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 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.

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

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...

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

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.

Sunday, June 6, 2021

Just for the Hell of It: Episode 63


 I never had the pleasure to work with Paul Caven, who (unlike - ahem - some of us), had the opportunity and good sense to join IA Local 728 as a young lad, then put in 40 years working as a juicer, Best Boy, and occasionally as a Gaffer. Working on classics like Deliverance, Paper Moon, and Shampoo (among many others), often with legendary DP Laszlo Kovaks, Paul had the kind of career most of us can only dream about, and after sharing a few of his stories on social media, he's now compiled them in a book.

I'm sure he's got more stories that won't ever see print (for all the usual reasons), but those are for him to know and the rest of us to wonder about. Tales from Behind the Lights is a good, fun read for industry veterans, newbies, and civilians alike. Paul doesn't put readers to sleep with a lot of technical jargon, explaining just enough to illustrate and flesh out his stories, but those who don't know will learn something about what it takes to make a movie -- or more to the point, what it was like to work on some of Hollywood's finest movies back then. Although a lot has changed about the way movies are made since those days, some things remain eternal, and industry veterans will find much that resonates in Paul's stories. The book unfolds in a relaxed manner -- he's not blurting out tabloid trash here -- but tells what it was like to work with young actors like Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern, Burt Reynolds, Jessica Lange, and many more who would go on to become Hollywood icons. As clichéd as this sounds, there truly is something for everyone in this book. 

Well, everyone interested in movies, at least. If that's you or someone you know, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of Tales from Behind the Lights.

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

With so many companies entering the streaming wars nowadays, the hunt for fresh, compelling dramas is on ... everywhere except Paramount TV, it seems, which is busy digging up the bones of long buried feature films -- Love StoryFatal Attraction, The Parallax View, The Italian Job, and Flashdance -- so they can regurgitate new (or should I say "re-imagined"?) versions of those movies as television shows. Yes, this sounds like a bad joke, but read it and weep. I understand that the raison d'tre of media corporations is to make money for their shareholders, but the truly great television dramas of the modern era (Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, etc) didn't come about by exhuming the rotting corpses of old movies, then rearranging the bones and sprinkling a little glitter on top to create the illusion of something "new" -- instead, those show runners came up with fresh ideas,  characters, and approaches to storytelling on screen.

Paramount was once a proud, creative company that took chances to bring us classics like Chinatown and The Godfather

How the mighty have fallen.

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

Back in my days juicing and BB'ing commercials, I caught a brief wave working for a production company that used a director who didn't want any of his crew sitting down on set. He was a big, burly Manly Man with a Manly Man beard and a Manly Man fondness for red flannel shirts, which made him look less like a director and more like a Manly Man Lumberjack sent over from Central Casting. We were allowed to sit at lunch, but were expected to be on our feet for every minute of every hour for the rest of the work day. This was utterly idiotic, given that much of the work on commercials, television shows, and feature films involves waiting for another department to finish their work before you can do yours -- and when working such long hours, conserving one's energy for when it's really needed is important -- but none of that mattered to Herr Direktor, Mr. Brawny Paper Towels.   

This is not him, of course, but a convenient image plucked from the wilds of the internet

The Gaffer apologized for this idiocy, and advised me to take an apple box behind the set wall, out of the director's field of vision, whenever necessary. So I did ... and that's where found most of the crew who weren't actively involved in setting up a shot at that moment -- all of them sitting down, out of sight and out of mind, until their services on set were needed.

I was reminded of this while reading about Zack Snyder's insistence that there be no chairs on the set of his latest film, Army of the Dead. The piece only mentions actors -- there are no chairs for the crew on most sets, and who knows what Snyder would think about them sitting down -- but actors do their share of waiting around, and also must conserve their energy for when it really counts.

Ah well, I'm retired now, far beyond the reach of Mr. Brawny Paper Towels, Zack Snyder, or any of the other Hollywood control freaks who run their little fiefdoms with an iron fist.

                                              Don't even THINK about it!  

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

Forty years in Hollywood imbued me with a rather jaundiced view of producers. My first few features  had an executive producer to secure funding for the project, and a line producer who oversaw the daily struggle to plow through the call sheet. When I went into commercials and music videos, again there was usually one or two producers. The world of television introduced me to a whole new dimension of producer-dom, where it's not uncommon to see a dozen or more "producers" on the crew list of any one hour episodic drama. Big features have even more. Recently an ex-girlfriend from a past life sent an e-mail with news that one of her daughters is now a successful actress/producer, and in the past year "produced" a major tentpole feature. I checked IMDB, and sure enough, there she was ... along with twenty-eight other "producers" -- and that was just the live action unit. There were even more producers in post production.  The producer credit is tossed around so much these days that it seems to have lost any real meaning.*

I've worked with a handful of great producers, many more who were adequate, and a few who were complete assholes. Still, my general concept of "producers" is that they live in really nice houses and drive really expensive cars, neither of which I could ever afford.  The first three floors of the parking structure at my old home lot (CBS Radford)  -- where above-the-liners park -- was always packed with high end Mercedes, Beemers, Audis, Porsches, and the occasional Maserati, while the fourth floor up was mostly pickup trucks and compacts driven to work by those of us had to shower after work rather than before.

