dog running across a kitchen floor set...and not until number thirty-eight was the director satisfied. Then came a particularly ennervating commercial featuring a tiny bottle of perfume that we spent hours lighting, bombarding it with high-intensity lamps, tiny bounce cards, and foco-spots. Once lit, we shot take after take after take as the bottle slowly rotated into frame -- and just as the camera rolled again for one more, that little bottle vanished before our eyes, having exploded from the heat.  

The art department had another bottle, of course, but by then even the agency and client understood that enough was enough. 

You have to take the bad with the good whatever your path in Hollywood, but the equation in commericials was favorable enough to keep me there for nearly twenty years.  I was a happy sell-out, and truth be told, would stayed right there if not for the seismic changes that rocked the industry in the late 90's. Long before New York, Louisiana, Georgia, and New Mexico began offering fat tax breaks to lure LA productions out of California, runaway production to Canada was already well underway as TV Movies, feature films, and finally commercials chased the government subsidies and favorable currency exchange rates across the Northern Border. One by one, all my commercial clients abandoned the US to film in Canada until the Hollywood well ran dry. Unable to land enough commercial gigs to survive, my DP took a job shooting 2nd Unit on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, while I put my light meters away, strapped on a tool belt, and took an opportunity to work in multi-camera sitcoms as a juicer. 

I wasn't happy about it, but when you decide to roll the dice in the free-lance jungle, you'd better be ready to roll with the punches -- or in the words of Confucious, be a "green reed which bends in the wind." And truth be told, it all worked out in the end. I had a lot of fun in sitcoms, where the hours were much shorter and the working conditions infinitely less abusive than in single camera work. My income took a major hit, of course, but toiling all those seasons in television enabled me to accumulate enough hours to qualify for the industry health plan in retirement (which has made a huge difference), along with an anemic but steady monthly pension check now that my days on set are over. 

Do I ever wonder what would have happened if that Key Grip hadn't called way back when? Sure. Another door of opportunity might have opened in Hollywood, but maybe not -- in which case it's possible I'd have left Hollywood and the film industry to do... what? God only knows, but there isn't much point in such speculation. What happened, happened, so all the what-ifs really don't matter.

Still, the question lingers: did that (doubtless apocryphal) warning at the UCLA Film School have it right: did I really sell out my cinematic dreams by fleeing feature films for the world of commercials? The earnest and enthusiastic (but naive and utterly ignorant) 26 year old who rode into LA on a motorcycle back in 1977 might say "yes" -- and he'd definitely be horrified to learn his fate was to spend the final fifteen years of his career in the world of multi-camera sitcoms.  

So maybe I did sell out. After all, I never made another film of my own after finishing that documentary in school... but "selling out" is such a harsh, unforgiving term. I prefer the word "compromise," which is something we all do to make the best of what comes our way in life.  As the Rolling Stones long ago put it"You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometime, you find you get what you need."  

In your early twenties, the idea of leading a life of artistic povetry (see: La Bohème)  can hold a certain romantic appeal, but that fades in the ensuing confrontation with reality. Forty-plus years later, I'm comfortable with the choices I made, and have no regrets about leaving feature films behind. Making films is just one of many ways to tell stories, and toiling in the vineyards of commercials and sitcoms allowed me time to scratch that itch that by writing -- a creative outlet considerably less economically and physically bruising than filmmaking. At the keyboard, I've got everything I need -- no cameras, lights, crew, or actors are required. 

Here, I'm the director, and I can live with that.


* And of course, the astonishingly prolific Andy Warhol, who seemed to have no interest in production value or quality acting, but pushed the boundaries of cinema in his own unique way.

**If you've never seen Murmur of the Heart, you've missed something special.

*** Around $30K in today's dollars.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Just for the Hell of It: Episode 47




I wore this hat when working on set the last few years while belly-crawling towards the finish line of my Hollywood adventure, and still do now that I'm retired. Hey, it's a good hat, and a fitting memento of my last fifteen years in the industry. The only person to take notice thus far was Matteo Troncone, who served as writer, producer, director, cameraman, editor, and on-screen talent for his wonderful documentary Arrangiarsi!. A few minutes into our conversation, I saw his eyes shift focus to the CBS Studio Center logo for a moment, then he smiled.

"You're in the business, yes?" he asked.

Well, yeah -- I was, anyway.

On a recent hunting-and-gathering expedition to the nearest Trader Joe's, I unloaded my basket at the check stand, whereupon the checker -- a robust middle-aged redhead with a big smile -- took one look at my hat and asked: "Hollywood or Studio City?"

My jaw dropped.

Turns out she worked as a production accountant in Hollywood for several years until her husband landed an offer he couldn't refuse in the SF Bay Area, where they moved and are now living happily ever after. While the rest of the customers in line tapped their feet impatiently, we compared notes as to the horrors of working for Disney and cheap-ass cable networks -- and for the first time in well over a year, I was on the same wavelength with somebody who understood because she'd been there.

And I have to tell you, that felt good...

*************************************

So I drive into town the other day to pick up the mail at the post office and buy some groceries, and what do I see but a film crew set up and workng in front of the only book store in this tiny little town.  They had all the basics -- lights, cameras, equipment trucks, a couple of dollies, and a decent sized crew, complete with two Highway Patrol cars blocking off the street out front and a small army of earnest young PAs. I introduced myself to one of the juicers, a lanky, pleasant young man who told me it was a Netflix show called The OA.  I suspect he was about to give me the "It's a mayonaise commercial" brushoff, but he perked up when I mentioned I'm a recent retiree from 728. Turns out we knew a few of the same Bay Area crew people from my days working up here back in the late 90's -- some of whom are still working. Yes, it is indeed a small world.

