Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Sunday, March 5, 2023


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.


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.  


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!


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


                                  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.


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


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.*


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.


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.

Sunday, November 6, 2022

Dennis Woodruff, Actor


All photos, except as noted, by Harrod Bank, with the permission of Art Car World

Back in the early 80's, my crew landed a three week gig in early January lighting a series of toy commercials. The job paid full commercial rate for fifteen days, and since the toys and sets were tiny, we wouldn't have to light up the world -- which means there would be no heavy lifting, making this a fat, lucrative start to the new year.

That was the good news -- the bad news was that we then had to spend three long weeks in a dark sound stage at Raleigh Studios doing what amounted to table-top lighting, a meticulous, time consuming task that some people love ... but I am not among them. Truth be told, I hated  table top work, which was fun for about half an hour, then rapidly morphed into a soul-crushingly tedious chore. Still, a job is a job is a job, and nobody says you have to like the gig to appreciate the paycheck.   

The head agency man -- responsible for delivering what the client wanted -- was named "Ralphie," a diminutive, rotund, bearded garden-gnome with a voice that seemed to float atop a wobbly bubble of phlegm, and day after day, Ralphie had a lot say about each and every shot. As we entered the second week of this special little Hell, I was starting to go a little bit insane, which made our daily hour-long lunch break an oasis to be yearned for all morning long, then dearly missed each afternoon once we were back at work.

Among our favorite lunch spots were Lucy's El Adobe, Nickodells, and Orzas, a small Eastern European restaurant next door to Paramount -- a friendly little cafe with good food at reasonable prices. On our way there one day, we noticed posters stapled to every telephone pole along that stretch of Melrose, each featuring a black and white Xerox image of a 30-something man in a black leather jacket striking a dramatic pose aboard a large motorcycle, a cigarette dangling from the side of his mouth. In big bold print below the photo was the phrase  "Dennis Woodruff, Actor."

Self-promotion is nothing new in Hollywood, but the earnest, low-rent approach of these posters was intriguing. It's one thing for Angelyne to attract eyeballs with posters and billboards of her scantily-clad and undeniably impressive pneumatic charms, but something else for a guy to sell himself as "Dennis Woodruff, Actor."

As we took a table in Orzas cramped dining room one day, the gaffer turned, and in his typically dry tone of voice said:  "Look: it's Dennis Woodruff, actor."

Sure enough, there was the man himself at a table on the far side of the room reading a paperback while sipping a small cup of very strong Turkish coffee -- a specialty of Orzas. He appeared to have come straight from the wardrobe department of a spaghetti western: black boots, black pants, black shirt, black leather vest, and a black straight-brimmed hat. The image in those posters had come to life, and he sure as hell looked like an actor.

A woman at the table next to us leaned over and rolled her eyes. 

"I work at Paramount," she said, shaking her head. "He calls us Every. Single. Day..."

A few minutes later, Dennis Woodruff, actor, finished his coffee, paid the check, then stood up and walked out.

I didn't seem him again for a few years, and forgot all about Dennis Woodruff until he began driving the streets of Hollywood and the surrounding cities in a series of outlandishly modified cars, each advertising his thespian skills to a film industry that continued to ignore him. But if Hollywood looked the other way, the rest of us couldn't help noticing those astonishing cars, and his underground fame began to build.  

Nobody gets ahead in Hollywood waiting to be discovered, though, so this tireless self-promoter began making and selling his own movies, and you have to give him credit: the man has made a lot of movies.* I'd occasionally see him popping into laundromats or walking the streets of Hollywood selling VHS tapes of his work for $10 each to anybody who'd listen to his spiel. He did pretty well at it, too, raking in upwards of 250,000 British pounds by 2011 according to the Daily Mail, which would be over $400K in US dollars at the time. That figure sounds a bit suspicious, but apparently he made enough selling his movies to buy a bungalow in Hollywood, and those don't come cheap, so I suppose only Dennis and the IRS knows for sure.  

Then one slow Sunday after another long week working on my show, I was washing a load of dirty clothes when who should walk into the Laundromat but -- drumroll, please ... Dennis Woodruff, actor -- only this time he arrived with a camera rather than in a fully pimped-out car. He had me in this viewfinder before I knew it, asking a series of probing questions, and like any good director, prompted me as to how to respond.  

Any of you who've been reading the stories here for a while will recall, I am neither an actor nor remotely comfortable on camera -- there's a good reason I chose a career behind the lights rather than out in front feeling their heat -- so I wasn't particularly thrilled to be put on the spot like this on my day of rest, but sometimes you just have to go with the flow and have a sense of humor about things. And truth be told, Dennis Woodruff was a calm, gentle director who knew what he wanted, but was willing to roll with whatever happened without insisting on having his way.  I was merely one of many people Dennis corralled into appearing in Horror Stories from the Laundromat, so if you're curious and have thirty minutes to spare, you can take a look and figure which one is me. 

It seems the ambition to star in bigger films made and financed by someone else continues to burn within, so I have to applaud Dennis Woodruff, who's kept chasing his dream no matter what Hollywood thinks of him. He's been at it for a long time, but hasn't gotten discouraged yet -- and so with true respect, I doff my cap and wish him all the best. 

And hey, even if Dennis hasn't yet made it big, at least one of his cars did!

                       One of Woodruff's cars featured in the 1997 movie Volcano
                    (Source unknown)

Have yourselves a great Thanksgiving.

* Twenty-nine, as of 2020.

PS: If you'd like to see more outrageously creative, fantastic automotive art -- many that go far beyond what Dennis Woodruff has done -- click on over to Art Car World.  There are some terrific photos there, along with books and DVDs that explore the work of creative people who use cars as a canvas upon which to create art. Check it out!

Sunday, October 2, 2022



Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water...

Summer is officially over, and with it the beach season for many coastal areas around the country, but the arrival of Fall marks the beginning of shark season here. Large colonies of massive elephant seals have gathered along the rocky islands and sandy beaches of Northern California to birth and raise their young, and right behind them came the big Great Whites following their main source of food, which makes entering the ocean a somewhat dodgy endeavor this time of year.

This, of course, brings me to Jaws, and a new 3-D version version of the epic film that put Steven Spielberg on the map of Hollywood, and it sounds pretty great.  Apparently this is a newer 3-D process vasty superior to previous attempts at adding a third dimension to the movie-going experience ... but sadly for me, I'm nowhere near a theater that can properly run a film like this.  Some of you may live closer to such a theater, so as the saying goes, check your local listings. 

Meanwhile, here's a nice little clip from the original 2D Jaws, wherein in Chief Brody and Matt Hooper try to convince the reluctant mayor of Amityville to close the beaches for the upcoming holiday weekend. It's a classic reenactment of the eternal safety vs. commerce argument that still resonates fifty years after Jaws first hit the silver screen.  For more about the film, here's a fascinating documentary on The Making of Jaws, which -- like Final Cut and The Church of Baseball -- demonstrates just how difficult it is to reach the point where cameras and actors are finally on set and ready to roll. Those of us who've worked below-the-line know all too well the challenge of making a movie once the actors have been cast, the financing secured, and the crew assembled, but the drama that often precedes all that is no less compelling. After watching this documentary, I'm once again amazed that any movie  -- good or bad -- ever makes it to the screen in Hollywood. 

A short film that tells a very real story of experiences with Great Whites is here at Near Miss, but the title is a bit misleading -- although it features some riveting underwater footage of those big sharks, there is no actual "near miss" in this eleven minute film. After it was shot and being edited, Ron Elliot -- the diver profiled in the film -- did suffer an extremely near miss when a seventeen foot Great White attacked just after he entered the water with his camera. The shark ate the camera and did serious damage to one of his hands, which has required six surgeries thus far to restore a degree of functionality. Ron is a friend, and showed me photos from a GoPro attached to his hookah air hose that automatically several stills during the attack, and they're absolutely horrifying. That shark was a monster, and Ron is very lucky to be alive. 


A post recently appeared on the FB group Crew Stories:

"Serious question -- why do you do it?  What keeps you in the industry?  I see a never ending chain of complaints on this page, and that's fine. Everyone complains about their job. This is not meant to be disrespectful or even accusational.  I would genuinely like to hear why you do it."

This entirely reasonable question triggered a massive response. The litany of complaints posted on Crew Stories are as familiar as they are valid: the long hours on set wreak havoc on relationships and any semblance of a personal or social life, the sporadic income stream of working free-lance makes planning -- or taking -- any vacation an exercise in terminal frustration, and the bloated "Don't you know who I think I am?" egos of certain directors, producers, actors, and/or department-heads can make a hard job all the more difficult. Bitching about all this seems to come easier than gushing about the good times on set, and  helps vent the collective spleen of we who toil (past-tense, in my case) below-the-line, but I can certainly understand how a non-industry reader of Crew Stories might wonder why the hell anybody puts up with such a ruthlessly topsy-turvy life.

Those who come to the industry (rather than being born into the biz) are drawn to Hollywood for many reasons. Some fell in love with movies and decided they wanted to be involved in the process, others are refugees from soul-crushing jobs they simply couldn't stand anymore, while more than a few joined the industry because film and television is one of the few remaining career options in America that pays reasonably well (while you're working, anyway) without requiring an expensive college degree.  Whatever the reasons, the first few years are undeniably exciting as you learn the ropes and claw your way up the ladder to something resembling financial solvency, but the thrill can fade after while as you learn that the industry isn't quite what you thought it would be.  Some degree of disillusionment is not unusual -- I went through a couple of rough periods when I wasn't sure if I was done with Hollywood or if Hollywood was done with me, and I gave serious thought to getting out and doing something else in life ... but what was the alternative?  I'd spent many years writing a book that received a polite sniff from couple of agents and a publisher, all of whom wished me luck as they waved goodbye, so writing for money didn't appear to be a realistic career alternative.  Going back into the food biz held no appeal whatsoever, and even less chance at a stable life or sustainable income ... but more than anything, I wasn't interested in any other line of work.  

Pondering all this, I recalled a day back when I was fresh out of college and wearing a red and white striped shirt behind the counter of the local Straw Hat Pizza Parlor.*  There I stood late one very slow morning when I noticed a hitchhiker out on the freeway onramp having no luck at all as car after car passed him by. He was clean-cut -- maybe a bit too clean-cut in a hippie town like Santa Cruz back in the early 70s -- with very short hair and brand new K Mart civilian clothes that marked him as fresh out of the military. After wasting an hour out there he gave up and carried his suitcase into the Straw Hat, where I made him a small pizza and poured him a beer. As he ate, he talked about landing in San Francisco the night before after spending a year in Vietnam, where he'd served a full tour of duty in the infantry. 

"I was on a pay phone when some asshole grabbed one of my suitcases and took off," he said, shaking his head in disgust.  "I started after him, but tripped on something, and by the time I got up he was gone."

I tried to commiserate, although nothing I'd experienced in life compared with he'd been through: a full year of combat patrols in the jungles of Southeast Asia, then getting ripped off shortly after arriving back in the U.S.  That rude welcome-home - and subsequent lack of success hitch-hiking - had him wondering out loud if he should forget about civilian life and re-up for another tour in the army.  I did my best to talk him out that, refilling his beer glass several times as he talked, and after a while he told me a story.**

"One day I had to lead a patrol of green kids fresh out of basic  - they didn't know shit - and my job was to keep 'em alive until they learned to fight and survive in the jungle.  A few hours out we were deep in VC country, and they started gettin' antsy.  One of 'em finally worked up the nerve to ask if maybe we should head back to the base the way we'd come."

"We can't go back," I told him. "They're behind us now."

He drained the last of his beer and thanked me, then picked up his suitcase. I wished him luck as he headed back out to the freeway onramp.  The lunch rush was staring to build, and I got busy taking orders and making pizzas. The next time I looked the window, he was gone, finally having caught a ride. It's been nearly fifty years since then, but I remember it like yesterday, and have always wondered what happened to that guy: did he go back to the army -- and if so, did he survive -- or did he manage to find his way in civilian life?  I hope it was the latter, but will never know.

The story he'd told me had no dramatic ending -- there was no ambush, bloody fire-fight, or calling in an air-strike -- but the lesson I took was that sometimes the only way to fight through the doubt and fear that creep in during times of uncertainty is to press forward, especially when you're so far in that going back is likely to cost more than forging ahead. After a certain point you keep going simply because this, whatever it may be, is what you do

I stumbled into that first deep pool of quicksand three years into my Hollywood adventure, and the second nearly thirty years later, but each time something came along to drag me back onto dry ground. For whatever reason (and thanks to a little help from my friends) better jobs started coming my way, and life improved. Still, that was me -- your mileage may vary -- so if you find yourself perpetually unhappy working in the film and television industry, then maybe you should look for something else.  As I've said before, this life isn't for everybody, and if it's not for you, there's no shame in leaving ... but if you're just going through a bad stretch, hey, we've all been there. It's part of the deal in Hollywood. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other until things get better. 

Because they probably will.

Enjoy the Fall while you can kiddos, because Winter is coming.

Ahem -- such is the value of a college degree in "Aesthetic Studies."

**The beers were on the house. The owner was a fat Jabba-the Hut slug whose rich mother had bought him the Straw Hat franchise, so I figured he could afford to buy this guy a few beers.

Sunday, September 4, 2022



"Okay," you might thinking "I guess the Hollywood Juicer has finally lost it -- now he's trying to shove a book about baseball down our throats!"

"Hold your horses," as my sainted mother used to say.  Yes, I've doubtless lost a step or three over the past few years, I do like baseball, and I am shoving a book at you -- but it's a book about the making of a baseball movie, not the game itself.  Ron Shelton played in baseball's minor leagues for several years before becoming a screenwriter (Under Fire), and eventually directing movies like White Men Can't Jump and Tin Cup, so you'd expect to have a few relevant baseball stories woven into the narrative, but the meat of the book is the tale of how he took a germ of an idea, then with a Herculean effort managed to turn it into what is widely considered one of the best movies ever made about the game: Bull Durham.  As Shelton reveals, nothing in making this movie came easy, and his inside account of the long and winding odyssey from selling the idea, writing the script, landing the cast, pre-production, directing, post-production, then running the gantlet of test screenings before the movie was finally locked for release is as entertaining as it is informative.  In The Church of Baseball you'll learn something about turning an idea into a script, dealing with a skeptical studio, surviving constant sand-in-the-gears sabotage by an unnamed and decidedly hostile studio executive, how the process of casting works (and sometimes doesn't), how to deal with and direct actors, how to improvise and go with the flow when your on-set spider sense begins to tingle, and how to keep fighting the uphill battle to save your movie from clueless studio drones who apparently have nothing better to do than throw obstacles in your way.

Bull Durham may be set in the world of minor league baseball, but the story is really about people who've arrived at turning points in their lives before which everything was different, and after which nothing will ever be the same.  It's a love story on many levels, and by the time you've turned the last page of Shelton's book, you'll find yourself wondering how any movie ever gets made in or by Hollywood, let alone a film as good as this one.

As it happens, I share a tiny slice of history with Ron Shelton. 

Queue the swirling orchestral music and a rapid montage as calendar pages fly back on the wall, then the camera zooms in to freeze on a date in the late summer of 1978.   

The camera assistant from the very first low budget feature I ever worked on called with an offer I simply couldn't refuse. He'd be shooting a short 16 mm film over a weekend for a wannabe director, so how would I like to help as a grip-trician and possibly second camera operator? It was a freebie, of course, but back then my own Hollywood fantasies had yet to encounter the full gravitational force of reality, and since the script was about a minor league baseball pitcher -- and some of the filming would take place on the field during a minor league game in Bakersfield, California -- it sounded like fun. A few days later, our small crew gathered at a rambling old house up in the hills north of Sunset, where we sat in Ron Shelton's living room as he explained the story and how he proposed to film it over the following weekend.  He showed us slides he'd taken while scouting the ball park in Bakersfield, and assured us that although there was a lot to film, he'd get us through it without pushing too hard.

Ron was as good as his word.  We shot everything on the schedule with our two actors, the young Chris Mulkey -- who'd made a bit of a splash in an indy feature called Loose Ends a couple of years before -- and another actor whose name has long since slipped my mind.  

Hey, it was forty-four years ago, and as writing this post reminded me in ways I didn't expect, my memory is a bit spotty.  More on that later.

Once the final scene was in the can (and yes, I did get to operate the second camera while we shot the scene at the ballpark), Ron treated us all to dinner at what was then the finest dining establishment in Bakersfield, a restaurant with the unlikely name of Lemucchi's Tam O'Shanter, where the food, wine, and laughter flowed before we made the long drive back to LA.  It was a fitting end to a great weekend during which I had a blast ... and that, as far as I can recall, was the last time I saw Ron Shelton. Over the next ten years, I went on to climb the below-the-line ladder as a grip, juicer, best boy, and gaffer, while Ron forged a solid career as a successful writer/director in Hollywood.  

Nearly a decade later, while I was prepping to fly east for an eight week feature in Vermont, my gaffer said something that gave me the impression he'd been offered to gaff a baseball movie that was about to film in North Carolina, directed by Ron Shelton and starring Kevin Costner, but since he'd already committed us to the show in Vermont, had to turn it down.  

"Damn," I thought. I knew Kevin from my days at Raleigh Studios in Hollywood, where I'd worked on many a commercial when he was a stage manager there, and although I hadn't seen Ron since that weekend in the Bakersfield -- which I assumed eventually led to Bull Durham -- this could have been a reunion or sorts, the three of us having achieved at least part of our Hollywood dreams ... but it was not to be.  So it goes in Hollywood.  Having told this "what might have been" story about Bull Durham more than once over the ensuing years, I planned to include it here, but it occurred to me to do a little fact-checking first.

So I called my old gaffer -- who'd bumped up to DP a year or two after the Vermont movie -- and caught him on his cell as he was traveling to a distant location to resume shooting an episodic drama for one of the big broadcast networks.  We hadn't touched base for a while, and it was good to catch up, but when I asked the question about Bull Durham, he confessed no memory of being offered the job. I checked the IMDB, and found that the DP was Bob Byrne, who - sadly - had passed away in 2017. With nobody left to ask, I'd struck out, so maybe I'd just go with the flow as represented by the newspaper writer's reply to Jimmy Stewart's character (Ransom Stoddard) in John Ford's elegiac western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence:  

"This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

I went back to reading The Church of Baseball, which revealed that Bobby Byrne was actually the second DP -- another DP named Chuck Minsky had been hired to shoot Bull Durham, which he did quite well -- but thanks to Machiavellian maneuvering back in Hollywood by that unnamed studio executive, Chuck was "let go" with only three weeks left to shoot, for no good reason --  and Bob Byrne brought in to finish up.*

So back to Google I went to find Chuck Minsky's website, where I sent him an e-mail asking the Big Question: had my gaffer back then really been offered the gaffer job on Bull Durham?  Chuck graciously sent a prompt reply telling me how devastating it had been to be fired, what a great, stand-up guy Ron Shelton really was, and that since the film's low budget didn't allow him to bring his own gaffer, he'd hired a local who'd done a fine job.**  

So the answer was "no," which means that something I've long considered one of my Big Career Regrets -- that but for fate and cruel timing I'd have worked on Bull Durham -- was never real in the first place.  There's doubtless a larger lesson in all this (and maybe someday I'll figure out what that might be...), but although I lost a good story, I've still got the movie, which I re-watch every few years,  and The Church of Baseball, Ron Shelton's wonderfully entertaining and informative book.

If you're interested -- which you should be -- here's a podcast from LA's NPR outlet KCRW called The Treatment, which starts out in a twenty minute discussion with actress Maya Rudolph, then segues to a longer talk with Ron Shelton about his career in Hollywood and the book.  Once that's done, click on over to this five minute piece wherein Ron reveals the influence Sam Peckinpah and his epic western The Wild Bunch had on Shelton's career.  

Both are really good, so check 'em out.

*  This was beyond outrageous.  The more I read about that unnamed studio exec, the bigger an asshole he turns out to be.

** Having been fired a couple of times myself -- both times for arguably good reasons -- I'm not sure there are words sufficient to describe how Chuck must have felt. When you've done a good job under difficult conditions, you're not supposed to be rewarded by being dumped like yesterday's garbage with only three weeks to go ... but that's Hollywood for you.