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, March 15, 2020

The New Plague


                     Grand Princess cruise ship off the coast of San Francisco 
                                  (photo courtesy of San Francisco Chronicle)


The plague ship docked at noon, after a week of sailing in circles off the coast of San Francisco. With thirty-five hundred passengers and crew on board, two dozen of whom had already tested positive for Covid 19, offloading the Grand Princess was a complicated process. Escorted by medical personal encased in protective gear, the sick were taken to hospitals in ambulances, while healthy but potentially exposed American citizens were taken by bus or plane to quarantine facilities across the country. Foreign nationals were ushered to charter flights and quarantine in their home countries. The laborious process is still underway, after which the ship, with a thousand (hopefully) healthy crew members, will set sail, presumably to remain offshore in their own group quarantine.

It took a massive effort and complicated logistics to pull this off. State and local officials maintain that the situation was handled properly, but given the many mysteries presented by this new contagion, it's unclear how effective these attempts to contain the virus will be. One thing seems clear, though -- the situation will get worse before it gets better. Maybe a lot worse.

We'll find out.

The new plague has had a devastating impact on Hollywood and beyond. As of now, Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson are down with the virus contracted while filming a movie in Australia, and by Thursday, forty shows had been shut down. I've heard through the social media grapevine that many more have been indefinitely suspended since then, and it won't be long before the entire film and television industry is dead in the water. State and local governments urge people to "work from home," but that won't fly in our business, were the work is very much a communal, hands-on effort. Unfortunately, the hard driving, zero-sum mode of production in Hollywood has always incentivized sick crew members to work rather than stay home, thanks to the absence of sick pay. Until just a few years ago, if you got so sick that you were unable to make your call, you didn't get paid -- which is why most of us gutted it out and worked sick unless we were nearly on our deathbed.

A limited provision for sick pay was implemented a few years ago, but it's deeply flawed, and woefully unable to deal with our current reality. You need to work for a specific company long enough to accrue sufficient hours to qualify for sick pay in the first place, and even then, the maximum payout is for three eight-hour days. After that, you're on your own.

My own experience with this new sick pay system was not encouraging. On my very last show before retiring, I came down with a feverish crud that was chewing its way through the crew, and it was bad enough to keep me home for four days. When I returned to work, somebody suggested I apply for sick pay, so I looked into it -- and it turned out I'd worked for the same company earlier in the year, and accrued the requisite three days worth of sick pay. We worked very long hours that final week, so I waited until wrap to approach the accountant.

"You're just a daily hire," she snapped. "Fill out a time card for one eight-hour day."

"But I've got twenty-four hours in the bank.  Isn't that the purpose of sick pay -- to keep me from coming to work and getting the rest of my crew sick?"

She leveled a cold glare at me.

"You're a daily hire," she repeated, speaking slowly, as if to a small child. "Turn in a time card for one eight hour day."

Instead, I called my union.

"Don't worry," I was told. "You'll get your money."

"Is there anything I should to do help the process?"

"We'll take care of it."

Thus reassured, I went back to Stage 18 at Paramount and got on with the wrap.  A week passed, and I received my wrap-week check, but there was nothing about sick pay, so I called the union again.

"I thought we took care of that," they said.

"Me too," I replied, "is there anything I can do to help expedite this?"

"We'll fix it."

That's the last I heard from my union or the production company, and needless to say, I never got a penny of sick pay. By then I was deep into uprooting forty years of life in Hollywood, cleaning out my apartment while preparing to move north for retirement, and had neither the time nor energy to fight a system that was clearly fucked up... so I let it go, chalking it up as one last reminder that you don't always get what you want in this town, or even what you've earned.

So it goes.

I hope the sick pay mechanism for crew members has improved since then, but three days is not nearly enough to deal with the current situation, given that a crew member who's been exposed to Covid 19 is subject to a minimum fourteen day quarantine.  Those affected don't show symptoms immediately, which means the entire cast and crew of a show would have to be quarantined, then tested if symptoms emerge, with the stage and sets sanitized before allowing production to continue. Many shows are coming to their seasonal end about now anyway, but the next few weeks are when pilot season usually kicks into high gear, with construction and rigging crews working long hours, day after day, thanks to compressed, inflexible schedules that make no allowances for fatigue, illness, or human frailty.

