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, May 7, 2023

What Might Have Been



                  "For of all sad words of tongue or pen, The saddest are these: 'It might have been!'

                    From Maud Muller, by John Geenleaf Whittier

I've never been a fan of daytime television, probably because my family didn't get a TV until I was seven or eight years old, when we were gifted a hand-me-down black and white set that was only used at night -- and my parents decided what we'd watch. When I wanted to see the weekly broadcast of Chillers from Science Fiction, I'd sneak downstairs very late -- on a school night -- while the rest of the house was sound asleep, then turn the volume way down to avoid detection while sitting very close to the screen mesmerized by movies like The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.  Until the Kennedy assassination and its grim aftermath -- day after day of news coverage, Oswald being captured and shot on camera, the funeral and procession through Washington DC -- our television was never on during daylight hours.  This was hardly something to celebrate, though ... it was the first time I ever saw my dad cry.

During my college years, marooned at home for the summer with a badly broken leg thanks to a very poor decision while riding a motorcycle, I finally succumbed to the lure of daytime TV.  Every day I'd hobble up the stairs on crutches (my parents had downsized to a smaller house) to have lunch while my mom watched her favorite soap operas.  Of course I thought they were ridiculous -- they were and are -- but after sneering at them for a couple of weeks I began to follow the various melodramatic storylines. Months later, when I came home from school for the Christmas break, mom would fill me in on what had happened. It was rare bit of mother/son bonding, and although I still thought soaps were ridiculous, I'd come to understand that they really do fill a need for many people. 

Besides, who am I to judge?  People like what they like, and that's their business, not mine.

Cut to thirty-some years later, when I'm reporting for work at the studio as the "extra man" on a sitcom called Rodney, starring country music singer Rodney Carrington. I worked quite a bit on that show, which was always a hoot -- Rodney was a good guy, and that lighting crew knew how to have fun on the job. The director was still rehearsing the cast, so I tiptoed into the set lighting office to find my two fellow juicers howling with laughter at the antics of some guy named "Jerry Springer" on the gold room TV.  Curious as to what this was all about, I sat down to watch in slack-jawed astonishment as one guest after another sat before the cameras confessing to every imaginable sexual indiscretion: husbands having sex with their mothers-in-law, wives having sex with their next-door neighbors, and a series of unwed mothers who had no idea which of the many men Jerry brought on stage might be the father of their baby.  I'd grown up out in the sticks milking goats and feeding our cows, so the Sodom and Gomorrah of the apparently sex-crazed cities and suburbs represented a side of America foreign to me.  

Although it was entertaining in a bizarre, carnival-attraction way, I felt somehow unclean for sharing in the spectacle, and it took me a while to understand what was most bothersome: that these people were so open in sharing their peccadilloes on a national television broadcast, or that I was laughing just as hard as everybody else.  It was both, really. Although many among us have strayed into the danger zone of extra-marital liaisons at one time or another, I don't know anybody who'd proudly confess their sins on TV to a live, hooting audience.  

Soon the rehearsals were over, so we strapped on our tool belts and got to work, but I now knew about Jerry Springer, and I was not impressed.  He was just another amoral manipulative huckster egging on the rubes to humiliate themselves in public, proving that some people really will do anything for money.

So imagine my surprise a few years later when a radio show called This American Life ran a thirty-minute segment describing how Jerry Springer came to be a television carnival barker -- but more to the point, what he could have been, and very nearly was. Truth be told, the story blew my mind. Everybody's heard the Cliff Notes version by now: a young city councilman in Ohio who was dumb enough to pay for the services of a prostitute with a check, ending his political career -- then suddenly he's hosting The Jerry Springer Show.  It turns out there's a lot more to this story, which is in equal measure fascinating and sad. I won't say anything more here -- no spoilers from me -- other than to urge you to find a spare half hour, then sit down and listen.  It really is an astonishing story.

And hey,  you've got time to burn now that the strike is on, so give it a listen.



