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, July 31, 2022

August


                        "August, die she must, the autumn winds blow chilly and cold..."

                              April, Come She Will, Simon and Garfunkel


On the cusp of August, firmly in the sweaty grasp of summer, we're a long way from the chilly autumn winds of which Paul Simon sang -- and here in California, the wildfire season is now swinging into high gear -- but change is coming, for better or worse.

We lost another good one last month. Since I never worked with James Caan, I have no idea what he was like as a person, but his screen persona was undeniably compelling: an intense character driven by internal forces he couldn't always control, who -- like a man walking the streets of a big city carrying a loaded gun -- carried the seeds of his own destruction. Despite (or maybe because of...) so much early success, Caan seemed to have a love/hate relationship with the film industry, and dropped out of circulation for a few years in the 80s until financial necessity dragged him back. As the quote on his Wiki page reveals: 

"I was flat-ass broke ... I didn't want to work. But then when the dogs got hungry and I saw their ribs, I decided that maybe now it's a good idea."

Caan was not alone in having a complicated relationship with Hollywood, but he persevered to forge a memorable career.  He first lit up my radar as Sonny Corleone in The Godfather, and later in the gritty, stylish Thief, but the movie I'll always associate him with is The Gambler, in which he plays a man who has everything -- a good woman, a good job, intelligence, and respect -- all of which is undermined by his addiction to the adrenaline rush of gambling.  There's a riveting scene where he lies in a tub listening to a basketball game on which he's placed a big bet, which comes down to the final second and a crucial shot, during which the tension and stress his character suffers radiates from the screen like a blazing fire.

James Caan could really bring it.

Here's a nice remembrance from Manohala Dargis of the NY Times.

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Yet another loss came early this week when David Warner passed away. I first noticed him in a small British film called Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment, which came to a theater near me in the mid-60s.  Although I really can't recall why I -- still a teenager at the time -- felt compelled to see Morgan, I distinctly remember how hard it was to convince any of my friends to go.  

"This better not be a fucking pirate movie," one of them muttered, as he grudgingly accompanied me.  

Morgan couldn't have been further from a pirate movie, and was unlike any film I'd ever seen. Although a career in the film industry was the furthest thing from my imagination, this movie opened my eyes to new voices telling stories on screen, which I think prepared me to take a chance on a film class a few years -- a class that would set me on a path to Hollywood.*  

Warner went on to inhabit a wide spectrum of memorable roles in movies as disparate as Straw Dogs, The Omen, Time Bandits, The Titanic, Mary Poppins Returns -- even a few Star Trek movies -- and was never less than convincing on screen.  He seldom felt the heat of the Hollywood spotlight, but brought an added dimension of depth to so every movie in which he appeared. Warner was the kind of actor you don't think about much until he's gone, at which point you realize just how much we've lost. A quote on Twitter said it best:  

"David Warner made good movies better, and bad movies tolerable." 

While working on a sitcom nearly twenty years ago, I was delighted to see that David Warner was one of our guest stars on an early episode. I took the opportunity to shake his hand and relate my story of seeing Morgan so long ago -- which he found amusing -- then told him how much I appreciated his wonderful work over the years.  Meeting someone who'd had such an impact on me at an early age was a big deal, and although Warner seemed a bit embarrassed by the attention, he took it with typical good grace, and did his usual fine job in our show.  

That was a good week.

A nice example of his acting chops is in this scene from Time After Time  -- a scene that might resonate even more nowadays, given all that's going on here and abroad.  

Here's a good obit from the Hollywood Reporter.

RIP, David, and thanks for the memories  

***************************************

From the No Shit, Sherlock School of the Obvious comes this: not only does working long hours suck, but it's bad for your health and longevity.  This comes as no surprise to any industry veteran. As the gaffer who mentored me (and taught me what it meant to be a pro in this business) once said, "I'm mining my body."  He was right, and died at age forty-five of a heart attack while on his way to scout locations for yet another miserable music video. 

The solution for this is equally obvious -- work shorter hours -- but neither the industry nor a surprising number of below-the-line work-bots are in favor of that.  The latter are hooked on the overtime money earned from working all those fourteen to sixteen hour days, and considering the insane cost of housing in LA and beyond these days, along with steadily rising prices of everything else, this is understandable.  

But the question remains: at what human cost?  