It never crossed my mind that there might be producers doing good work making quality shows for which they're not handsomely rewarded, but this may be a recent phenomenon brought on by the digital revolution and streaming, which upended established modes of compensation ... but my eyes were opened by this piece, which appeared last week in the LA Times. It seems not every actual producer is rolling in a bathtub full of thousand-dollar bills, so maybe they really do need a union.

It's worth a read.**

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

Finally, this from the Department of The Obvious: statistical evidence to back up what every film industry veteran has long known: working long hours is bad for human health. To quote from the article: 

"Overall, the study -- drawing on data from 194 countries -- said that working 55 hours or more a week is associated with a 35% higher rise of stroke and a 17% higher risk of dying from ischemic heart disease when compared with a 35-40 hour working week."

No shit, Sherlock, and guess what -- a crew working on an episodic drama or feature film would consider a 55 hour week the next best thing to a paid vacation. Look, I didn't want to go into multi-cam sitcoms back in the late 90's, but had no choice after all my accounts fled to Canada, leaving me high, dry, and wondering if the bell had finally tolled on my so-called career.  When an old friend offered me a slot on a multi-cam show, I took the job just to keep my rent paid, but after a couple of seasons, it dawned on me that working 35 to 45 hours a week was a lot easier on my aging mind, body, and life in general than being tied to the whipping post of the single-camera world -- so I stayed with sitcoms for the rest of my career. Given the fate of so many of my fellow Hollywood workbots who are now slinging 4/0 in Heaven (or Hell, no doubt, for some), that may be the only reason I'm still collecting my monthly check from the motion picture pension fund. I've lost a lot of friends to premature death over the years, with four or five more passing from from heart failure in just the past four years, two who were in their late 50's and early 60's, and the others having recently retired.  Another recent retiree who ran the set lighting dept at my home lot -- a man who was incredibly strong, mentally and physically -- is currently in the hospital recovering from his second round of major open-heart surgery. 

Ours is a brutal, unforgiving business that all too often forces people to work truly heinous hours, at a horrendous cost -- and sooner or later we all pay the price.  

On that grim note, have a nice June. Work hard -- but not too hard -- and stay safe. 


* Writers are often awarded the title of "producer" in television, presumably to put them in line for residuals if the show lasts long enough to go into syndication.  

** If the LA Times won't let you read the article, shoot me an e-mail and I'll send it to you.

Sunday, May 2, 2021

NABET



PBS recently ran a fascinating three-part series on Ernest Hemingway, which prompted me to pull a copy of The Sun Also Rises down from the shelf, blow the dust off, and settle in for another read. I didn't think much of the book when I first read it thirty-plus years ago, but some books can only be appreciated after life has kicked you around for a while, and maybe this was one.

Or not. Although Hemingway is a master at painting terse, vivid word-pictures, describing the details and action of fishing or a bullfight better than anyone, the story and characters of this book still don't resonate with me. Maybe you had to live through the horrors of World War One to fully appreciate the travails of Jake Barnes and the "Lost Generation" of young American ex-pats in Paris -- or maybe the ravages of age and four decades of manual labor have so pummeled my brain that I lack the ability to understand or fully embrace such a damaged, feckless character as Lady Brett Ashley -- but I'll leave all that (and any discussion of Hemingway's Iceberg Theory) to Lit majors and others with the predilection and cranial capacity for such intellectual heavy lifting. All I know is that the stories each generation tells emerge from the circumstances of their time, and although most human experiences are universal, the context differs radically from one generation to the next, which is one reason only the best of those stories endure.*

What motivated this post wasn't Hemingway, but my old NABET union card that fell out of the book when I opened it, where it apparently served as a bookmark for the past 39 years -- and suddenly I was reminded of the many twists and turns that carve a path through Hollywood.

In the late summer and fall of 1980, I BB'd my first feature film, a steaming pile of cinematic garbage called The Return, a quasi-science fiction film with a cast of "name" actors who were either terminally bored, down on their luck, or otherwise in need of gainful employment.**  Acting is the chanciest of all film industry endeavors, and only a relative handful of thespians can afford to pick and choose their jobs, which is why Raymond Burr, Cybill Shepherd, Martin Landau, Jan-Michael Vincent, and the venerable Neville Brand agreed to do this movie. With such a cast, it could have been a halfway decent film, but as usual, a lousy script doomed any chance of that.

Having worked on nothing but crappy low-budget movies at the time, the script didn't bother me. This movie was six weeks of work at a point in my young career where BB'ing a feature represented a big  step up, and I was happy to have the job. Although much of that experience has faded from my increasingly porous brain, a few clear memories linger: Cybill walking to and from her trailer accompanied by a PA holding a 24-by-36 flag over her head to shield her from the hot sun wherever she went, Raymond Burr being driven to the set in a six wheel ATV, since his massive bulk and bad leg precluded him from walking over uneven ground, an extremely drunk Jan Michael Vincent slurring his words in the middle of the day while rambling on about doing "combat weapons training with Paco in the desert," watching another of our actors repeatedly spit water into Vincent's face for take after take (which Jan Michael clearly did not appreciate), observing -- and surviving -- an on-set explosion that by some miracle didn't kill any of the crew or bystanders, and filming a scene in an office on the 9th floor of the Inglewood City Hall, where Cybill cooed "We were supposed to be the first father-daughter team in space" to Raymond Burr as two window washers slowly descended into frame outside, much to the surprise of all concerned. My last memory of that job came when we finally wrapped the film well after midnight on a Saturday, and four fat lines of cocaine were presented to me and my three juicers. After hoovering up my share, I hopped aboard the 1000 cc Harley Sportster that had been rented for Jan Michael Vincent to ride in several scenes, then thundered back and forth through the little town of Piru feeling like the King of the World.***

