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, December 30, 2007

The Man called "Evel"

                       Evel Knievel jumps the streets of San Francisco, 1967 

One last post to close out the year, this one having nothing to do with the Industry – no bleating about the strike, cold-hearted producers, ambitious young directors who refuse to do their homework before coming to the set, skin-the-crew-to-the-bone production managers, screaming camermen, or the endless struggle with gravity in the form of thick black electric cables that grow heavier every year.

This post is about Evel Knievel, who made one final jump from the physical realm into the Great Beyond on November 30, 2007, succumbing at last to a chronic pulmonary illness. Even if you know nothing about him, you’ve heard his name. Whatever you think of motorcycle jumping – insanity, stupidity, a ridiculous waste of human potential and medical supplies – or all of the above, it can’t be denied that Evel Knievel was a true American Original. Like most extraordinary people, he remained a complex blend of the good, the bad, and the ugly, right down to the end. I can’t let this year pass into the dark mists of history without a nod to the greatest daredevil I ever saw...

While crawling home from work in the rain-snarled traffic over Laurel Canyon, a voice on the radio – in the calm, measured tones of NPR -- announced the death of Evel Knievel, a name I hadn’t heard for a long time, a name that took me way back. It was a few minutes before I could absorb the news. In a way it seemed almost unbelieveable that anyone who lived as hard and fast as Evel Knievel could manage to live long enough to die from the creeping ravages of old age, rather than meet his end in another horrific motorcycle crash, “rag-dolled” by the full fury of Newtonian Physics. That said, it was just as hard to believe he was actually gone -- that a man who had endured such horrendous mayhem in his personal and professional life would turn out to be mortal after all.

It had been thirty years since he last jumped a motorcycle, of course, there being certain immutable physical limits no human can transcend – not even such a larger-than-life figure as Evel Knievel. In the last three decades, health problems, nagging injuries, lawsuits, and financial difficulties dragged him far from those glory days of the late 60’s and 70’s. After his star faded, his name only made the news when he took a new wife, went to jail, was hit with a lawsuit, or when his son Robbie picked up the torch to launch his own motorcycle-jumping career. The kid was good, too -- maybe even a better pure jumper than his dad -- but in the end, there was only one Evel Knievel. That kind of lightening only strikes once.

Like everybody else, he had his share of human faults and failings, but unlike so many of us (including most of our modern celebrities), Evel Knievel was not a bullshit artist. He’d publicly announce what he planned to do, then do it – or try his damnedest – whether that meant jumping a motorcycle over 50 cars in the LA Coliseum (successfully), or strapping himself into the rocket-powered “Sky Cycle” determined to shoot across the Snake River Canyon, a stunt that had all the appearances of a very public suicide. He suffered many setbacks and failures, but never for lack of trying. One account of his career stated that of Evel’s 300 attempted jumps, 276 were successful. A 92% rate of success would be other-worldly in most athletic events (imagine a basketball player sinking 92% of his shots, or a hitter in baseball batting .920 over his career), but in the no-mercy world of motorcycle jumping, an 8% failure rate meant being unable to make a safe, controlled landing – a crash -- 24 times. Thus the thirty-odd broken bones, and more than a dozen post-crash surgeries. His most memorable hard landing was the infamous Caesar’s Palace jump on New Year’s Day of 1968, when he crashed on the landing ramp and began a slow-motion tumble across acres of Las Vegas asphalt that put him into a coma for 29 days. If you watch the footage of that disaster, it’s hard to believe any man could survive – but as soon as Evel recovered, he went right back to jumping motorcycles. I won't argue if you call him crazy, but you can't deny that Evel Knievel had more raw courage than most of us could ever imagine.

Many of his jumps were documented on television, but that grainy film and video footage doesn’t come close to communicating the emotional impact of watching a jump in person. I saw him make two motorcycle jumps, which to this day are among the most jaw-dropping performances I’ve personally witnessed. Those jumps are burned into my memory banks forever: there are some things in life you just don’t forget.

The first was on the streets of San Francisco in the late 60’s, a jump sponsored by a motorcycle show held at the Civic Center. Still a teenager, I’d never heard of Evel Knievel at the time, but being in the early stages of a life-long addiction to motorcycles, went to the show with a couple of buddies to drool over all the new bikes. With the Japanese invasion in full force, there was a lot to look at back then. Honda, Yamaha, and Suzuki were in a fierce competition with the major British manufacturers (Triumph, BSA, and Norton) to produce faster, more sophisticated models every year – and the new bikes were introduced at these annual motorcycle shows.

After staring at all those gleaming, largely unaffordable bikes, we wandered outside to find two big wooden ramps set up on the street facing each other, each six or seven feet high. Being a kid, I wasn’t much at estimating distances, but I’d guess they were at least sixty to seventy feet apart – maybe further -- with nothing underneath but cold, hard pavement. A very enthusiastic announcer was working the public address microphone hard, intoning the name “Evel Knievel” again and again, talking about his many daring jumps in the past, and promising even more extraordinary jumps in the future – the most ludicrous being his intention to jump the Grand Canyon.

Evel Knievel -- what kind of name was that? It sounded like a joke, something straight out of a comic book.

My questions were answered by the full-throttle blast of a Triumph 650 racing motor roaring through wide-open pipes. Out rode a man in white leathers and full-face helmet, doing wheelies all the way along both ramps. This was impressive, but not particularly amazing – I’d seen lots of wheelies before – but when he began doing high-speed wheelies while standing on the seat of that Triumph, I shut up and paid attention.

