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, February 16, 2008

Industry Romance

                        The one that got away: the girl, that is, not the dog...

While heading to the studio one morning last Spring, I was roused from my drive-time, pre-work torpor by a radio report of a freeway accident involving a bull, a cow, and a big rig. My mind reeled. This sounded like some High Concept package dreamed up by one of those fresh-from-Harvard wunderkinds so popular in above-the-line suites a few years back:

“We’ve got ‘Sense and Sensibility’ meets ‘Over the Fence’ meets ‘Terminator.’ Emma Thompson does The Cow, John Goodman is The Bull, and Schwarzenegger plays the Big Rig. We’re talking gold here!”

Such a news report might not raise eyebrows in Iowa (or even Bakersfield), but it isn't the sort of thing you hear in the urban dystopia of Los Angeles. Did this bovine iteration of the age-old battle between the sexes -- the yes/no, push/pull, stop-don’t/don’t-stop, male vs. female tango -- culminate in the hopeless despair of blood on the pavement, or had it concluded with one satisfied bull, one relieved cow, and a truck driver just happy to have survived?

Having grown up in the sticks where cows and other large mammals were as much part of the landscape as dogs and cats, dealing with escaped animals was part of the deal. The runaway would be detected during the daily dawn patrol to the barn, after which we’d follow the inevitable trail of “evidence” dropped by the cow as she meandered towards the salad bar of some distant (and hopefully still asleep) neighbor’s garden. With no freeways nearby, there was no real problem – we’d just lead her back to the barn and that was that. But you can’t go far in LA without running into a freeway: a concrete and asphalt corridor of death for any creature not safely tucked and belted inside a four-wheeled cocoon of steel, plastic, and glass.

So it was with a blend of curiosity and apprehension that I searched the pages of the LA Times the following morning for news of the outcome... and found nothing. Apparently the unlikely confluence of a single-minded bull, reluctant cow, and an eighteen-wheel semi didn’t strike the editors of the Times as a newsworthy item. Perhaps that’s just as well. Absent actual facts, I could assume a happy ending to that story, however unlikely or fleeting the happiness of such star-crossed bovine lovers might be.

Whatever you do and wherever you live – from Bangor, Maine to Hollywood, California -- the path of love can be rocky, even if you're not Brad and Angelina. That said, anyone who works in the film/television industry can attest to how hard the biz is on long-term romantic relationships. This was made starkly clear to me on my first Industry job, as a greener-than-green production assistant working for lunch and gas money on an ultra-low budget feature. While chatting with the show’s gaffer -- an affable fellow then in his early thirties (call him “Bill”) -- I was stunned when he casually mentioned that he’d already acquired three ex-wives. A fourth scalp would be added to his belt of broken marriages a few years later.

Having learned his lesson, Bill now lives alone in a trailer in the hot, barren deserts north of LA.

Much of this was his own doing, of course. Making mistakes and suffering the consequences is an unavoidable part of life (what I call “The Joe Frazier School of Higher Education”*), but the sheer scale of Bill’s scorched-earth connubial carnage remains impressive even by the notoriously loose standards of the film community. Given the forces arrayed against conjugal harmony in this business, it’s a wonder anyone toiling under the shadow of that big white Hollywood sign dares to walk upon the thin ice of matrimony in the first place. Lust precedes love, however, and the Darwinian Mandate -- distilled to it's pure adrenal essence by five hundred million years of evolution -- will not be denied. Still, I have to give Bill credit for his willingness to get up off the canvas after each knockdown and go another round. After four straight KO’s, though, he’s thrown in the matrimonial towel. His thoughts on the subject after that last divorce were blunt:

“To hell with marriage. Next time I’ll just find a woman I already hate and buy her a house. That’ll save us both the trouble of going through a divorce.”