The industry insists on jamming through no matter what, always trying to get each film and TV show done in the least number of days for economic reasons ... but I wonder about that.  Granted, most film equipment is rented -- cameras, lights, cable, generators, grip equipment, sound stages, etc. -- so the fewer days it takes to complete a shoot, the less money is paid on rentals, but the long days these ram-and-jam schedules inevitably rack up big overtime bills for the crew, so where does one begin to outweigh the other in budgetary terms?

I don't know -- but I sure as hell know the human cost of working those long days, week after week, year after year.  The other day I started counted the crew people I used to work with who have, in Shakespeare's terms, "shuffled off this mortal coil" at a relatively young age -- meaning their fifties and early sixties --  but stopped once I'd used up the fingers of both hands.  I'm not talking about people who died in car crashes or other accidents, but who suffered from cancer, heart attacks, and other terminal maladies that took them long before their time.  These were all good, smart, funny, capable people, the kind who made the tedium, frustration, and long hours of this business tolerable, and were a delight to work with ... and now they're gone.  I've no doubt that the physical, mental, and emotional stress of working such long days played a role in that. 

But hey, in Hollywood it's Money that Matters, not people.

Same as it ever was.

***************************************

For any of you who tilt at the windmill of the keyboard for fun or (hopeful) profit, this is worth three minutes of your time. Having talent is great, and a good idea always helps, but it's only the start: what really matters is doing the hard work of turning that idea into a story.   

There's no easy way.

***************************************

I realize that Facebook is justifiably reviled by many out there, but it's not all bad -- and like many forms of social media, has its uses. If you're in the biz and on Facebook, you really should click on over to a group called "Crew Stories," where you might learn something, but almost certainly will be amused.  Here's an item from a recent series of posts on working with animals:  

"I worked on a commercial for B&B Circus once. In addition to the camera crew being shit on TWICE by an elephant, we witnessed a sixteen foot Burmese Python bite the snake handler in the chest. After that the director yelled "Right! Bring out the tigers!"  I involuntarily and quite audibly said 'Fuck that,' and went outside."

If you're on FB, check it out - you might be glad you did.

****************************************. 

I've posted it before -- long ago -- but hey, this is the summer of re-runs, and besides, it's my favorite commercial ever, if not the most lyrical thirty seconds of film I've ever seen, graced by an etherial song by an artist I'd never heard of until seeing this.

And while were wallowing in the spirit of re-runs, here's another blast from the past, because payback really is a bitch.

We're in for a long hot summer, kiddos, so stay cool out there.


* The only  career fantasies I had as a teenager centered around becoming a Formula 1 race car driver, which was never going to happen ... and just as well.

Sunday, July 3, 2022

Just for the Hell of It: Episode 65


                                          Lousy photo of a good book


Among the many things I'd hoped to do in retirement was read all the books I'd acquired and stashed on a shelf during my forty years in Hollywood.  At this point it seems unlikely I'll get through them all before I slide into the quicksand of dementia or shuffle off Shakespeare's proverbial mortal coil, but I'm doing my best.  

The latest to come off the shelf into my lap is Final Cut,  Steven Bach's 1985 start-to-finish insider account of how Heaven's Gate made the difficult transition from script to screen, and as Hollywood's most infamous flop (at the time, the biggest in cinematic history), led to the downfall of the legendary United Artists production company.* 

This copy of Final Cut had been collecting dust for decades, and now I'm wondering what the hell took me so long, because it's a terrific book.  In the hands of a lesser writer, this story could have been a dry, dusty recitation of the march from hope to disaster, but Steven Bach  -- senior Vice President and head of worldwide production for UA at the time -- turns out to be a very good writer.  His gift for prose and ability to reveal the human element in this epic disaster story make his book a thoroughly entertaining and fascinating read.  In the words of Peter Bogdonovich's back-of-the-jacket blurb, Final Cut is:

"A riveting, witty and essentially heartbreaking chronicle of a catastrophe ... a story in which virtually everyone is wrong, but the major indictment is saved for directorial insecurity and corporate incompetence.  At the heart of all this is Hollywood's forever fatal flaw: the equation of money with quality."

I can't add much to that, other than if you're ready for a great, fun read that reveals much about the reality of the film industry while dissecting the wreckage of a legendary Hollywood flop, pick up a copy of Final Cut.   