The man stopped the bike, took off his helmet, and made a short speech to the crowd, then put the helmet back on and kicked the engine to life. Starting well back of the ramps, he made a straight speed run right past them, then came back for another, faster run. The announcer was shouting over the PA speakers again, claiming that Evel had to reach 90 miles per hour to make the jump. Another speed run, then another, this last one clearly fast enough to get the job done. It finally sank into my thick teen-aged skull that this guy with the crazy name was really going to do it: hit that takeoff ramp at high speed, on a motorcycle weighing more than 300 pounds, then hurtle through thin air towards the other ramp.

The likelihood of this ending in disaster seemed high indeed. If he came in without enough speed, he’d smash head-on into the landing ramp and suffer horrendous – possibly fatal – injuries. If he came in too fast, he’d overshoot the sweet spot, lose control, and crash.* If he didn’t feather the throttle at the exact right moment of takeoff, the motorcycle could spin backwards and send him plunging into the pavement. A helmet and leathers would offer precious little protection from a crash like that. Everything would have to go right for this to work.

It all sounds simple enough now, sitting in front of a warm fire on a cold winter day, but it didn’t look too simple at the time. And for good reason -- there was nothing simple about it. At that point, I’d never even heard of anybody attempting such a jump, much less witnessed it.

With the speed dialed in, he made another run, this time right up the ramp, where he slammed on the brakes and slid to a stop right at the lip of the abyss. There he sat, staring for a long time at the suddenly very-distant landing ramp, before finally turning the bike around and riding back to the starting area. This was it. He revved the motor again and again, the tension mounting. I realized just how scared I was now: how scared we all were -- scared he wouldn’t make this jump, and how terrible the consequences would be. It just didn’t seem possible.

He dropped the clutch and roared toward the ramp, nailed it dead center, and an instant later was sailing a good 15 feet above the pavement at 90 mph. At the very peak of his trajectory – a moment of maximum vulnerability -- the bike shuddered with an alarming wobble, but he fought it and hit the landing ramp, tires skidding down the wood to asphalt, barely in control. A very hairy jump had nearly gone all wrong right before my wide-open eyes. But he'd done it. Evel Knievel pulled it off.

I was stunned, astonished, and elated all at the same time. I’d never witnessed anything like this before. Later, I saw a photo of the jump that showed the bike’s right foot peg cover slipping off in mid-flight – and with it, Evel’s foot. This is what caused the bobble and subsequent rough landing that broke the Triumph’s rear suspension. That he managed to regain control the bike in flight, somehow avoiding what would surely have been a bone-crushing disaster, was a minor miracle. Amazing.

It was five years before I saw him jump again, this time at the Cow Palace in Daly City, south of San Francisco. We made the drive north on a blustery, rainy night in March to see a full slate of indoor motorcycle races highlighted by Evel’s jump. But the Cow Palace was designed to host livestock exhibitions, not motor sports. Once the night’s racing program had been concluded, and the ramps moved into place, it turned out there wasn’t enough room in the arena to get up sufficient speed to make the jump -- which meant he’d have to start the run from outside, in the dark, rainy parking lot. It also meant he'd have very little room to stop the bike once he hit the landing ramp.

Imagine what that would be like: sitting atop a high-powered motorcycle in the cold and dark of a driving rain, getting ready to race at full-throttle towards the light, through the narrow cattle doors of the building's entrance, and into the arena to hit the take-off ramp just right -- then flying a hundred feet through the air and trying to make a safe landing on the opposite ramp. Rain and motorcycles are a dangerous mix in the best of times. Trying such a stunt while starting in the rain seemed beyond foolhardy. This was insanity.

First, though, the build-up. Ever the showman, Evel did his usual crowd-pleasing wheelies and speed runs, the last of which ended in a crash when he ran out of room past the landing ramp. While his mechanics worked on the bike, he came out to address the crowd with his usual “America's the greatest country on earth" speech – but this time, he added a few negative comments about the “bad element” in the motorcycle world, referring to “outlaw” bikers. As it happened, there were several Hells Angels in the audience who were not amused.

Evel ended his speech by giving away a mini-bike to a very happy little black boy, at which point thunderous applause rose from the crowd. He had that audience in the palm of his hand -- everybody but those Hells Angels. With the bike fixed and ready to go, it was showtime.

By now, I’d left the grandstands to watch from the arena floor with close to a thousand other race fans. Evel did one last speed run to make sure all was in order, then headed outside into that dark, rainy night. A couple of minutes later, he came roaring back in, hit the jump perfectly, and flew through the exhaust-laden air to a beautifully smooth landing. It was a spectacular jump -- as only the great ones can, he made it look easy.

What I hadn’t noticed was a Hell’s Angel near the entrance to the arena throw something at Evel – a beer bottle one report said – as he thundered in from the cold rain approaching the ramp. What I saw was a triumphant Evel circle back into the arena, waving to the cheering crowd. He stepped off the bike while it was still rolling, and with one smooth punch, landed a haymaker to the jaw of the nearest Hell’s Angel. When some of the other Angels jumped on Evel, that crowd let out a deep-throated howl of primal rage, turning their adrenaline-fueled fury on every outlaw biker in sight. I saw one Angel throwing punches in the lower grandstand seats, while another held the crowd at bay on the arena floor by swinging a big board around his head. Every time the board passed by, the crowd would surge in at him, then back away when that big chunk of wood came whistling around again. But it was one against a thousand, and even a Hell’s Angel can’t fight those odds for long -- eventually the angry crowd closed in and beat him senseless. By then, the Angel in the grandstands had been overwhelmed as well, and lay unconscious, half his body hanging over the lower edge of the arena while the crowd kept beating him with a board. There were others I couldn't see, but it's a safe assumption that every Hell’s Angel who stood his ground that night ended up a bloody mess.

