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, 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.

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 appreciate these memories, 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 had the  chance to look back and enjoy the long view. Another of them died just last week of a heart attack,  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 this 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 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.