Some things you don't forget, and those memories always bring a smile, but something else happened that had a much bigger impact on my next thirty-five years in Hollywood and beyond. Near the end of the shoot, the Key Grip asked if I'd be interested in joining NABET Local 531 AFC (Associated Film Craftsmen), a small offshoot of the National Association of Broadcast Radio and Technicians Local 53, which served much of the news radio and television broadcast industry at the time. Local 531 represented crews who worked on television commercials for the most part, along with an occasional NABET feature. I'd already attempted to join IA Local 728 -- the main Hollywood film union for set lighting -- but rather than explain the process every newbie must endure to join, a fat asshole wearing a white wife-beater behind the desk of the 728 office laughed me right back out onto the street. Since the IA wouldn't take me, maybe NABET would, and all I had to do was be recommended by a current member, pass the entrance exam, and pay a $500 initiation fee.****

Given that the standard rate for NABET juicers at the time was $250/10 hours  -- twice what I was earning doing features -- and all a new member needed to qualify for union health insurance was earn $750 (three days of work), this was an offer I couldn't refuse. I studied up on the relevant grip and electric subjects, passed the test, paid the initiation fee, and was at long last a union member in Hollywood. A few weeks later I had health insurance for the first time since leaving college ten years before, and began making decent money. Over the next decade, I worked hundreds of NABET commercials, meeting crew people I'd know for the rest of my career. 

Those were some very good years, but as Robert Frost warned, "Nothing gold can stay," and by the early 90's, NABET Local 531 was floundering as the IA muscled in to take over the commercial world. The silver lining in this otherwise dark cloud was a merger that brought NABET members into IATSE, which is how after fifteen years of toil in Hollywood, I finally became a member of IA Local 728 ... but there's always a fly somewhere in the soup, and terms of the merger left it up to each local to decide how to deal with us. While the Grip Local 80 took an enlightened approach, giving former NABET grips the okay to work whatever union jobs they could find, Local 728 was run by aging dinosaurs actively hostile to new members, requiring us to keep paying union dues every quarter while denying full member status until each of us could cobble together the 30 days necessary to qualify for the industry experience roster.  In essence, we were in the same leaky boat as raw "permits," who are allowed to work IA jobs only when the town is so busy that every member of that local is already employed.

This felt like a cruel joke, and seriously pissed me off. For the next three years I had rage-fueled nightmares about firebombing the 728 office, but eventually I landed a non-union TV movie that "turned" -- signed an IA contract  -- near the end of production. With my 30 days in hand at last, I was now a full member of 728, and thanks to that, was able to survive when much of Hollywood's television commercial production left the US for Canada in the early 90s, thanks to runaway production fueled by tax subsides (read: bribes) that combined with a favorable currency exchange north of the border to reduce producer costs up to 50%. With my bread and butter work gone, I seized an opportunity to enter the world of multi-camera sitcoms, where I toiled for the rest of my career, and was finally able to qualify for union health coverage in retirement (above and beyond Medicare) and a small but meaningful pension. If that Key Grip hadn't helped me join NABET back in the early 80's, I don't know what I'd have done. Instead of retiring to a small house in the woods north of San Francisco, I might be now be living in a cardboard condo under the 6th Street bridge, on the concrete banks of the LA River. 

Hollywood is a different world nowadays. Although Local 531 is nearly thirty years gone, NABET - CWA is still going strong. The old 728 dinosaurs retired or died off, replaced by younger leadership smart enough to embrace the obvious: that bringing in new, hard-working people would make the union stronger. The kids joining the IA now have no idea what it was like back in the Bad Old Days, and that's a good thing -- I'm just glad they don't have to put up with all the crap we did.    

As for me, well, I'm still thinking about that wild late-night ride through Piru...


* Don't get me wrong - I'm a fan of Hemingway, particularly For Whom the Bell Tolls, and his short stories. If you've never read The Short Happy Life of Francis McComber, you should.

 ** For any civilian readers out there, "BB" is short for Best Boy.

*** Hey, it was the 80's, when much of the country and pretty much all of Hollywood was awash in cocaine.

**** Roughly $1400 in 2021 money.

Sunday, April 4, 2021

You Can Get It ...

                                                  ... if you really want.

As I wander through the dusty archives searching for posts worth including in the book, certain patterns  emerge, the most prevalent being me bitching about how hard the freelance life can be in the film and television industry ... and it occurs to me that I may have leaned on that horn a bit too much. Sure it's hard, but as my dad used to say: "Nothing worth doing in life comes easy." Besides, nobody forced any of us to tilt at the windmills of Hollywood -- that was our decision, and having chosen this Procrustean Bed, here we must sleep.

Another recurrent theme in those old posts concerns the difficulty of grasping the brass ring of your own cinematic dream, whatever it may be. You want to be screenwriter, director, or DP?  Great - go for it - but understand that you'll be competing against thousands of other young, ambitious, talented wannabes, so you'd better have a Plan B in your back pocket ... and maybe a Plan C, just in case. 

