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 17, 2021

Zero Hour

As of late Saturday afternoon, a strike has been averted for the time being, thanks to a deal reached late yesterday -- but as we've all learned the hard way, the Devil lies in the weeds of the details, so I'll withhold judgment until I know exactly what the deal really is. If it's not good, I expect we'll see pushback from the rank and file who will have to ratify that deal before it's cast in stone.  What many have feared since these negotiations began is that the AMPTP would make an offer just good enough to pass, but that doesn't seriously address the quality of life issues that sparked such widespread support for a strike. 

I had this post ready to go before the deal was announced, so even though it's no longer relevant (I hope),  here it is.  If the deal isn't good enough, these picket signs may yet be used -- but let's hope it's a deal the IA membership will accept, and that will make their lives less stressful.  

That's always been the goal.


                                          Photo courtesy of IA Local 728

Here we stand on the edge of the cliff, looking down into the abyss. Unless an agreement is reached between our IA negotiators and the AMPTP sometime today, the strike will commence at 12:01 PST tomorrow morning:  Zero Hour in Hollywood. 

From that moment on, the IA will be on strike.

It's tempting to assume that these negotiations will unfold in a manner similar to what happens every year in Congress, where the two opposing parties always appear headed for a deadlock until the last minute ... at which point the politicians suddenly remember how stupid such games of "Chicken" look to the electorate, and work out a compromise.  But there's the rub: for all its many faults, Congress understands the nature of this dance very well, and knows how to bring a deal home when push comes to shove. The AMPTP is so accustomed to extracting concessions from the IA that they've never had to learn the art of compromise, nor do they understand that this time is different.*

I see a similar disconnect with reality on much of the IA social media, where many have been loudly screaming to strike for weeks now. The consensus among those yelling the loudest is that once the work stops, the producers will fall to their knees and agree to the IA's demands in short order. That would be nice, but I'm not so optimistic. It seems that the essential lessons of life are only learned the hard way, which means the producers will probably have to suffer badly before they come around, and that's likely to take some time.  How long?  Weeks, certainly, and maybe months. With the holidays around the corner, the cessation of paychecks could bring a very bleak Christmas, especially for those below-the-liners with families, and the New Year may dawn with no end in sight. Rent and mortgage payments will keep knocking on the door, along with all the other bills ... and that's when the concept of solidarity will be sorely tested.  The first few days of a strike will be easy, but it'll get harder and harder with each passing week.

I'm not throwing cold water on the need for a strike.  If the producers refuse to bend, they must be made to understand the ugly reality that so many below-the-line workers face these days -- we have to get their full, undivided attention. As my dad used to say, "sometimes you need to employ a two-by-four to make a mule understand."  

The strike is our two-by-four.

I don't know how or when this will end.  I reached out to a couple of writer friends, asking how they felt about the WGA strike back in 2008, and wondering if what they gained was worth the economic pain of the strike. As of now, neither has responded, but if they do I'll update this post.

So the clock is ticking, and the two-by-four in our hands.

Now we wait.

*A glimmer of hope appeared yesterday afternoon, but we'll see if anything comes of it.

Sunday, October 3, 2021

The Moment of Truth

 

 

This is it: Sunday morning, the last day for those eligible to cast a ballot for the strike authorization vote to make their voices heard. It's a moment of truth, and maybe the most consequential vote you'll ever cast outside of a presidential election, so make it count. If there's an overwhelming turnout delivering a "yes" vote, we have a chance to succeed in making things better for everybody who works in the film and television industry. 

If we fail ... well, let's not fail, okay?

Last Sunday I participated in another Below the Line podcast hosted by Robert "Skid" Skidmore on the subject of this weekend's vote, along with Mike Loomer of Local 44 and David Tuttman of Local 600.  None of us spoke as representatives of our respective locals or IATSE, but were expressing our personal views on the current situation based on what we've seen and experienced over the course of our careers. If you're still on the fence on how to vote, or have any doubts about why it matters, tune in and have a listen.

More to the point -- do yourself, your family, and your union a favor by voting "yes." Doing so won't make a strike inevitable, but it will let the producers know that they can't expect to stonewall and bulldoze us as they've done so often in the past. This is a new era, so it's time to lay down new ground rules to ensure that those of you who still have ten, twenty, or thirty years left in your careers will be able to work, live, and eventually retire in more dignity and enjoy a better quality of life than is possible  now.

It's time.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

The Devil's Bargain


                                                    Same as it ever was

It's been 24 years since camera assistant Brent Hershman fell asleep at the wheel and was killed while driving home from a nineteen hour work day, after which a lot of jaw-flapping ensued about the need to work shorter hours on set -- and although a few productions began offering hotel rooms to crew members after excessively long days, that was the extent of it. Despite a campaign by the late, great Haskell Wexler to institute a "12 On/12 Off" policy on set, nothing at all has been done to curtail abusive work hours. Film crews on features and episodics continue to get hammered with a long slog of 70-plus hour weeks capped off with the universally-reviled "Fraterday." This is ridiculous, especially now that medical science has quantified the obvious: that working excessively long hours is very bad for your health.  

Despite growing discontent among the rank and file (including cinematographers), a few people in our industry resist the push to work shorter hours. Some parrot the chest-thumping response of "You want regular hours, work in a bank," while the more thoughtful point out that the cost of living these days is such that they really need all that overtime just to get by. The hourly rates are decent for those employed on full-scale union jobs, but the film and television industry is a freelance, feast-or-famine world where all jobs on set are temporary. Every movie or television show comes to an end, at which point you're out of work until the next job comes along.**  Employment insecurity is a fact of life in the film industry, where we rarely know what is -- or isn't -- coming next, so it's no surprise that people want to make what they can while they can.

But this raises the question: at what cost? Should working in the film and television industry be like toiling underground digging coal, where miners have to accept the Devil's Bargain of becoming terminally ill with Black Lung disease before reaching retirement age simply to put food on the table and a roof over the heads for their families?

Working on set will never be a nine-to-five job, and truth be told, this is part of the attraction. There's a sense of mission that comes from being part of a crew making a movie or television show -- a "we'll get this done no matter what" ethos that sets it apart from punching a time clock in a factory or driving a keyboard under the fluorescent glow of a cube farm. I wasn't suited for -- nor did I ever want -- a normal job in the civilian world, and although this sounds remarkably idiotic now, I took a certain pride in working the 16, 18, and 20+ hour days that were common during my early career in the world of low budget, non-union features and music videos. It was all part of "paying my dues" to earn a place in the industry.  Still, it's one thing to make the best of a tough situation -- to do what you've gotta do -- and something very different to feel a perverse pride in enduring such ordeals. Looking back, I can see this was probably a form of the Stockholm syndrome, a coping mechanism that allowed me to feel good about being trapped in such difficult situations.  

Like the man said: "I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now."

Escaping from the anything-goes, pedal-to-the-metal arena of low budget productions into the safe harbor of union work was supposed to fix all that -- and for a while, it did. Unfortunately, our union contracts have only gotten worse when IATSE and the AMPTP met every three years to hammer out a renewal. Those contracts once protected the rank and file from being worked excessive hours, with the first eight hours at straight time, the next four at time-and-a-half, and anything over twelve hours paid double-time. We'd receive a 15% "night premium" on top of union scale when taking a night call on a studio lot, and working weekends paid double. If you were on a show that worked past midnight on Friday (having already gone twelve hours), you then went into "double-double," or four times the normal hourly scale.  

These provisions weren't in the contract to fatten the paychecks of crew members, but as a financial sledgehammer to dissuade producers from working their crews abusively long hours -- and if for some reason a shoot really had to go long, the producers would have to pay dearly for the privilege. It wasn't a perfect system, but it worked a lot better than what we have now. I can't pinpoint exactly where the erosion in these protections began, but the real break in the dam seemed to come back when the IA signed a contract with HBO allowing the then-fledgling company to pay their crews 20% under union scale, then go into double-time after 14 working hours rather than 12. The rationale was that this new network needed help competing with the Big Three broadcast powerhouses, and cutting them some slack would allow HBO to hire union crews rather than non-union workers to support our health and pension plans. All this would have been fine if the negotiations included a "sunset clause" to limit the duration of the deal, so that once HBO got on its feet -- say, after ten years -- the cable-rate provision would expire, and they'd have to pay crews full union scale.  But there was no such clause, which is why many cable networks still exploit their contractual right to pay crews 20% under scale, and work them 14 hours before the producers hit the wall of double-time.

If you think it's fun to work 14 hour days, 5 days a week, for  a 20% cut in pay, try it sometime.

In every contract negotiation since that HBO deal, we've lost more of the protections that discourage producers from abusing their crews, and now union scale has been thoroughly Balkanized with half a dozen different rates, each less than the basic union scale that was once the lowest we could be paid. The producers arrived at each of those negotiations armed with a phalanx of well-paid lawyers, while our side had guys who -- figuratively speaking -- left their tool belts at the door before sitting down at the table. I wasn't in any of those rooms, and won't criticize our IA representatives, but it's clear that they didn't have the training, skills, or leverage to go toe-to-toe with the AMPTP lawyers, and the results were predictable. Concession after concession has been rammed down our throats over the last twenty-plus years, with each contract progressively worse than the last.

According to my local, the following are at issue in the current contract negotiations:

A living wage as well as annual increases, reasonable rest and meal periods, sustainable health and pension benefits, improved working conditions, and diversity, equity, and inclusion.

"Reasonable rest" means preventing productions -- particularly episodic television -- from working their crews into the ground, because a twelve-hour work day is long enough.  It also means allowing rest and meal breaks for the crew during each work day, which -- given the cumulative load of fatigue over each week of long days -- is a very real safety issue.

The following, which has been making the rounds of social media lately, sums up the situation.***

Friends and family across the country:  there's a very real possibility that Hollywood unions (represented by the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees) will go on strike, which would halt almost all film and television production across the entire United States. This would be a historic move, but one that's necessary.
 
Many of you are probably annoyed that you’ve cut the cable cord, only to find that you're now paying the same amount for a multitude of streaming services. Those of us who do the hard work required to make those shows are considerably more than annoyed that these streaming entities -- which are owned and run by some of the richest corporations on the planet -- are still pretending that streaming is an unproven business model they have yet to profit from.  
 
In a word, that's bullshit.
 
They want to pay us less to work on streaming shows than for shows that air on regular TV. They want to work us longer hours and have shorter weekends. They want to contribute less to our pension and health plans for streaming movies than they do for films that have a traditional theatrical release. They don’t even want to let us break for lunch during a 12+ hour work day. On top of all that, AppleTV+ is asking for a discount on our rates because they currently have fewer subscribers than the others, even though their huge hit "Ted Lasso" just won a truckload of Emmys.
 
The situation has reached a breaking point. The studios have now decided to end the negotiations, so our leadership is calling for a strike authorization vote in the hope that our show of strength and solidarity will force the producers to offer a fair contract and avoid a strike ... but if not, we'll have to strike for what we need.
 
I hope that you’ll stand with us in this fight.

The Devil drives a hard bargain, so it's no surprise that the AMPTP dug in its heels on several key provisions. I don't know all the specifics, but apparently they want to make it much harder to qualify for a pension, eliminate the existing structure of breaks (including meal periods)  in favor of "more flexibility," cut our annual (and minimal...) pay raise in half, and refuse to even consider the matter of working crews deep into Saturday mornings. The latter is a serious quality of life issue, because a work week that begins at 7:00 Monday morning and doesn't end until 5:00 A.M. Saturday renders the term "weekend" all but meaningless. 

With the talks stalemated, the IA has called for a strike authorization vote -- the first essential step towards an industry-wide strike. The next move is ours, and it's crucial for the rank and file to respond with an overwhelming "yes" vote to put the producers on notice that this time we mean business. As IATSE president Matt Loeb put it: "It's time to command their attention," and if AMPTP refuses to respond with a reasonable compromise, we'll have two choices: roll over and take another beating, or stand up and strike.

If push comes to shove, my vote is to strike.

This is easy for me to say -- being retired, I no longer wait for my phone to ring with the next job -- but if we've learned anything by now, it's that the producers only respond to pressure. It's been many decades since below-the-line unions exerted any real heat on the AMPTP -- to my knowledge, there's never been a widespread strike by the IA in Hollywood -- and the producers have made it clear that they won't be reasonable unless and until we force the issue. 

When I started working in Hollywood back in '77, many of the veteran crews I worked with were from a generation that came of age amid the privation and misery of the Depression Era, then went through the hell of World War Two. Having witnessed the worst life could dish out, they were happy just to have a decent job -- but that was a different era in every way. The cost of living was cheaper in real terms, and strong union rules protected the rank and file from being worked to death. A bitter cliché I heard many times on set goes: "If you're going to fuck us, at least give us a kiss," but the AMPTP won't even blow us an Oscar-style Hollywood air kiss, so maybe it's time to revive the battle cry of Howard Beale in the Sidney Lumet/Paddy Chayefsky classic Network:

"I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!" 

With so many still recovering from the Covid shutdown, this isn't a great time to go on strike, but if we roll over and take another contract beat-down, any concessions forced on us now will form the new baseline for even more drastic cuts when the contract expires in three years. We're now in something of a modern Gilded Age where the old and new media corporations are making money hand over fist while grinding the workforce they depend on into the dirt. This is as shortsighted as it is cruel, but rather than meet us halfway to agree on a fair contract, they're trying to divide, conquer, and break the unions. Sometime it seems they won't be happy until we've been relegated to First World slave labor toiling for minimum wage and minimal benefits.  

Fuck that.

There's no denying that an industry-wide strike would be ugly and painful, but what's our alternative? The AMPTP is so accustomed to kicking us to the curb on their way to the bank that they really don't believe the rank and file has the stomach to withstand a prolonged strike. If they ignore next weekend's strike authorization vote and refuse to compromise, we'll have to draw the line and show them that like the fictional Howard Beale, we really aren't going to take it anymore. 

Because if not now, when? 

 


* To bastardize a once popular C&W song, "Mama, don't let your babies grow up to be film students."

** The studios are staffed by full time employees, but the union rank and file who work on set to make movies and television are essentially temp workers.

*** Somewhat massaged, of course, since the editor in me simply couldn't resist.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

The Day the Earth Stood Still

 


You hardly need another reminder that last Saturday was the 20th anniversary of a the day the earth stood still. It's a day we all wish had never happened ... but it did, and here we are two decades later, in a world still suffering the aftermath of 9/11. In the run-up to the anniversary, every form of print, audio, and visual media reviewed the events and ramifications of that day, from the intensely personal to the international. It'll take a lot more than twenty years for those wounds to heal, and in some ways, they never will. As individuals and a country, we can get around this immense tragedy -- for the survivors, life does go on -- but we don't ever really get over it. The sense of loss and pain is always there, but 9/11 goes even deeper than that, bending and shaping our country and the international community in ways we might never fully grasp. It united us like no time since since Pearl Harbor, but twenty years later Americans are at other's throats, with some some grimly muttering about a second Civil War.  

How the fuck did it come to this?

Lots of reasons, I suspect, but I'm not one of those giant-brained Ivy League media analysts who earn a living telling us the why and how, so don't look for explanations to an ex-juicer who got paid to lift heavy objects for a living. Besides, my role here isn't to discuss domestic or global politics -- that's way over my pay grade -- but life below decks in the film and television industry, which is one of the few subjects I know something about. Still, the media made an effort to shine light on the events and ramifications of that day, and some of those are worth your time.

PBS ran an excellent two hour Frontline documentary dissecting the political, geopolitical, and cultural aftershocks of 9/11, a sobering film dissecting our collective reaction to 9/11, and how that  led to rivers of blood throughout the Middle East, and exacerbated a divide in our country that now feels like the Grand Canyon. It's not fun to watch, but you'll learn something. 

Another worthy film is 9/11, a documentary made by two French brothers who set out to document the life of a young NYFD recruit who was still in his probationary period. As they were filming that day, the first plane hit and the fire company responded -- and at that point their film took a very different direction. This is modern cinéma vérité at its best, recording the horror as it unfolded that day -- but be warned: watching it is a shattering experience.  It's very real and very rough, but nothing else I've seen will take you into the experience of that day quite like this film. For those of us who watched the events of 9/11 unfold on television from afar, it's useful to understand what it was really like for the first responders and their families, who paid -- and continue to pay -- such a brutal price.

I waited almost fifteen years to watch Flight 93, a docudrama by Paul Greenglass about the passengers and crew of United Flight 93, who were the first to fight back against the terrorists of 9/11, and in so doing, made the ultimate sacrifice to save our country from more death and destruction.** The stories of first responders that day represent the noble tragedy of professionals dying while trying to do an impossible job -- true heroes by any definition -- but I don't know a word to adequately describe the actions of the passengers on Flight 93, who took just ten minutes to make a decision that would send them and the terrorists on that plane into eternity in the woods near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. I'd heard that Flight 93 was an excellent film, but just wasn't ready to watch until recently, when it finally rose to the top of my Netflix queue earlier this year.*  It's very well done, with no "Hollywood" bullshit, portraying real people going about an ordinary day that suddenly turns upside-down, at which point they must confront -- and make -- the most important decision of their lives.  We know what happens, but still the tension is palpable. It's a gritty story wonderfully told, but again, it delivers a powerful and  emotional gut-punch, so be ready.   

It hurts to revisit that day, but that's not a good excuse. From my perspective, we owe it to those who died twenty years ago -- and to their families -- to remember and honor their sacrifice. 

It's the least we can do.


* Yes, I still watch DVDs -- so sue me.  I stream too, but old habits (and old people) die hard...

** Not to be confused with another film called Flight 93, directed by Peter Markle, which I haven't seen and can't comment on.

Sunday, September 5, 2021

On the Air


                                              Image courtesy of Yingnan Lu

Back when I was still working in Hollywood, several people urged me to turn this blog into a podcast ... but that's not gonna happen. It'll be a book at some point, and that's enough for me. Writing these posts is hard enough, so the considerable effort of recording (and how many takes would that require?), then editing, finding/adding the appropriate music -- among all the other time-consuming details that go into creating and promoting a podcast worth listening to -- is beyond my level of interest or energy at this point. Forty years in Hollywood took a lot out of me, and there's only so much gas left in this tank -- not enough to jump-start another level of creative endeavor. I love a good podcast as much as the rest of you, but I'm happy to be a consumer rather than a creator, and am content to leave the audio medium in the hands of those who do it well. 

This brings me to Robert "Skid" Skidmore, an ex-AD who began producing a podcast called Below the Line back in September of 2018.  Now its eighth season, Below the Line brings together a wide variety of industry pros, from DPs to ADs and everyone in between, discussing their jobs on set and life  in the Industry Machine. In the early stages of his podcast, Skid began each episode with a line like these: 

"A gaffer, a property master and an assistant director walk into a bar..."

"A stunt jockey, a set medic and a production assistant walk into a bar..."

"A wardrobe supervisor, a camera operator and an assistant director walk into a bar..."

Such a clever approach was enough to intrigue me, and my curiosity was rewarded by a listening experience as entertaining as it is informative. I know something about being a grip, and a lot more about being a juicer, best boy, and gaffer on set, but not so much about the the rest of the crews I worked with for all those years, so hearing the perspective of a prop man, editor,  sound mixer, or AD is interesting. 

Still, I hadn't heard of Skid's Below the Line podcast until an e-mail arrived from JR Helton -- and if that name rings a bell (ahem: it should...), you might recall a post that appeared here a few years back about his book by the same name. I met JR through a mutual friend who used to work on my crew when I was a best boy, then gaffer, and who introduced me to Helton's terrific book.*  Skid approached JR to participate in a podcast, and JR invited me to join in -- so a few weeks ago the three of us got together on Zoom to record the session, with Skid serving as host/moderator, JR taking the lead, and me adding an occasional observation. This wasn't my first experience with podcasting: The Anonymous Production Assistant recruited me for a twenty minute Crew Call episode back in 2014, and although the first season of Crew Call is no longer available, TAPA was gracious enough to re-activate the audio for my episode, so if you want to listen, follow that link.**

Skid went through the DGA Trainee program (which is a real bitch, btw***), then worked as an assistant director for several years before migrating out of the industry to another line of work. But once Hollywood gets into your blood, it's hard to get it out, which, I suspect, is why he started his Below the Line podcast.


There are lots of good industry podcasts out there, and Skid's is a welcome addition to that distinguished lineup, but none of them have a logo as good -- and dare I say it, iconic -- as Below the Line. Every industry veteran has had struggled to the top of his/her own personal Mt. Suribachi on the job (sometimes on a daily basis), be it during the long siege of a feature film or the war-without-bullets grind of episodic television, so this image resonates with me. If you'd like to hear Skid, JR Helton, and me discuss some of our experiences in the biz while having a few laughs, here you go.

That's it for this month.  Covid doesn't seem to be done with us yet, so remember: stay safe out there.


* If you haven't read Helton's book Below the Line, get off your ass and do so.  JR has published several other books as well, all of which are a good read, but Below the Line is still essential reading for anybody in the film and television industry. Check out his website at JR Helton.com

** If for some reason that link doesn't work, this one should.  

*** Once accepted to the DGA program, a trainee is sent on show after show for fifty days at a stretch until he or she has accumulated 400 working days. Then -- and only then -- can they join the guild after writing a fat check to the DGA. Candidates are on a very short leash during their training period, with no idea when or where they'll be sent next.  When times are slow, they might not get another assignment for months on end, but they just have to sit tight and wait for that call to come. In the meantime, a trainee can take non-industry work to make a living, but must be ready to drop everything (including whatever job they've taken to pay the rent) on very short notice to go on the next DGA assignment.  It can take years to accumulate those 400 days and earn a guild card, at which point they're at the bottom of the list, taking whatever miserable, long-hours 2nd/2nd AD gig they can find. Personally, I don't understand how anybody could actually want to be an assistant director -- no way could I do that job -- but I'm glad they do, because a good AD is worth his/her weight in gold. We really couldn't make movies or television without them.


Sunday, August 1, 2021

An Old Favorite

"If God didn't want them sheared, he wouldn't have made them sheep!"

                        (The great Eli Wallach, as "Calverra.")

Although my local PBS station runs a movie every Saturday night, I rarely tune in.  The movies offered are seldom anything I want to see, and the few that are interesting have usually suffered the fate of airplane movies, neutered by the scissors of a blue-nosed censor to banish any hint of bared flesh or curse words.  I'm past the primal urge to view sex scenes on screen at this point in life, and have no particular desire to hear a torrent of foul language from any source, but there's no reason to watch any movie that's had its wings clipped to render it "safe" for all ages.

Fuck that shit.

Like so many people these days, most of my movie viewing is done at home. I'd go to a theater occasionally before the Covid shutdown, but living an hour's drive from the nearest movie palace meant it made more sense to invest in a decent flat screen with a sound bar, and once it became clear how dangerous this new virus was, going to a movie theater was out of the question. The cinematic selections on Netflix, Amazon, and other streaming services allowed me to ignore most of the films shown on the local PBS outlet.  Still, every now and then they'll air a classic that was crafted before nudity, sex, and rough language became de rigueur in movies, and galvanized the censors to take action -- so whenever an old favorite like High Noon, Gunfight at the OK Corral, Ride the High Country, Treasure of the Sierra Madre or Casablanca is broadcast, I tune in. As far as this aging ex-juicer is concerned, those classics never lose their appeal.

Most of those are westerns, which were to my demographic what space dramas like Star Wars and Star Trek would become for later generations. Westerns dominated television while I was growing up -- shows like Gunsmoke, Have Gun Will Travel, Sugarfoot, The Rebel, Rawhide, Wagon Train, MaverickThe Rifleman, and Wanted Dead or Alive, among others -- and I watched them all.* Living out in the sticks where we had three aging horses, three cows, half a dozen goats, and a coop full of chickens, the lost world of the Old West made a lot of sense to me, and I enjoyed a freedom back then that was beyond the wildest dreams of my schoolyard friends. While they took the bus back to their suburban homes every day after school, I could grab my .22 single-shot rifle and wander the neighboring five hundred acres of rolling hills whenever I wanted. That all seemed normal at the time, but it's only looking back now over the decades that I fully appreciate just how special this was.

So it came as a pleasant surprise that a recent Saturday night offering would be The Magnificent Seven, a movie I first saw as a young boy on my family's black and white cathode ray gun many decades ago -- and being a decidedly unworldly, goat-milking lad at the time, I assumed the movie was filmed in black and white. Imagine my surprise a few years later when I saw it again on a more modern TV, in full glorious color.  I've seen it many times since, but not for quite a while, so it was with a pleasant sense of familiarity that I settled in to watch again -- like a cat curling up in front of a warm fire -- and it didn't disappoint.** I suppose we each have our own cinematic touchstones, movies seen when we were young that made a big enough impression to stick over the ensuing decades, and that we can return to time and again.  The Magnificent Seven is one of mine, re-telling a classic story with style -- and some beautifully subtle camera moves that told me that the director, camera, and grips really knew what they were doing.

There are other old favorites on that list -- Bullitt and Dirty Harry, along with more modern classics such as The Wild BunchBladerunner, The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, and Chinatown -- but those will never be aired on a broadcast network without the censors doing their dirty work, so when I want to revisit them it's always on disc or streaming.

If you're interested in how The Magnificent Seven came together, this offers some insight, and here's the original review from the Hollywood Reporter, which offers a mixed (if not entirely inaccurate) opinion, although at one point it refers to director John Sturges as "Robert Sturges."  Oops -- it would be one thing for an East Coast publication to make such an unforced error, but the Hollywood Reporter?  Yikes. For another perspective, this is an interesting take on the original, its source material, and the many sequels.

It was good to see The Magnificent Seven again, and I suspect it won't be the last time.  

* Before Gunsmoke and Have Gun Will Travel made it to television, both were radio dramas that I listened to on Saturday mornings.

** Granted, there's a fair share of clichéd hokum in this one, burdened as it is with many of the ingrained cultural assumptions of the late 1950s, but those come with the turf of many older films, which have to be viewed and appreciated on their own terms, not through the modern lens of political correctitude.


Sunday, July 4, 2021

Just for the Hell of It: Episode 64


                               "Tiger, tiger, burning bright...

Leading off this 4th of July post is a story from Jeff Smith, who recently retired from a long, bruising career as a grip, best boy, and key grip before settling in as a dolly grip to close out his career. His story brings an added resonance to the bitter cliché "No good deed goes unpunished" -- a phrase that puzzled me when I was young, but which resonated ever more with each passing year in Hollywood.


There's really nothing good about a 4:00 a.m call time, especially on a cold, damp morning. Fully loaded with a sleepy crew desperate for coffee, our passenger van left the hotel and headed for Pismo Beach, the only beach in California where ordinary people (including film crews) can legally drive vehicles on the sand. Our job today was to film an Exxon commercial starring the Exxon Tiger.*  Once we arrived at the beach parking lot, each van driver was careful to follow the park ranger leading our caravan, whose job was to make sure we didn't wander off the hard-packed sand onto the soft, deeper stuff. The van I rode in (with Mike - the key grip - and thirteen other people) was behind a truck towing a flatbed trailer equipped with a cage holding that huge Bengal tiger

Although towing a trailer on a beach can be problematic, everything would have been fine if the truck driver had followed the park ranger -- but that would be too easy. Instead, he had the bright idea to take a shortcut across the deep, dry sand, where the truck and trailer promptly got stuck. Being a grip means lending a hand in such situations, so Mike and I jumped out to help the wranglers get unstuck, using their shovel to dig the tires out, then jamming wooden blocks underneath, all standard procedure for getting a vehicle out of deep sand. Meanwhile, our van and all the other crew vans kept going on through the dark, and were soon out of sight.

Once we had every scrap of wood available shoved under the tires, Mike and I got behind the trailer and pushed hard as the driver gave it the gas. It didn't come easy, but eventually he powered out and drove away as fast as possible to keep from getting bogged down again.  After exchanging high-fives for getting the job done, it dawned on us that we were now alone on that pitch black beach. Surely they'd send a van back to pick us up, but with nothing else to do, we started walking ... and walking ... and walking.  After twenty minutes, it was clear that no van would be coming, but by then we could see lights in the far distance.  After walking another mile, we finally arrived on set forty-five minutes after call time, just as dawn was beginning to break. Our D.P. was livid. 

"Where the FUCK have you guys been?" he yelled.

Before either of us could respond, the producer chimed in. 

"I don't know why, but they wanted to walk."

I couldn't believe my ears.  My jaw dropped and my eyes got wide -- now it was my turn to yell.

"What do you mean we 'wanted to walk?' We were digging the tiger trailer out of the sand and the vans left us there. Nobody came came back to pick us up. Why the hell would we want to walk two miles and be forty-five minutes late?"

The producer slithered away without another word.**

Finally able to start doing our work, we built a network of cages out of six-foot parallels with decking on top, then wrapped each in cyclone fencing, with the legs of every parallel secured by bull pricks driven as deep as possible into the sand.  Several cameras with a long lenses were set up inside, each with an operator and assistant. Meanwhile, the wranglers unloaded a small cage of their own, which they placed out in front of the camera cages, keeping it low enough to remain out of frame.  In that cage was a nice little goat that would serve as bait for the tiger.

                                                    Inside the Tiger Cage

                                                 (photo by Michael Milella)

 Once we were ready to shoot, the wranglers walked the big cat out to the sand dunes a hundred yards away, then the goat was brought out on a leash and paraded around in front of its little cage. When the tiger noticed the goat, it charged full speed at what he thought would make a nice breakfast snack, but at the last second a wrangler jerked the goat to safety just as the tiger slammed hard into that little cage. The tiger was frustrated, but that poor goat must have been terrified.

After a few takes the tiger got bored with this game -- after all, a cat, no matter how big, is still a cat -- and wandered off, at which point everybody not in one of the cages was ordered into a van or motor home while wranglers tried to corral the magnificent beast. The whole scene reminded me of those "Shark Week" shows on Discovery Channel, where scuba divers pay lots of money to go underwater in a steel cage while hungry Great White sharks circle around -- but here we were getting paid to remain in a cage safe from a tiger -- in essence, a Land Shark.  The wranglers finally got the tiger back with a hunk of raw meat and a thick leather collar attached to a heavy steel chain, and we went back to work.

A day that started off ugly with an asshole producer ended up as one of the more memorable experiences of my early days as a grip -- and at least nobody got stuck in the sand at the end of the day as we left Pismo Beach.

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Any of you who've been around BS&T for a while might be familiar with Martini Shot, veteran television writer/producer (and sometimes director) Rob Long's brief, wry commentaries on the vagaries and vicissitudes of working in Hollywood.  Martini Shot ran every week on LA's main NPR radio station for many years until the Covid shutdown put an end to all that, and for reasons best known to the powers-that-be in management at KCRW, they decided to stop hosting Rob's commentaries, which -- not to put too fine a point on it -- really pissed me off. But since I no longer live in LA, and thus don't send money to KCRW during their every interminable pledge drive (that money goes instead to my local NPR outlet in the Bay Area), I couldn't really bitch about it. But an e-mail to Rob revealed that a he's still doing his Martini Shot commentaries, which can be heard here.  They're good, and at four to six minutes long, well worth your time.

The link to the Rob's KCRW archives will remain over on the right side of the home page under "Essential Listening," along with a link to current Martini Shot episodes.  Check it out, although I must issue fair warning: Martini Shot is a hole you can fall into for a long time -- like when you really should be writing a blog post instead...

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We've all heard of -- and many of us have worked on -- "shit shows," be they television or features run by idiots whose toxic egos and/or consistently stupid decisions made life miserable for all concerned, but a game show for NBC called Slip 'n Slide brought an entirely new dimension to the term, redefining it in an all too literal manner. Apparently the production used copious quantities of water contaminated with giardia bacteria for their giant slip 'n slide, which induced the rapid onset of extreme gastro-intestinal distress among the cast and crew.  According to Wikipedia, Giardia causes "excess gas, stomach or abdominal cramps, upset stomach, and nausea" -- and in this case (drum roll, please...) "explosive diarrhea," which (needless to say) incapacitated everyone affected and shut down the production.

Just imagine having to drive home through rush hour LA traffic while suffering from explosive diarrhea...

Once again, I'm so grateful to be retired.

There are other reasons I'm happy to no longer work on set, among them the rapid influx of new and ever more complex lighting technology. LED lamps were just coming into the industry during my last few years in Hollywood, and since then, several generations of new lamps -- many of which must be controlled by computerized consoles -- are now common on set. There are many advantages to this new technology, but the first time I had to hang a few dozen LED units, each equipped with a screen and buttons on the back to access the digital menu, I knew it was time for me to go. 

Back when I was a gaffer in the late 80's through the 90's, all I needed was an incident light meter, a spot meter, and an optical frequency meter -- a device about the size of a pager that allowed me to read the frequency output of a generator simply by pointing the meter at a burning HMI. In those days, the frequency of a generator had to be kept between 59.75 and 60.25 hertz, or else the processed film could suffer the dreaded "HMI flicker," which made it look as though an inebriated First A.C. had been opening and closing the aperture of the camera during each take.  When flicker-free ballasts were introduced, my $400 "freak meter" was instantly rendered obsolete.  My DP had a color meter which we used to keep our HMIs and high output Kino Flo fluorescent units within an acceptably consistent range of color temperature, a process that typically involved adding a combination of eighth or quarter plus/minus green gel along with CTO or CTB, depending on whether we needed to warm or cool the light. This was relatively straightforward, and worked well, but with so many different LED units from a wide variety of manufacturers, maintaining a consistent color temperature nowadays has become more complex. If you doubt that, take a look at this clip explaining how to use a new color temperature meter made for the modern era of LEDs.

Uh, no thanks.  I'm happy to spend my retirement weed-whacking, tree-trimming, and barbecuing out on the deck rather than trying to figure out how use all this new technology.  That the new stuff works is undeniable -- in most ways, movies look better than ever these days -- but I'm happy to leave all that for a new generation of juicers, best boys, and gaffers.

Happy 4th of July, kiddos.  Have fun out there, and play safe.

* Not this exact commercial, but very similar.  

** I worked with this producer more than once -- and yes, he was a jerk.