I watched for a while with the rest of the curious civilians as those juicers and grips stood by their gear in the late afternoon sun, waiting for an order to crackle over their walkies... but that was enough. I was glad to be able to climb back in my car and drive on home rather than be one of them grinding out the long day. Been there, done that, and I neither need nor desire to do it again.

***************************************

Another blast from the past arrived in the form of this meditation on what was once an essential tool for everyone working in movies, television, commercials, or industrial films in LA: the Thomas Brothers Guide -- a map book that could get you all the way out to East Bumfuck and back. In the good old/bad old days, any freelance Hollywood Work-Bot without a well-worn Thomas Brothers in his/her car wasn't worth hiring... but then came the internet, GPS, smart phones, WAZE, and all the other digital hula-hoops modern society has embraced like manna from heaven. That's not all bad, mind you -- I'm not going to start waving my cane and shouting "Get off my lawn!" just yet -- but I can't shake the feeling that we're losing something with such utter dependence on satellites, wireless everything, and the increasingly interconnected digital technology that's just one malicious-or-accidental electromagnetic pulse or solar shitstorm away from vanishing into the ether.

Then what?

Although I don't have WAZE, I've used my phone to guide me through unfamiliar landscapes more than once, but I still feel more comfortable with a good old Thomas Guide. The one time I used WAZE  in LA was while driving from a rental yard in the far hinterlands of the San Fernando Valley over to Pasadena for a crew lunch at the Pie 'n Burger, where the burgers are great and the pies are better.*

So there I was at the wheel as one of my younger, vastly more tech-savvy crew mates rode shotgun, eyes glued to his trusty smart phone. The tinny voice of WAZE guided us unerringly through a dense labyrinth of unlikely alleys and side-streets in a neighborhood that may as well have been Novosibirsk for all I knew -- and lo, suddenly we were on the 134 heading east.

I'll admit, I was impressed.  But a few miles later, the little WAZE voice became frantic.

"Turn right! Turn right!! Turn right!!!"

Visibly distressed, my young compadre squirmed in the seat, staring at his phone.

"Mike -- we have to turn right.  It says to turn right. We're gonna miss the ---"

"Relax," I said, cutting him off with a wave of my hand, keeping a steady course.

His shoulders slumped as the offramp WAZE insisted we take veered off to the right, then vanished. Apparently the old fool at the wheel was even dumber and more out of it than he thought. Why the hell hadn't he decided to go in one of the other cars...

Ten minutes later, I pulled up to the Pie 'n Burger and parked. WAZE might not know the way, but I did -- after all, I'd been there the week before to pick up a pie. Hey, I may be old, but I can still find the North Star without a smart phone, which might come in handy some day as I roll my walker across the ruined landscape of the post-digital apocalypse.

Or not...

*************************************

Next up, a lively and highly entertaining interview with Danny Trejo, who -- last I heard -- had opened a vegan burrito stand somewhere in Hollywood, among other things. With a cratered face that is the stuff of nightmares, Trejo has become something of a legend in Hollywood, and for good reason -- which you'll understand when you listen to his story.

It's a good one, kiddos, so check it out.

*************************************

Back when I was still flapping my newbie wings trying to get a career off the ground, Michael Cimino was hard at work shoveling dirt on his Oscar-winning resume with Heaven's Gate -- at the time, one of the biggest flops in Hollywood history. As usual, there's more to the story than a high-flying ego that traced the arc of Icarus, leaving only buzzards to circle over the charred husk of a once glittering career. Shit happens, and it happened to him -- but if this piece of revisionist history is to be believed, maybe Cimino got a bad rap on that one.

I don't know. I saw the original, cut-to-the-bone theatrical release, and although it certainly didn't slay me, it wasn't all that bad. Haven't seen the restored version, so I can't say if it's a masterpiece. Maybe one of you will see it and tell me what's what.

**************************************

For another fascinating interview, listen to newbie director Jordan Peele (now an Oscar-winning screenwriter) discuss how he embraced fear to make the surprise hit of 2017, Get Out.  I've always liked Peele since the days of Key and Peele, and this interview only increased my respect for the man. Intelligence, creativity, and doggedness -- along with a great sense of humor -- are one hell of a package.

**************************************

Last but not least, here's another of Rob Long's Martini Shot commentaries on modern digital technology, actors, and exactly what sort of faces we'll end up seeing on the big and small screen of the future -- which is almost here. At three minutes and counting, this one is well worth your time.

And now a brief addendum for those of you who might have, once upon a time, signed up for automatic e-mail delivery of these posts directly into your e-inbox. I did too, just to make sure it was working every week, which it did... until it didn't -- after which some of you probably assumed the blog had retired along with me. Not so. Granted, I'm posting just once a month now rather than every Sunday, but I plan to keep at it until the well runs dry or the book (yes, I'm back to working on the blog-book again) is done.

It seems that Google (which runs Blogger, the host site for this and many other blogs) had changed their software that controlled the automatic post delivery, but they didn't bother to tell anybody -- or at least they didn't tell me. Suddenly I'm reminded of the secret Doomsday Machine in Dr. Strangelove...

At any rate, I signed up again just to see if Google's new software works -- which it doesn't, so fuck it.  I guess you'll just have to click on over here on the first Sunday of every month after 12:01 p.m. Pacific Standard Time.

Same as it ever was.


* If you live in LA and haven't yet made the pilgrimage to the Pie 'n Burger, do so.  You won't be sorry.