Will there even be a pilot season this year?

A cruise ship is essentially a floating island, relatively easy to control, but a film studio -- along with every film set -- is a much more porous entity.  If one show on a single soundstage is affected, the rest of the studio will be under the gun, with security guards, janitors, commissary workers, and other studio personnel being exposed. The families of those people, and of cast and crew members, are all affected, so how the hell is Hollywood going to function?

I don't think it can. In the wake of the professional/collegiate sports, and school districts all over California shutting down, Hollywood will soon be dead in the water. How long this will last is a question without an answer right now, but more to the point, many on the crews finishing their long seasons are exhausted, with run-down immune systems, and all the more vulnerable to this virus. People could die. Those who remain healthy may be without work for an extended period of time, but their rent and mortgages still have to be paid, along with utility bills and groceries -- assuming there's anything left on supermarket shelves after the Great Run on Toilet Paper.  Unemployment insurance only goes so far.

The situation is getting worse by the day, and could well metastasize into a full national lockdown. The economic shockwaves are reverberating far beyond Hollywood, but sussing out the national and international repercussions of Covid 19 are way above my pay grade.  Suffice it to say that we're all in for a very bumpy ride over the next few months.

I have no answers, only questions, but am keeping my fingers crossed for every one of you who work in the film and television industry. You've heard the warnings and know the drill, so be careful, stay safe, and remain healthy. Take good care of yourselves.

I wish you -- and the rest of us -- all the best.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Landing the Beds




(Note: this is a follow-up to a previous post that began to describe the process of hanging green beds on stage, and another chapter in an occasional series on my adventures as a grip many years ago - a journey that started here.)


The first time I watched a grip land a green bed was an eye-opener. A few days before, I'd helped rig a row of hangers on Stage 16 at Warner Brothers, but I didn't know what came next in the process. I was back on that stage later in the week, where I saw a grip standing on the steel frame of the first hanger in that row -- much like the grip in the photo above: arms out, hands grasping either side of that hanger -- except there was no green bed yet in place. The hanger he stood on was essentially a giant trapeze, forty feet above the stage floor, the first in a row that would eventually form an aerial scaffolding to provide a work platform for grips, juicers, and anybody else who needed it.


Hangers without green beds


I didn't see how he got up there, but as it was explained to me, two methods were used back in the day: a grip could shimmy down the chain from the perms to the green bed, or "ride the mule" up to the hanger using the block-and-falls as an elevator. With no fall protection back then, either method was a serious gut-check -- and if riding the mule was considerably less strenuous, it was no less dangerous.*  

As you can see in the photo above, hangers are usually much lower than the ones we rigged on Stage 16, but rather than following the walls and contours of a normal set, these beds were being hung to support a camera on an aerial track to simulate the POV from the front of an airplane swooping down low over a city. In this case, the set was of the rooftops of the city, which is why we were working on the second highest sound stage in Southern California.

No part of hanging green beds is easy, but getting the first bed in place was the trickiest part of the operation. Once it was secured to the hangers, the grip would have a platform from which to work (a highly unstable platform, mind you), but landing that first bed required him to stand on a two inch wide strip of steel waiting for the green bed -- a heavy wooden platform ten feet long, nearly four feet wide, and weighing several hundred pounds -- to be raised from the floor into place by a "mule" (an electric winch) using a block and falls.

While clinging to the hanger with one hand, he had to grab the near end of the green bed with his other hand, then push it up, forcing the far end down into slots on the second hanger. Once that was done, he'd yell to the man running the mule to "sink it!" -- and while keeping the upward pressure with one hand, slowly guide the near end down to slot it into the hanger upon which he stood. Gravity kept the bed in place until he could lock off both hangers, at which point he'd disconnect the "bridal" -- a short length of chain with a thick metal pin on either end, each of which fit into angled holes in the green bed -- and send it back down to the floor crew to load the next bed. 

One down, many more to go. 

Pulling hangers and landing green beds was a difficult, dangerous job with a very high pucker-factor -- a boot camp/training ground where young men (nearly all grips were men in those days) earned their Local 80 spurs while discovering if they had what it took to be a grip. Not everybody did.


Starting to hang the beds

Beds hung in a straight line would lock together by design, but when a section had to follow a curved set wall, wood planks were cut to size and nailed in place to connect each bed to the next.  Some sets are taller than others, which meant sections of green beds had to be hung up and over the high parts, with wooden ladders added so grips, juicers, boom men, and special effects crews could safely move around up there. Once the beds were in place, handrails would be added, followed by "high braces" -- two long two-by-fours nailed together -- running from the perms down to the beds.**



The first hanger and bed in the row, with handrails installed.  You can see how both chains that suspend this hanger run up to the perms, where they attach with perm hooks.

I only landed one green bed in my brief career as a permit grip, and it was an easy one -- nothing like what I observed that day on Stage 16. While working on a much smaller stage, we had to add a second bed right up against an existing (and fully stabilized) section of green beds. All I had to do was step off a very solid platform onto the hanger, then follow the procedure to land the bed -- but it still required my full attention. It was scary enough pulling hangers on Stage 16, and truth be told, I can't imagine sliding down the chain or riding the mule up to that first hanger, then putting in a row of green beds forty feet above the stage floor. That took experience and balls of steel, and although my brief career as a grip didn't last long enough for me to gain the former, I'm not sure I'd ever have acquired the latter. 

I haven't had a chance to watch a crew put in green beds for a long time, but things have changed. Scissors lifts make the job a lot easier now, and everybody up high -- whether in a lift or out on the perms -- wears fall protection, so it's no longer quite the do-or-die task of the old days. Still, venturing out on the perms remains a real gut-check. I've seen many a young grip out there, fully strapped into a harness and clipped on to the safety cable, sweating bullets in the air-conditioned chill.  The primal fear of falling is hard to overcome, but it's all part of being a grip.

As luck would have it, I finally managed to cobble together the thirty days required to join Local 80 and become a grip.  Planning to do just that, I went on down to the nearest Motion Picture Pension and Health clinic for a physical exam that would certify me as a viable candidate for membership in the IA. There, a doctor tapped my knee with a little rubber hammer to confirm the function of my nervous system. Satisfied, he asked me one question: 

"Are you an alcoholic or drug addict?"  

"Not yet," I replied, whereupon he sent me on my way. All I had to do now was file the papers with Contract Services, and once they verified my thirty days, pay the initiation fee to become a Number Three grip in Local 80. After five years of working low-budget everything in Hollywood, I'd finally be in the union.

I thought about it for a week, then didn't do it. Instead, I went back to juicing.

You might wonder why -- and indeed, sometimes I wonder myself -- but that's a subject for another post on another day.


* Many thanks to Kirk Bales, a veteran grip with whom I had the pleasure of working on my last full-season show in Hollywood. Kirk graciously filled me in on the details of landing green beds, since my own experience was very limited, and my memory after nearly 40 years something less than perfect.

** Sorry about the awkward formatting here -- for reasons I'll never understand, adding certain photos can fuck up the formatting of subsequent paragraphs, leaving odd gaps here and there that I can't figure out how to fix...and that pisses me off...

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Just for the Hell of It -- Episode 56

                                    Canvas backing used on "Sound of Music"


Back in the early 80s, I did a fair amount of work at Paramount and Warner Bros (a.k.a. "TBS" at the time - The Burbank Studios) as a permit grip. Among our many tasks was to retrieve painted canvas backings and trans-lights (the latter essentially a giant photographic slide) from the scene dock, then roll or carrying them to a sound-stage, where we'd go up high, drop ropes, and pull the backdrop up into place. There, they'd serve as a background outside a window, or open door (or whatever) to match the scene being filmed by the 1st unit show crew.  I was still young enough to have a romantic view of the movie business, and those old backings seemed laden with cinematic history. Since I'd doubtless seen many of those very same backings in the movies and TV shows of my youth, working with them made me feel that I'd finally become a part of Hollywood. 

Some of those old canvas backdrops are still being used in the multi-camera world, where smaller budgets preclude doing much filming on location. Canvas backings are relatively cheap to rent, and good enough for sitcoms, where high production values are not nearly as important as good casting and clever, funny scripts.  

Back in the day, every studio had its own scene dock full of hand-painted backings, but with features and episodic television (particularly the streaming dramas) now filming more on location or using green/blue screen technology for a hyper-realistic look or to create fantastical backgrounds, there's not much demand for the old canvas backings, and many have gone into the trash.

In December, the LA Times ran a terrific piece on a long overdue effort to save a few of the old painted canvas backings.  Some real artistry went into them, and now some are being preserved.  That's a good thing.



Still, it's sad to think of all the skill it took to create those large scale paintings dying out.  There are still a few of these artists around, but their numbers are shrinking.  As the saying goes, "All things must pass."

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On that note - unfortunately - the bell has tolled for Modern Props. With it's distinctive logo and sophisticated, terrific-looking props (which at the time represented the ne plus ultra in modernity), Modern Props quickly became a major presence in Hollywood during the 80's.




But nothing lasts forever in LA, and Modern Props has gone the way of so many legendary institutions that once supported the industry, marching into Hollywood history.

I still have a piece of Modern Props, a sweatshirt the art department snagged for me back when I was gaffing commercials thirty years ago. Here's the image from the front of that shirt. (Thanks, Bob!)



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While we're on the subject of Hollywood passings... Buck Henry, a low-key, very funny guy with one of the more unlikely names in Hollywood.  Tagged with a name like "Buck Henry," he should have been one of Hollywood's loud, rugged, hard-drinking, two-fisted manly-men -- a bigger, brawnier Sean Penn, if you will, but with a sense of humor. Instead, he was a quiet, bespectacled, supremely talented writer, actor, and occasional director who let his work speak for itself. He had a hand in many films that made a big impression on me over the years, from The Graduate, to Heaven Can Wait, to The Player, and was universally liked and respected. When working below-the-line, much can be heard about many of the big names in the film and television industry -- talk that's rarely flattering -- but during all my years in Hollywood, I never heard a bad word about Buck Henry.  For a taste of his quiet wit and humor, here's a brief on-stage interview he did with Terry Gross, originally broadcast on her show, "Fresh Air." 

I hate it when we lose another of the really good ones. 

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Despite all the box office/ratings success of movies and television these days, the business is in turmoil, from the streaming wars to the ongoing struggle between the Writers Guild and agents.  A few months ago, the WGA ordered its members to fire their agents, which most of them did, over something called "packaging."  This has to do with agents moving beyond their singular role of representing clients - striving to get the very best deal for the writers they've signed - to playing both sides of the field in order to make a lot more money. None of this made much sense to me until I read this, by David Simon, an ex-newspaper man turned writer turned show-runner of some truly great HBO shows, including The Wire, Treme, and The Deuce.  Simon knows of what he speaks, having come to the television industry assuming - as once was the case - that an agent would fight hard with the network executives to get the best deal possible for his client. What he learned as the scales fell from his eyes during that process is detailed in the article, which is eye-opening, and definitely worth a read if you're a young writer striving to succeed in Hollywood.

The streaming wars are going strong these days, with another new, oddly-named streaming entity (Quibi, anyone?) popping up every few weeks. God knows where all this will end, but remember: early in the 20th century, there were more than a hundred small automobile manufacturing companies in the U.S. alone. Fifty years later, only a handful of large survivors remained, and those numbers have continued to shrink since then. Over the next decade or so, a similar winnowing will probably take place in the rapidly-expanding universe of streaming entities, as the weaker fail and/or are absorbed by their larger, more fiscally stable competitors. Which will remain standing is unclear, but all will become clear in the fullness of time. Meanwhile, here's a piece that helps explain what's going on.

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A good director puts a lot of thought into the art direction, wardrobe, and shot selection of his/her movie, all of which help support and flesh out the unfolding narrative. Noah Baumbach is a very good director, and if you've seen Marriage Story, this half hour discussion between Elvis Mitchell and director Baumbach is definitely worth a listen, offering a fascinating look at the process. Any of you budding directors out there can learn a lot from him.

A further education in the finer points of filmmaking is in this seven minute clip, wherein various distinguished DPs discuss how they "grade" a film after the picture is locked in the editing process. Grading involves the final adjustments to color and contrast from shot to shot, to give an overall "look" to a movie. Another clip, titled Fuck the Numbers, discusses the difference between those who use their eye and knowledge of art to capture compelling images, and those who, in effect, paint by the numbers. Both of these clips are from a fascinating series put out by the people at Cooke Lenses  (you can subscribe to the whole series), and were brought to my attention by retired DP/director Peter McLennan, who made a memorable contribution to this blog a six years ago with this wonderful two-part post

If you never read those posts, I urge you to do so. You'll be glad you did.

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Finally, here's the year-in-review show from KCRW's The Business.  A lot happened in the film/television industry during 2019, so check it out.  

That's all for this month. The way 2020 has unfolded thus far, I suggest you buckle up your seatbelts, kiddos -- we've got eleven more months to go, and it promises to be a bumpy flight.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

The Universal Cure



                                                               It's magic...


It happened on nearly every film gig I worked throughout my career, be it a feature, television show, commercial, industrial, or music video. We'd be in the midst of the long days grind, slogging though shot after shot, when someone would crack the perfect joke at just the right moment, and the whole crew would break up in a belly laugh. 

Moments like that -- such as captured in this photo on the set of Stanley Kubrick's 1964 classic Dr. Strangelove -- are pure magic. In an instant, all the stress, tension, and tedium that has built up over the course of the day suddenly vanishes into the ether. With everybody from the director on down to the Set PA sharing a good laugh, the entire crew relaxes, making everyone feel better -- and then they all get back to work with a smile. They say laughter is the best medicine, but more than that, it's the ultimate cure for the malaise that sooner or later infects every set.

Now nearly three years out to pasture (and yes, I have a hard time believing that too...), these shared moments of levity are among the things I really do miss from my Hollywood years. With retirement being a relatively solitary endeavor, I don't get much of that anymore. Instead of walking onto a set five days a week to work with anywhere from twenty to sixty people, I have to push myself out of the nest to meet, mingle, and share any kind of laughter... and although that's always nice, it's just not the same.  

So much of life pivots around the eternal cycle of tension and release. Whether it's sports, drama, comedy, sex, or work, the jaw-clenching tension as you push towards whatever the goal might be is what eventually leads to the sweet explosion of release. To paraphrase Rick James, "Endorphins are a hell of a drug."  Now that I no longer have to get up with the alarm clock before dawn, then work all day and/or deep into the night, the stresses I experience are my own, not shared with a group, and thus take more of a conscious effort to shake off.

There's much to bitch about in the film and television business: the long, hurry-up-and-wait hours punctuated by last-second changes that turn an orderly set into a rugby-scrum of frantic, elbow-flapping confusion, or having to work for cheap-ass, money-grubbing motherf*****s like Disney, or dealing with the massive, don't-you-know-who-I-think-I-am egos that can afflict those who float in the rarified air above-the-line... but moments like the one pictured above go a long way towards easing the pain.  

Look at that picture again. Despite his undeniable comedic genius, Peter Sellers was infamous for being anything but warm and fuzzy, yet here he is with a big grin on his face, sharing a laugh with all the supporting actors and crew.*  For Sellers, and other similarly tortured souls, working on set might be the only place they felt truly comfortable -- a sanctuary of sorts. 

The only person not laughing in this photo appears to be the focus-puller, who seems worried he might have buzzed a mark on the previous take. Given the demanding perfectionism of Kubrik, maybe that man had good reason to worry.

So, here we are in the first new year of a brand new decade. I don't know if turning a calendar page will make much difference, but I'll raise a glass to the hope that it does, and that all of you can find whatever it is you're looking for in the year to come. Meanwhile, enjoy those precious moments of shared laughter on set: they just might be what make working in this business worthwhile. 

Well, that and the paychecks...

Happy New Year!


* I believe that's Kubrick on the left, with his back to the lens.