That's all true, as far as it goes, but it doesn't go very far -- and more to the point, it dwells on the negative.  As the Indigo Girls put it, in impeccably astute lyrics:  

"Darkness has a hunger that's insatiable, and lightness has a call that's hard to hear."

So I'll back off on the darkness for a moment to look on the bright side, because a dream really can come true if you want it badly enough, possess the requisite talent, and are willing to work hard for as long as it takes. It won't happen overnight, but it can happen. In the immortal words of Jimmy Cliff:

"You can get it if you really want, but you must try, try and try, try and try, 'til you succeed at last."

I was reminded of this by an e-mail that recently dropped in out of the blue from a young man I first heard from shortly after this blog hit the wilds of cyberspace. Back then, "Tom" (a name of convenience to preserve his anonymity) wrote asking if he should finish film school or drop out to plunge head-first into the film industry and push towards his dream of becoming a DP.  

This wasn't a comfortable question for me to answer, for a number of reasons. I didn't go to a real film school, and thus had no idea what it's like to go through a dedicated film program like those offered at UCLA, USC, NYU, or any other big name university. My school didn't even offer a Theater Arts major, so I was left earning a catch-all degree in -- drum-roll, please -- "Aesthetic Studies." 

No, I'm not kidding -- and yes, you may now laugh as long and hard as you'd like.

I arrived in Hollywood highly motivated if not particularly ambitious, ready and eager to work hard at whatever film jobs I could find, but with no particular goal in mind. I just wanted to get my foot in the door and see what Hollywood had to offer. When asked what I wanted to do, my standard reply was "camera department," but there wasn't much drive behind that, and the more I saw of what camera assistants actually did on set, the less desire I felt to join them. One thing led to another, and after a couple of years toiling as a griptrician, I settled on set lighting, where I slowly worked my way up from juicer to Best Boy to Gaffer, and then -- when circumstance again intervened -- back to juicer again. Other than suffering a painfully bad back from lifting all that absurdly heavy lighting gear over the years, I have no regrets about my career choice. It wasn't all fun, but enough of it was.

In a long and rambling reply to Tom's question, I listed the pros and cons as I saw them of remaining in school vs. jumping straight into the industry, but ended up admitting I didn't really know what he should do. This was a decision only he could make. 

Here's part of his response at the time:

"I will be thinking long and hard about whether or not school is for me.  It's currently a toss up as I'm enjoying the people I'm meeting and the projects I've been working on, however I feel like what I'm learning in class is not worth the huge tuition I'm paying ($20,000+/year).  Only time will tell."*

That was the end of our communication, and I forgot all about it until the following e-mail arrived a few weeks ago.  Fortunately, he included our previous correspondence from way back then, without which I'm not sure I'd have remembered any of this.

"Michael, below you’ll find an email exchange between us from 14 years ago. I stumbled across it today by accident and was immediately transported back to my cheap apartment in Chicago, pre-economic collapse, feeling lost in the city (and in life), wondering if I would ever get to work in the movie biz. Well, things have turned out interestingly and I have to believe that your words helped shape my journey."

"If you read back you’ll see an anecdote you wrote about a DP that you enjoyed working with. One who came up through the ranks and learned the craft, something that stood out in sharp contrast to another DP who started shooting straight out of school. Well that must have struck a chord with me because shortly after this, in mid-2008, the film incentives were passed in my home state. I moved back and got my first job as a grip on a very small feature. As luck had it, it was an ultra-low IA contract that no locals wanted to touch so I ended up getting most of my required days. One job led to another and before I turned 20, I was in the local, making movies."

"I learned a lot of hard lessons and oftentimes felt like an under-aged fish out of water, but I was living the dream. I was reminded very quickly just how brutal this dream could be when, after a 21hr day, I fell asleep at the wheel and crashed into a telephone pole. Thankfully I walked away unscathed and the city never charged me for the pole, but that told me a lot about the business I was in. Still, I was committed and became addicted to learning as much as I could."

"Turns out I had a knack for being a dolly drip. I loved it and for the following years I pushed dolly on everything from low budget commercials to a $200mm Disney feature. I  had the privilege of learning from some of the best dolly grips, techno techs, operators and DPs in the business. It was truly the greatest film school I could have asked for. The whole time I was still shooting hip hop videos and short films on the side. Around then I met a girl who was working as a stand-in. We dated for a few years, eventually got engaged and are now happily married with 2 kids. I transitioned out of gripping and into operating and in 2011 joined 600."

"Eventually a new governor took office and the incentives disappeared. I was called with opportunities to push dolly in Atlanta, New Orleans, and LA but decided to stay and hit the reset button. I got in with the Filmotechnic Russian Arm guys, and swung the arm around part-time while starting a business (nothing to do with the industry, but another great learning experience). After three or four years, the urge to go back to film full-time was too strong. I left my business and began to shoot more and more, getting into the automotive market with the help of my producer contacts. I began to make a name for myself as a “car-guy,” but kept shooting narrative whenever I could, and eventually won an Emerging Cinematographer Award through Local 600. After that win I was taken more seriously and my career benefited. I got my first agent and started traveling more.  I’ve been all over the country, to the Caribbean, Europe, the Middle East - places I never thought I’d get paid to go. It’s been a blast (mostly) and I’ve been very fortunate."