As suddenly as it started, the fracas was over. With the Angels beaten into submission, the Cow Palace security guards once again took charge. As we were ushered from the arena floor and out of the building, I saw two medics hauling away one of those bloody Hell’s Angels on a stretcher towards a waiting ambulance.

Later that summer, Evel made his famous Snake River Canyon attempt in the Sky Cycle – less a motorcycle than a steam-powered rocket -- after the US Park Service refused him permission to jump the Grand Canyon. The rocket’s parachute malfunctioned, deploying as the Sky Cycle shot up the launch ramp, which left him trapped inside the missile as it drifted down into the canyon towards the river, beyond human control. Once again, Evel made it through, although he never came close to reaching the landing site on the opposite rim. But he did what he said he’d do – try his best to make the jump – and survived yet another rough landing that could easily have ended in tragedy.

Things went downhill after the Snake River fiasco. There were more jumps, more crashes, more broken bones. After being involved with two movies and a book celebrating his exploits, Evel Knievel limped out of a hospital for the last time, hung up his leathers and helmet, and disappeared from the spotlight.

I met him once, during the mid-90’s, when he appeared in a TV commercial for “Trivial Pursuit,” along with three other faded celebrities -- DeForrest Kelley (“Bones”, the prickly doctor from the original Star Trek TV show), Don Adams (Agent 86, from “Get Smart”, and the inimitable Little Richard. All three were probably older in actual years than Evel, but he was the one walking slowly and with a cane now, feeling the lingering ache of every crash and broken bone. They dressed him in those famous white leathers and put him on the motorcycle one last time for the cameras. Even then, two decades past his prime, he drew a crowd of excited kids who gathered around to watch – kids who hadn’t yet been born when he was still jumping motorcycles.

While taking a light-reading, I mentioned I’d seen him make those two jumps in San Francisco. “We had one hell of a rumble up there in that Cow Palace once,” he said, with a weary grin.

We set the lights, rolled the camera, and got the shot, then Evel limped away. The next time I saw him was his photo in the obituaries.

Evel Knievel was a throwback of sorts, hearkening back to the barnstorming days after WW l, when ex-Lafayette Escadrille pilots roamed the countryside dazzling the locals with feats of aerial daring. We don’t see that sort of thing anymore. Modern culture has been largely sanitized of such carney influences, which now play out through the banal vulgarity of television, where the so-called “reality” is invariably synthetic. The annual X-Games, showcase for “Extreme Sports,”come closest to reflecting the rebellious, entrepreneurial spirit exemplified by Evel Knievel -- a young daredevil who became a legend by reacting against the bland homogenization of our pre-fabricated, over-litigated, safety-obsessed, life-in-the-bubble modern culture, and he did it by putting his life on the line every time he went to work.

Many followed in his footsteps. Do a Google search on “motorcycle jumping” and you’ll be surprised how many people have made that flying leap of motorized faith in the past thirty years: his son Robbie and “Super Joe” Einhorn were the best known ("Super Joe" was a terrific jumper who planned to jump Niagara Falls until he suffered brain damage when a less ambitious jump went wrong), but there have been many more. Some jumped further, and some crashed harder – a fatal landing being as hard as it gets – but there was only one Evel Knievel, a man who captured the country’s imagination as no other daredevil in modern times.

I’m not sure what he did would even be possible today. He was a product of his time, and as a society, we pretty much view the world through the lens of television now – the more outlandish and outrageous the event, the better. But watching on TV isn’t the same as seeing it up close, in person. The difference is huge.

I wouldn’t go to see anybody jump a motorcycle these days. Having seen what can happen when a stunt goes seriously wrong, I've had enough of that sort of thing… but I’m glad I saw Evel Knievel jump back then. I can't say the experience really changed my life, sparked any particular epiphanies, or turned me from a life of crime to that of a choir boy. Truth be told, I never had any inclination towards either extreme. But at the time, watching those jumps thoroughly blew my mind in a way nothing else had up until then -- and that’s a useful thing to happen to a young man. If nothing else, Evel Knievel expanded my own concept of what’s possible in life. He showed me what skill, determination, and brass-balls courage can accomplish -- and he showed us all what happens when things go wrong.

So rest easy, Evel, and thanks.

Note:  if you're interested in what the IMDB calls "the definitive documentary on Evel Knievel," check out Absolute Evel: The Evel Knievel Story, produced for The History Channel.

*This is what happened at Caesar’s Palace – Evel landed too far down the landing ramp, and the shock of that rough landing ripped his hands from the handlebars, sending him hurtling across the pavement.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Christmas, the WGA, and the Great White Whale

Christmas approaches like a giant snowball rolling downhill, picking up speed and mass with every turn, crushing all in it's path. And we, my fellow citizen/consumers, are the path...

