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 4, 2020

Just for the Hell of It: Episode 61

 

Photo by Lindha Narvaez 

I'm not a fan of awards shows. Yes, I used to watch the Oscars back in the early days of my Hollywood adventure -- particularly the year a film I worked on won -- but it wasn't long before the appeal of staring at the Toob for long hours of lugubrious, blubbering tedium faded to black. As for the Emmys, Golden Globes, and Grammys ... no. Whatever respect I might have held for the Grammys (not much, I admit) vanished like an Etch-a-Sketch turned upside-down and shaken hard when the fraudster pair known as Milli Vanilli won.

Having been there once, I totally understand why those who worked on the shows up for consideration pay close attention.  For veteran actors, an Oscar, Golden Globe, or Emmy can be the capstone on a great career, while younger thespians who grab a trophy will find themselves catapulted into the limelight, for better or worse.  I remain mystified that a large viewing audience with no direct connection to the actors, artists, or shows in contention cares enough about who wins and loses to watch any of these broadcasts, but the list of things I don't understand about Hollywood and the entertainment industry grows longer every year.  

Still, some of the writing about and reporting on these awards shows can be very good, and this year's pick comes from LA Times television critic Robert Lloyd.

The World is on Fire: Why Should We Care About the Emmys?

Here's a taste:

"This is not a normal year. The West Coast is on fire. A thousand Americans a day die from a disease much of the rest of the industrialized world has been able to keep relatively in check. There is fighting in the streets.  A television-personality politician is attempting to stay in office by creating exactly the sort of drama on which television thrives, and we are at war over things we should agree on -- like science and racism -- as we sit before our multiple screens and try to process or ignore what might be the end of democracy, locally, and of the world as we know it, globally. Screaming through one's waking hours, and even in one's sleep, does not seem in inappropriate response."

Robert Lloyd is always worth reading, but this one is particularly on point. Check it out.

The popularity of the Emmys is fading, though, and sank to new lows this year.  Some of this was doubtless due to Covid restrictions that turned what has always been a big, glittering spectacle into a glorified Zoom session, but maybe the viewing public is finally growing weary of these orgies of self-congratulation.  

Or not. Who knows?  Certainly not this rapidly aging ex-juicer.

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After several months of effort, the unions and producers in Hollywood finally managed to agree on how to handle the Covid crisis as the industry gets back to work and production resumes in earnest.  The IA seems to be serious about crews following the safety protocols, so maybe it'll work.  It won't all be smooth sailing, of course, but hopefully no more than a few bumps in the road. 

Up here in the woods, I've had a habit of calling one or another of my industry friends every Thursday, when I saddle up and ride twenty miles to a weekly Farmer's Market to load up on fresh corn, sweet ripe tomatoes, and whatever else looks good -- and where my cell phone gets four bars instead of none.  Life amid the trees is good, but there are disadvantages.  Until last week, I usually able to reach somebody in LA, because they were all at home wondering when the work bell would ring.  Now my calls go straight to voice mail, and I have a one-way conversation with a digital robot. Ah well, bad for me, good for them, and such is life.  I just hope they all manage to stay safe and healthy.

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Unlike many, if not most, of my former co-workers, I've never been much of a football fan.  Sure, I hopped on the bandwagon of my home planet Raiders and 49ers during their championship years -- both teams were fun to watch back in those seemingly innocent pre-CTE days -- but as each team eventually faltered, so did my interest. Nowadays, I tune in the Super Bowl every year (hey, it's my duty as an American) but that's about it. Still, I was aware of Gale Sayers, the astonishing slippery running back of the Chicago Bears, who once scored six touchdowns in a game against the 49ers. 

I mention this because Sayers  -- who died last week -- was portrayed in Brian's Song, a weepy 1971 television movie that I never saw. Being in my early twenties at the time, I had other things to do that were more compelling than watching TV movies, most of which sucked thanks to low budgets, punishingly fast shooting schedules, and scripts that were neutered and dumbed-down to meet the middle-of-the-road demands of the broadcast networks. 

I never thought much about the movie or the story of Brian Piccolo and Gayle Sayers, but after reading Mary McNamara's excellent piece in the LA Times this week, maybe I should have.  It might be locked behind a paywall, so here's a link she included that tells how the film came to be made in the first place -- how relative unknown Jimmy Caan landed the role of Brian Piccolo instead of major movie star Burt Reynolds, how Billy Dee Williams got the role of Gale Sayers instead of Lou Gossett, and how a simple bit of voice-over turned a rough-cut disaster into a classic that apparently still brings out the handkerchiefs fifty years later.  It's just a few minutes long, but quite a story, so do yourself a favor and check it out.

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Time for a reality check.  While scrolling through a FB group where crew people tell their stories, I came across a post asking if anybody has nightmares stemming from bad experiences on set.  As you might expect, this sparked a rash of horror stories describing film job misery -- and we've all got a few of those stories. They were entertaining to read, but this is the one that stopped me.

"My job was six straight years in Iraq and Afghanistan before I came home and stumbled into the movies. Yes, there have been moments when I got frustrated and angry, but they were short-lived and inconsequential.  A bad day on set is better than a good day over here."

The film and television industry can drive you crazy with top-down incompetence, egos on steroids, and a blithe disregard for basic human decency, but as the saying goes, "We're not curing cancer here" -- nor are we killing people, except on a really bad day.  As frustrating and exhausting as a tough day/week/month on set can be, it's better than being run like a greyhound in an Amazon distribution center, or chained to a desk under the fluorescent glow of some soulless cube farm, or toiling in the fields under a blistering sun picking crops for day wages --  and it sure as hell beats living and fighting in an active war zone, where every day on the job might be your last. The Covid restrictions and safety protocols add another dimension to the burdens of working on set, but humans are infinitely adaptable, and it'll all become part of the routine before long.*

So when things go sideways on the job, and you start wondering why the hell you got into this business in the first place, remember these words: "A bad day on set is better than a good day over there."   

Stay safe, everybody.


* Yeah, I know -- that's easy for me to say, given that I don't have to work on set anymore, but I did my time in the trenches. Your turn now.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

Just for the Hell of It: Episode 60



                        Where were these when I needed them?

While working my first feature as a juicer -- after doing two low-budget movies as a grip -- one of my tasks was to bring drinks to the Gaffer on set: and by "drinks," I don't mean water or soda.  At over six feet tall and close to 300 pounds, the Gaffer was an immense Falstaffean character who had a prodigious appetite for beer, and the ability to continue working unfazed by the effects of alcohol.* 

He was also one of the smartest, funniest, and most well-read people I've ever met, and thus a living, breathing reminder not to judge a book by its cover.

Every day as we neared the 10 hour point, with no end in sight, he'd tell me to bring him a "Coke-a-Lobe." I'd head for the truck, dig an ice-cold Michelobe from the cooler, then carefully pour the beer into an empty, well-rinsed Coke can.  Thus camouflaged well enough to make the captain of a Q ship proud, the gaffer could sip beer on set without raising any eyebrows. 

A small funnel would have made my task easier and kept the floor of the truck free of spilled beer, but something like this would have simplified everything. 

Ah well, those were simpler times -- and a lot more fun.  

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Speaking of fun (and how much not-fun working on set will be in the Age of Covid), I've been hearing from a few people who've gone back to work on set in Hollywood and beyond. Those reports are all over the map -- some safety protocols are doable, if onerous, but don't have much of a back-up plan if  crew people start getting sick. Unless a production has a few crew members paid to sit "on the bench" -- who have been tested, isolated, and are ready to step in if somebody of first unit comes down with Covid -- any show that suffers infection will probably have to shut down for a while. Other protocols sound like a joke right from the start, with untrained PAs serving as "Covid Safety Monitors" to enforce poorly thought-out rules and sloppy procedures that undercut the whole concept of set safety  in the first place.  The latter are doubtless the work of producers just trying to cover their legal asses when things go wrong, which will happen.  Plans built on a foundation of hope alone aren't going to work.  Everything will have to go right if the film industry is to fully succeed in going back to work, with crews and actors following all the rules and continuing to test negative. Human nature being what it is, positive tests  -- and worse -- will happen sooner or later, so the question remains: what then?

We'll find out.  

At least one major production is already underway in England  (another chapter in the apparently endless series of Jurassic Park sequels), from which the industry will doubtless learn much about the realities of working in the midst of this pandemic.  More are gearing up in Hollywood, Atlanta, and beyond. Where there's a will -- and money to be made -- there's a way, so production will resume on a larger scale, but it won't be easy, nor will it be much fun. 

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Anybody who's occupied a bar stool here at BS&T for more than a few years knows how I feel about stunts.  I admire their work, and have total respect for stunt people, but after witnessing a stunt man fall to his death early in my career, watching stunts has been a hold-my-breath proposition ever since.  Still, the inventiveness and creativity of stunt coordinators never fails to blow me away.  After re-watching William Friedkin's To Live and Die in LA recently, I checked out the special features, where Buddy Joe Hooker (the stunt coordinator) discussed how they filmed the epic car chase in that movie, which took nearly a month of work to put a few minutes up on screen. It's worth your time to watch the entire twenty minute interview on the DVD, but meanwhile, here's a teaser from UTube.

And if you like that, you might like this, which shows how big stunts were done before the current era of CGI magic, but to me that makes it all the more impressive.

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This is a fascinating piece, complete with jaw-dropping clips that demonstrate some astonishing advances in the digital realm that have revolutionized the visual arena of the gaming world, and are now moving into the realm of film and television. Much of the jargon and technology discussed here is over my head, but it's clear that another dimension in the digital revolution is well underway.  The author posits that this was all in the digital pipeline, but the new realities of the Covid crisis accelerated their use in mainstream Hollywood, and will have ramifications that could shake the foundations of the industry as we've known it. Ready or not, a new and very different world is on the way, so those of you young enough to have another twenty or thirty years of industry work ahead might want to take a look at what's coming.  Revolutions generate a lot of collateral damage, and whatever your chosen craft, you'll need to keep your eyes open to avoid ending up roadkill rotting alongside the digital highway.

Another eye-opener is this smart, fascinating analysis of how creativity and originality have worked together throughout human history -- Everything is a Remix is definitely worth your time. 

This excellent piece from NPR discusses how Hollywood and the film industry changed in the wake of the atomic bombs used to end WW II.  You can listen for eight minutes, or read the text -- your choice.

In this typically thoughtful commentary, LA Times television critic Robert Lloyd discusses the good and bad about TV in the age of Covid, suggesting that Hollywood might want to hang on to some of the former rather than plunge headlong back into pre-pandemic modes of production -- if and when a vaccine allows. He adds a cautionary note on the dangers of any such prognostication:  

"Of course, these days it doesn't profit a futurist, or any moderately sensitive soul, to look more than a week ahead; I wouldn't dare to actually predict what television in 2021 will look like. We may be all too busy fighting in the streets to watch it anyway."**

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Although the heat (and a truly god-awful fire season) will continue to haunt us here on the West Coast for another two or three months, the arrival of September signals that the summer is coming to an end. With the Covid Autumn looming, and what promises to be a grim winter of modern discontent, it seems fitting to close this post with one of the greatest scenes Steven Spielberg ever put on film. Why, you might ask?  Hey, I just love this scene, that's all -- and that's enough.




* A year or two later, while working on a Chuckwagon dog food commercial, we took a one hour walkaway lunch, heading to a liquor store for a six pack of Heineken, then a nearby Astro Burger.  In the time it took me to eat my burger and drink half a beer, he knocked back the other five bottles without any apparent effect.

** This piece may be entombed behind a paywall, so if the Times won't allow you to read it, shoot me an e-mail at the link under the gloves and I'll send it to you.


Sunday, August 2, 2020

We're All in this Alone


                   ICU nurse after working a six-day, sixty-five hour week

Pardon me while I wander off the reservation here and climb atop the soap box. Okay, it's really an apple box, but you get the point. Take a good look at the face of this nurse, who's just finished working the kind of long, grueling week all of us in the film and television industry can relate to. We know what it's like to work those hours, but instead of dealing with endless problems on set thanks to the indecisiveness of certain directors (and others) with more ego than talent, this nurse struggled all week in an ICU ward to keep an endless stream of Covid-stricken people alive while trying to prevent herself from becoming the next victim.  To remain relatively safe, she wore tight, restrictive, uncomfortable safety gear that made it hard to do anything, and as each day wore on, was more and more painful. Look at the bruising on her face, the strain and exhaustion, the thousand-yard stare.

This nurse is one of many soldiers fighting on the front lines of a war that's killed 150,000 Americans thus far, and will claim countless more before it's over.  People like her are all that stand between the rest of us and a lingering, painfully miserable death from the virus, but as we in the film and television industry know all too well, working such long hours takes a heavy toll. Although the exact numbers are unclear, somewhere between five hundred and a thousand medical workers -- EMTs, nurses, physician's assistants, and doctors -- have been killed by Covid thus far, and more will fall.

Things have gone from bad to worse over the past month. Infections are spiking in hotspots all over the country as basic common sense is ignored, challenged, and politicized by short-sighted, self-serving "leaders" at the national and state level who are pursing an agenda that ignores science, decency, and the public safety of our communities, states, and the country as a whole.

What the actual fuck is going on?  How the hell did a simple, elemental safety measure like wearing a cloth mask in public to help prevent the spread of a highly-infectious lethal virus become a red/blue, clenched-fist, brain-dead "don't-tread-on-me" issue?  I've seen a lot of stupid things happen in the name of politics over the past six decades, but this absolutely takes the cake.

Our doctors, nurses, and medical support people can't keep working at this pace indefinitely, facing a tsunami of misery and death every day -- nobody can.  Sooner or later they'll break down emotionally and physically, and will no longer be able to report for work at our ICUs and hospitals.  Our entire medical system is at risk of being strained to the breaking point, and if it crumbles, what then?

We'll be fucked, that's what. For all the havoc Covid has created, people still need urgent medical care from other causes. They get hurt in accidents, have heart attacks and strokes, are suddenly stricken with appendicitis, tonsillitis, broken arms, legs, hips, necks, and backs, all of which require treatment in hospitals. So when some over-caffeinated asshole runs a red light because he/she was yakking on his/her goddamned phone, then smashes into your little Toyota/Honda/whatever in his/her giant fucking Range Rover, an ambulance will take your broken and bleeding self to the nearest Emergency Room, which these days is likely to be overflowing with Covid patients. There, doctors and/or surgeons will do their level best to take care of you, but even if they manage to patch you up, every minute you remain in that hospital raises your risk of contracting the virus -- and once on a ventilator, your chances of surviving shrink to the coin flip of slim-to-none.

You don't want that. None of us does, so for fuck's sake, wear a goddamned mask.  This is not a political issue, it's not a mark of red or blue, conservative or liberal -- it's a matter of survival, for all of us. Things will not return to anything like "normal" until Covid is no longer a major threat, and the only way we civilians can help in that struggle is to avoid getting the virus.  Yes, washing hands, disinfecting, and social distancing are part of it, but the primary mode of protection is to wear a mask in public.

"We're all in this together" has been the operative cliché since this virus hit, and that's essentially true. We all want this to be over so everybody can go back to work again -- and to bars, restaurants, clubs,  movie theaters, and the beach. We want to shake hands and hug our family and friends, then sit around a table for a meal together.  The current situation sucks hugely, in different ways, for all of us, young and old -- but shit happens in life that we just have to accept and deal with. We have no choice.  Sticking our heads in the sand to wish the Covid virus away is not an option. Turning the tide in this war will ultimately hinge on the ability of medical science and Big Pharma to develop, manufacture, and distribute effective vaccines to immunize us in the future, but that will be then, and this is now.  Until that happy day, our only defense is to avoid getting sick in the first place, and the simplest way to do that is to wear a mask in public.  That means each and every one of us putting on a mask whenever we leave home and enter the public space. You and me as individuals, each making the decision to do the right thing for good of everybody: we're all in this alone ... together.

So follow the Nike mantra: just do it.




Okay, climbing down off the soap/apple box. After an extended shutdown, a few productions are underway these days, as the industry cautiously dips its toes into the chilly waters of our dark new reality.  In this series of posts, Evan Luzi (who runs the excellent camera blog The Black and Blue) offers a vivid, thorough description of his experiences working several relatively small jobs under the Covid safety protocols, and is definitely worth your attention.

The following are a few observations from an anonymous crew member on what it's like working a larger shoot, reprinted here with permission from (and thanks to) Crew Stories, on Facebook, a member-only group where industry veterans share stories about shows and shoots they've worked.  This one was a two day gig on a sound stage in Hollywood, filming with a cast and crew of fifty people.

              Photo courtesy of anonymous - not the person who wrote the following.

It's crazy not seeing people's faces. You have to smile with your eyes and eyebrows. While getting tested, I was next to a friend I've known for seventeen years, but we didn't notice each other 'til we hear each other's voices.

Staggered call times. Morning foot bumps or tapping elbows when greeting. Blood test requiring a forty minutes wait in the parking lot. After stepping on stage and looking around, one of the actors backed out at the last minute due to Covid concerns.

Every face mask is different, so ask other crew members how they like the ones they're using. If you have a beard, you'll go through a cheap mask by lunch, so you may as well invest in a quality mask in the first place. Wearing a mask for fifteen hours really sucks. I commend every essential worker, public servant, and medical worker who has been doing this for the last four months.  If you're working outside and wear shades or glasses, they really fog up. The only good thing about wearing a mask is that you become acutely aware just how bad your own breath smells.  

Communicating effectively really tests your patience. It's hard to communicate with ten people around you if you don't recognize everyone's voice -- eye contact only goes so far, and a lot of communication has to be repeated.  Tensions ran high throughout the day. Two crew members started getting spicy about proper mask etiquette.  

Anxiety all day about touching anything and everything, and cleaning stuff that someone else just touched gets exhausting. Gloves was a weird one -- some kept their work gloves on all day, while others complained, saying that only spreads more germs and Covid. I heard a grip bring up the issue of fall protection harnesses in aerial lifts being worn by six other people. One more thing to worry about.

You don't have to do that fake ass smile anymore when you walk by unknown crew members. I drank every bottle of water straight through for fear of it getting mixed up. Instead of coughing to cover up a fart, I farted to cover up a cough.

Crafty was the regular setup, but with tables creating a barrier between you and the food -- you tell the craft service person what you want, then they put it in a basket and hand it to you.

Lunch time was staggered, like French hours: each of us peeled off when we could, then took a half hour to eat. but then the whole company broke for a half, with a catered lunch from one of the regular motion picture catering companies that set up under a pop-up tent in the parking lot, with a sheet of clear vinyl in front. You walk up to a little window with the menu, pick what you want, and they box it up, like ordering from a roach coach. Drinks are all pre-packaged.  At lunch, everybody was extremely excited to talk to strangers.

All in all, it was the most anxiety I've ever felt on set, but at the same time, it felt like home -- and for the first time in my life, I went into a bathroom stall to take a deep breath, with that mask finally off.


None of this brave new Covid world on set sounds like fun, but humans are infinitely adaptable, and I suspect that working under these safety protocols will eventually become more-or-less routine.  With any luck, medical science will be successful in coming up with a good vaccine, and all this will eventually be a distant memory of a very bad time rather than the new baseline reality of working in the film and television industry. But until then, to quote Hill Street Blues: "Let's be careful out there."

Wear the mask.  As Wilford Brimley used to growl: "It's the right thing to do!"

On that note, Brimley went to his reward yesterday, as the saying goes, and if his ultimate destination is Thespian Heaven, I suspect a few directors he tormented would gladly punch his ticket to the Other Place. I only worked with him once, on a Quaker Oats commercial back in the 80's.  We spent three hours rigging and lighting the set on a small stage in Hollywood, then the famously grumpy Brimley walked on stage in full wardrobe and makeup, ready to go. He stood on his mark and delivered the trademark line "It's the right thing to do!" reasonably well in the first take, but it wasn't great, so we shot the second of what I assumed would be a dozen takes.

"Perfect!" the director said. "Let's do it again."

Brimley glared at him.

"You said it was perfect," he snarled.  "What's the point of doing another?

The director's mouth opened for a few seconds, but no sound came out, whereupon Brimley walked off the set and was gone. We wrapped the lights and cable, signed our timecards, and I was home by noon.  From that day on, I've had a soft spot in my heart for Wilford Brimley.  They really don't make 'em like that anymore.

RIP, Wilford.

Sunday, July 5, 2020

JFTHOI Episode 59





      So... just how does the Newcastle Tramway Authority plan on collecting that fine?

From the Essential Listening Department here at BS&T: two of my favorite industry bloggers are back in a mode that goes far beyond the usual blog musings. Over at Dollygrippery, "D" has been hosting a series of Zoom meetings with some of the best dolly grips in the world, discussing their craft.  These are live sessions, but he recently posted one of them on Utube, so there's no excuse for missing it. With any luck, he'll keep posting these recordings to Utube so we can all tune in.

One of the many people "D" has interviewed is Sanjay Sami, an ex-commercial diver turned dolly grip/steadicam operator from India who has traveled the globe perfecting his craft.  Wes Anderson won't make a film without him, and for good reason.  Read this and you'll know why.

After a long hiatus, The Anonymous Production Assistant is back with a new season of Crew Call, except these live interviews are done on screen with computer cams rather than in podcast form, and will eventually find their way to Utube.  This one features producer Jason Roberts talking about his journey from PA to producer, with a few stops in between.  There's always something to learn form industry pros when they talk about their jobs and career, so do yourself a favor and check these out. With the industry still largely shut down by the Coronapocalypse, you've got the time, so make use of it.

Some of you might recall the name J.R. Helton, who published Below the Line nearly twenty-five years ago, the seminal book on the truth of what it's like to work below decks in the film and television industry. He's written several more books since then, including Drugs and Bad Jobs and Poor Decisions, a grim-but-entertaining tale of his life as a young man grinding out a subsistence living doing some of the down-and-dirtiest blue collar work you can imagine. Here's a terrific interview  Helton did for Book Nook, a program that runs on station WYSO, discussing Bad Jobs, Poor Decisions. It's a good listen.


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The film and television industry is now officially open for business in California, but we have yet to see a flood of shows return to production.  Although safety guidelines have been issued, with a set of protocols meant to minimize exposure to and transmission of the Covid virus, I don't think anybody is remotely comfortable with the situation. Some of my friends in Hollywood report that their shows are planning to return in July or August, and it might happen ... then again, with Covid cases spiking in LA, maybe not -- and in that case, a lot of people will be in bad shape when the $600/week Federal bonus subsidies for unemployment insurance expire at the end of July.


If production does find a way to commence, it'll be an awkward return, marking (among other things) the end of Craft Service as we once knew it, but since it now appears that the virus is transmitted mainly through the air rather than on surfaces, these new protocols should allow a reasonably safe return to some level of production.  The key word there is "should," because we won't know until we know, and there will likely be collateral damage suffered along the path of that learning curve. The scariest part may come as we move into Fall, when seasonal colds and flu also return, which will complicate things in a big way.  On every show I ever did, fall and winter was when a variety of respiratory illnesses worked their way through every crew on set. Nobody wanted to get sick, but it was almost unavoidable.  The new Covid protocols of testing, staggered calls, constant health checks, and limited personnel on set might help reduce the spread of seasonal illness, but what happens when somebody coughs as the crew is preparing to shoot a scene?  Will that person  -- be it a PA, grip, DP, juicer, boom man, director, or actor  -- then have to leave the set to be tested and possibly quarantined for an extended period?  What about everyone else who had any contact with that person? Except for the actors, every member of a crew can be replaced, but if one or two among the core cast gets sick, or was exposed to Covid, the show will have to shut down for a while.

I really feel for each and every one of you who will have to deal with this over the months to come.  Hopefully the vaccines in development will work, but as is the case with flu shots, they may be only partially effective, so crews will be at risk for a while.  Much of what has always helped relieve the stress of working in this business, and made it fun -- the jokes, ad-libs, laughs, and so many casual conversations on set, at craft service, and in the studio commissaries -- will not be possible with masks and the six-feet of social distancing.  People always adapt and find a way, but when it finally happens, this is going to be be a very strange transition back to production.

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So, let's say you're a writer who comes up with a great idea for a movie, then writes a script that actually gets made and hits the big screen with a modest splash: a movie called Yesterday. You'd be "in like Flynn," as the saying goes (or did way back in the days before my time) -- right?  Wrong.  The film industry has a thousand and one ways to screw a writer, and here's the sad story of Jack Barth, yet another cautionary tale on the pitfalls writers face in Hollywood and beyond.  Read it and sigh.

If you don't quite understand the role Carl Reiner played in laying down the foundations of television comedy, read this, then listen to this. Reiner was a giant among giants, and it's a damned shame he didn't live long enough to vote in November.  Still, he will not be forgotten.  I had the pleasure of working on a Dick Van Dyke reunion show back in 2003, in which all the surviving members of the original show -- including Carl Reiner -- came back for three days to film on a carefully reconstructed set that matched the one I saw so many times as a kid on my family's black and white television. With so many comedy veterans together again on that stage, it was one fun job.  RIP, Carl, and thanks for the memories. 


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Way back in the Before Times when this blog first hit the internet, an art department/prop man in England would occasionally comment on posts, and share some of his experiences working in the British film industry.  After a few years, I stopped hearing from Nat Bocking as we all got busy with our work and lives. Although Nat's own blog, The Watertower Project, was not a film industry blog, he'd post items relating to the biz from time to time, and in this post, ran a list defining the many vague, gauzy terms so often used by film critics in their reviews.  It's worth a look - and be sure to click the very last link at the bottom, which leads to a piece about a clever filmmaker who came up with a most unusual title to ensure that his movie got the attention he felt it deserved.  

But just as Hollywood has been dry-docked by the Covid virus, so has the British film industry, where many Brit below-the-line workers aren't as fortunate as their counterparts in the US. Most Hollywood workbots have been receiving a steady flow of checks from their state unemployment program, plus $600/week from the Federal government (through the end of this month, anyway), but any Brit film worker who was between jobs -- meaning not actually working on a show at the time of the lockdown -- is shit out of luck, as the saying goes on this side of the pond. Nat was in that boat, and has had to scramble to find a way to pay the rent, and this grim post describes his experiences as a temp working on the line in meat processing plants. Most of us never stop to think about where the meat in our supermarkets comes from -- it's just there, all nicely wrapped in plastic and styrofoam, ready to toss on your 4th of July grill -- or the very hard-working people without whose labor and suffering there would be no food for us to buy.  That gives you two good reasons to read Nat's post, because as hard as toiling on set can be, it's a walk in the park on a warm spring day compared to working in a meat processing plant.  For all its boom-and-bust uncertainties, the film industry is a much better arena in which to build a career.  The other reason is to appreciate those who work on those lines, because the same brutal conditions are the rule in American meat processing facilities as well.  Having been declared "essential workers" by our feckless president, these people are between a rock and a hard place: either they go to work and risk getting a lethal virus, or they'll have no income at all.  You might want to think about putting a little pressure on your elected representatives to make sure the factories those people work in are as safe and worker-friendly as possible in such a messy, bloody business.

For any of you who might be wondering why this last bit looks so odd:  it was added after I thought the post was finished, and for reasons I can't explain -- and will never understand -- Blogger continues to confound me with random formatting fluctuations I'm unable to control or fix... and that pisses me off.

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And now for something completely different, a howl of pain from deep inside the Hollywood lockdown. An old friend and former co-worker (a lot Best Boy at the studio that was once my home away from home), who worked on the studio lamp dock between shows before the lockdown, sent me the following message.

"Are we done yet? No, we're not done yet. I really thought the apocalypse would be more fun than this -- part "Road Warrior," part zombie movie, and a lot of dumpster diving. But no, dumpster diving is the first thing to go.  Dumpsters are the zombies, avoid at all costs. Except the zombies just sit there, tempting but forbidden. There's no Road Warrior stuff. Shouldn't the Apocalypse be an action movie? It's turning out to be a camera test of paint drying on a wall."

"Of course, paint drying is much preferable to the movie I am really living in, which is "House of Women," directed by the same clown who did "Paint Drying on a Wall," except he stole outtake footage from some Roger Corman horror movie he'd found in a trash can, then randomly spliced in. Starring two teenage girls, a post-menopausal wife, and guest-starring a mother-in-law who was noodling with doing a death scene, but got bored and went back home.  Oh yeah, and a couple of old dogs that are working toward their denouement, but taking their sweet time about it while racking up some serious vet bills along the way.  The women are clawing at the walls and each other from boredom and frustration, and when they get tired of that, they turn to fool-beating. That's where I come in."


"Come on, lamp dock..." 


As the late, great Walter Cronkite used to intone at the close of each nightly news broadcast, "And that's the way it is."

Sunday, June 7, 2020

To Grip or Not to Grip?

                                                      That was the question...

This is another in an occasional series about my early years as a "griptrician" in Hollywood, when I took whatever work I could get, including many jobs as a grip. If you're late to this party, it'll make more sense to start here


A few weeks before officially logging my thirtieth day as a permit grip, I reported to Warner Brothers one morning at 5:45, and was assigned to a crew of permits run by a veteran Number One Grip who would be our "pusher" for the day -- a lanky man in his late 40's with an aura of quiet, been-there/done-that competence. Like a waddling of dutiful ducklings, we followed him to a soundstage where a network of green beds had already been hung above the sets, but it needed one more high-brace to be ready for the filming crew. The pusher asked for a man on the green beds and another up high. By definition, most permits are beginners -- strangers in a strange land -- and thus reluctant to take the initiative, but when nobody else budged,
 I grabbed my hand line and headed up the stairs. 

While I made the climb, another permit went up to the green beds as the floor crew assembled the high brace, overlapping a pair of twenty foot two-by-fours, then nailing them securely together. Once that was done to the pusher's satisfaction, he had them tie a pair of fifty-foot hemp ropes -- tag lines -- to the overlap.   

Up high on the catwalks, I caught my breath, then dropped the hand line, which the crew below tied to one end of the high brace. The grip on the green beds did the same, and together we pulled that thirty-plus foot brace into position. I held on tight as he nailed his end of the brace to the beds, then hammered my end to a beam with several double-head 16 penny nails. The brace stuck out more than a foot into the catwalk, so I cut the excess off with my hand saw, leaving the brace flush with the beam. 

That done, I moved around to another catwalk and dropped my line again. The ground crew tied it to one of the tag lines, which I pulled up and slid along the rail until it was as close to perpendicular to the brace as possible. I tied it off, then took the catwalk around to the opposite side, dropped my line again, and did the same with the second tag line, making sure both lines were nice and tight. With this final high brace securely in place, the entire interlocking network of green beds was now stabilized, ready for the "show boys" on first unit to do their work. I coiled up my hand line, tossed it over my shoulder, then picked up that chunk of two-by-four and took the stairs back down to the stage floor.

There was nothing dangerous, tricky, or special about any of this -- it was just one of many routine tasks we did when working on "on the gang" as a studio grip, but unbeknownst to me, the pusher was watching. At the end of our eight hour day, we marched back to the grip room, where I found a yellow card waiting for me: I'd been laid off. I was hoping to stay on for another day, but this was not unexpected. Permits are always the last hired/first fired, and I'd had many of these one-day calls. As I headed out of the grip room, I saw the pusher. 

"See you tomorrow," he nodded.  
I held up the yellow tag. 
"What the hell?" he frowned.
"I'm a permit," I shrugged.
His eyes narrowed
"I thought you were a Number 2."
I shook my head.
"Wait here," he said, and disappeared back into the Grip Room.  
A few minutes later, he returned and took the yellow tag from me.
"See you tomorrow morning."

I really can't overstate what this moment meant to me: it was huge. Having done nothing but small, low-budget, non-union stage and location jobs over my first three years in Hollywood, it had taken me a while to adjust to the tasks and rhythms of working on a major studio lot. Although most of the work was routine, things could get very stressful every now and then. I was more comfortable now than I'd been during my first days as a permit, but still felt a bit like a fish out of water at Warner Brothers, so having a veteran pusher assume I was a Number Two journeyman -- then go to bat to keep me on after I'd already been laid off -- allowed me feel that I finally belonged. With just a few more days needed to qualify for membership in Local 80, I began to seriously think about becoming a union grip.

A notice arrived in the mail a couple of months later confirming that I'd finally logged the requisite thirty days required to join the union, with instructions to report to one of the Motion Picture Industry clinics for a physical.* After passing an altogether perfunctory exam, I was cleared to pay the initiation fee and join Local 80 -- the final step to become a Number Three Grip, at which point I could begin the long climb towards being a Number One show boy.  

For a while, that's exactly what I planned to do... but then I got to thinking. With the seniority system still in force, it would take me at least seven years to become a Number One Grip, during which I'd be at the beck and call of the Local 80 call steward, going wherever he sent me, whenever there was grip work to be done. As a brand new Number Three, I'd be the lowest man on the Local 80 roster, above only the "permits" when it came to being hired and fired. That meant I'd spend the foreseeable future waiting for the phone to ring, then reporting to Grip Rooms all over Hollywood whenever a studio needed a Number Three to do a day or two of heavy lifting. It would many years before I'd have a chance to join a first-unit filming crew.**

Had I been ten years younger, with no other options in Hollywood, I'd have jumped at this opportunity, but I was already in my early 30s, with several features under my belt, while none of my fellow Warner Brothers permits had ever worked on a first unit filming crew. I had three Gaffers willing to hire me, but only one Key Grip who might -- and he was a regular on the grip-electric team that included one of those Gaffers. At that point, knowing very little about how things worked in Hollywood, I saw no real advantage in becoming a union grip -- indeed, it appeared that joining Local 80 might seriously limit my employment options in the immediate and medium-term future.  

Looking back now, I know how wrong this analysis was. Had I joined Local 80 and kept my mouth shut, I could have worked all the non-union set lighting jobs I wanted between taking rigging calls from the union, and my pension checks now would be a lot fatter. I'd have worked on lots of movies and gotten into television much earlier, which means I'd have racked up many thousands more union hours before retiring. When my pension check arrives on the first of every month, I'm reminded just how much it cost me to wait another fifteen years before finally joining the IA as a member of Local 728.

So it goes in life, where we make our decisions, then live with the consequences. The Road Not Taken will forever remain a mystery, so I'll never know how things might have worked out if I'd joined Local 80 as a grip. All I do know is that I wouldn't have met the same people, done the same jobs, or traveled to all the same interesting locations over the following four decades -- and for better or worse, it was those experiences that made me who and what I am. There's no going back in life, no do-overs, no second chances: you make your bed, and there you sleep. 

Although that pusher at Warner Brothers doubtless forgot about me after the next day -- I was just one more face amid a tsunami of summertime permit hires -- I never forgot about him. Still, making an impression as being more competent than a crew of raw permits was a low bar to clear, and scoring a blip higher on such a flat curve nothing to strut about. The truth is, I wasn't a particularly good grip. When presented with a problem on set, a truly talented grip will quickly come up with an economical, elegant solution, and in a business where time = money, that matters. I could find solutions, all right, but my third or forth idea was usually the best, which means I'd waste time and effort working through the first two or three before landing on the right answer. For whatever reason, I just didn't have the kind of brain that could rapidly process the on-the-spot, three-dimensional engineering that marks a truly good grip -- and that means I landed where I belonged. Not that I set the world on fire with my Juicing/Best Boy/Gaffing skills (and in electric, "setting the world on fire" is not a desirable outcome), but I did the job well enough to make a decent living, meet a lot of great people, and have some fun.

Now that it's all over and done -- and as I slide into the quicksand of old age -- that's good enough for me.  


*  I'd logged more than fifty permit days that year according to my calendar, but who's counting... 

** What I had no way of knowing at the time was that the seniority system would soon be eliminated, meaning every member of Local 80 would have equal status as a journeyman grip. 

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Just for the Hell of It: Episode 58

         Little Richard, posing for a photo with an upstart band of nobodies way back when.

I'll confess that for a very long time, I didn't fully grasp the appeal of Little Richard or appreciate the enormous impact he had on the music and cultural life of America.* He was entertaining, all right -- a veritable wild man on stage at the piano -- but in so many ways, I just didn't "get" it. Maybe that's what happens when you grow up way out in the sticks, milking goats every evening after school, in a family that didn't even have a television set until I was eight years old. Then one day I stepped off the school bus -- mine was the very last stop on that narrow, winding two-lane road -- and looked across the valley to see something astonishing: a TV antenna on the roof of our house.

This was a very big deal. It meant I'd no longer have to make the long, dark walk to and from our nearest neighbor's house every Sunday night to watch The Wonderful World of Disney, and that my family would now gather around this new technological hearth to enjoy The Ed Sullivan Show, The Honeymooners, Amos and AndyHave Gun: Will Travel, and Gunsmoke, among many others. Some of those shows were filmed and broadcast in color, but I didn't know that -- it would be ten more years before my folks had a color TV, and by then I'd have one foot out the door on a road that would eventually lead me to Hollywood.  

At some point (I really don't remember exactly when), I saw Little Richard perform "Tutti Frutti" on that TV, and didn't really know what to think.  

Thirty years later, I worked as Gaffer on a commercial for the game "Trivial Pursuit," a spot that starred DeForest Kelley ("Bones," from the original Star Trek series), Don Adams ("Maxwell Smart," from the series Get Smart), Evel Knievel, and Little Richard.  Having more or less come of age watching Star Trek and Get Smart, I was tickled to work with Kelly and Adams, and Evel Knievel had made a huge impression on me in my late teens, but truth be told, I still didn't know what to think of Little Richard.

So there we were, filming in a lovely house in the wealthy enclave of Hancock Park, and in came Little Richard, dressed to the nines and as flamboyant as ever. He sat at the piano and riffed for a while, then we got ready to do the shot. I kneeled next to the lens of the camera, holding a white bounce card to reflect light onto Little Richard, not quite five feet from the man. At the call of "action!", he hit a chord on the piano, then leaned right into that lens and yelled "A wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-wop-bam-boom!" at the top of his lungs.

It felt like a bomb had gone off in that room. My jaw dropped as I felt the concussive power and focused energy of this man at very close range, and suddenly -- finally -- I understood in a very real way what a force of nature Little Richard really was, and why he'd been so wildly popular. That's a moment I'll never forget.

He was also a very nice guy, gregarious and friendly with everyone on set, handing each of us a little book of religious aphorisms, and always with a big smile.

RIP, Little Richard. You made your mark on music as few others have.

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As the Covid Crisis grinds on, the death toll mounting by the hour, the question of when and how the film/television industry will return to work continues to reverberate through the industry. Everybody has ideas, but nobody has any answers yet, and it'll be a while before we know the shape of Hollywood's future -- but one thing seems certain: there will be no return to normal for a long time. This virus doesn't care what Trump or anybody else says, and will keep infecting and killing people until science comes up with an effective vaccine to stop it. If we're lucky, a medical breakthrough will occur sooner rather than later, but unless that happens, the oft-repeated best-case scenario for such a vaccine is eighteen months -- and that's if the testing, development, and production plans work out as hoped. If not, the wait could be longer.

There are only so many shows in the pipeline, and sooner or later, the broadcast, cable, and streaming networks will run out of new offerings -- and their paying audience will lose patience for re-runs, which means one way or another, some degree of production will resume. So will crews working on set look like this?


                                    (Photo courtesy of Movie Set Memes)

Or this?


                                               (Photo courtesy of Julian Terry)

I don't know, but here's an interesting piece from a guy who has a vision of our future. Some of what he says makes sense, but not all of it -- then again, it's all speculation at this point. It seems clear that the changes enabling a resumption of production will be cumbersome and unwelcome, and may be in force for a long time. In an industry that was still in the bruising process of adjusting to tectonic changes brought about by the digital revolution, this virus brings more unwelcome disruption. New opportunities and modes of filmmaking will doubtless emerge from all this, but the collateral damage suffered by those who do the heavy lifting on set will be immense as Hollywood struggles to survive the shifting sands of modern times. 

There's another alternative, of course, which should scare the hell out of anybody who has built a career working set. It's nowhere near ready for prime time in terms of replacing live action filming and human actors, but you can bet that a lot of money and brainpower is being poured into this kind of effort. Will it work? For some applications, yes, but not for the kind of television we're accustomed to watching nowadays, and certainly not for the big $200 million dollar tent pole spectaculars Hollywood has come to depend on.

Not yet, anyway...    

Stay safe out there.


* One of Little Richard's early bands was made up of the young Billy Preston, James Brown, and Jimi Hendrix. That's one hell of a lineup,

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Hollywood in a Bubble


                                                  David Vetter, 9/21/71 -- 2/22/84

Note: Welcome to any of you who have clicked on over here from the TV Talk Machine. You might want to start here, where some of the better posts from my working years in Hollywood are compiled. 


Nearly fifty years ago, a baby was born in Texas lacking a functional immune system. With his body defenseless against any and all infections, young David Vetter was doomed to life in a bubble, dependent upon breathing filtered air, eating thoroughly decontaminated food, and never knowing real human touch. Due to the relentless danger of infection, skin-to-skin contact was out of the question, and he died before his thirteenth birthday after a bone marrow transplant doctors hoped would provide him with a desperately needed immune system didn't work out.  

David Vetter's tragic story led to a movie, of course, and in the years since, medical science  found ways to help newborns with the same condition, so I suppose the massive publicity he received at the time did some overall good -- but the poor kid never even got to be a teenager. Sometimes, for far too many people, life really is a bitch. 

Maybe it's crass to discuss the film and television industry in midst of a global pandemic, but you know the drill: stay-home/wash-hands/six-feet-of-space/wear-mask/don't-touch-face -- so you don't need to hear it again from me. With our Feckless Leader beating the drums to "reopen the economy," and millions of people who want nothing more than to resume earning a living, it's not too early to think about what it will take for Hollywood to go back to work.

A vaccine will emerge at some point to protect us from the Covid 19 virus, but that day is off in the gray mists of the future: maybe eighteen months, maybe two years, maybe longer. Nobody knows. In the meantime, Hollywood will struggle to return to some semblance of normality. There are already rumblings of returning to production, but it's hard to envision what that would really mean before an effective vaccine is developed and a significant portion of our population immunized. Achieving herd immunity won't happen overnight.

It's been over a hundred years since Hollywood had to deal with a plague, and that one hit well before the advent of television. The Coronapocalypse slammed the door on all but late-night talk/comedy shows, which are being produced in a rudimentary yet undeniably clever manner. Humans are endlessly inventive, and always seem to find a way. Still, with no end to the virus in sight, the question remains: what's next?  

Testing will be the key. At the moment, the standard nasal-swab test can take days to confirm results, and although a new test is in the works, it's also much too slow for our purposes. As I understand it, there are two more or less real-time tests available to determine if a person has been or is currently infected with the virus. One takes forty-five minutes to come up with an answer, while the other can detect a positive result in five minutes, and a negative result within fifteen minutes -- but both tests must use their own proprietary equipment to deliver the answer. For the purposes of Hollywood, the first test is way too slow, and although the second one is considerably faster, it's still slow.  

Think about it: the on-set crew for a TV show or feature film is a large group of people. Grip and Electric crews typically start at five each (adding more as needed), then there's Set Dec, Props, Camera, Sound, Hair and Makeup, a call sheet full of actors and background, at least two (and often three) ADs, several PAs, and Craft Service. Add a director, writers, and  twelve "producers", and it adds up to a small army, any one of whom could be unwittingly carrying the virus. With anywhere from thirty to a hundred people on a sound stage or location set -- most of them working long hours in close contact -- how do you keep everybody safe?

Each crew member could wear a Haz-Mat suit of the sort medical personnel have adopted, I suppose, but that's hardly practical. Filming days are already long enough, so getting into, then out of, such cumbersome suits in a safe manner would make those long days even longer. Actually working while wearing such a suit amid hot lights or in the harsh sun of summertime day-exterior shoots would be absurdly difficult.  

                  Could this be a typical electric or grip crew getting ready to go on set?*

Some kind of moon-suit would be even worse. Imagine trying to strap on a tool belt, then go up high on stage, climb a ladder, or clamber into a man-lift to adjust lamps on the pipe grip wearing something like this.*



A set of light, breathable, sterile coveralls might be enough, with a fresh pair issued to each crew member at the start of every work day, along with new gloves and masks -- but what about the actors? Unless the show is a Sci-Fi movie with the actors in space suit wardrobe, they can't wear any such protective gear in front of the cameras.

This brings us back to testing, which would have to be done every day before the crew suits up in whatever protective gear the industry settles on. If the fastest test takes fifteen minutes to deliver a negative result, then each show would need to have a battery of testing machines and enough personnel to run them. With ten such machines, forty crew members could be tested each hour, so with staggered call times and standby personnel ready to take the place of anybody who tests positive, that might work. It would be cumbersome, time consuming, and expensive, but could be done.

Let's say this happens, and the industry comes up with some kind of safety protocol that enables production to resume. To minimize danger to the unprotected actors, sets would probably be run much as when filming nude or sex scenes, keeping the actors away until the set is lit and ready, then clearing out all non-essential crew when the cameras roll. 

Unfortunately, there's much we still don't know about this virus -- such as whether surviving a bout with Covid 19 really does confer individual immunity, and if so, for how long. That information will come, and when it does, we'll be better equipped to deal with the virus, but until then, we're just guessing and hoping for the best.

I'm no scientist, nor do I play a doctor on TV -- I'm just an ex-juicer tossing spaghetti up against the wall to see what sticks, so if any of you have some bright ideas, speak up. Meanwhile, it's hard to imagine returning to large-scale film and television production until a faster, simpler, more reliable test is developed and made widely available. Until then, Hollywood and the rest of the world will be living in our own kind of bubble.

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Update:  The above is as far as I got late in the week, when this article popped up in my FB feed, soon followed by this grim vision. It's all speculation, of course, but much of it rings true, and paints a grim picture of what may be required for work to resume in Hollywood. All we can be sure of is that production will commence at some point in the future, but when and how are very much up in the air. What's clear, though, is life on set will never be the same (and it certainly won't be anything like this) unless and until some combination of testing, effective vaccines, and herd immunity puts Covid 19 in our collective rear-view mirror for good.

Then all we'll have to worry about is the next pandemic, be it Covid 20, or some new strain of lethal, highly infectious bird flu.  

Isn't that a cheery thought...

Although working on set has always been tough -- and sometimes utterly miserable -- it was fun most of the time, but I wonder if that will be true in the future?  I don't know -- but I do know this: I'm really glad to be retired.


* Haz-Mat and Moon Suit photos courtesy of Jerry Wolfe.