"I achieved a huge goal: to make a living as a DP, something I'd dreamed about since I was thirteen years old. Not only that, I’m also able support my family doing so. I’m very lucky. It was an interesting road getting here, filled with many unseen bends and dips, but it’s been great, and I just want to say thank you for taking the time to respond in such a heartfelt way all those years ago. It meant a lot then and it means even more now."

I've always tried to answer questions from readers honestly, underlining the difficulties of working in the film industry without throwing too much cold water on their hopes, so it's gratifying to hear from a reader who took heart from this blog and/or our e-mail exchanges -- but a few encouraging words don't mean much unless you're ready to do the work required to turn a dream into reality. Tom put his head down and did it, taking crappy low-money gigs to get his union card, then working his way up without the golden-handshake contacts that help a few lucky newbies get ahead. In taking the school-of-hard-knocks road (what I like to call The Joe Frazier School of Higher Education), he acquired a wide spectrum of practical, on-set experience -- good and bad -- all of which contributed to his eventual success in becoming a DP. Despite the difficulties, obstacles, and competition, he made it happen -- and if Tom did it, why not you?  Everyone's circumstances are different, and a lot depends on where you live and the state of the industry at any given time, but if you have what it takes, your cinematic dreams really can come true. You just have to want it badly enough.

 If that's you, then go for it -- and don't stop 'til you get there.

* That would be at least $25,000+ in today's money, and probably a lot more.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Ahem...

                                     That's one way to change a light bulb 

We all miss a deadline from time to time, and this is my turn.  I've got a couple of posts in the works, but nothing remotely ready to go for March, so ... here's nothing.  As my official excuse, I'll offer that February is the shortest month of the year, but the truth is I've been putting more effort into the book lately (if I don't, it'll never get done) which doesn't leave as much time or energy for the blog.  With any luck, I'll have something ready for April, but until then -- and apropos of nothing at all -- here's a fox who recently emerged from the woods to take possession of my director's chair.  

 If he starts demanding craft service, I'll be in a world of trouble.


PS:  For reasons I'll never understand, this post went up today -- NOT on Sunday the 28th, as scheduled.  Might have been my mistake, or maybe the Blogger software fucked up. Either is equally likely, but I suppose the "why" doesn't matter now.  Still, if any of you have bothered to read this far, there's one bit of good news:  Peggy Archer put up a fresh post over at Totally Unauthorized last night, so you ought to click on over to read it.


What Was it Like?

 


There's a saying I used to hear in Hollywood from time to time: "It's just as hard to make a good movie as it is to make a bad one, so let's make a good one." The logic, facile though it is, almost sounds reasonable. Given the colossal expense and massive human effort required to make any movie, why not make it good?  Alas, the film industry doesn't work that way. Sturgeon's Law decrees that "Ninety percent of everything is crap," and this is certainly true in Hollywood. It's not that the writers, producers, or director of any project consciously set out to make a bad movie, but it's just hard to make a good one.*  The script, budget, casting, direction, editing, soundtrack -- and sometimes even the weather -- has to be right (or go wrong in extremely fortuitous ways) to result in a good movie, which is one reason the list of classic films isn't very long. To quote Chief Dan George in Little Big Man: "Sometimes the magic works, and sometimes it doesn't."  

In Hollywood, it's mostly the latter.

I've always wondered what it would be like to work on one of the legendary classics: Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Maltese Falcon, Citizen Kane, Touch of Evil, Casablanca, The Wild Bunch, Chinatown, The French Connection, or Blade Runner.  We all have our favorites -- your mileage will certainly vary -- but these are a few of mine. Was there a feeling among the cast and crew of those films that they were blessed to be working on something truly special, or was it just another job with long hours, difficult working conditions, and never enough sleep?

I'll never know. The only truly good movie I worked on was The Fifth Element, and although a fun, entertaining film, it hardly qualifies as "classic."  One other (Heart of Dixie) turned out reasonably well in a low-budget, workmanlike manner, but the rest of features I did were destined for that ninetieth percentile cinematic sewer so aptly described by Theodore Sturgeon.

Here in the Covid lockdown, I've been reading bit -- a few books hot off the presses, along with older tomes pulled down from shelves where they've been quietly collecting dust. Among the former is The Big Goodbye, which describes the torturous journey of the 1973 classic Chinatown from the first stirrings of an idea between the ears of Robert Towne, all the way through the writing, re-writing, production, and post-production process.** It's a story of personality clashes, ego battles, substance abuse, and good intentions crashing against the unyielding rocks of reality,-- a struggle from start to finish in which the energy and imagination of several smart, talented people came together in something like a relay race, each carrying the creative baton until pushed to exhaustion, then handing it off to the next. At any number of junctures -- including the very end, when all was complete except for the sound track -- Chinatown could have gone off the rails.  That it didn't is a testament to the value of a rough-and-tumble collaborative process, but it sure as hell wasn't easy. Tempers flared, expletives were exchanged, and relationships fractured. At one time or another, bad decisions were made by each of the major players in the drama -- Robert Towne, Bob Evans, and Roman Polanski -- decisions that could have ruined the film as we know it. During a particularly stressful moment on set, Faye Dunaway reportedly threw a cup of fresh, warm urine directly into Polanski's face. With tensions like that, it's hard to imagine the movie could even get finished, let alone be any good ... but Chinatown emerged from that cauldron of chaos as a true classic of Hollywood.