Another excellent, albeit much more recent read (published in 2018) comes from Bill Kimberlin, who enjoyed some hard-earned success as an independent filmmaker before and during his twenty year career in the editorial department of Industrial Light and Magic, the special effects wizards whose skills helped make George Lucas a billionaire while turning out classics like Jurassic Park, Schindler's List, and Star Wars, among so many others.  It turns out that working for George Lucas wasn't a get-in-line-and-do-as-George-says dictatorship, but a creative and demanding environment in which people were expected to use their skills, intelligence, and initiative to collaborate in creating astonishingly realistic cinematic images the likes of which the world had never seen.  That this approach worked spectacularly well is a gross understatement.  I have vivid memories of seeing Jurassic Park at a theater in West LA, when during an early sequence with a massive Tyrannosaurus Rex, I realized that my legs were involuntarily pressing hard against the base of the seat in front of me, because those astonishing images on screen had convinced my own fight-or-flight reptilian brain that it was confronting the real thing: a living, breathing, hungry, utterly terrifying dinosaur ... and my amygdala was trying to get away from it.

You can see a few behind-the-scenes details of how the ILM crew achieved these cinematic miracles here, where you should definitely watch the ten minute clip "Taming the Creatures," which is in equal measures entertaining and eye-opening.

Woven into the narrative is Bill's own journey into and through the film industry. Although the story is  uniquely his, it resonated on several levels with me, as I suspect it will with many of you.  Like most of us, he wasn't born into the biz, but had to claw his way in by hook or by crook at a time when there was no internet, industry blogs, or Hollywood podcasts to show the way.  Back then, Hollywood outsiders had to go to an expensive film school to receive useful guidance on navigating the labyrinth of the film industry -- and if you couldn't afford that, you had to figure it out on your own.  Having gone to San Francisco State rather than  USC, UCLA, or NYU, Bill took the latter approach, and after a truly audacious attempt to get his foot in the door of Hollywood didn't pan out, found another way, embarking on an odyssey that eventually led him to head the editorial department at ILM.

As he put it the foreword:  "This book is not a history of ILM or Lucasfilm, nor it it a biography of George Lucas. It represents my own personal view and experiences from a life in the movie business and is told in a narrative of vignettes that, like a script, sometime flash either forward or back."

Whether you're a casual observer of the film scene, an industry veteran, or a fanatical Star Wars devotee, you'll find Bill's experiences helping to craft some of the most famous movies of our time as engrossing as I did.  Do yourself a favor and read it.

*********************************************

Among the many losses we've suffered this year was Ray Liotta, at the relatively tender age of 67.  I used to think that was old, but having passed that mark several years ago, it's hardly a surprise that I no longer feel that way.  I first saw Ray in Something Wild, where he played an intensely scary ex-boyfriend alongside Melanie Griffith and Jeff Daniels, then a few years later as Henry Hill, a young man who joins the mafia, lives the good life, and pays the price in Goodfellas.  He appeared in so many movies over the course of his career, including lots of indy features, always bringing his trademark laser-focused intensity to every role.

Here's a good interview with Ray from a few years ago, which gives a sense of what he was all about as an actor.  Although it's a cliché to say he died too young, clichés exist for a reason -- and Ray Liotta defintely left us much too soon. 

Thanks for the memories, Ray.  RIP.

*********************************************

Here's a nugget from twenty years ago that I somehow missed, probably because I was saddled with the digital horse and buggy of dial-up internet at the time.  I may be the only person on the planet who hadn't seen until now, but in case a few of you missed it too, here's 405 - The Movie.  It's just three minutes long, so won't eat up the rest of your day, and once you've watched it, you'll want to read this article from the Austin Chronicle, which tells how this brilliant short film jump-started the careers of the two guys who made it.  That they were able to pull off such a convincing visual stunt using the relatively crude technology of 2001 is jaw-dropping -- these two deserved all the good things that resulted from their efforts. 

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If you thought I wasn't going to subject you to yet another re-run, well, think again, my little droogies -- 2022 is the summer of re-runs.  This one might even make the book -- I've been working on re-writing it this week, so we'll see -- but either way, it's a reminder that sometimes the reality of working on set demands that we break the rulesThere's nothing wrong with breaking those rules so long as you know how and when to do it -- and as in so many aspects in life, that you don't get caught. 

That's all for now, kiddos.  Have a safe and sane 4th, and a great month.  Yes, I know: the world is falling apart everywhere we look these days, but obsessing on that -- and doom scrolling -- gets you nowhere fast. July is the peak of summer, so turn off the TV, shut down the computer, put the cell phone on "charge," then get out and have some fun while you can ... because it really is later than you think.


* I don't know how accurate it is, but here's a list of the biggest movie flops of all time.

Sunday, June 5, 2022

June


Here it is June already, the beginning of summer, which means we're already halfway to 2023. It's a cliché to bleat that time passes with increasing speed as I slide into the quicksand of "extremely late middle age," but clichés exist for a reason. I've come to see aging as something akin to falling from an airplane without a parachute: suddenly weightless, not much seems to be happening at first. The ground is so far away that there's no real sense of falling -- you're just surfing on a powerful wave of wind while enjoying a wonderful view.  But after a while you notice the objects down below are growing larger with each passing moment, rushing ever faster towards you -- and in those last few seconds before impact, they're coming at you with shocking speed -- which is when you finally grasp what's really happening, and then ... nothing.  You've exited the mortal realm and moved into the next world, whatever and wherever that may be.

I'm in that second phase of the drop now, with the final phase in sight -- those objects below are definitely bigger than they were last month, but not as big as they'll be next month, so I can't complain. It is, as the saying goes, what it is.

Yes, this month brings another re-run, this one from 2009 when my little cable show was cursed with a young director whose extensive thespian pedigree should have been good training for the job. Alas, no.  I didn't identify him at the time -- hey, I still had to work in that town -- but there's nothing holding me back now, especially since he was recently fired from his job producing a reboot of the very same show that made him semi-famous in the first place, and provided him with a career.  

It's not clear yet what he did to get fired -- sure, he was a lousy director, but I didn't see any untoward behavior on his part during that week of rehearsals and filming back in 2009. Still, I'm not really surprised.  Those who go about their work with a sense of entitlement often must learn first-hand the meaning of "Pride goeth before a fall."  Maybe a year or two in The Hollywood doghouse will instill a little humility ... and maybe not.  At any rate, that's his problem, not mine.

So, step on into the Wayback Machine with me, and here we go.*


* Not that I've jumped out of any airplanes with or without a parachute, mind you, but I've seen enough skydiving footage in movies and on TV to have a notion what it's like.

The Wayback Machine


Sunday, May 1, 2022

Mayday! Mayday!! Mayday!!!

 

                                        Photographer unknown


So here it is, the first of May, a lovely month that marks the peak of Spring -- and International Worker's Day, of course -- as Summer lights a cigarette, then checks her cell phone while waiting in the wings to make her entrance ... which makes me wonder how the term "mayday" came to be the universal cry of distress?  So, off to Wiki-Land -- our modern Library of Alexandria -- to find out.

As you've doubtless surmised by now, this signals yet another re-run. There's enough going on these days that I still haven't managed to finish a new post ... and are you seeing a pattern here? Truth be told, this is probably how it's going to be until I get the book done: shining a light on oldies-but-goodies that won't make it to dead-tree print form, but might be worth your time -- and being more than a decade in the past, may have escaped your attention or slipped into the Swamp of the Forgotten.

And wouldn't that be a good name for a band:  "Swamp of the Forgotten"?

So once again I walk the dusty aisles all the way back to May of 2011, a post spurred by a reader named Emilio who asked, in so many words "Is going to Hollywood worth it?"

As usual, the answer to such a question is neither simple nor brief -- much like life itself ... if you're lucky. 

Have yourselves a very good May.

Sunday, April 3, 2022

Lies

 

                       Not a real rat ... but you knew that.*

The film and television industry is all about telling lies -- most (but sadly, not all) of which appear on camera. Crafting screenplays and putting them up on screen is what Hollywood is all about: the creative process of telling well-constructed dramatic and/or comedic lies.  

That's what good fiction is: a beautiful lie. 

Bad fiction (Hi there, Michael Bay!), not so much.

So, yeah ... I've got nothing for April.  Hey, I've been busy beating my head against the brick wall of The Book, and something had to give. There's a new post in the works, but it's at least a month away, which means now's the time (ahem: again) to pull a re-run from the archives, scrape off the digital dust, and pretend that you haven't read it ... and given that it went up in 2011, most of you have probably haven't.  Even if anybody did, I doubt they'd remember anyway. 

Ladies and gentlemen -- drumroll please -- without further ado, an "encore presentation" of The Little White Lie.



* It was among the hundreds of fake rats (lies, I tell you, lies!) that appeared so long ago in the benighted film The Sword and Sorcerer. 

Sunday, March 27, 2022

Oscars, Again...

 


Yeah, I know: what's a post doing here near the end of the month rather than in the usual First Sunday at 9:01 a.m. slot?  First off, it's a re-run from a long time ago, exhumed from the archives, so I suppose it really doesn't count.  Second, it concerns the Oscars, which will be broadcast tonight -- for better or worse. Third, I've been working pretty hard on the book lately, which hasn't left much energy for coming up with fresh posts.  I really want to get the book done -- or at least have it ready for print -- by the end of this year, assuming we aren't all rotting under a mountain of radioactive rubble by then. 

This is a version, more or less, that might end up in the book -- if it survives the cull. That's a big "if" though, because the rough draft as it currently stands feels a bit like ten pounds of shit crammed into a five pound bag ... so we'll see.  I've corrected a few errors and cut some stuff from the original post, and more editing will doubtless be needed before the final cut.

So, if you watch the Oscars tonight, enjoy the show.  


Oscar's Big Night

March, 2008


“It is hard to laugh at the need for beauty and romance, no matter how tasteless, even horrible, the results of that are. But it is easy to sigh. Few things are sadder than the truly monstrous.” 


Day of the Locust, by Nathanael West



I first read Nathanael West’s dark reflection on the film industry shortly after arriving in the smog-choked arena of Los Angeles. Fresh off the turnip truck, I was abysmally ignorant in the ways of the Industry, and eager for insights on the nature of Hollywood, my new home-away-from-home. Day of the Locust was a lurid, entertaining, and memorable read, but seemed a bit dated as a product of its time, and more than a little over the top. 


Thirty years after that first read — and considerably wiser in the ways of Hollywood — I must now offer a belated apology to the late, great Mr. West, who got a lot more right than wrong in nailing Tinsel Town to its very own gilded cross. West scraped off the pretense and phoniness layered atop our industry like six inches of sugary-sweet frosting to reveal the bitter cake of greed, fear, and insecurity below. Much has changed since 1939 — the advent and ever-expanding reach of television, the dazzling evolution of camera, lighting, and post-production technology, and a massive increase in the population of Southern California — but the essential truths underlined by Nathanael West still hold.


Last Sunday was Oscar Night, Hollywood’s annual air kiss into the brightly lit mirror of onanistic narcissism, a self-congratulatory salute to everything the Industry holds dear. There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging excellence in the cinematic arts, but the perverse obsession with celebrity the Oscar broadcast represents, promotes, and feeds on feels all too creepy, as does the tired ritual of crowds gawking as youth, beauty, and fame march arm-in-arm up that famous red carpet. The broadcast has metastasized over the years into a carnival of glittering tedium as the seemingly endless parade of winners lurch from the relative anonymity of the audience up those steps and into the spotlight, there to clutch their little gold man and blubber thanks to their agents, managers, lawyers, and other Hollywood leeches.


I don’t have to like it to understand what’s going on. In a business famous for coddling the unconstrained egos of narcissists who are cursed with a deep rooted need to be “loved” by faceless legions of total strangers — and for behind-the-scenes backstabbing in a desperate, zero-sum struggle to ascend the slippery ladder of Hollywood success — the annual group-hug by and for inmates of this gilded asylum makes a certain sense, but it made a lot more sense back in the old days when the Oscar ceremony was a private affair.  All that changed when NBC took the Oscars public for the Academy’s first television broadcast in 1953, turning a relatively quiet celebration of Hollywood insiders into a bloated spectacle meant to boost the box office prospects of the winners while inducing millions of viewers to sit through four hours of commercials. 


Everyone directly involved with a nominated film — actors, writers, directors, and producers, along with highly skilled below-the-line craftspeople — has a vested interest in the Oscars, and in a big little town like Hollywood, most of us know somebody connected to a film in the running.  Still, I still have a hard time understanding why anybody outside the Industry would care what movie wins Best Picture, or which actor, actress, or director takes home a little golden statuette. It astonishes me that so many people are willing to line up outside the Kodak Theater to wait hour after hour on a chilly February afternoon just to catch a fleeting glimpse of a few movie stars, but they do, year after year.  Although the LA Times complained that “only 33 million people” watched last Sunday night, that’s more than ten percent of the entire U.S. population, representing a huge public appetite for such a tediously weepy extravaganza. The audience may be aging, and the numbers slumping from past broadcasts, but a lot of people still seem to love the Oscars.


I tried to enjoy the event during my early years in the biz, dutifully tuning in on Oscar Night. Having worked so hard to become a tiny cog in the vast Hollywood Machine, I felt a sense of belonging, along with a certain obligation to observe the rituals of the clan. I was finally part of Hollywood — if only as a bottom feeder, far below-the-line — and when in Rome, one does as the Romans.


As my work shifted from low-budget features to commercials and music videos, the Oscars began to lose their relevance. I finally opted-out altogether, ignoring Oscar Night for twenty years until breaking tradition to watch during the year Charlize Theron won for a performance in which she transformed her lithe and lovely self into a monstrously grotesque homicidal prostitute. In a way, this seemed like the flip-side of the transformation Hollywood itself goes through every year for the Oscars, morphing from its true Industrial self — a soulless beast that cares only for money — into a glittering, beautiful blonde lighting up the world with her ten thousand watt smile. If this sounds a bit harsh, remember that the business of Hollywood has always been ruthlessly bottom-line, leaving countless starry-eyed dreamers battered and broken in its wake. Perhaps this is the fate of dreamers everywhere — romantic idealism left mugged and bleeding on the mean streets of reality — but the beatings meted out by Hollywood are particularly bruising.


Still, the Oscars are hardly the worst offender among awards shows. For the lamest, most purely commercial award circus, the Grammys takes the cake every year. Lest there be any doubt, consider two words that sum up the Grammys in a nutshell: Millie Vanilli. To the Grammys, quality is measured in terms of gross sales figures, which is why it represents all that’s hollow, rotten, and ruthlessly corporate in the music industry.


Finishing a distant second in the Award Show Hall of Shame are the Emmys, which slavishly follow the party line of conventional Industry wisdom when it comes to bestowing awards. This isn’t to suggest that those who receive Emmys aren’t deserving, but the awards committee remains grimly determined to take no risks whatsoever. Go out on a limb to reward a quirky, innovative show that hasn’t yet managed to attract millions of advertiser-pleasing eyeballs? Forget it, kid. That’s not how the Emmys roll.


This is all just one juicer's opinion, of course. De gustibus non est disputadum, the ancients tell us, and plenty of otherwise good, reasonable people enjoy the Grammys and Emmys. The best I can say is that both shows make the Oscars look good in comparison, but since that’s a grading curve equivalent to judging the offerings of a Third World whorehouse, such comparisons don’t count for much.


Ignoring the Oscars isn’t really an option when you live in Hollywood, where half the streets are blocked off, helicopters hover overhead all day, and far above, the Goodyear Blimp drifts in fat, lazy circles among the patchy clouds like a plump silver and blue whale.  Out of curiosity, I tuned in just as Regis Philbin was winding up his one-man orgy of groveling self-humiliation, then watched the first half hour of the broadcast, which was more than enough. With all due respect to Daniel Day-Lewis, Javier Bardem, Marion Cotillard, Tilda Swinton, and the Cohen brothers — hey, congratulations to everybody in the Kodak Theater, winners and losers alike — I turned off the television.


Given that life is usually more fun inside with the party rather than pressing one’s nose against the glass peering in from the cold, you might wonder if there's a reason for my sour attitude towards Oscar, some private grudge I’ve nursed all these years that’s turned me against Oscar’s Big Night.


Well … yeah.  Beyond finding the broadcast stupefyingly dull, there’s been a small, sharp Oscar-shaped bone stuck in my figurative craw for three long decades. Very early in my career, I worked on a film that won an Oscar. In 1978 — when The Deer Hunter was awarded Best Picture, Jon Voight and Jane Fonda won for Coming Home, Christopher Walken took Best Supporting Actor, and Michael Cimino beat out Alan Parker for Best Director — a film called Teenage Father, written and directed by the young Taylor Hackford, received the Oscar for Best Live Action Short. It was barely half an hour long (short films by definition being short), but the golden statuette Hackford held in his sweaty palms that night was just as big and shiny as Jane Fonda’s, and as far as Hollywood is concerned, winning an Oscar for anything is the industry equivalent of receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor. There is no higher award in this town.


So did I get a golden statue? Of course not. Did I deserve one? Absolutely not — as a wet-behind-the-ears swing man on a three man grip/electric crew, I was lucky to get the job in the first place. Other than an occasional technical achievement award, neither grips, juicers, nor gaffers are eligible for Oscars. The closest any of us ever comes is when a film we worked on wins for Best Cinematography, which represents a combined win for the grip, set lighting, and camera departments. If we’re lucky, the winning D.P. will remember to thank his/her crew before walking offstage holding his little gold man.


Other than the paycheck, the only thing I deserved was a credit: my name somewhere near the bottom of the crawl at the end of the film. Credits are a throwaway, the cheapest of perks doled out to those who do the heavy lifting essential to making any film. If you’ve ever sat through the full ten minutes of credits at the end of a feature, you know that everybody who worked on that movie — from the lowest production assistant to the executive producer — gets a credit. Whoever you are, and whatever your job on the production, you get to see your name in the credits. It’s part of the deal, just like getting paid. Although many will deny this, don’t think for a moment that we crew members won't sit there in the dark waiting for our names to appear up on the screen. As silly as it seems, we all do it. Film credits may be essentially meaningless, but they still matter.


Not on Teenage Fathers, though, where none of us — not the Gaffer, Key Grip, or me, the lowly swing-man — received a credit at the end of that film. 


This was one of my first lessons in The Way Hollywood Works. It wasn’t the last.


Am I bitter? Nah. I got paid for my work, and that’s enough. Hey, this is America, where the money’s what matters, right?  Right … but that money is thirty years gone, and there wasn’t all that much of it to begin with. Short films are made on equally short budgets, and I’m sure the producer was just trying to save a few scarce dollars by skimping on the credits, but to this day I feel a tiny surge of adrenaline every time I hear the name “Taylor Hackford.” Not only did he win that Oscar, then go on to enjoy a richly rewarding Hollywood career, but he got to marry Helen Mirren, a wonderfully talented actress and the sexiest sixty-something woman in the world.*


So I raise a glass in this post-Oscar week to my fellow grip/electrics on that film, Mike Popovitch and Josh Rich, who taught me a lot when I knew next to nothing. We didn’t get the credit, but thirty years ago our efforts helped win an Oscar.  Not everybody in this town can make that claim, and not even Taylor Hackford — or our missing credits — can take it away from us.


* Yes, as a matter of fact I AM jealous...


Sunday, March 6, 2022

Suraag: Las Vegas


Bored while waiting for your luggage? Pump in a dollar, pull the lever, and try your luck...
 
(The following will make a lot more sense if you start here)

The first clue that I'd landed in a very different world came while walking through McCarron International airport, which was thoroughly infested with slot machines.* I shouldn't have been surprised. Las Vegas was built by gangsters on a foundation of gambling and sex, a red-light Disneyland for adults where restraint is left at the door and every craving indulged ... for a price. The motto "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas" befits this garish desert outland three hundred miles from civilization, where the polite, church-going America morphs into its feverish Jekyll-and-Hyde twin, a cigarette dangling from her lips and a highball in one hand, shrieking "C'mon baby, gimme me a seven!" as a pair of dice tumble down the green felt.  

Las Vegas is the border town where America meets itself.

I first passed through one summer as a callow teenager in the midst of a 12,000 mile motorcycle trip all around the US, when I stopped in Vegas to buy gas and a long-sleeved white shirt to ward off the brutal desert sun. Sure, it's a "dry heat," but 108 degrees is goddamned hot wherever you are. Nine years later I spent a day in Vegas (doing laundry, then sleeping) after driving a 5 ton grip/electric truck all night from LA on the way to Sun Valley, where we were to shoot an Anita Bryant TV special in the snowy mountains of Idaho. 

But this was different: I was the gaffer now.  

Having the title "gaffer" isn't the same as being a gaffer -- I had much to learn in that regard -- but you'll never get anywhere if you leave the door locked when opportunity knocks, so here I was in Las Vegas, a brand new Spectra Pro in hand.

                             Yeah, I was a young idiot -- but I had fun with it.

We'd be staying and filming at the Lady Luck Casino, so the first order of business was to meet the casino liaison, a pleasant, outgoing woman with a big smile. Jag Mundrah, Gérard, and I sat down with her to discuss how the casino could be of help to the production. Jag was ever the polite, classy gentleman, while Gerard worked his gallic charm telling stories of how he'd been captured by the Viet Cong while filming in Southeast Asia.  I sat there nodding my head like a bobblehead doll until she turned to me, but there was only one thing I needed from the Lady Luck: a power-drop from the casino's main electrical panel that would land near the gambling -- er, "gaming" -- tables where we'd film the scene.  She gave me the name of the casino's head electrician, and said he was expecting me.  

Half an hour later I was up on catwalks built over the ceiling above the blackjack tables, hidden from the crowd below by one-way mirrors that allowed us -- and casino security people -- to see everything that went on down below. I showed the casino's electrician exactly where I'd need the drop.  

"No problem," he said. "You supply the cable. I'll do the tie-in and drop it right here." 

So far, so good.

We chatted on the way back to his office, trading yarns about our mutual respect for the power of electricity, but his story was a lot more impressive than mine. Back when he worked for the power company, he'd been on site when "2.3 megawatts went to ground," which is a technical way of saying that a giant electrical short accidentally occurred, unleashing a shitload of power -- essentially a bolt of man-made lightning -- which was a life-altering experience for him. Some things you just can't forget, and maybe that's just as well. 

My next stop was the rental house, which happened to be one I'd been to before -- where I really hoped they wouldn't remember me -- which they didn't, fortunately.  I put in an order for four 2K and four 1K incandescent lamps, cable, and support gear, and was at the casino door early the next morning with my best boy to lug the equipment to the area where we'd be filming.  Soon the power was dropped, the lights, camera, and sound ready, and the crew waiting ... and waiting ... and waiting... for the actors. After having fun in San Francisco, they'd finally landed in Las Vegas, and apparently were making the most of it.


Clockwise from the top left: Hal, Gerard (behind camera), Jag Mundrah, Joel (sound), Jimmy D. (BB), and your faithful correspondent back when I had a lot more hair.
 
In time they arrived, grinning from ear-to-ear, and we were finally underway. Being clueless as a gaffer,  I was nervous as a cat in a thunderstorm, but Gerard knew what he wanted from the lighting, so I did as he asked and pretended I knew what I was doing. In some ways, filming in a Las Vegas casino turned out to be easier than most urban locations. A film crew attracts a lot of attention out in the real world, but here the main attraction was high-energy gambling, and we were just a minor sideshow. A few onlookers stopped to gawk for a minute, but soon were on their way to bigger thrills, which made our job a lot simpler -- not once did I have to reply "We're just making a mayonnaise commercial."



Thanks to the late start, our work went on all day and into the night, moving the camera and lights for each shot until Jag had everything he needed.  This was the final day of filming on Suraag, and once we'd loaded all the lighting and grip gear back into the rental house truck (and turned in our invoices for the week), the movie was wrapped.  As always, the actors were very gracious -- as we all said our goodbyes, Sanjeev handed me a nice bottle of scotch as a gift.

With that, my gaffer's chariot morphed back into a pumpkin. Back in LA, I returned to my rightful place as a juicer on set, and my light meter went back in the case for another seven years, when -- ready or not -- I was once again pushed into the role of gaffer.**  It was a rocky transition, but in the end I emerged strong enough to work steadily as a gaffer for a dozen years before the tectonic forces of currency exchange rates and Canadian tax subsidies turned my comfortable little world upside-down.  Bogey and I continued to work together, but I never again saw any of the other cast or crew of Suraag, nor did I work on another Bollywood film.

While searching the net to flesh out a few details, I found the movie on Youtube and watched it for the first -- and last -- time. With all due respect to Jagmohan Mundrah, Suraag is a terrible movie. If you want to see for yourself, here you go, but be warned: it's atrocious even by the standards of the early 80s, but the first efforts of most directors rarely shine -- not everybody comes out of the blocks like Steven Spielberg or William Friedkin -- and Jag went on to make many more films before his untimely demise.  He was a good, decent man, and I liked him. Gérard Alcan called me out of the blue a couple of years later, hoping to involve me in another project, but by then I was deep into the world of commercials, and wasn't interested in working on another low budget film. Still, Gérard was a real charmer, and so much fun to talk to, but he passed into the great beyond not much later -- how and why I have no idea. At only fifty-three, he was much too young to die. Further delving revealed that Sanjeev died in 1985, Geeta Kak passed in 2019, and our sound mixer, Joel Goldsmith, died of cancer in 2012. Fourteen years after our adventure on Suraag, my great friend and mentor Jim "Bogey" Bogard was felled by a massive heart attack at forty-five -- a death that well and truly rocked my world -- and so the Great Wheel turns.  

I began writing about Suraag as a light-hearted romp through the past, and other than the death of Bogey, my assumption was that the rest of the crew were still with us -- but fully half the cast and crew of the LA unit are gone: all those good, funny, creative, interesting people now just memories. 

Getting old is a bitch, kiddos. I suppose it beats the alternative -- such is the popular narrative, anyway -- but the past and all its memories can be a bittersweet cross to bear, a reality that weighs on my own shoulders more with each passing year.

So it goes.


* Recently renamed Harry Reid International Airport.

** Ahem: I was not ready.