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)

Monday, October 15, 2007

Generation Wireless: Across the Great Divide

                This can be a very useful item, but it's also one hell of a distraction...

It was late afternoon in downtown Glendale, where we’d been filming a series of walk-and-talk scenes for an episodic television drama since the crack of dawn. After the usual early morning chaos, things had long since settled into a smooth working rhythm. For the set lighting crew, that meant moving, re-powering, and adjusting the lamps until the gaffer was satisfied, then cooling our heels while the actors performed like barking seals for the cameras. Once each shot was in the can, we’d repeat the frantic process for the next setup all over again.

Like most forms of factory work, episodic television is tedious, repetitive, and tiresome -- you just keep grinding away all day and into the night until the scheduled work is done. It’s a lot like toiling in a sausage factory, I suppose, except a sausage plant worker usually goes home after his eight hour shift. Not so in Hollywood, where it ain’t over ‘til the fat lady sings -– a lady who probably got so fat from eating all those sausages at the craft service table, come to think of it -- and she doesn’t even consider warming up her vocal chords until the crew has already worked a good 12 hours. Being an HBO production, this particular show was considerably worse: 14 hour work days were standard operating procedure.*

I sat on an apple box behind a big 18,000 watt light, keeping one eye on the burning lamp and the other on the set. The walkie-talkie suddenly crackled and hissed in my earphone, but no words came – somebody on our crew was inadvertently pressing the “send” button on his radio, making it impossible for any of us to hear or respond to the transmission. I looked around at two of my fellow juicers manning their own 18K’s thirty feet away, both young studs in their mid-twenties. As usual, they were yakking on their cell phones. One was leaning against a lamp post, the walkie-talkie on his belt pressed into the hard metal, thus causing our communications blackout. With the cameras still rolling, I couldn’t yell at him without blowing the take, so I picked up a pebble and threw it, hitting his leg. His head snapped around. I held up my radio and pointed at it. He nodded and turned his radio off, then went back to his conversation. The hiss abruptly ceased, and our ability to communicate via walkie-talkie returned. Not with him, of course – now that his radio was off, neither the gaffer nor anyone else on the crew could reach him until the shot was over, or he turned it back on. But he didn’t seem to care.

Hey, he was talking on the phone.

All I could do was shake my head in the weary, defeated gesture of an older generation throwing up its collective hands at the skewed priorities of the youngsters. This is nothing new -- the old silverbacks were doubtless irritated at the behavior of their apparently feckless progeny long before the ancestors of mankind descended from the trees, a primate tradition that will probably continue until the biological stain of humanity is finally erased from planet Earth.

The terms “Generation X” and “Generation Y” are often used to describe the crop of young adults between the ages of 18 and 40, and although a wide spectrum of attitudes and tastes certainly differentiate the two, there’s at least one overwhelming similarity transcending everything else: they’re all Generation Wireless. These kids grew up suckeling on cell phones in the crib, with cellular technology now inextricably woven into the fabric of their lives. To Gen W, the ability to communicate 24/7 is a divine mandate: Thou Shall Keep in Touch. Whatever else is going on, when that phone rings or buzzes, they drop everything to answer it – and in every spare moment of downtime, they’re punching in numbers to talk or text someone. Indeed, we seem to be raising an entire generation of thumb-talkiers.

Modern life is a complicated affair. It’s hard enough in the best of times to juggle a social life and/or family obligations while working in such an intractably demanding business as the film/television Industry. When life goes a bit sideways -– and none of us escapes the occasional shit-rain -- the only way to keep things from running completely off the rails can be staying in touch with the other people involved. We all need to make or take a call every now and then, but so many of these kids don’t seem to understand that there are times when it’s simply not appropriate to drop whatever you’re doing to answer the phone -– and one of those times is when while you’re actually working, where paying attention to what's going on is an integral part of the job.

Cell phones are so deeply embedded in the DNA of the Industry that its hard to imagine how the film business ever got along without them, but in fact, wireless is a relatively recent phenomenon. When I came to Hollywood in the late 70’s, everyone from producers to grips subscribed to answering services, regularly calling in via land-lines to retrieve messages from a live human being. The sudden flood of cheap answering machines drove those services into the weeds, after which pagers magically appeared as the next must-have personal communication technology. Before long, every crew member carried a pager, and had learned to perform what soon became a universal dance routine: pulling the pager out, checking the number to see who had called, then heading for the nearest phone. Early cell phones appeared on sets shortly thereafter, but being expensive, bulky, and not particularly effective, these were reserved for producers, actors, and other look-at-me-I’m-important types who breathe the rarified air high above-the-line.

Then came the day I was rigging on a huge stage for the film “Message in a Bottle.” While running cables along a big metal truss, I heard the soft chirp of cell phone. A young juicer working high above me stopped working, pulled a small phone from his tool belt and started talking. Five minutes later, he slipped the phone back on his belt and resumed working. I stared at him like one of those puzzled apes pondering the monolith in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The fact that he carried a cell phone on his tool belt -- right alongside the voltage tester, channel locks, wire cutters, and screwdriver – was my first inkling that somewhere in the vast expanse of cultural space, an immense and rusty door had just clanged shut, while a shiny new one quietly hissed wide open.

Change is here, and it’s not going away. Smart phones are now ubiquitous: everyone carries one with which to talk or stare at while driving, walking the dog, having coffee, or standing in line at the post office, bank, or grocery store. I’ve witnessed the purchase of entire shopping carts full of food via credit card without a single word exchanged during the entire transaction – the customer deeply involved in a conversation with someone miles away, utterly ignoring and thus dehumanizing the poor cashier. But as much as this sort of unthinkingly rude behavior bothers me (and yes, it is a sign The Apocalypse Is Near), at least these cell phone junkies aren’t at work -- they’re talking on their own time, and thus have the right to be as blithely and thoughtlessly rude as other people’s tolerance will allow.

But certain lines should not be crossed, and indulging in a steady stream of casual phone calls while at work is one of those bright red lines. Putting one’s co-workers in a position where they must pick up the slack while you chat on the phone is more than rude: it’s highly unprofessional behavior that makes the whole crew look bad. Unfortunately, this is now the norm. You can cajole, scold, and yell at these wireless junkies all day long, but the next time it rings, they’ll reach for that phone anyway. It’s an ingrained instinct now -- trying to get them to stop is like attempting to halt a tsunami with your bare hands. Wireless defines these kids, it’s who they are: I talk, therefore I am.

To be fair, we all work as daily hires in what is essentially a free-lance industry, and are thus guaranteed nothing beyond each day’s pay. Yes, the union can send you out on jobs, but the reality is most of us get the vast majority of our work from people we know, who call us when a job comes up. Cellular technology has changed the rules of that game. Back in the days of answering machines, those offering jobs would leave a message without expecting a reply for several hours. Pagers upped the ante considerably – you were expected to reply inside of an hour, or the job might be gone. But in today’s go-go-go, got-to-know, instant-everything world, you’d better pick up by the second ring (or at least call back within sixty seconds) or else somebody else has already been hired. If you’re slow on the draw, you lose.

I don’t mean to imply that Generation W are bad kids, because they're not. Truth be told, most of them are really good. When not blabbing on the phone, they work hard, have a great sense of humor, and suffer through the long, miserable days shoulder to shoulder with everybody else. They -- not graying dinosaurs like me -- are the future of this Industry. They pick up the new digital technology as easily as breathing. Old dogs like me do have trouble learning new tricks and keeping up with the rapid pace of technological and cultural change, but for this old dog, too many of these “tricks” cut against the grain of who I am, what I learned, and how I learned it on the long and rocky road from yesterday to tomorrow. Seeing all those hard-won lessons blithely ignored by the younger generation is tough to swallow, but I suppose it's the natural order of things for each new generation to run roughshod over the ways of the last. They'll learn in time, the same way we did -- maybe the only way anybody really learns anything: the hard way.

Same as it ever was.

The final insult, however mild, remains the term “wireless” itself. While I was growing up, that word was a dusty relic of the horse-and-buggy era when Marconi had just introduced radio waves to the world, thus displacing the telegraph as the most modern mode of long-distance communication. “Wireless” was a term used by character actors in ancient black-and-white movies, usually some old salt dressed in tattered union-suit long underwear with a button-flap rear end – the sort of geezer with more whiskers than teeth, who couldn’t quite wrap his brain around the then-modern term “radio.” But the past has been exhumed from the crypt, dusted off and polished to a glossy sheen, then transformed through the miracle of modern technology into a sexy little convenience-turned-necessity. The gleaming future has arrived on invisible high-tech wings, and its name is Wireless.

As the sun dropped lower over the leafy streets of Glendale, we finally finished the walk-and-talks and began to set up for a scene in a café window. Once the actors were in front of the cameras, we all sat down, saving our strength to get through the last few hours until wrap. Just as the director yelled “action”, I heard the distinctive ring tone of one of my fellow juicer’s cell phones, a tinny rendition of some god-awful hip-hop song. The kid pulled out his phone, flipped it open, then turned his back on the set.

I just shook my head and sighed.

* It's called "cable rate," and I hate it...


Anonymous said...

Good stuff. It's the nuts and bolts of the dream industry that has always interested me, never the gossip. I can relate to your perspective.

A friend who worked at Glen Glenn Sound, doing television, once referred to his work -sweetening sitcoms- as working on an assembly line. As little, organic, human pies passed by, his job was to spray perfume on each before they were wrapped in colorful packages and tied in ribbon. Always thought his description accurate,

- Arye Michael Bender -

BTW: Mick LaSalle, on SFGate, recommends your blog. He's right.

Unknown said...

This is a great read. My brother works episodic tv, too. He's Local 80 and always refers to "another day at the tv factory". You should feel free to grab their phones and at least put them on silent...

D said...

My friend, you have nailed the industry in a way that few "civilians" ever see. I myself have often thought of Hollywood as a trap. As a twenty year below-the-liner, your posts perfectly capture my own worries, and frustrations. I have linked you on my own blog "Dollygrippery" which started out much like yours but has become more of a technical site. Please drop by at "" and let me know you were there.