The Big Goodbye is a terrific read. If you want to wait a few months to save some money buying a used copy, fine -- but don't let this one pass you by.


Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock 'n' Roll Generation saved Hollywood sat on my bookshelf for twenty years before I retired and finally had time to crack it.  At 439 pages, it's a long but entertaining and rewarding read. As this review/interview puts it, the book is "a rollicking gossip-propelled magic-carpet ride through the heady days of the ‘70s," and if there's a bit more who-was-fucking-who-and-snorting-what tabloid prattle than I care for, the essence of Peter Biskind's stories resonate with the ring of truth. Still, as Roger Ebert put it: "Biskind has a way of massaging his stories to suit his agenda."

Consider this, the opening of Chapter Seven, titled "Sympathy for the Devil: How bad boy William  Friedkin made The Exorcist, joined Coppola and Bogdanovich in The Directors Company trying to take over the world, while Altman got himself in trouble."

“On December 8, 1969, a scant four months after the Manson murders, twenty-three miles east of San Francisco at the Altamont Speedway in the white trash town of Livermore, Alameda County, 400,000-plus long-haired flower children gathered on a chilly fall afternoon to hear the Rolling Stones in the West Coast’s answer to Woodstock.  Security was augmented by a couple of hundred Hells Angels, who were accustomed to performing such chores for Bay Area bands like the Grateful Dead in exchange for free beer. They came rolling in on their loud chrome Harleys like squat toads atop gleaming steel, accompanied by the loud thrum of the three-stroke engines and the smell of gasoline.”

Hollywood wasn't even on my radar in 1969, so I can't argue with Biskind's tales of film industry intrigue back then -- but I was at the infamous Altamont concert, which took place on Dec. 6, not Dec. 8.  The event was staged in the Altamont Pass, fifteen miles east of Livermore, past a high ridge of rolling hills that separate the town from the San Joaquin Valley. Livermore was (and is) far from the smug urban sophistication of San Francisco, and at the time had a population just under forty-thousand, 97% of them white, but that didn't - and doesn't - make it a "white trash town." The phrase packs an edgy, alliterative punch, but it's a low blow. As for the crowd that day, every media report I've seen and heard put it at 300,000 (a rough estimate, since I certainly wasn't counting heads), not 400,000. A large cohort of Hells Angles was indeed paid with beer to keep people off the stage, and at one point as I waded through the crowd past a yellow bus occupied by several of the bikers, one Angle noticed that I was carrying a motorcycle helmet, and threw me a can of beer.  They rode loud Harleys, all right, but these iconic motorcycles are powered by four-stroke engines -- and if this sounds like a minor quibble, remember that there are no motorcycles, Harley or otherwise, that use a '"three-stroke engine." Although a patent for a three-stroke motor was issued in 1995, more than twenty-five years after Altamont, God knows if it was ever manufactured. As for "the smell of gasoline," well, there was a lot of dope smoke drifting around the crowd that day, so it must have overpowered the reek of gas.

Ahem ... okay, I didn't mean to drag you all into the swamps of digression here, but since I rode my own four-stroke motorcycle (a Honda 305 Superhawk, for what it's worth) to Altamont on that chilly December day, and stayed from the hopeful beginnings to the bloody finish, I feel compelled to push back on someone who writes about as if he was there, but clearly wasn't. Not counting his white-trashing of Livermore, Biskind makes four factual errors in three sentences, which undermines the credibility of this book, laden as it is with footnotes that allow many of those named in the narrative to dispute what actually happened as reported by others. 

Despite these quibbles, Easy Riders/Raging Bulls is a fascinating read that captures the drama of a power struggle as the old order of Hollywood crumbled before the assault of a younger generation that had their own ideas about what movies should be. Biskind is adept at describing the ugliness that so often accompanies talent and success, and as he tells it, each of those legendary directors -- Friedkin, Bogdonavich, Scorcese, Ashby, Rafelson, Coppola, Lucas, Altman, Polanski, Schrader, and Spielberg -- was at times a complete asshole, driven as many of them were by fear, insecurities, dysfunctional personalities, overindulgence in drugs, and egos that inflated exponentially with each box office hit. Making movies is a difficult endeavor under the best of circumstances, but these young self-styled auteurs were swimming upstream against a sclerotic Hollywood system that had no clue how much American society and culture had changed while it had been busy making the usual star-driven epics.  The films this younger generation wanted to shoot made no sense to the crusty studio heads or the veteran crews on set, all of whom were accustomed to the old ways of working. Given the tectonic stresses involved, there's no way these movies could be made in a calm, orderly manner -- and they weren't. After wrapping principle photography on the first Star Wars in London, an unhappy shoot from start to finish, George Lucas said this:

"I realized why directors are such horrible people, because you want things to be right, and people will just not listen to you, and there is no time to be nice, to be delicate. I spent all my time yelling and screaming at people."

 

                                          George was not having fun.