There won't be the usual Sunday afternoon post this week, since I'll be working long hours Friday and Saturday on yet another idiotic piece of crap (read: non-union, low-pay, 12-hour rate bullshit job -- but hey, it's work...), my last moments of gainful employment before slamming the door on 2008, then packing up and fleeing The Southland for the cool damp hills of Northern California. I've had quite enough of palm trees decked with tinsel and holly, thankyouverymuch... Which means Sunday is Prepare for Liftoff day, with blast-off Monday morning at T- Minus 0800 , more or less. Assuming all goes well, that is. At any rate, there will be precious little time to post -- so more than likely, this is it for a while, one last quickie wherein I (again) harangue my three hapless readers about how they should be listening to Rob Long.

If you work in the business (especially if you work in the arena of television), and you aren't listening to Rob Long's Wednesday evening commentaries on KCRW (89.9 FM in LA, and easy to find on the internet) -- then you are missing something good, especially with the strike dragging deep into it's second month. Long has been writing and producing television for nearly two decades, giving him a Big Picture perspective on the biz in general, and the strike in particular. Unlike so many TV writers, he didn't drink the WGA Kool Aid in declaring Holy Jihad against the Powers That Be, and thus his take on the current state of the Industry remains more balanced and honest -- and much less emotional -- than most. His top-of-the-fence view of the strike is one you won't find elsewhere.

The WGA representatives keep prattling on about how they feel for the poor below-the-line slobs who have been thrown out of work --ahem, just before Christmas -- by the strike. I'm sure they do care, albeit in a"Gee, dear, isn't it awful what's happening over there in Darfur?" sort of way -- the distant empathy of higher beings peering through the wrong end of the telescope at the earthly troubles of those hapless mortals down below.

The truth is, most writers don't have the faintest idea how much sweat and effort it takes to put their ideas to the screen, or what the human costs of doing so might be. In that worn and hackneyed phrase, they "just don't get it." Not that they should, necessarily -- after all, their job is to write, not hump cable and sandbags -- but I do get rather chapped when I hear certain writers proclaiming that "we're doing this for you too..."

I grew up in the sticks, where we had a barn full of goats and pigs and cows , so I'm intimately familiar with the smell of animal exhaust -- and to me, these pious, mewling bleats from the WGA have the unmistakable reek of bullshit. The WGA is acting in what their leadership regards as their members' best interests: not yours, not mine, but theirs and theirs alone. Maybe they're right, and maybe they're wrong -- the truth will be revealed in the fullness of time, as they say. This doesn't make them bad people. They're taking a very gutsy stand and putting their livelihoods on the line. I admire them for that, and hope they win -- and soon, because they've also put our livelihoods on the line, whether we like it or not. It was they, not we, who decided to harpoon the Great White Whale, but we too are going along for the ride.

Rob Long gets it. He understands what damage this strike will do to the Industry should it drag on. He also demonstrates a modicum of appreciation for the many below-the-liners who work so hard to help bring his words to the screen -- an appreciation many of his fellow WGA members don't seem to share until they suddenly want a little support on the picket lines.

If you work in Television, you really should listen to his four minute commentary from last night. So here it is:

I may post an item or two during the holidaze, but maybe not. In any event, Blood, Sweat, and Tedium will be back in January of the Brave New Year, gearing up for what promises to be a long cold winter.

But that will be then, and this is now -- and now, it's Christmas. May you all have a great holiday season.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Working Sick and the Freelance Code

                              It doesn't look good...

We've all seen those blood-and-guts documentaries on PBS or Discovery Channel featuring a long-lens shot of a lion chasing some hapless zebra all over the African veldt until tooth and claw finally win out over hoof and, uh... black-and-white vertical stripes? (Like adrenal-crazed lemmings, these metaphors sometimes run themselves right off a cliff...) At any rate, the moment inevitably comes when that doomed zebra, down at last in the big cat’s jaws, seems to relax and accept the grim dictates of fate, as if silently acknowledging that its golden days of wandering the Serengeti are at long last over.

My own zebra moment came late one night when the cold/flu bug that had been nipping at my heels the previous eight days finally caught up with me and went for the kill, sinking its fangs deep into my throat. We were well along on our day-into-night filming for “The L Word”, Showtime’s Sapphic soap opera, up at Yamashiro, the quasi-famous Japanese restaurant tucked into the Hollywood Hills overlooking Los Angeles. Yamashiro is a nice place. A couple of lifetimes ago, I took a girlfriend up there for a lovely evening sipping drinks while a lunar eclipse darkened the full moon until it resembled a thoroughly bruised Blood Orange hanging in the smog-choked skies over Hollywood... but that was then and this was now, and now it was all work. Back from a particularly lousy catered dinner (already picked over and left for dead by a ravenous horde of extras by the time we finally went through the line), we proceeded to block, light, rehearse, and shoot the first of several scheduled night scenes.

I’d been feeling crummy all afternoon, listless and foggy-brained, but kept soldiering on as best I could. With nightfall came the feverish/clammy flash of hot and cold chills (always a bad sign), and a couple of hours later, the little house of cards inside me teetered, then collapsed in a heap. Dazed and weak, I wandered away from the herd -- the lights, the cameras, the endlessly mooing extras -- feeling truly rotten: my head pounding like a jackhammer as a fever coursed through my suddenly ponderous and uncooperative limbs. I sank down onto a smooth stone stairway next to an exquisite Japanese garden through which flowed a gentle stream - doubtless a phony stream created by hidden electric pumps (a Hollywood stream, if you will) – but such details don’t matter much when you’re feeling that bad. The soft murmur of water on rocks had a soothing effect as I stared out at the immense and suddenly magnificent vista below. If there’s one time LA actually looks good, it’s at night. Laid out before me like glittering jewels on black velvet were the gleaming glass skyscrapers of downtown to my left, the shimmering towers of Century City off to my right, and dead ahead, not-so-fabulous Hollywood itself, illuminated by a huge and monstrously garish sign that blared “TV Guide” into the night sky.

Yeah, that’s Hollywood for you -- class with a capital “K.”

Staring out at the man-made firmament, I realized it was over. Not life itself (the Hollywood jungle isn’t quite so lethal as the African veldt), but my role in this shoot. I’d hoped to tough it out through these last two cold nights, then log a final day unloading the lighting truck at the rental house. “Mind over matter,” I told myself, “the spirit rules the flesh” -– and for eight-and-a-half days, it did. Alas, words aren’t always enough. One last fat paycheck to stuff under the mattress before unemployment would have been nice, but a moment arrives when money becomes an increasingly abstract concept. Feeling like one of those spindly, weak-bodied, hydrocephalic Area 51 aliens (if lacking their extraterrestrial brain power), I pressed the button on my walkie-talkie and advised the gaffer to replace me for the following day. He told me to go home before I became Typhoid Mike and took the rest of his crew down with me.

He was right, of course: I was totally useless at that point. Moving with the man-under-water sluggishness of one of those old-fashioned helmeted deep sea divers, I could no longer perform any real work. Still, I hated to leave the shoot under such circumstances. This is the only the third time I recall having to leave a job early in thirty years -- not that I’ve been blessed with particularly robust health, but because like most below-the-liners in Hollywood, free-lance workers are considered “daily hires,” and thus not eligible for sick pay. As far as the producers are concerned, we’re all more-or-less interchangeable and easily replaceable cogs of the machine. When one is bent or broken, they just order another from the inventory. But since there’s no such thing as a paid sick day for the vast majority of Industry workers, either we suck it up and go to work coughing and sneezing, or we don’t get paid. The situation isn’t so dire if you’re on the main crew of a television series or feature film, where everyone eventually needs a day or two off. You still won’t get paid for those days unless your immediate crew “covers” for you (does not report your absence or have you replaced with a healthy worker), or unless you have an extremely understanding and fair-minded production manager* -- but at least you won’t lose your job. The free-lance day-player enjoys no such job security, and will be replaced in a heartbeat should he call in sick or have to leave work early. He is then stuck at home burning through boxes of Kleenex while the new (and healthy) guy makes the money. Given this stark economic reality, it’s no surprise that few maladies short of an intense and disabling fever, projectile vomiting, or explosive diarrhea will keep the average day-player home.

There's another factor, less tangible but equally important: having to leave a job early represents a direct assault on the hard-won sense of toughness and pride a free-lancer acquires and wears like armor down through the years. If there’s a Code of the Free Lancer, it’s this: when you take a job, you finish it, no matter what. However tough the going, you don’t complain – you just keep slogging right through to the bitter end. You pull your own weight and then some, and you never let the rest of your crew down. Ever. Inability to live up to the Code -- leaving early, regardless of the circumstances -- can induce a sense of failure, of weakness, of somehow not being able to cut it anymore: a defeated They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? state of mind that is highly corrosive to one’s sense of self. It takes years of ceaseless effort to establish a reputation as a good, reliable worker, and that reputation is on the line with every job. Anyone who frequently calls in sick or has to go home early due to illness or injury will soon acquire the fatal taint no free-lancer can afford.

This all may sound crazy to civilians accustomed to working within company structures that offer at least some minimal degree of protection – a safety net, of sorts – from the ravages of real life. Sick days are taken for granted in the middle-class working world, but the Industry makes few allowances for human frailties in the puffed-up, narcissistic, high-stress arena of television and movie production. No matter what anybody promises, there’s no such thing as a guaranteed job below-the-line, where the vast majority of work is by definition temporary. Since film and television projects have a built-in, reasonably well-defined ending point, every day counts. Most feature films are shot in two to six months, after which the on-set filming crew breaks up and moves on to other jobs, or into the demimonde of unemployment. This is true for those who work in television as well, where even the most successful shows shut down at the end of the season – and the less-successful ones go dark a lot earlier. Unless you happen to be plugged in with sold-gold connections (such as being the progeny of Sumner Redstone or Les Moonvies, in which case you’ll be working high above-the-line anyway), you’re subject to the natural boom-and-bust rhythms of the Industry. Even during the fat times, you’re constantly being judged on the basis of your daily performance, which means when jobs grow scarce, only the best (or best-connected) free lancers will be able to find work. Truth be told, this Industry runs top from to bottom on pure, triple-distilled, two hundred proof Fear: the fear of not being hired, of being left out in the cold, and that your phone will suddenly stop ringing. As most of us find out eventually, this isn’t just paranoia -- it’s reality. There's no such thing as job security in the film and TV business.

Every Hollywood freelancer (which ultimately, means most of us in the Industry) faces the question of whether or not to go to work sick. What should be an easy decision – don’t -- is anything but. Not only will staying home for a day or two knock the stuffing out of the week’s paycheck, if you’re a day-player, that’s it – you’re suddenly unemployed and thus without any income at all. Unfortunately, going to work sick can easily end up costing a lot more if in your weakened condition, you come down with an even nastier bug or virus lurking around the set. The worse your illness, the longer your recovery time – and going to work sick inevitably exposes the rest of your immediate crew, (not to mention the entire production company), to your illness. At best, going to work sick is highly inconsiderate to your fellow workers. At worst, this is extremely selfish behavior.

The dilemma is particularly acute during the cold and flu season, when illness on set is widespread. Working such long hours in close proximity to a large group of people grinds down the immune systems of everyone, turning the set into a large-scale Petri dish ideal for the dissemination of viral and other disease-causing agents. Many crew members are parents with young children in school -- children whose main function in life during the winter months is to bring home a seemingly endless variety of cold and flu bugs to mom and dad, who then go to work and share this gift of contagion with the rest of the crew. When somebody on a set starts sniffling and coughing, everybody else is likely to get sick as well: it’s just a matter of time. You can guzzle half a dozen packets of EmergenC every day, sip the bitter extract of Echinacea, chew AirBorne tablets all day long, and swab everything around you with rubbing alcohol, but you can't stave off the inevitable. Sooner or later, you’ll get sick-- and when you do, you really should stay home.

So, you ask, why did I work this last job while sick? Because I’m a fear-driven, me-first, do-as-I-say-and-not-as-I-do free-lance hypocrite, just like everybody else in Hollywood. I knew full well I shouldn’t go to work, but with the unemployment looming (and no other work on the horizon), I didn’t see any other realistic choice. That doesn’t make it right, though, and in the end, I paid dearly for my sins: not only did I miss the last two long days of that shoot, but by then I was so sick I had to turn down every job that did ring my phone for more than a week afterwards. At least nobody else on my crew got sick, which was just about the only good thing to come of all this.

Would I make the same decision again? Probably. The realities of free-lance work leave no good options when illness strikes. Caught in that old familiar jam between the rock and the hard place, you do what you have to and hope for the best – and sometimes that means being a selfish, inconsiderate bastard who goes to work sick.

* I had one such production manager with a heart of gold, who saw to it that I got paid for a day I called in sick during the filming of a sit-com called “Encore! Encore!” at Paramount. For that act of compassionate mercy above and beyond the call, she will always have a warm spot in my heart. God Bless you, Joanne Singer, wherever you are....

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Will the Buffalo Return?

Disaster of a sort struck this afternoon when I attempted to access the file containing this week’s post – a rambling discussion of the dilemma facing below-the-line workers when we get sick and must decide whether or not to go to work. Like it or not – and I certainly don’t – working sick is a reality in the Industry, for reasons I went to great lengths to explain. But the file was missing – gone -- having vanished from my hard drive into the ether like the morning dew under a hot desert sun. It was there a couple of days ago, but now it’s not. A frantic search of every conceivable file and folder -- including my backup drive – turned up zilch, nada, bupkis, buca de beppo, nothing. Then I recalled how the wonderful (not!) Microsoft Word crashed on me several times last week, and eventually had to accept that my post had been a victim of one of these crashes – collateral damage indeed. Resistance was futile.

Why it’s not on the backup drive remains a profound, head-scratching, keyboard-pounding mystery. Where are Agents Scully and Mulder when you need them? But gone it is, and with six straight days of work starting early tomorrow morning (Strike? What strike?), it won’t be coming back anytime soon. I weep for my little lost post, wandering the wilds of cyber-space, trying to find it’s way back home...

In its place is the following, hastily adapted from an article that first appeared in the September 11, 2005 Sunday Calendar section of the San Francisco Chronicle. The revisions were mostly to acknowledge the present reality of the WGA strike.

Many who view Hollywood from afar have the idea that working in the film/television business (a.k.a. The Industry) must be a glamorous way to make a living. Lights, camera, action, right? Livin’ large and rollin’ with movie stars, limos, and champagne.

“What could be more glamorous than that?” they ask.

If you happen to be one of these innocent, well-meaning people, I have just one thing to say: Grasshopper, please assume the position.

My Webster’s defines glamour as “a magic spell or charm, seemingly mysterious and elusive fascination or allure, as of some person, object, or scene.” That’s all well and good while seated in the dark at the local Mega-Plex watching your favorite movie stars bill and coo while ducking explosions and machine gun fire, but rest assured the movie-screen magic fades all too quickly in the hard light of dawn. Maybe this is true of most things in life – that woman at the far end of the bar giving you the eye near closing time, the giant crystal vase you bid on in a drunken haze at the charity auction the night before, and just about anything bought at Wal Mart – but it’s certainly true of Hollywood: the closer you get, the uglier it looks.

The Industry has two basic tiers of employment: “Above the Line” and “Below the Line.” The former involve what Hollywood considers creative talent: actors, directors, producers, and writers. For all I know, these fortunate souls may indeed lead lives of ceaseless glamour, bathing in gleaming tubs forged from solid gold, sipping chilled Dom Perignon while nubile, scantily-clad slaves of the desired sex pop freshly peeled grapes into their waiting, open mouths.

This does not happen “Below the Line”, where I work, along with those who form the backbone of the Industry: grips, electricians, camera people, prop men, set dressers, carpenters, painters, drivers, make-up and hair artists, sound people, and legions of assistant directors, production managers, coordinators, location scouts, and production assistants. Visualize the Industry as an iceberg, with only the glistening white peak visible above the water – the “line.” The remaining seven-eighths lies submerged in the cold, murky depths below.

