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)

Saturday, September 22, 2007

This Island, Hollywood

A college degree, it is said, remains the essential passport to success in the dog-eat-dog competition of our ever-shrinking, increasingly globalized world. No doubt this is true, but some courses of study are more equal than others: there are degrees and degrees. Sadly, the more interesting credentials tend to cluster in fields that although undeniably fascinating, are unlikely to provide sufficient thrust to launch a high-octane career rich in the material rewards our society deems essential to achieve true success. A student who chooses to devote his/her precious college years to the pursuit of a major such as Aesthetic Studies, for instance – as opposed to something like Computer Science, Business Administration, or one of the many well-worn and reliably remunerative career paths -- stands a fair chance of ending up doomed to the labors of Sisyphus, facing the daily struggle to push a very large rock up a very steep mountain for a very long time. Unless this misguided soul happens to be supremely gifted, incredibly lucky, or somehow manages to marry into a very wealthy family, the post-graduation price for following one’s heart rather than putting shoulder to wheel in the more prosaic (read: boring) disciplines -- which invariably require endless and miserable exertions of the cranial muscles -- can be high indeed: a working life that remains the functional equivalent of summoning up a big phony smile while inquiring “Would you like fries with that, sir?”

Take it from One Who Knows: walk that path and you just might end up in Hollywood.

Having followed the muse of youthful sloth all the way through college (and who was neither gifted, lucky, nor able to marry a nice rich girl), I've paid the price in the form of thirty years hard labor toiling “below the line” in the salt mines of the film industry. And it’s not over yet. Assuming I can keep answering the daily work bell, several more years of breaking rocks in the hot sun lies between me and the shiny brass ring of retirement. Trouble is, the actuarial statistics make a strong case against looking forward to that bright and sunny day. According to the obituaries in our dreary little union newsletter, an alarming number of freshly-minted retirees shuffle right off this mortal coil into the Great Beyond soon after being turned out to pasture. It seems the reward for squandering one’s life and vitality on a career of hard labor in Hollywood is grim indeed: a swift take-down, followed by the cold and clammy hand of death. Some serious digging is required to find the silver lining in such a gloomy cloud, but if I've only got a handful of years left after pushing off into the deep water of my “golden years”, it’ll be steak and lobster every night, bartender, and keep those martini’s coming. Rev up those credit cards, run ‘em deep into the red, and to hell with the mortgage -- the only real estate I’ll need for the long haul is six feet under ground.

The bad news is that it’s a little late to do anything about it now – a good twenty-five years too late, apparently. An old college friend, now a successful and respected television writer/producer with five gleaming Emmys resting on her fireplace mantle, once told me of an article she’d read positing that those who work in the film industry longer than five years are thereafter ruined for any other line of employment. The reasoning was simple: once a person has spent half a decade doing a performance-oriented job for which no formal training is required (or even exists, in most cases) -- work that is sporadic, intense, and often pays well enough that the ensuing periods of unemployment/recovery/rehab are greeted with open arms -- this individual has by then been rendered forever unsuitable for the nine-to-five, forty hour week, fifty week a year grind so many gainfully-employed Americans cheerfully accept as normal life.

In other words, we’re spoiled.

There’s some truth in that. A working life in Hollywood has more in common with running off to join the circus than anything resembling the comfortable routines of a more conventional career. Once you've grown accustomed to the chaotic rhythms of free-lance Industry work (and all those oh-so-sweet weekdays off), it becomes increasingly difficult to envision crawling back to a desk under the pale fluorescent glow and tick-tock-watch-the-clock mental constipation of the Cube Farm. By then, an invisible threshold of some sort has been crossed – a “tipping point”, in the jargon de jour -- after which you’re trapped in Tinsel Town as surely as all those doomed mammoths and saber-toothed tigers who long ago met their grim fate in the stinking petro-swamps of the La Brea Tar Pits.

At first it’s all one big adventure, rolling into LA brimming with the brash, blissful ignorance of youth, filled with a burning desire to work on real Hollywood movies, no matter how cheesy or lame they might be. Such blind ambition is essential, since the only Industry jobs a clueless kid with no real connections or usable skills can hope to land will be on the worst-of-the-worst low-budget schlock. But that doesn't matter, because in those early days, simply being allowed to work on a film is a two hundred octane blast of pure adrenaline. In time you learn enough about the process of making movies -- and yourself -- to focus on something resembling a career path, be it getting your hands dirty in one of the technical crafts, keeping them clean in the white-collar arena of production, or embarking on the hard and rocky quest of the wannabe writer/director. You make your choice and push on, climbing the ladder as luck and opportunity allow. As the years pass, the work becomes more routine in many ways, more complex in others, but you keep moving forward, gaining experience, and ever so slowly, without ever really noticing, your joi de work begins to calcify and crumble. Your footprints slowly turn to dust. Then, on some hot and smoggy morning five or ten or twenty years later, you wake up to the stark realization that Hollywood isn't The Emerald City after all. Suddenly it looks a lot more like Alcatraz, where getting on the island took some doing, but getting off was infinitely harder.

By now, no intelligent employer back on dry land will have you -- one look at that Tinsel Town resume lights up the Damaged Goods warning like a Christmas tree. And if by some miracle you manage to charm your way through Human Resources, and sweet-talk some naive, do-well-by-doing-good employer into giving you a job, what then? Slow-motion disaster, that’s what. All too soon your new boss will find that in hiring a Hollywood refugee, he or she has brought into the fold the sort of bad-apple employee whose only contribution is to drag down the productivity of everyone else. You’ll fully intend to work hard, of course, but it’s so much easier to spend half the day at the water cooler entertaining your fellow wage-slaves with tales of life in glamorous Hollywood. But at that rate, you’ll run through your entire repertoire twice over in no time at all, after which you’ll have to start inventing stories to hold an audience. Soon you’ll be dropping names with shameless abandon, trying to wow the wide-eyed civilians with lies about cruisin’ with Brad, Jennifer, Lindsey, and J-Lo – and that’s when your co-workers will finally understand just how full of crap you really are. Suddenly alone at the water cooler, you’ll have no choice but to slink back to your desk and grudgingly buckle down to whatever mindless drudgery you’d been hired to do.

Too little, too late. At that point, you’ll have all the time in the world to daydream about the good old days back in Hollywood (having conveniently forgotten why you ran screaming from the asylum in the first place), since by now your employer will have rectified his/her mistake and given you the boot. Even Hollywood at its most ridiculously absurd will start looking awfully good when you’re shivering the night away in a cardboard condo beneath a freeway overpass on the edge of town. Still, you’ll have a whole new audience down there -- a little rough around the edges, maybe, but ready to be dazzled by all your great Hollywood stories.

It rarely comes to that, though, because the only way most Industry workers ever manage to leave is in a hearse. For all but a few determined, hardy, and resourceful escapees, Hollywood remains a life sentence without parole or time off for good behavior. And the awful truth, I suspect, is that if I should finally manage to limp across the finish line of retirement, I’ll probably end up like all the others, gathering from time to time with fellow gray-haired retirees over coffee -- or something stronger -- to swap lies about how great it all was. Even in retirement, there’s no getting off this island.

Sometimes I wonder if, over the eons of eternity, Sisyphus didn't finally come to love that big rock of his after all.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

About those links...

Sept. 18, 2007

Just beneath my profile (upper right corner) is a link labeled "IDMB Glossary," leading to the Internet Movie Database. The film and television industry has its own unique jargon used on a daily basis by those of us who work there -- terms like "Best Boy," "A.D.", or "Abbey Singer." Any reader who comes across an unfamiliar term need only click this link to achieve instant enlightenment.

The next three links are well worth checking out by anyone interested in the television biz. “Martini Shot” is a four minute weekly commentary on KCRW (89.9 FM in LA) by veteran television writer/producer Rob Long. Long is a very funny guy with a highly developed sense of the absurd – and the television business is nothing if not absurd. His keen insights from the writer’s room and above-the-line perspective on the biz are often brilliant, and always worth hearing. Recent broadcasts and archives can be accessed via the link to KCRW's website.

Ken Levine is another industry pro: a writer, producer, and director of countless sit-coms who rounded out his education with a stint broadcasting major league baseball games over the radio for the Seattle Mariners. His blog covers the television industry, but also wanders into the realm of baseball and modern culture. Sit-com writers are very clever people, and Ken is at the top of his game. His blog is a great read.

As television critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, Tim Goodman writes with a slash-and-burn style that offers no quarter and takes no prisoners -- but he’s usually dead-on target. Unfortunately for me, he unleashed his heavy artillery upon two sit-coms I once worked for, both of which subsequently sank without a trace. But I can't fault a man compelled to call ‘em as he sees ‘em -- and besides, he can flat-out write. Reading those painfully funny columns left me in the odd position of laughing (ruefully, of course) as he methodically torched my two shows -- first one, then the other -- thus helping put me out of work.

Thanks Tim. Now I’m back humping cable on the goddamned rigging crew...

Check out his rather cheeky blog, “The Bastard Machine,” then click on over to his more sober but wonderfully savage Chronicle columns on the SF Gate website. You just might learn something, and -- unless he's critiquing a show you happen to be working on -- you won’t be disappointed.

R.I.P “Good Morning, Miami” and “Four Kings.”

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Welcome to the Dream Factory

There are three kinds of people who come to Hollywood: dreamers, drifters, and the driven. Each has his/her own reasons for coming to Tinsel Town, the Dream Factory, and in the end, every path followed or blazed has a way of ending in a complex stew of disappointment, regret, and resignation. Good times are here to be had, careers and money to be made, but nothing good seems to last very long on this thin strip of sun-baked earth trapped hard between the desert and the sea. Time passes in a blur, melting into the haze of smog under the relentless Southern California sun. Then one day you wake up to find thirty years have slipped through your fingers, and where the hell did they go...

Dreamers, drifters, and the driven. These are not mutually exclusive types or personalities – most of us have elements of all three in varying degrees. Even drifters follow dreams, and dreamers can be as driven as any hard-charging corporate CEO. There are as many reasons why they end up Hollywood as there are people living in the shadow of that big white sign perched high in the parched hills overlooking Los Angeles – which would be 167, 664, assuming the last census and Wikipedia got it right. Some had no choice in the matter: as their place of birth, “Hollywood” is a name they'll be scrawling on job applications and endless government forms for the rest of their lives. The rest came here on purpose -- forty-two percent white, thirty-nine percent Latino, and the remainder a stew pot of Asians, Blacks, and a smattering of Native Americans. Many are recent arrivals, having forded the southern border one way or another to seek work in the homes, gardens, kitchens, and construction sites of Los Angeles. An entire generation arrived in the great westward migration after World War Two, including those whose single-minded drive to make it in “the movies” doomed any hopes for a happy life behind the white picket fences and suffocating small-town routines back home. Others were driven here by sheer desperation, fleeing the horrors of blighted lives and terminally dysfunctional families, rolling the dice on a fresh start at the far edge of the continent, on the very lip of the abyss. Once in Hollywood, their backs to the wall, there was nowhere else to go: one way or another, they had to make it here. Some turned out to be gritty survivors who succeeded despite -- or because of -- past failures, while others ended up victims of the myth, riding the death spiral of drugs and dissolution all the way down. But no matter how many the streets swallow up, however slim the odds of success, there are always more where they came from. The moths-to-the-flame allure of Hollywood ensures a steady influx of young hopefuls from all over America and around the world.

It’s this neon-lit face of the American Dream most people want to hear about – the young hopefuls who come to Hollywood burning with ambition to hit the jackpot of wealth and fame, to be a star. Like the vast majority of these American Idol wannabes, only the barest handful bring the talent and drive it takes to make it big -- and even that’s not always enough. The importance of luck, that fickle and mysterious confluence of talent and opportunity, cannot be overstated when it comes to achieving success in Hollywood. While a chosen few make the most of their chance, the rest – many just as talented and driven, if not quite so lucky – will eventually face the hard choice of adapting to reality or heading back home. Those able to take the punches and stay on their feet can usually find a place somewhere in the Dream Machine. It’s never easy, but people do it every day.

There are others who arrive carrying equally ambitious (if quieter) agendas tucked under their arms: to become a hot, can't-miss director: the next Spielberg, Lucas, Cameron, or Tarantino. Theirs is a daunting quest, but at least the gauntlet they face isn’t as brutally insulting or degrading as that suffered by aspiring actors -- and the fall-back options (Plans B through Z) more numerous and somewhat less soul-crushing to accept. There’s a very wide spectrum of “success” in Hollywood. If nobody will hire you to direct blockbuster feature films, there’s always the world of Television. If TV won’t have you, there are commercials and music videos to be made. If those doors remain closed, maybe you can put together a sweet little low-budget feature to trot around the Indy circuit. Should that fall apart, maybe it’s time to beg, borrow, or steal enough money for a decent video camera and start earning a living making infomercials for late night TV, or educational and training videos for schools and business. At that point, you won’t even be a blip on the Hollywood radar screen, but maybe it's better than starving – or getting a real job. And if all else fails, there’s always the final frontier: the down-and-dirty world of porn. It’s a long way from Hollywood, but if you can stomach it, there’s work to be had and money to be made down there.

The gulf between working in feature films and the seamy world of porn is unspeakably vast, and a long, hard fall for any cocky young Icarus who blows into town hell-bent on becoming the next Tarantino. But navigating the currents can be tricky in an industry where a little success is often the most dangerous thing of all. Once aloft, it’s all too easy to catch an updraft and soar a little too high here in Hollywood, where sooner or later, everyone learns that even the most expensive pair of designer wings are held together with nothing more substantial than wax.

Success doesn't come easy, but most people find a way: it’s all a matter of adjusting one’s outlook and the ability to selectively define “success.” And really, what’s the alternative? After coming this far – all the way to the very edge of the continent – slinking back home just might be the worst failure of all. At a certain point, the very nature and process of the struggle itself seems to change something inside, making it almost impossible to turn back. Besides, hope dies last, and there’s no telling when those magic doors might swing open. Yes, the system is rigged against outsiders right from the start, but miracles occasionally do happen – a long-suffering writer, actor, or would-be director plodding along in the dark corridors of obscurity finally catches that once-in-a-lifetime break and is thrust into the fierce heat of the spotlight. It doesn’t happen often, but just enough to keep the rest from giving up hope.

I didn’t come here with dreams of being any kind of a star, in front of or behind the camera, but simply to give Hollywood a try. After falling in love with so many classic American movies in college (and making a few decidedly non-classic student films of my own), I wanted to see what making real Hollywood movies was all about. At the time, anything else sounded way too much like a Real Job -- the slow, steady cadence of the dead man walking. Work as a drone in a cube farm? Strap on a suit and tie every morning to battle the twin bureaucracies of office politics and the white-collar power structure? No thanks. And so after a nervous period of post-collegiate stalling, I inhaled one last lungful of crisp Northern California air and plunged south into the smoggy morass of Hollywood. The transition was rude, the learning curve steep, but in time I caught a break, worked a few low-level jobs, and met those who eventually hired me to work on lighting crews. I worked my way up from juicer to best boy to gaffer – and then, like so many others before and since, I too sailed a bit close to the sun. Before I knew it, my own seemingly sturdy wings had come apart in mid-air, sending me on a free-fall plunge right back where I started.

Go directly to Jail. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.

But if the jail was only metaphoric, there was still no going home. Bent but not broken, I got back on my feet a lot older and maybe – just maybe -- a little bit wiser.

I've been working and surviving in Hollywood for more than thirty years now, through the ups and downs, all the while returning to the San Francisco Bay Area often enough to claim it as my true home. In all the ways that matter, it is – family and the oldest of friends are still there, and I'll root for the Giants to my last dying breath -- but after three full decades, LA has a way of seeping into your blood. One lesson you learn fast down here is that things are seldom as they first appear, and although Southern California is in many ways a horrendously ugly hell-hole, it’s not All Bad, All the Time. There are pockets of beauty here too, tucked away amid the vast urban desert. And although The Industry, as we call it, is nothing like the glamorous playground so many civilians (those of you at home, remote in hand, basking in the flickering glow of the Cathode Ray Gun) often assume it to be, there are occasional flashes of light and clarity here as well. Floating like smoothly sculpted pieces of driftwood amid the daily tidal surge of greed, ego-stoked absurdities, and jaw-dropping excess, are the occasional gleaming, random, and oh-so-ephemeral moments of grace. The trick lies in keeping your eyes and heart open so you can appreciate those moments before they vanish.

I'll do my best here to peel back the shiny shrink-wrap and offer a glimpse of the real Hollywood as I've experienced it: the heavy-lifting, dirt-under-the-fingernails side of the Industry you don’t read about in tabloids. What you won’t find here is any sort of “insider” celebrity gossip. Most of us who work in the Industry see and hear things that would indeed make juicy tabloid fodder, but only a fool or trust-fund baby has the luxury of fouling his own nest by talking out of school. The Industry has big enough ears that a little loose chat could easily put my so-called career in the corn, and at this late date, I don't have enough time to grow another pair of wings. Accordingly, names will be changed to protect the innocent and guilty alike. So if it’s Hollywood gossip you're looking for – who said/did what to whom behind his/her back – then click your way over to the celebrity blog-o-sphere, or else run down to your local 7-11 for the latest tabloid trash.

But if you want to hear the truth as I’ve lived it, about the real Hollywood --the blood, sweat, and tedium in the shadows behind all those bright lights – stay tuned.