The basic structure of the Film Industry presents a unique set of challenges to long-term relationships, forcing a mutually smitten couple to swim upstream against a swift, relentless current. Serving at the director’s whim -- and a shooting schedule that is often wildly optimistic – film crews work long hours until every every scene on the call sheet is in the can. Although there’s usually a method to the madness, each day’s journey remains a trek through a minefield, where any misstep can blow the schedule to all hell. Technical problems can crop up with the cameras, generator, lights, or sound equipment – problems that take precious time to fix. A location that was quiet as a library during the location scout might find a DWP crew outside ripping up the sidewalk out front with jackhammers on shoot day. An equipment truck can have an accident or suffer mechanical breakdown on the way to work. An actor might suddenly be unable to remember or properly deliver his/her lines, while a particularly fussy and insecure director can drive everyone crazy with his yes-no-I-don’t-know indecision. There’s no end to the foul-ups with the potential to turn a well-ordered march through the call sheet into a 16 hour day that throws the whole shooting schedule out of whack.

Any manufacturing industry can suffer unexpected interruptions to the production flow, but most factories still send their workers home after an eight hour day. Not so the film industry, where the 12 hour day is standard in features and episodic television, while the cable networks enjoy "sweetheart deals" allowing a full 14 hour work day (not including meal breaks) before the hammer of double-time usually puts an end to their particular brand of stupidity -- and that’s assuming everything goes as planned. Smooth, trouble-free days do happen from time to time, but are rare enough that if the terms SNAFU and FUBAR hadn’t already been invented to describe life in the military, they’d surely have emerged from the film industry. Fuck-ups are pretty much a way of life in Hollywood.

With no firm timeline for each day’s work, the best a crew member can do is offer a hopeful estimate to his/her spouse as to when they’ll be coming home. This inevitably creates friction, particularly with a non-industry mate. Civilians have a hard time understanding or accepting that barring an emergency, the job comes first, and the work will continue until done. Eventually, a civilian spouse may come to suspect that he or she is not being told the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth – that the eternally tardy husband/wife might not be working late after all, but carrying on a torrid affair with some floozy/hunk, as the case may be. Thus begins the long emotional skid that so often culminates in the smoldering wreckage of divorce.

One way around this is to find a mate within the biz, which is how grips and cameramen come to marry script girls and make-up artists. An Industry couple understands the ground rules, and is thus better equipped to handle the inevitable dislocations as they occur. But there’s trouble in every Paradise, and Industry marriages face their own set of problems. Unless a couple can find a way to work on the same projects – theoretically possible, but hard to arrange in reality -- both partners will find themselves working separate, grueling, and equally unpredictable schedules. When things get busy, the loving couple may as well be single again for all they’ll see of each other. One might be working nights or split shifts while the other rises at 4:30 every morning to make a 7:00 call. This is tough on children, pets, and any real sense of togetherness, even if the work happens to be close to home. Should one spouse land a job on a feature film heading out on location, all bets are off. The old phrase “it’s a location, not a vacation” is true enough: a crew on location typically works six days a week, with each of those days often stretching well past 12 hours, including meals and travel time. Working that kind of schedule is like falling into a Black Hole: everything outside The Movie vanishes, as the show itself becomes your life. Human nature ensures that when thrown together on a distant location in such difficult conditions, a crew of strangers will quickly bond into a tribe. The hotel bar or other convenient watering hole soon becomes that tribe's unofficial social club, where temptation hangs in the air like a thick, invisible fog. Far from home and living in a state of perpetual fatigue, those with less-than-solid marriages can lose their sense of equilibrium and drift back into a more primitive, pre-marital state of mind. Furtive romances quietly bloom like wildflowers after a spring rain, some of the hit-and-run variety, others lasting the duration of the shoot or longer. It’s simply another permutation of the ancient human equation: stress + opportunity + alcohol = trouble.