Speaking of the strike: pickets are now walking the studio gates, and the battle is joined.  We've been down this road before, and it's not a path anybody wants to travel, especially below-the-line workers who feel a deep and foreboding resonance with the ancient proverb: "When elephants fight, the grass is trampled."  Then as now, the crews who do the heavy lifting on set -- grip and electric, camera, sound, set dec, props, hair and makeup, ADs, PAs, stand-ins, locations, and post-production -- are the grass.  Directors and the cast of shows suddenly dead in the water are paid well enough that they'll be fine for a while, but the ranks of working actors and hundreds of extras who face a constant struggle to make a living in Hollywood will suffer along with the rest. There's not enough lipstick in Max Factor's massive inventory to beautify this pig of a strike, because it's ugly all the way through. That said, I supported the WGA back in 2007 when I was among the collateral damage of their strike, and I support them now.

Mary McNamara wrote a good piece for the LA Times last week describing the reasons for and importance of this strike, including what struck me as the money quote: 

"Streaming exists only because television became a wonder of the modern world. And that happened because it drew some of the most talented, visionary writers and offered them a chance to tell the best stories they could."

True, that. Ever since The Sopranos, The Wire, and Breaking Bad turned the television industry on its ear, working in prestige television (read: cable) became a fever-dream destination for writers who'd yearned to tell the kind of stories broadcast network shows could only dream of, and thus began a second Golden Age of TV.  Then came the streamers, eager to harness their slick "new media" technology to the horse-drawn buggy of cable, and they were off to the races.  Now that streamers are ubiquitous, the quality of their shows has begun to dim along with their stock prices, because it's not easy to make brilliant television and fat profits via streaming.  It turns out that the old dumbed-down advertising-based economic model of broadcast television generated more money for everyone, including the writers.  You'll have to look elsewhere for the down-and-dirty details of how residuals were slashed by the streamers (that kind of money-talk makes my eyes roll back in my head) but there's plenty of discussion on the web for anyone interested. The bottom line is this: residuals have long provided an income for writers to keep going during fallow periods between jobs, and with streaming becoming ever more dominant in television, you don't have to be a WGA member to read the writing on the wall.  If they don't make a stand now, their future is grim.

Or course, the future for many in the WGA is likely grim anyway.  The glut of programming over the past decade  -- labeled "Peak TV" by much smarter people than me -- provided jobs for a lot of new writers. That was great, but the problem with a boom-and-bust industry is that the booms never last, and with streamers trimming their expenditures, many of those new writers will find work very hard to find as the rivers of production shrink.  Although another boom is likely at some point in the future, this is where the ugly specter of AI raises its digital head.  The technology is advancing so rapidly that it's not unreasonable to wonder if in five years or so AI will be routinely blueprinting plots and story arcs for much of television, or even writing complete, cogent, filmable scripts. Prestige shows will probably need skilled human writers for a long time -- the really good stuff needs a human touch -- but with so many shows essentially formulaic, advanced AI may be able to much of the writing. If that happens, the need for a well-staffed writers' room on many shows could vanish into the digital ether.  

This is what the WGA is up against, and it's a serious threat.  If they're stubborn enough, they can probably beat the producers on the residual issue, but holding back the rising tides of any rapidly advancing technology has always been a steep mountain to climb.

How long the strike will last is anybody's guess, but the one thing we know is that if it doesn't settle soon -- and thus far there's no sign of movement -- a lot of people in Hollywood and beyond will be badly hurt.  There's no way to put a smile on this situation, because it well and truly sucks.

For any non-WGA crew people in the LA area who want to show their support on a picket line, here's some information.

Good luck, Hollywood.  I'm pulling for you.

Sunday, April 30, 2023

B.O.H.I.C.A.*


                                              Photo by Mark Boster, LA Times

Today is the day of decision: by tomorrow we should know if another WGA strike has been averted.  Looking from afar, I have no inside knowledge as to what will happen, but all that I've read and heard points to the likelihood that a strike will be called, and it could be a long one.  I was still working in Hollywood during the last WGA strike, which ran for three months between November 2007 until mid-February of 2008, and it hurt everybody in the business. The issues this time around are an outgrowth of what that strike was about, but this time the issues are even more serious.  The threat to writers truly is existential this time around, and the streaming entities will be cutting off their proverbial noses to spite their equally proverbial faces over the long run if they don't come to a reasonable compromise ... but that doesn't mean they'll do the right thing until, as the saying goes, they've tried everything else. 

If then.

This column in the New York Times, by a successful working screenwriter in Hollywood, explains the issues at stake -- and here's the money quote:

“Allowing screenwriters to sustain a stable career is absolutely the smartest investment that the industry can make.”

He's right. Despite the contractions in the business since the halcyon days of the digital streaming boom,  the industry depends on having lots of smart, creative, motivated writers to come up with shows the viewing public will love.  Sure, they'll watch the inevitable toxic algae bloom of "reality" programming a lengthy strike will generate for a while -- but not forever -- and once the subscription cancellations begin to snowball, those streamer executives who drew a hard line in pre-strike negotiations will come to regret it.

We all had to absorb the gut-punch of the strike back in 2007/08, and it wasn't fun.  There are always ways to get through such lean times, but as I described at the time, it's not easy.  I'm out of the game now on the sunny beach of retirement, but still have a lot of friends in the biz who really don't need an extended stretch of unemployment -- not after suffering through the Covid shutdown -- so I really hope the producers and streamers will come to their senses and make a fair deal with the writers.

As Wilford Brimley used to intone, "It's the right thing to do."

It's also the smart thing to do, so, fingers crossed...


* Bend over, here it comes again.



Thursday, April 20, 2023

April

 

                                            "Bather," by Igor Belkovsky                                                     

As spring tiptoes in, it was brought to my attention that there was no fresh post here on the first Sunday in April.  Yes, I was aware of that. When the energy -- and ideas -- just aren't there, what's an ex-juicer to do?

Punt, that's what, and truth be told, I really didn't think anybody would notice.  The audience for this blog was never all that wide to begin with -- even in the halcyon days of yore when a particular post resonated, it might garner 2500 views at most -- and now that I'm long gone from working on set, the numbers have dwindled to a mere handful.  I get it.  Real time stories of drama on set are a lot more interesting and relevant to readers than book and DVD reviews, so no harm, no foul.

Still, one among those readers reached out to ask if I was okay. She'd noticed the absence of a post, and once you reach the age where a growing number of friends have been lost to the Grim Reaper, you understand that silence can mean Something Bad has happened.*

Not yet, gentle reader, not yet.  The Reaper is coming this way, of that there can be no doubt, but he's still down the block a bit.

I hope.

Maybe I'll have a fresh post for May and maybe not -- it's too soon to say. I still have some cleaning up to do from the Noachian Deluge of winter, during which four and a half feet of rain fell along with a virtual forest of branches, and believe it or not, I've been working a lot more on the blog book.  I know ... you've heard that before and will doubtless hear it again, but that book turned out to be a much bigger project than I'd anticipated.  So it goes.

Meanwhile, here's an oldie from another April when I was still in the thick of the Hollywood wars. The industry was recovering from the WGA strike at the time, and wouldn't you know it -- another WGA strike now looms. Back then the writers were worried about their income from the new streaming services -- an issue that still bedevils them -- but now there's another monster crawling out from under the bed: AI writing technology, which has the potential to put a lot of writers out of business.  

Good luck, WGA -- I hope you win this one.

And so without further ado: April is the Cruelest Month

* Thanks, Deb!

Sunday, March 5, 2023

March


I was a big fan of boxing once upon a time, having been brought up watching The Gillette Friday Night Fights, which were part of the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports.  Every Friday night my dad would tune in our black and white TV to watch bouts between fighters like Bobo Olsen, Dick Tiger, Gene Fullmer, and Carmen Basillio, among many others. My fascination with the sport intensified when the brash, comically rowdy, and undeniably compelling Cassius Clay shocked the world by beating Sonny Liston for the heavyweight crown in 1964. Growing up in a lilly-white rural area, I didn't know what to think of this loud young black man, and was astonished that he'd managed to beat big, bad Sonny Liston, whose baleful glare, prison record, and fearsome punching power had convinced most newspaper sports writers that there was no way he could lose to the "Louisville Lip."

But lose he did, after which the new champion of the world changed his name to Muhammed Ali, and the rest is history.  I became a huge fan of Ali, followed his career closely all the way until he retired, which made this day in Hollywood very special for me.  What I didn't fully grasp back then was that the Mecca of west coast boxing was the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles, a legendary venue that  hosted everything from wresting to boxing to the hard core punk rock bands of the 1980s.  I never saw the inside of the Olympic until taking a call to help light a commercial being filmed there ... and that's when I began to understand what I'd missed.  Much like a bull ring, the Olympic was a gladiatorial arena drenched in blood of boxing history.

That story is very well told in the terrific documentary 18th and Grand: The Olympic Auditorium Story, recently released by GenPop Entertainment, and what a story it is.*  This isn't just about boxing, but it's about how things were in Los Angeles back in the day, and what a big role the Olympic had in the 20th century history of this city.  This is a great film, well worth seeing. It's not yet available on any of the streaming services, unfortunately -- they drive a very hard bargain for indy filmmakers -- but Blu Ray copies are just twenty bucks, and well worth the price.  If you have any interest at all in boxing, wrestling, or the early punk rock scene in LA, you're in for a rollicking good, eye-opening ride.

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Another terrific documentary is Fire of Love, the story of Katia and Maurice Krafft, two young people who bonded over their mutual fascination with volcanoes and made it their life's work -- a passion so intense that it eventually consumed them.  I'd seen a PBS documentary on these two back in the mid-80s, and it pretty much blew my mind at the time, but what I didn't know then  -- what nobody knew --  was that just five years later they'd die together doing what they loved: studying and filming an erupting volcano.  Fire of Love is now streaming on Hulu, so check it out.  

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After twenty-one years of delivering bland, soothing platitudes to a dedicated audience of needy people desperate for such bromides, The Dr. Phil Show is finally ending its run -- so now that I'm safely retired and the good "doctor" is exiting stage left with millions of dollars stuffed in his pockets, I can confess that "the Great Man" mentioned in the final anecdote of this ancient post was Dr. Phil.  

Although doubtless beloved by the CBS executives and bean-counters for all the money he brought in, the view of Dr. Phil from below decks at Paramount lot was considerably more jaundiced.  His famously volcanic temper and habit of parking very expensive automobiles where they were often in the way of everybody else at the studio did not endear him to those who wear tool belts at work rather than three-piece suits. His show will live on forever in syndication, of course, and keep money flowing into his bank accounts until the end of time ... but will Dr. Phil ever be truly happy?

I don't know and I don't care. Fuck that guy, and good riddance. 

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

I have to offer a shout out to Darryl Humber, long the primary force behind Dollygrippery, an industry blog dedicated to explaining the fine art of operating dollies and cranes.  Darryl started his blog (although he hates that word...) well before my own humble efforts, and encouraged me to keep at it when I wasn't sure I had anything more to say.  In late February he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of Operating Cameramen for his thirty-plus years of exemplary dolly and crane work on feature films and television.  Although we've never met, I consider him a friend thanks to our occasional e-mail correspondence and commiseration over the sixteen years BS&T has been on line.  

If I was in charge of handing out industry nicknames, Darryls would be "Humble," because he never toots his own horn, beats his chest, or swaggers in print, and I have to assume he's the same on set ... but if I was -- and did -- he'd probably hunt me down and run a four hundred pound Fisher dolly over my foot.  Since I already have one bent and broken toe from a dolly mishap early in my career, I'll just keep my mouth shut other than to say state the obvious: Darryl's a pro's pro at his craft, and well deserving of this honor.

Congratulations, D!


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Finally, for what I can only describe as a cinematic exercise in magical realism, here's a view from below decks in a short film called It's a Grips World, starring the late, great Mike Korkko, along with more than a few of his fellow grips and other below-the-liners.  They made this film over the course of months, shooting scenes after work, at lunch, and whenever they could on a variety of sets built for the commercials they were working on at the time.  I was doing a lot of commercials back then, and worked a number of jobs with Mike and his crew. Korkko was famous for a lot of things back then, but didn't achieve true below-the-line immortality until this film was finally finished. The visual quality isn't great -- they shot it on early to mid-80s gear, and the images have suffered over the years with duplication -- but it'll give you a glimpse of, and a feel for, the world of commercials back then.  It was a fun and lucrative time for us all before the Canadian asteroid hit in the late 90s, thus ending life as we knew it in the LA commercial word.

Ah well, the only constant is change, with the real question being when will it come and how bad will it be.

That's it 'til April, kiddos.  Remember -- beware the Ides of March.


* Which is a pretty great name for a production company.

Sunday, February 5, 2023

When in Disgrace

 


One of the benefits of retirement is finally being able to read the many books I'd bought during my working years, but never had time for.  "One of these days," I'd tell myself, and those days are now. I recently pulled my copy of When in Disgrace down from the shelf where it's been gathering dust for the past thirty years, then sat down by the fire to read.  

I was not disappointed. 

To say that Budd Boetticher led a wild life is a massive understatement.  Like several directors of his era, he was raised in a wealthy household -- back then, who else but a rich kid would have the financial freedom and confidence to take a stab at being a director in Hollywood?*  After he parents died, the very young Boetticher had the good sense to be adopted by wealthy parents who saw to it that he attended excellent schools where he met other kids from wealthy families, making connections that would eventually pay off in Hollywood. Still, the key to unlocking the film industry door turned out to be his knowledge of bull fighting. Being an athletic young man with a taste for adventure, Boetticher traveled to Mexico with a friend after they were done with college, and there he became entranced with the bloody art of the matador.  Deciding to become a bullfighter, he studied the craft under the tutelage of some great Mexican toreros until his mother found out what was going on and cut off his financial support. Desperate to save him from what she considered a lethal, disgusting hobby, she arranged a job for him as a technical advisor on Blood and Sand, a bullfighting movie directed by Rouben Mamoulian.  The job went well, and young man discovered that he liked the movie business.  As so often happens in Hollywood, one thing led to another as he worked his way up the Hollywood food chain to become a widely respected director with a knack for making lean, taut movies. Boetticher is known for a series of particularly good westerns known as the Ranown Cycle, starring Randolph Scott.  

Despite his success in Hollywood, he never got over his fascination with bullfighting, and was possessed by a desire to make a documentary about the brutal craft unlike anything that had ever been filmed, so back to Mexico he went to begin the wildest phase of his life.  To quote Wikipedia:

"Boetticher spent most of the 1960s south of the border pursuing his obsession, the documentary of his friend, the bullfighter Carlos Arruza, turning down profitable Hollywood offers and suffering humiliation and despair to stay with the project, including sickness, bankruptcy, and confinement in both jail and asylum. Arruza was finally completed in 1968 and released in Mexico in 1971, and the U.S. in 1972."

As the saying goes, that ain't the half of it. 

As I've learned from reading about the making of ChinatownThe French ConnectionCasablanca, High Noon  and Bull Durham -- each book a fascinating, enlightening read -- getting a truly good film made is much more difficult than putting a run-of-the-mill thriller, romcom, biopic, or heist movie up on the silver screen. Still, as hard as it was to put those classics into production, each was pleasant walk in the park compared to what Budd Boetticher went through over the many years it took to finance, shoot, and edit Arruza.  That he eventually succeeded is a testament to his passion for the subject, a refusal to compromise, and his stubborn willingness to endure whatever it took to finish the film.  

I've been to one bullfight that featured two matadors facing three bulls each, and although that was quite enough, I must admit that it was one of the most transcendent "worst of times/best of times" experiences of my life -- the kind you never forget. My family had embarked on a month long trip to Mexico in the mid-60s, driving our VW bus south from the San Francisco Bay Area to the border at Nogales, Arizona, then on down through Guaymas, Mazatlan, and finally to Guadalajara, where my dad -- who was fascinated by the culture of Mexico -- bought tickets to a bullfight.  Having grown up in the country where we'd occasionally slaughter one of our cows to have it butchered and packed into the freezer, I was familiar with the intimate link between life, death, and what appeared on our Saturday night dinner table, but my only exposure to bullfighting came from cartoons and a children's book called Ferdinand the Bull, none of which prepared me for the up-close-and-personal bloodbath I witnessed in that arena.** 

I recently tracked down a copy of Arruza, and although parts of it are embarrassingly stagey -- especially footage shot on the ranch with Carlos Arruza and his family, none of whom were actors -- the bullfighting scenes shot in various arenas are very real, and absolutely riveting.  They're also bloody, of course, so be ready for that if you ever have a chance to see the film, because such is the nature of the beast.  Although I can't and won't defend bullfighting -- it's a brutally atavistic, horrifying spectacle -- there's no denying the compelling sight of a man alone in a ring, armed with nothing more than a piece of cloth to defend himself against the violent fury of a bull that packs a thousand-pound punch behind a pair of murderously sharp horns.  Fighting bulls like this is an undeniably courageous, occasionally lethal endeavor, and though I'll never see another bullfight, I'm glad I did ... once.

Still, what's up with the title of Boetticher's opus, When in Disgrace?  It comes from Shakespeare's Sonnet 29, and here's the man himself reciting the verse from which he lifted the title of his autobiography.  

Many directors from the Golden Age led interesting lives, but I'm not sure any can top that of Budd Boetticher.  If you have a chance, check this one out -- it's a great read.

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

Now for something completely different -- a wonderfully entertaining interview with F. Murray Abraham from the Fresh Air podcast site ... and if you want to know what the "F" stands for, read on. Imagine having been cast to play a gangster in Brian DePalma's Scarface and as a second-fiddle composer rival musician to the young Mozart in Milos Forman's Amadeus -- good news, right?  Trouble is, the two movies were scheduled to shoot at the same time, so Abraham flew back and forth between the US and Europe to fulfill his obligation to both productions, but rather than be confused by performing such radically different roles in close proximity, Abraham found it refreshing.  This is a great interview, so don't pass it up.

That's all until March, kiddos.  Remember, this is the shortest month of the year -- winter will not last forever, and spring is just around the corner. 


* Not that I've made a study of this, mind you. Some directors of the Golden Age certainly came from humble beginnings -- Frank Capra comes to mind -- but being born into wealth and not having to worry about a paycheck would remove a lot of the stress from the arduous process of trying to become a director in Hollywood.

 ** A bullfight isn't a free-for-all between man and bull, but follows a strict formula passed down through the centuries.  For a fascinating explanation of the entire process, click here.



Sunday, January 1, 2023

January


                                  A washed out Polaroid from the Wayback Machine


So here it is, another New Year ... but not much feels "new" about it. We're still in the dark grip of a winter plagued by Covid, the endless bloody misery in Ukraine, refugees flooding the border, and political idiocy/dysfunction infecting all levels of our society.  

So, yeah -- in many ways things are worse than they were last year at this time.  

The year ended on a dismal personal note with news that an old friend and co-worker in Hollywood had passed away.  Bill Luna was a throwback of sorts, a boy who grew into a man on a ranch where riding horses and wrangling cattle was part of daily life.  Maybe one reason we got along so well was that I'd grown up in the sticks milking our half dozen goats and feeding our cows every evening, and although I never learned how to ride a horse, I was familiar with the earthy rhythms of country life.  We worked together over the course of twenty years -- he in the grip department, me in electric -- from the early days when both of us were the last-hired newbies with much to learn up until he became a Key Grip and I a Gaffer.  That run ended in the very late 90s when every last one of my commercial accounts headed north over the border to Canada chasing favorable exchange rates and fat government bribes -- er, "subsidies" -- and with my happy life as a commercial gaffer suddenly over and done, I had to shift gears and take what I could get. That meant working in television, the elephant graveyard of below-the-line film technicians. From then on I didn't see much of Bill except at the annual gatherings of old industry war horses at the Sagebrush Cantina north of LA, where we'd nibble on jalapeƱo-laced nachos, guzzle beer, and trade stories of our on-set adventures.  There was nothing but smiles and laughter at these affairs until the later years when people began to die. The last time I saw him was at the 2015 reunion -- something got in the way of my attending the 2016 gathering -- then it was time to move back to the woods four hundred miles north of LA.  I'd planned to make the drive down to the Sagebrush one of these years, but Covid threw sand in the gears, and that was that.  

People live on in your memory as you last saw them, which is one reason I was totally unprepared for the news of his death.  Another reason is that Bill was nine years younger than me, and much too young to die.  He was an excellent grip, quiet and competent -- a good problem-solver with a wicked sense of humor.  Just walking on set and seeing his sly smile always made me feel better, because I knew that no matter how long we worked or how stupid things got, it was still going to be a good day. Once, while we were working on a commercial with a sound mixer who had famously sensitive ears, Bill pulled out one of those silent dog whistles between takes, then turned his back to the set and surreptitiously blew.  When the meter on the sound mixers Nagra pegged into the red zone, he ripped off his headphones, frantically looking around for the source of the noise ... and then it hit him. 

"Fuckin' Luna!" he yelled, as we all cracked up.

That was Bill, always finding a way to lighten an otherwise long and tedious day.  As you can see in the photo up top -- me on the left, Bill on the right -- cranking out the commercial sausage was often a real grind, which is why working with people who can make you laugh makes all the difference.  

RIP, Bill - you'll be missed.

This got me to thinking about all the people I've known and worked with over the years who've shuffled off to the Great Beyond ... but I stopped counting once that number passed a dozen.  Most were guys I'd shared laughs, beers, and occasionally other mood enhancers with over the years after wrap or in our off-time, and every one of them made my days on set better.  I learned something from each of those guys along the way.  A generation -- my generation -- is gradually fading to black, one at a time, and I hate that ... but such is the downside of being among the dwindling few still at the party.

And so it goes.

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The second iteration of Avatar has hit theaters after many years, many millions of dollars, and countless hours of work by Cameron and company.  Since I've yet to see the first one, much less his follow-up effort, I'm in no position to comment on either, but this article has a lot so say, and it's interesting stuff. 

Another current release I have yet to experience -- and thus have no opinion on -- is Babylon. I've read and heard good things about it, and hope to see the movie one of these days.  The rather sensational subject matter gives rise to the the question: Were the early days of Hollywood truly so decadent?  

Damned if I know -- sure, I'm old, but not that old. Still, there's no doubt things could get wild at times when Hollywood was young, booze flowed like water, cocaine was legal, and women were beginning to liberate themselves from the hidebound social mores of previous generations. Variety recently decided to address the issue, and if you're interested in what they have to say, check it out.

For those of you -- and I know you're out there -- who harbor dreams of selling a screenplay or two, Tales from the Script is very much worth your time.  Among the heavyweights who participated are Shane Black, William Goldman, John August, and many more. In addition to giving you a peek behind the scenes at how the process does and doesn't work, this documentary tells a lot of great stories. Whether you aspire to be a screenwriter or not, this documentary is as entertaining as it is informative. It's definitely worth a look.

Last, here's a wonderful clip from Spielberg's latest effort, with David Lynch playing the role of John Ford.  I've never been a fan of Lynch as a director.  To me, his television and feature films always seemed relentlessly determined to confound the viewer in ways that neither entertained nor informed, but as an actor, I think he's terrific. In the right role, nobody does it better.  Still, your mileage, as the saying goes, may vary.

And on that note, I wish you all a very Happy New Year.  I'd say "Hell, it can't get any worse," but I've said that before ... and now I know better.    

Onward, into the mist.

Sunday, December 4, 2022

December



While discussing his most recent film in an interview on NPR, Steven Spielberg admitted that the first movie he saw in a theater terrified him to the point that he shrank down into the seat trying to block the screen from view, begging his parents to take him home. They didn't, of course, and after a while he started watching again -- and it seems that's when die was cast that would drive him on a journey to the top of the heap in Hollywood.

What movie, you might wonder, could have frightened, entranced, and inspired the young Spielberg?  

Cecil B. DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth -- and no, I didn't see that coming either, which makes me wonder what films little Steven might have made as an adult had his cinematic baptism come via another circus film, Todd Browning's Freaks.  Viewing a scene like this might be enough to doom any six year old to life in therapy.  That said, the movie-going experience in one's early years is different for everyone, and Spielberg's youthful trauma at the hands of CB DeMille paid off for him, Hollywood, and the rest of us in the form of so many great movies. 

From that interview:   

Steven Spielberg still remembers the first time he went to the movies. His parents took him to see The Greatest Show on Earth Cecil B. DeMille's 1952 drama set in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, but there was a misunderstanding.

"I had never been to a motion picture," Spielberg recalls. "And ... I actually thought they were saying to me, 'We're taking you to a circus.' "

Settling into his seat in the theater, Spielberg felt betrayed. Where was the big tent? Where were the circus animals he had been expecting? But then the red curtain opened and the film began and it didn't take him long to fall under become enchanted.

"I didn't understand the story, didn't understand what they were saying, but the imagery was amazing," he says. 

The first movie I recall seeing in my local theater was a matinee of one of the many Lassie epics, followed -- if memory serves me well -- by "Bambi," "Old Yeller," and "The Yearling."  I don't recall much about the Lassie flick, but the others taught me one of life's great lessons: anything you fall in love with is doomed to be killed by a heartlessly cruel world -- and worse, you just might have to be the one who pulls the trigger for the greater good of your family.

Gee, thanks Hollywood.  So it seems Spielberg and I have at least one thing in common -- a heavy dose of early-childhood cinematic trauma -- but while he surfed that wave of existential anxiety with enough skill to become one of the most successful directors in the history of cinema, I became ... a juicer.  

Ah well, we each walk our own path, and so it goes.*

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Many years ago -- very late 70s or very early 80s -- I got a call to work a freebie shoot down in Long Beach.  With nothing else going on at the time, I said yes, but the caller (I can't recall who it was) wanted me to be the gaffer, and in no way was I ready for that. 

"I'll best boy anything," I told him, "but I'm not a gaffer."

I wasn't much of a best boy either, truth be told, but given that I wouldn't be paid a dime, I was ready to fake my way through it.  I recommended a slightly more experienced friend for the gaffer slot, and so we arrived on location bright and early the following Saturday morning, an abandoned building overlooking the harbor in San Pedro. There, with our crew of two neophyte juicers, we lugged three 10Ks, two 5Ks, several 2Ks, and way too much 4/0 cable up seven flights of stairs to the set because  -- of course -- the elevator was out of order. This, along with a DP fond of declaring "I paint with light,"   was a harbinger of how the next two days would go.  It was memorable shoot for many reasons, not many of them good, during which we all busted our collective asses ... but I learned a lot.

I flashed back to this while reading about the life, career, and death of Clu Gulager, an actor whose name might not mean much to the current generation in Hollywood, but who loomed large in my cinematic world. Clu was in lot of TV back in the day, then played a small but memorable role in The Last Picture Show, a film that was a very big deal to my generation.  The connection here is that our two day shoot in San Pedro was part of a film called John and Norma Novak, a short film Clu financed, directed, and starred in, along with much of his family.*

                           Clu Gulager as "Abeline" in The Last Picture Show

Nearly ten years later, more or less a real best boy now, I flew down to North Carolina to do a feature called Summer Heat starring Lori Singer and the young Anthony Edwards, fresh off his star-making role as the doomed "Goose" in Top Gun -- and lo and behold, there in the cast was Clu Gulager for a few days of filming.  He even remembered me, or pretended to, with a nod, a smile, and "You're a good man" as he shook my hand.  It was a small moment, but small moments tend to loom large as the years pile on.  

I never saw Clu again in person, only up on the silver screen, and was pleasantly surprised to see his role in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, an aging thespian once again answering the call and delivering the goods.  Father Time has picked off too many cinematic icons of my youth the past few years, and Clu was the latest.  So thanks for the memories, Clu Gulager, and may you rest in peace.

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Last, in what passes for tradition here at Blood, Sweat, and Tedium, the great Robert Earl Keene's rendition of his yuletide classic, "Christmas with the Family."

But wait, there's more! As a special Christmas treat, here's a short but revealing clip featuring the one, the only, the unforgettable Leslie Nielson.  When he passed (ahem...) we lost a good one.

To each and every one of you, I wish a wonderful holiday season.


* Clu directed a number of indy projects, one of one of which -- a 30 minute short described as "a violent rock opera that stars Clu’s younger son Tom" -- was John and Norma Novak.