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, 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."

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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 how 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 from Deadline Hollywood on 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 was a trade that worked for 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.

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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.

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