For male crew members on location, local women are the low-hanging fruit, ripe for the plucking. Most have never seen a movie being made, and are intoxicated by the confusing but intensely purposeful process, drawn like giddy little moths to flutter around the incandescent flame of the Hollywood traveling circus. Their main focus is first on the actors, who can pick and choose from the cream of local beauties. This is a dangerous game, though. Actors – particularly well-known, married actors -- must be very careful in these days of cell phone cameras, the internet, and the insatiable appetite of tabloids to link famous faces with the slightest hint of scandal. A casual dalliance on location can morph into a life-changing, marriage-wrecking, bank account-busting conflagration overnight. Unmarried actors romp on a much longer leash, but thanks to increasingly easy access to DNA testing and subsequent paternity suits, they too can suffer long term consequences from an impulsive roll in the hay. The double-edged sword of fame cuts both ways.

With the actors occupied or sequestered from the fray, the local girls will find all they can handle in a crew made up largely of young men who are willing, able, and always ready. Opportunity varies from location to location – shooting a movie in a densely populated urban area offers vastly more prospects for romantic encounters than filming in a tiny remote fishing village -- but the general rule holds: if you’re interested, interesting things can happen.

While working as the Best Boy Electric on a low-budget feature filming in and around a college town in the Deep South, my three man crew of juicers burned through the local girls like Sherman’s army marching on Atlanta. It was early Spring, sunny and warm, with the Red Bud trees all in flowery bloom, and a vast flock of lovely sorority girls working as extras in the crowd scenes: fertile soil indeed to nurture budding romance. After the first couple of weeks, one of my juicers – a skinny, pimply-faced kid from the San Fernando Valley – came to me with a dreamy smile on his face.

“I don’t know what’s goin’ on here,” he said, shaking his head in wonder. “I’ve been to bed with four different girls already this week. Nothin’ like this ever happened to me before.”

I watched the fun and games from the sidelines -- not that many college coeds would be interested in a late-thirties geezer anyway, with so many randy young Hollywood studs on the loose -- but I stayed on the bench in the quaint conviction that I should be faithful to a wardrobe assistant I’d met the previous Fall while filming a movie on location in Vermont. Things heated up on our return to LA, to the point where I thought we might have that certain Special Something going on... but the Curse of the Industry Couple struck again when she landed a movie shooting in Montana at the same time I took that film heading down south. Trying to maintain the bond, I sent her postcards and flowers from deep in Dixie, and called every Sunday, our only day off. But there was no return mail from Montana, where her telephone rang and rang without even an answering machine or voice mail on which to leave a message. This continued for five long, ever-more depressing weeks. It didn’t take a genius to figure out what that meant, but being a complete sap, I kept giving her the benefit of the doubt and hoping for the best until that fateful sixth Sunday, when she finally did answer the phone. Her voice was as cool and distant as train whistle deep in the night. She’d met someone else, of course – after all, that’s how she and I got together in the first place, meeting on location. Confronted with what a fool I’d been, my resistance crumbled, and I surrendered to the charms of a doe-eyed Kappa Alpha Theta who’d been batting her big dark eyes at me the previous couple of weeks. That’s how it goes on location.

Given the nature of the biz, it’s no surprise the ranks of the Industry are rife with so many bruised and bitter souls whose joi de vivre has been bled dry by the endless grind of work and a trail of broken relationships. At a certain point, the last traces of youthful enthusiasm and idealism concerning the movie business in general -- and relationships in particular -- have long since burned off into the smoggy haze above Los Angeles. Not that the misery is limited to those who sweat and suffer below-the-line: actors, writers, directors, and producers also walk barefoot across the flaming coals of romantic travail, but they make a lot more money with which to fix things. When a guy’s making millions, it’s not such a big deal that the newly ex-wife gets the house in the Palisades, the Mercedes, and fifty grand a month in alimony/child support -- he’s still sitting relatively pretty after the lawyers finish mopping up the mess.

Not that money will buy happiness, of course, but it does buy just about everything else. As Humphrey Bogart remarked while popping a bottle of champagne in the film classic “Casablanca” -- “This sure takes the sting out of being occupied.”