After 30 years working my way deep inside the belly of the beast – through its alimentary canal, so to speak -- I am part of the Hollywood Machine. I’ve worked on sound stages and locations all across the country, in sun and wind and rain and snow, all day and all night long, with more movie and television stars than I can remember. When I tell you it is not glamorous, I speak the hard-earned truth.

I’m a juicer, industry slang for “set lighting technician” or “lamp operator”. Juicers typically work in two-to-six man (or woman) crews running cables through which electricity – juice – flows to power the high intensity lamps that turn a location or sound stage set into a glowing proscenium ready for actors and cameras. If that sounds glamorous, consider that the cable we use most frequently weighs nearly a pound per foot, and we usually start with hundred foot lengths. Most cable runs utilize five such cables, and since the power source or generator is often several hundred feet from the set, we typically unload and deploy a couple of tons of cable before pulling a single lamp off the truck. Once upon a time we used carbon arc lamps for filming in daylight – essentially a gigantic arc welder projected through an enormous lens -- but technology now gives us big 18,000 watt lamps that weigh over a hundred and fifty pounds apiece, each requiring a heavy rolling stand, a ballast, and at least another fifty feet of cable to feed power to the bulb. Once the cable run is finished, we roll the lamps to the set, then place, power, and adjust each one until the gaffer – “Chief Lighting Technician”, and our immediate boss -- is satisfied. After the first shot has been filmed (usually a “master” shot in which the entire scene is played out to completion), we shuffle the lamps around to meet the specific lighting requirements for each individual shot – a variety of medium shots and close ups -- that will in the end be edited together into the complete scene. This is called “coverage,” and once we’ve shot the master, coverage is the name of the game.

On big features or television shows with a fat budget, there’s usually a rigging crew to lay down the cable runs before the shooting crew arrives. All they do, day in and day out, is travel from location to location “picking it up and laying it down” – wrapping and deploying heavy cable and power distribution boxes. This makes life easier for the shooting crew, who will nevertheless work twelve to fourteen hour days, week after week. Whether you’re a rigger or a lamp operator –a “show boy” – the work is always heavy, the hours long. This is a tedious, punishing business. It is anything but glamorous.

“But working with actors and actresses, that must be glamorous,” you say.

Think again. A good actor is an amazingly skilled creature who can literally make you laugh one minute and cry the next. I’ve worked with some wonderfully warm and friendly actors – Alan Alda and Suzanne Pleshette come to mind – talented veterans who treat every member of the crew with the same generous respect. This is not always the case. If it’s true that each of us is haunted by something dark and shrunken at the core of our being -- some hideous, shameful fear or insecurity hounding us through life -- then actors have it worse. Much worse. Maybe that’s what drives them to become actors in the first place. They’re a lot like race horses, exotic thoroughbred beauties that are joy to watch in action -- but they can also be nervous, flighty, and unpredictable. Like everybody else, their personal boundaries vary wildly from day to day. Wander inside the paddock at the wrong moment and you just might get kicked. It’s important to remember that the only indispensable elements of any show are the principle actors, especially if the filming has gone on for several weeks. At that point, everyone else -- from the lowest production assistant to the director -- can be replaced, so if one of these actors should decide that your presence somehow interferes with his or her ability to perform, you will disappear. Quickly. One soon learns to make no assumptions, keep a certain distance and be careful about making eye contact -- and always smile. Always. Does that sound glamorous?

That’s okay. I didn’t get into this business for any supposed glamour or to bask in the reflected glow of movie stars, but because I’d seen films like “The French Connection” and “Chinatown”, movies that spoke to me as nothing else had. Film classes in college introduced me to older classics that sparked my imagination: “Treasure of the Sierra Madre”, “Lady from Shanghai”, “The Maltese Falcon”, and “The Big Sleep”. After graduation, I wanted to be a part of a business that made movies like that. I had to give Hollywood a shot.

Unfortunately, this was the late 70’s, which meant I was too late -- the Industry didn’t make movies like that anymore, nor would it fling its doors open for the naive young rube fresh off the turnip truck. Without serious connections – like being born into the business – one must crawl rung-by-slippery-rung up the slime-stained ladder of success. I took my place in line as an unpaid production assistant (read: slave) on a lowest-of-the-low-budget feature, then graduated to a movie that paid me $25 a night. Since most of the story took place after dark, we worked from late afternoon until well after sunup, six nights a week. Eventually I learned enough to get work as a grip, and then as a juicer. For the next twenty years, I toiled on commercials, feature films, an occasional stint of episodic television, and music videos – dear God, far too many music videos. If you want to enter a very special portal of Hell, try working an eighteen hour day on a Shaquille O’Neil rap video, wherein the “song” is played at ear-splitting volume ten or fifteen times an hour while Shaq’s sixty-strong posse dressed like wannabe ho’s and gang bangers clogs every aisle, always in the way when it’s time to move a hot, heavy lamp. I’m sure these were nice enough kids the rest of the week, but on that night, drawn like moths to the ephemeral incandescence called “glamour”, they reminded me of nothing so much as star-struck cattle. Things haven’t changed all that much since Nathanael West wrote “Day of the Locust,” here in LA.

In those twenty-plus years, it never once occurred to me that I’d wind up working on sit-coms. When you’re young and strong, the prospect of working a four camera sit-com has all the appeal of being chained to a desk in some dead and soulless cubicle. From the outside, the world of sit-coms seems hopelessly stodgy – light years from the youthful cool of single-camera shows, The Movies.

But none of us remains young and strong forever, even in Hollywood. There comes a time when the relentless pressure of commercials, the tedious slog of features, and the merciless, war-without-bullets grind of episodic television – one hour dramas that chew up and spit out the strongest of crews – finally burns body and soul to a charred, smoldering husk. That’s when you learn how efficient the Industry is at culling the herd of the old, the lame, and the attitudinally impaired: the phone stops ringing.

Finding myself in a vertiginous free-fall, it was time for Plan B. Or C, or D -- or anything. When an old friend offered me a position on a sit-com, I jumped at the opportunity, and much to my surprise, it wasn’t the stupefyingly dull routine I’d feared. The money wasn’t much, but at that point, finding a safe harbor of steady work with humane hours and decent working conditions was good enough. In time, I saw that the world of sit-coms is something like an elephant graveyard for the Industry, where veteran film technicians of all crafts, no longer fleet of foot or strong of back, can work until being put out to the green pastures of retirement. In other words, sit-coms are the last stop before the glue factory. This is not to say the work is easy -- no Below the Line job is easy -- but compared to features and episodics, working a sit-com is a the proverbial walk in the park.

Every Eden harbors a snake, however, and no sooner had I found a home in this sunny new world than a glut of sit-coms flooded the airwaves in a series of poorly-conceived, sloppily written bombs. The viewing audience promptly stampeding to the vastly superior offerings on cable, provoking the panicked networks to unleash a new and thoroughly rapacious monster into the over-the-air wasteland: “Reality TV”. The ensuing slaughter nearly wiped sit-coms off the map. You on the receiving end of the Cathode Ray Gun, having been repeatedly burned by the network’s lame offerings, might consider that a good thing. For those of us who pull the oars far below decks of the Hollywood slave ships, it spelled disaster. The buffalo were gone. And in case you’re still wondering, there’s nothing glamorous about waiting for the unemployment check to arrive in the afternoon mail.

It’s been said that ninety percent of everything is crap, and this is certainly true of sit-coms -- a format that all-too-often achieves mediocrity with an insulting laugh track and formulaic twenty-two minute, two-stories-and-a-rimshot-tag. The success of so-called “reality” programming, along with endless police dramas, single-camera comedies -- and the latest show du jour every producer simply must have, the idiotic game show -- demonstrates just how bored the television audience was with sit-coms. Eventually, they even grew weary of watching eager young people eat grubs and cockroaches, or answer ridiculous questions in the quest to win the One Million Dollars. They wanted something new, something fresh -- something like “Heroes.” Believe me, I understand – the only sit-coms I watch are whatever I happen to be working on at the time, along with “The Simpsons” and “King of the Hill”, animated shows with none of that idiotic canned laughter.

I suppose it’s unreasonable for me to hope you’ll return to the fold and watch sit-coms that, truth be told, I rarely watch myself. Then again, I make the stuff – would you expect a fisherman to buy fish at the supermarket? So consider the alternatives: paying through the nose for a suddenly impotent HBO lineup bereft of “The Sopranos”, turning your brain into garden mulch by watching reality and game shows, or enduring the synthetic platitudes of Deepak Chopra for the two hundredth time during pledge month on PBS. Yes, there are some good things happening on Showtime, FX, Comedy Central -- and even AMC, of all places -- but hardly enough to fill all your happy viewing hours.

Eventually, the strike will be settled, and a new lineup of shows shall beam into your living rooms. I’m hopeful the buffalo will return, that some of those shows – lots of them, actually – will be sit-coms. Believe it or not, entire armies of people work harder than you’ll ever know to bring a sit-com to life. All of us, Above the Line and Below, sweat blood to create and produce shows designed to entertain you, to make you laugh -- to take your mind off your troubles in life for a little while. That’s not such a bad thing, really. If we fail more often than we succeed, that's life, but you’ll never know what you’re missing unless you give these shows a chance. You might be surprised and find something you like, maybe even a new a sit-com that will actually make you laugh. It’s unlikely, I know, but it could happen. And if one new sit-com succeeds, maybe the networks will order more for the next season. It's no secret most network execs are baa-ing, bleating sheep blindly following the woolly ass of whatever sheep happens to be in front -- and if the sheep go towards sit-coms, the buffalo may indeed return. Should that happen, maybe aging sit-com oar-pullers like me will be allowed to grind out the remainder of our so-called careers with some semblance of dignity. Life below decks may not be the least bit glamorous, but it’s all we’ve got.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Another addition to the Links..

In 1996, a set painter and lead scenic artist named J.R. Helton published a book called “Below the Line” describing his life and experiences working on twenty-five feature films shot in Texas and throughout the southeast. I first read it five years ago, and immediately bought half a dozen copies to send to various friends (most of whom neither knew nor particularly cared about the film business), and they all loved it. “Below the Line” is a terrific book – funny, poignant, and haunting – offering a down-and-dirty inside look at what it’s really like to toil in the Movie Machine beyond the Hollywood mainstream.

A second edition of “Below the Line” (with a new cover painted by R. Crumb) was published in 2000. Helton is a compelling writer with a finely-tuned sense of humor and a real appreciation for the absurd. He tells the kind of stories you can’t put down. His book will resonate with anyone who knows about, or is interested in, the reality of life behind the silver screen -- but beyond that, it’s just a really great read. Check out his website at: