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, December 2, 2018

Magic

                                  Ricky Jay, June 26, 1946 -- November 24, 2018


Magic is hard to come by in day-to-day life, where the relentless grind of making a living amid circumstances that range from tolerable to absurd to brutal can be enough to make anyone want to turn off the lights and go into a wake-me-when-it's-over hibernation.

That's what makes magic so special, and why those who can perform it are such precious gifts to the rest of us, using their hard-earned skills to divert our attention from the grim realities of life by offering us a brief glimpse of the sublime... and it's why the recent death of Ricky Jay cuts so deep.  Our world is in a bad way these days wherever you look, and it doesn't take an Einstein to see that things are likely to get a whole lot worse before they get better -- if they ever do. In such fractious, uncertain times, we need a little magic more than ever, and few people were able to conjure magic out of thin air quite like Ricky Jay.

Hollywood likes to talk about "movie magic," but those special effects and post-production CGI miracles hardly compare to the real thing: a live person performing magic right before our eyes. The immediacy and wonder of that experience refreshes and nourishes your soul in a way that's, well, magical.

NPR compiled some interviews with Jay this week (you can listen here), and "D" over at Dollygrippery posted a link on FB to a film directed by David Mamet called Ricky Jay and 52 Assistants  -- it's a real treat. Although I was lucky enough to visit the Magic Castle before I left LA, and once saw Penn and Teller perform live in a show that was absolutely jaw-dropping, I never got to see Ricky Jay live. My loss, that.

I did, however, experience the up-close-and-personal wizardry of Apollo Robbins while working on an otherwise miserable job, an experience as astonishing as it was unforgettable -- which is why I'm reposting the story today, which was originally posted ten years ago in the depths of the WGA strike. Hey, it's December, the month of Christmas, and I think we need all the magic we can get right now. Although the day itself is more than three weeks away,  I'll say it anyway:

Merry Christmas!



                       A Little Magic on the Boulevard

We were all dog-tired as darkness enveloped Hollywood Boulevard, our third location of a long day that started out on a helipad atop a building in downtown LA, then moved to a nightclub in Hollywood, and now was finishing up out here on the Boulevard of Broken Dreams. With two grips, a gaffer and a juicer (that would be me), we weren’t exactly flush with manpower. Thank God for the production assistants, four young men and women without whom we’d never have made it this far.

This whole job had been depressingly stupid right from the get-go, starting with a very ambitious schedule that lacked the budget to do things right. Nearing the end of Day Two (of three), we’d emptied the truck to film in the nightclub, and were now running as light as possible, with only a handful of low wattage lamps powered by a “putt-putt” -- a 1500 watt Honda generator small enough for one man to carry. So here we were, tired and pissed-off, looking at another three hours of work on Hollywood Boulevard at night and without a cop. Normally, a shoot like this would include one or two off-duty cops to establish some semblance of order and keep the roaming legions of crazies away. But that would involve spending money, something this cheap-ass production company simply refused to do. Instead, they’d decided to hope for the best and rely on the crew to make it happen out there on the sidewalk.

In other words, we were winging it.

I don’t have much patience for this sort of tight-fisted, close-your-eyes-and-pray optimism anymore. It’s one thing for a no-budget student film to break all the rules shooting on a wing and a prayer, but those projects are done by kids who don’t know any better -- indeed, that’s how they learn. It's something else altogether for a supposedly professional production company to pull this kind of crap. Still, sometimes you just have to take whatever you can get, and right now this bullshit job is it.

It’s probably twenty-five years since I’ve done a shoot out on Hollywood Boulevard, but things haven’t changed much. There weren’t nearly so many tattoos back then, nor anything like the rings and studs kids stick through their ears, noses, lips, cheeks, tongues, and belly buttons these days. Half the young people out here look they'd tripped and done a face-plant in their dad’s tackle box. But some things never change. The street still boils with a sense of barely-restrained chaos, as if some kind of human missile might come hurtling out of the crowd at any moment. And they’re out there, all right -- the drunks, the drug-addled, the terminally insane -- people whose lives have been so warped and bent by circumstance, disappointment, and chemical imbalance that they often seem more animal than human: quasi-feral creatures feeding off the wild, carnal energy rising up from the pavement. For them, the sidewalk is a movable feast, their living room, kitchen, and home entertainment center all all in one. Out here, it’s not easy to shake the feeling that Hollywood Boulevard belongs to them, not us.

Then again, we have lights and a camera, the very things that made Hollywood and its namesake boulevard famous in the first place. That means we belong here too, and suddenly I understand that we’re just another act in tonight’s floor show, and thus as much a part of all this bubbling entropical madness as those wild-eyed zombies staggering down the sidewalk, cursing at demons no one else can see.

We begin to set up the equipment, and it's not long before our bright lights have drawn a crowd in the midst of this human zoo. In minutes, we’re encircled by a growing ring of curious kids, tourists, and street crazies. The crowd gapes at the camera, the lights, and our “talent” – in this case, two sharply dressed young men and one very attractive, extremely voluptuous young lady wearing a stunningly form-fitting dress that could -- in the words of Raymond Chandler --“make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window.”

The zombies like her. They like her a lot, staring at her like hungry lions at feeding time. Then again, so is every other heterosexual male in the vicinity – our crew included. I’m looking too, of course, but strive to maintain some degree of professional courtesy, even out here on the Boulevard of Anything Goes.

This is a weird job for me, shooting promos for a reality show the name of which nobody ever bothered to mention. The name hardly matters, since I'll never see the show, but this is the same kind of non-union, no-benefits, 12 hour-rate job I did when I first started in the business. Not exactly the same, of course – back then this would have been a “flat rate” job, meaning we'd be paid a certain amount (and no more) regardless of how long the day dragged on. Now, at least, there’s a good chance the producer will pull the plug at the 12 hour point, since there's only one thing these low-rent cheapies hate more than paying a decent rate to begin with -- and that's paying overtime. But after so many years of doing features, commercials, television, and music videos (the ultimate in ridiculous, high-decibel stupidity) – jobs that were for the most part professionally produced on well-controlled location or sound stage sets -- this run-and-gun style of filming feels like an enormous step backwards. It’s embarrassing, in a way. But when you take a job, you do it the best you can, regardless.

Not having a cop to watch our backs bothers me, though, especially in a day and age when every pair of crazy eyes might well be packing a weapon. With each new location featuring fresh talent – real people, rather than actors – we don’t get the chance establish any true sense of rapport. This adds to the loose, disjointed feeling on set. A film crew usually functions as a tight unit, but here, we’re all just flying by the seat of our pants.

It feels all wrong.

The director picks a spot on the sidewalk between a liquor store and a ratty black motor home parked on the boulevard. Presumably this is to shield the sound man from traffic noise. It’s rush hour now, and the boulevard is jammed with cars, a slow-motion river of steel, plastic, and glass creeping along in fits and starts as if by some sort of automotive peristalsis. I understand the director’s strategy, but it doesn’t seem to help. The cool night air reverberates with the pounding, window-rattling pulse of rap music blasting from many of those cars, while inside the dull black motor home, a petulant young woman glares at us as her frantically barking pit bull adds his neurotic voice to the cacophony of the streets.

But here we are and here we’ll shoot.

Featured in this setup are three young, up-and-coming con artists – a card shark, a sleight-of-hand specialist, and the young lady whose most obvious talent is her shimmering presence. As we start filming, the crowd presses in like a mob of extras from “Day of the Locust.” With no cop to hold them at bay, our on-camera “stars” remain unprotected from this growing mass of twisted humanity. I can’t tell if this bothers them -- all three seem comfortable performing in public -- but the rudely unprofessional nature of this situation bothers me. Besides, these drooling zombies are getting too close to the lights now, so I move in behind the lamp closest to the camera, barely an arm’s length from our on-camera talent. This puts my back to the crowd, preventing them from getting close enough to knock the light over, and provides a physical and psychological buffer -- however tenuous – between the talent and the mob. Filming in public is always an “us vs. them” situation, with the crew and actors on one side, and the public on the other. Although these three young people aren’t really actors, and are new to the shoot, they’re still part of “us.”

The tourists are merely curious – here on a Hollywood vacation, they’ve had the good fortune to stumble across a real live film crew in action. A moon-faced man in a check shirt and loud shorts leans in to ask a question. I feel his presence before I see him.

“Are they anybody famous?” he asks.

It’s an honest question, but I can’t really enlighten him.

“Not yet,” I shrugged. More or less satisfied, he slides back to his wife and kids.

Others stare with something other than casual curiosity. Cameras do strange things to some people – those whose disturbed personalities carry a free-floating charge of hostility that, like electricity, always seeks a ground. For some reason, these troubled souls see the camera as a lightening rod for all their pent-up frustrations and grievances against the world – and they head for it like a moth to the flame. Such people can be scary.

The inevitable presence of these ticking human time bombs is one very good reason to have a cop on any shoot out in public. When the crazies see a cop, they generally stay away. Without the presence of a cop (and sometimes even with it), they might wander in front of the camera and begin disrobing, as happened on a shoot I recently did out on the Venice Strand. There was nothing playful about that particular striptease, either – the guy was a big, bearded bear of a man, full of a dark brooding hostility. It took three cops to get him off the set and back into his clothes. That was an exception, though -- a crazy will usually just keep walking back and forth behind the actors, mugging like an overgrown imbecile for the cheering audience inside his head.

Tonight we’re lucky. Only one crazy orbits in for a few minutes, stalking back and forth along the sidewalk with his arm extended, jabbing his thumb down to express his righteous indignation. It’s easy enough for the cameraman to frame him out of the shot, and after a few angry passes, the lunatic spins off into the night.

We film the card-shark first, performing card tricks while the other two pose behind him. Next up is the sleight-of hand artist, rolling a quarter along the knuckles of one hand over and over again as if the shiny coin is flowing down an assembly line. The guy’s good -- he makes poker chips vanish into the ether, then turns one chip into four with the flick of his wrist. I’m standing close enough to see how he’s doing these tricks, but still, it’s impressive.

Everything stops as the camera reloads. The sleight-of-hand guy steps close and asks to see my watch. Taking my left wrist in both hands, he points to the band and shakes his head.

“This kind is hard to get off,” he says, tugging on the watchband to demonstrate that it can’t be slipped over my wrist.

I nod, wondering what this has to do with anything. He gives me a long penetrating look, as if peering deep into my soul.

“You have something of value in your right front pocket, don’t you?”

“My car keys.”

“May I see them?”

I reach deep into the pocket, pull out the keys, and dangle them in the air. But he’s not looking at my keys – he’s holding his right arm up to show me a watch attached to his wrist. It looks a lot like mine. Then I realize it is my watch, and that my left wrist is suddenly bare.

My jaw drops. While I was digging for the car keys, he managed to remove the watch from my wrist and fasten it to his own. It couldn’t have taken three seconds, but I didn’t feel or notice a thing.

I laugh out loud. This guy is good.

He grins, savoring the moment – the rush –then shows me how he did it, his thumb and forefinger deftly sliding the band under the loop and out of the hasp, hook and all, in one fluid motion. Something very difficult to do suddenly looks simple, but I know damned well it’s not. I shake my head in astonishment – and in that moment, suddenly recall why I got into this silly business in the first place, why I was drawn like all the other moths to the flame of Hollywood. I wanted to get closer to the magic, to participate in the process, and learn how it’s done. In some ways, it worked out. There’s an undeniable thrill that comes from being part of something that really works up on the screen. That hasn’t happened often, since most of the features I did were crap. Hard though it may be to believe, a few of the hundreds of commercials I worked on were actually pretty good, and seeing those the first time was rather cool. But it's a long time since I've seen any magic in this town. Until tonight.

With the camera reloaded, we finally finished up the filming, threw the equipment back in the truck, then headed home to prepare for another day. But I couldn’t get that little display of magic out of my mind. Truth be told, the real magicians in the Industry are the writers who create the scripts, and the actors who turn those scripts into performance. With rare exceptions, the rest is mostly a matter of mechanics and problem-solving: running The Machine. Highly skilled producers, directors, camera people, juicers, grips and everybody else who make up The Machine are essential – without us, the magic can’t happen -- but the real source lies further upstream.

I’m just a juicer. I haul the cables, hook up the power, and set the lights. I can’t make the right cards pop up from a deck, or cause a watch to vanish and reappear right under the victim’s nose, nor could I deliver one of those spellbinding speeches from “Hamlet” or “Macbeth,” much less one from “The Sopranos.” The closest I can come to making magic is working in the shadows deep within the Dream Factory. But it’s hard and heavy work in there, and getting harder all the time. After a while you forget what magic is anymore, and how powerful it can be. It was nice to be reminded of that out there on Hollywood Boulevard.

It turned a bad day good – just like magic.