There’s little such sting-relief below the line, where most of us live much closer to the bone. I knew of one very successful gaffer who strayed from the marital fold, suffered through the subsequent divorce, and was then saddled with a staggering load of alimony, house, and car payments. He’d made the classic blunder of bending his marital vows while working a hot streak and making very good money – good enough that the judge felt justified in awarding the ex-wife eight thousand dollars a month to keep her happily ensconced in the manner to which she’d become accustomed. That meant the poor slob had to gross close to thirty-five hundred dollars a week just to pay her off, and even more to maintain his own suddenly-miserable existence. Breaking even was the very best he could hope for – climbing out of the hole or getting ahead was out of the question. Being a well-connected gaffer working for an in-demand Director of Photography (and owning a truck full of lighting equipment he rented to every production he worked on) enabled him to pull this off, but it meant working flat out, week-in-and-week-out, month after bloody month, just to keep pace. In effect, he was a prisoner strapped to a high-speed treadmill forcing him to run as long and hard as possible. That kind of rat-race can grind a man down in a hurry -- a high price to pay for a fleeting moment of pleasure a long way from home.

All this is not to discourage any of my fellow Industry brethren from ascending to the sunlit temple of marital bliss. Successful, happy, and lasting marriages do happen in Hollywood. Near the end of that feature in Dixie, the dazed and giddy young Lothario on my crew ended up meeting a cute little blonde who happened to be a Computer Science major with a very good head on her shoulders. Eventually, they got married and moved to Chicago, where I lost track of them. I don’t know if their marriage has since stood the test of time, but simply getting away from Hollywood had to improve their chances. I know other resilient couples in it for the long haul throughout the Industry, but in some ways, they remain the proverbial exceptions who underline the rule. Like it or not, the most durable marriage many Industry workers will ever have is to the biz itself: for better and worse, in sickness and health, ‘til death...

Well, you know.

* Joe Frazier, aka: Smokin’ Joe, was a legendary heavyweight boxer known for his relentless attack, lethal left hook, and a willingness to take three punches so long as he could deliver one. Joe Frasier dealt Muhammad Ali -- "The Greatest" himself -- his first professional loss in 1971. Any fighter who made a mistake in the ring with Joe Frazier paid the price – but in boxing, as in life, there’s always another lesson waiting to be learned. Smokin' Joe's turn came in 1973, when he was knocked down six times in the first two rounds by a younger, bigger, and much stronger George Foreman. Thus, “The Joe Frazier School of Higher Education,” where the learning never stops -- and it always hurts.


Scripty said...

An excellent post! When I was a green crewmember I was so utterly focused on the work and proving my skill that any passing flirting comment from a fellow crewmember didn’t even register in my mind. Then one day at the end of a long shoot a grip walked me to my car and tried to kiss me. What?! I was so shocked that him (a married man) would make a move on a script goddess like myself. As a result of this incident my eyes became clear and I started to see the set lust around me. Married, single, it didn’t matter. Being on location was like Vegas.

D said...

A great post, the best I've ever read on this subject. As a younger grip on location I burned my way through several on set romances. It took a divorce to finally help me grow up a little. Now in my second marriage, to someone in the business, I don't go to the hotel bar any more (or wrap parties without my spouse for that matter). And the crew I work on is mostly made up of married men, which makes it easier to stay away from trouble. Not because I'm easily led astray, but because I've learned that putting yourself into certain situations is an invitation for trouble.

odocoileus said...

First rate writing.

I would only add, Try real hard not to date actresses. Even if they're really hot. Even if you can't believe you're hooking up with someone you grew up watching on TV.

AJ in Nashville said...

Incredible post, Michael. You should be above the line instead of below it, but I trust you are equally excellent at your chosen profession.

I found you via your recent post on Kay's blog and am really glad I did. You really write like a pro and I'm looking forward to getting into the rest of your stories.

Best of luck to you, sir. Keep up the great work.

(All Your Blogs Are Belong to Us)

JB Bruno said...

You bring your usual eloquence to a topic many of us know all too well.

Roberto Quezada said...

Wow. This is absolutely brilliant. So true and so well expressed. Looking forward to the book!