Biskind's account details the difficulties all these young directors faced in ushering their films from idea to screen -- The Godfather, The Exorcist,  McAbe and Mrs. Miller, Shampoo, Chinatown, Star Wars, and Jaws (which, according to his book, the on-set crew referred to as "Flaws"), and how terrified they were that the movies would flop, nipping their careers in the bud. Peter Biskind deserves enormous credit for collecting and collating all the material here, which required enormous effort, patience, and determination -- and despite an occasional indulgence in purple prose, he's an excellent writer. You should take Easy Riders/Raging Bulls for what it is: the story of a revolution in Hollywood that changed everything about the movie business and paved the way for the film industry of today, for better or worse. ***  Maybe it plays a bit loose with the facts here and there, but it's a fun, occasionally jaw-dropping, highly entertaining read. History is often written by people who weren't there, through the 20:20 lens of remembered hindsight, so read it with a grain or two of salt -- but read it.  

After finishing both these books, it's clear to me what I should have known all along: working on the set of any movie, be it a future bomb or classic, is just that -- work -- and nothing like the naive, gauzy notions I'd harbored while falling in love with movies in school. The crews on those shows doubtless felt much as I did while working on so many forgettable projects: first and foremost, each was a job for which they got paid, enduring long days of hurry-up-and-wait tedium spiked with sieges of very hard work, their spirits maintained primarily by the black humor every good crew employs to get through an ordeal. When you're sitting on an apple box at 3:00 in the morning, dog-tired and staring at your boots while praying for the A.D. to call wrap, the "magic" of Hollywood is as cold and distant as the dark side of the moon. If the movie flops, so what? So long as the paychecks don't bounce, you're okay. Besides, by the time this one is in post-production, you'll be on another job that's just as much -- and maybe more -- of a grind, and if history later anoints either movie as a "classic film," great. That and five dollars will buy you a small cup of Starbuck's finest.

That much, I understand, and feel in my bones to be true ... but still, a part of me wishes I'd had a chance to work on one of those classics. Some dreams never die, no matter how harsh a light we shine on them.

Maybe in the next life.

 

* Other than the fictional producers of The Producers, of course -- and yes, I know it's about a play, not a movie...

** For everything you might want to know about the book and the movie -- and then some -- click here.

*** Mostly the latter. Jaws and Star Wars opened Hollywood's eyes as to how much money a big movie can bring in, and now all we seem to have is an endless succession of brain-dead, CGI-laden comic-book  movies.  



Sunday, January 3, 2021

The New Year


                                        Just blow 2020 away ... please.

                                             Photo by Mike Murray 

 

Good riddance to the worst year we've been forced to endure in a long, long time: a true annus horribilis, twelve long months that took and took and took like a Black Hole, giving back nothing.  Some bean counter at the keyboard of a supercomputer could doubtless tally our individual and collective losses in 2020, but I can't -- all I know is that we've lost a lot, in every way, that we'll never get back. Yes, we'll crawl through this long dark tunnel eventually, and things will get better, but I don't think they -- or we -- will ever truly be the same.

Ten years ago, on Jan 2, 2011, my lead-off post for the New Year began like this:

"It’s New Year’s Eve as I sit here at the keyboard — yeah, I’m a real party animal, all right — at the end of another year, this one closing the books on our first decade of this brand new millennium. All in all, it has not been an auspicious start to the next thousand years: our country mired in two wars, grinding though an ugly and seemingly endless recession while split by an apparently unbridgeable political divide that has both sides screaming at each other across the widening chasm.  I don’t know about you, but I can’t see much light at the end of any of those tunnels.  These may not be the worst of times, but they sure as hell aren’t the best."

A few things have changed since then -- the stock market is way up while our participation in those wars has dialed down, but the bloodshed overseas continues, driving an outflow of refugees that has helped spark the rise of authoritarian regimes across the globe. Our domestic political divide has only worsened, generating levels of vitriol our country hasn't experienced since the 1960s -- or maybe the 1860s, which is not an era we want to emulate. The rotten cherry atop this Shit Sundae was the arrival of Covid, the New Plague that has thus far killed nearly 350,000 Americans while turning life as we knew it upside-down and inside-out. Now, as ten years ago, there's a shocking number of unemployed and homeless people in America, ... so are these finally the worst of times?

I don't know, but let's hope so, because the only way to go will be up.  I sure as hell don't want things to get any worse.

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

One of the last movies I saw in 2020 was Never Cry Wolf, which arrived in the mail courtesy of Netflix last week.  Being something of a Luddite, I still watch a lot on DVDs, although I stream as well - but the offerings on streaming services are limited, and I have zero interest in the last twenty years worth of Hollywood's tent-pole superhero movies. I'm not being critical here -- we like what we like, and to each his/her own -- but the only superhero offering I'm willing to watch is The Boys, on Amazon, which approaches the genre from a much more interesting perspective than all those $200 million Spiderman, Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Iron Man, Thor (among too many others) cinematic spectaculars. 

Never Cry Wolf was released in 1983, and could hardly be more different from the products of today's Hollywood. It's not a great film, but I liked it well enough, and Charles Martin Smith deserves credit for committing to a difficult role in a very big way.  His task wasn't quite so daunting as working on The Revenant, but running around the Alaskan tundra chasing caribou and wolves while wearing absolutely nothing but a pair of boots is not for the faint of heart, thespian or civilian. 

I was curious about this movie for one reason -- a grip I used to work with on commercials back in the day was a member of the first unit filming crew on Never Cry Wolf, and told me a story I never forgot.  While filming that caribou sequence, the wranglers were having a hard time controlling the herd as the lunch break approached. No matter what they tried, they just couldn't get the caribou into a corral built to hold the big animals during breaks in the filming, so they finally gave and joined the rest the crew at lunch. Meanwhile, a pair of young Inuit men were quietly watching from a distance, saying nothing, but when the wranglers and crew returned to set, they found every one of those caribou waiting patiently in the corral.  

Any number of lessons can be drawn from this story, but to me it underlines the importance of letting the real experts -- people who actually know what they're doing -- handle things rather than allowing outsiders to come in and flail away at great cost to all concerned.  It's a lesson that applies across the boards, from Hollywood to Washington DC.  

If only we'd learn it.

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

I didn't see It's a Wonderful Life until I was in college, and it blew me away. Granted, I'm a sucker for what the industry wags back in the day called "Capra-corn," but it's undeniable that Frank Capra made some terrific movies.  IAWL was his first post-war effort, and although several of Capra's previous films were more popular -- and won Oscars -- none were better than the Jimmy Stewart/Donna Reed Christmas classic. Here's a fascinating piece on the film by Kim Morgan, writing for the New Beverly Cinema website, dissecting the real horror at the center of the film, which turns out to be a lot more than just another feel-good holiday movie. But if the ending of IAWL leaves you uneasy because the evil Mr. Potter is never brought to justice, here's something to scratch that itch.

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

The Covid plague continues to escalate, affecting production in Hollywood and beyond. Numerous studios, televisions shows, and feature films have had to halt production for days or weeks due to positive tests, and given the current surge of cases here in California (and particularly in LA), the situation seems likely to get worse before it gets better. You've doubtless heard -- or heard about -- the instantly infamous outburst by Tom Cruise on the set of the latest Mission Impossible production, in which he minced no words.

Having worked for a few screamers over the years, I don't have much  patience for anybody who yells at the crew, especially actors.  I certainly didn't like it when a DP, Gaffer, or Best Boy yelled at me, but that happened within my department.  Sometimes you just have to roll with it and move on -- but if a juicer would be way out of line yelling at an actor (which would probably get that juicer fired), neither does an actor have any business yelling at the crew. Still, we're living through uniquely perilous times in personal and professional terms these days, so in this case, I'm okay with it. I don't like that Cruise yelled at those guys, but I like it even less that it seems he had to.

Granted, I wasn't there, so all I know is what's been reported in the media, but unless they got it all wrong, Cruise berated two crew members for violating the Covid safety protocols, insisting that the livelihoods of so many people depend on that film and other shows currently in production. I'm not a big fan of Cruise, but he wasn't wrong. This industry really was locked down solid for six months by the virus, throwing many thousands out of work, and is only now beginning to come back to life.  Wearing masks and keeping your distance is the only way our business can continue until the vaccines are widely distributed, and that's not going to happen overnight. If backing up Tom Cruise in this one instance makes me an "I said it was wrong then, but now say it's okay" hypocrite, well, so be it -- go ahead and lob stones at this glass house of mine. None of us are perfect, nor is the world in which we live.


Meanwhile, here's a piece on how one show is dealing with the reality of filming during the plague, and another on how/why the industry will be doing so for a while.  But at least 2020 is now growing ever-smaller in our collective rear-view mirror, and for that we can all be grateful.  

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

Despite -- or maybe because of -- this ugly year, I don't want to leave on a negative note. Some of you might recall the name J.R. Helton, author of Below the Line, the seminal film industry book first published twenty-five years ago. If you've never read it, you should definitely seek it out. Helton has published several more books since -- each very different, all of them good -- and is now rolling out a podcast one chapter at a time, called Man and Beast: A Love Story.  It's not about the film industry, but deals with the gritty reality of a life far from the glitz and grime of Hollywood.  I tuned in last week, and was riveted.  Helton has a great voice for podcasting, while the spare, lyrical production deftly matches the tone of his story.  It's all true, of course, with names changed to protect innocent and guilty alike, as J.R. continues to mine the ore of his own all-too interesting life, then refine it into literary gold. Anybody who's tried this knows how hard that really is, but like every true master of his craft, Helton makes it look easy.  The price is right (ahem: free), so check it out.

Taking a cue from Helton, I've been excavating my past in the form of the long-promised BS&T book, which is coming along.  I've re-written eighty or so of those old posts, and although much remains to be done, am determined to finish the damned thing in 2021. With any luck (assuming I survive the virus), it'll be ready to print by the end of this year, and sooner if possible.  Immersing myself in all this ancient personal history is a strange endeavor, attempting to move forward by reliving events that took place from five to forty years ago. In some ways it feels like all this happened just yesterday, but then I look in the mirror and am reminded otherwise ... which brings to mind one of the most famous lines in American literature:  

"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."** 

Yep - that's me on that boat, rowing as hard as I can.

Finally, a few moments of zen in the form of Room Tone, courtesy of Evan Luzzi over at The Black and Blue.

I wish each and every one of you a happy, healthy, and prosperous new year. 

 

* Wonderfully played by Lionel Barrymore.

** The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald.