Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

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

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Small Miracle on Laurel Canyon

“...the human name doesn’t mean shit to a tree.”
from “Eskimo Blue Day” by the Jefferson Airplane

It was mid-September, in the full frenzy of the pre-strike television season. I got off at 4:30, ending another bruising, body-and-soul draining day on the rigging crew at Radford. We’d only worked eight hours, but it was one of those pedal-to-the-metal days right from the start -- nothing but hundred foot lengths of 4’0* all day long -- “picking it up and laying it down” all over the studio lot. I was one whipped puppy crawling home in the slow-motion parade of traffic up and over Laurel Canyon, keeping one eye on the BMW in front of me, and the other on a massive Ranger Rover glued to my rear bumper. The tiny bottle-blond at the wheel of that big plush tank had a cell phone stuck in her ear all the up to Mulholland, and all the way down to the quiet sea of glowing brake lights at Hollywood Boulevard. Drivers like that make me nervous: small people in huge cars paying more attention to their phones than the road ahead – especially when I’m directly in front of them, belted into my little Japanese tin can.

I could breathe easier now that we were stuck in an honest-to-God traffic jam -- mired in rush-hour gridlock, I didn’t have to worry quite so much about that blond mistaking the gas pedal for the brakes and crushing me like a rhinoceros stepping on a mouse. So I sat there with everybody else, going nowhere, staring at nothing while absorbing the usual litany of bad news from the radio: I.E.D’s, suicide bombings, and beheadings in the Middle East, melting ice caps in the Arctic, and the endless stream of self-serving lies spewing from the mouths of politicians – all of it adding smoke to the dark cloud of doom and gloom hovering over humanity these days.

Then I noticed something odd enough to rouse me from my post-work stupor: three people waiting at a bus stop off to the left -- a white couple and a black man in their late twenties/early thirties -- all of whom were staring intently up into the sky with expressions of beatific wonder generally seen only on the faces of severely mentally ill or deeply religious people here in LA.

Given that Southern California has been the birthplace of so many varieties of spiritual Kudzu over the years, I figured they must be missionaries from some religious cult, out to save us from our heathen selves. Nobody looks that happy in real life, not while waiting for the bus during rush hour in Los Angeles. But these three didn’t act at all like missionaries – they weren’t passing out leaflets, religious tracts, or otherwise proselytizing all these potential converts trapped in gridlock, nor was there any sign of the artificially serene, Yahweh-or-the-highway passive-aggression that typically radiates in toxic waves from religious zealots. They just stared up at the far ridge or Laurel Canyon, looking truly blessed. In a way, they reminded me of the cinematic legions who answered The Call in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” – wide-eyed believers glowing with a sort of inner rapture, as if sensing the presence of hope from above and beyond.

I leaned forward until my face was almost inside the steering wheel, craning my sore and aching neck trying to see what they saw, wondering what on earth could inspire such quiet, reverential joy – and, truth be told, feeling a little bit jealous. I wanted some of that too.

There was nothing -- only a yellow mist of smog drifting in the pale blue sky above that steeply wooded hillside. I saw no smiling Jesus beaming down on rays of golden sun, flaxen hair glowing in the celestial back-light, no alien spaceship hovering overhead, its crew of superior (albeit strangely gender-free and disturbingly hydrocephalic) beings bringing miraculous solutions to all our earthly woes, nor was Tom Cruise up there riding atop the sturdy shoulders of John Travolta and Kirstie Alley. There wasn’t even Brad and Angelina with their big pouty lips and gleaming Hollywood smiles, waving to the eternally worshipful tabloid multitudes. All I could see were a few baby palms coming up between the big pines and eucalyptus on the hill.

By now other drivers were looking too, twisting in pretzel-like positions to see what was up. Even that tiny peroxide blonde behind me finally put down the goddamned cellphone and stuck her little plastic Barbie head up through the sunroof of that urban battle-tank to get in on the action -- and now she too had the same mesmerized expression of calm joy on her wrinkle-free, botox face.

What the hell was going on?

I kept staring up at that hill, and gradually my city-vision adjusted to this strangely forested landscape – dirt, trees, and real unmowed grass can indeed seem abnormal after an extended stretch in the world of asphalt and concrete – until suddenly the scales fell from my eyes, and I finally saw what had so captivated all these people around me. It was an alien visitation, all right: three large creatures up there under the trees, a four-point buck and two smaller does doing what deer have done since the beginning of time -- nibbling at Mother Nature’s salad bar of lush green grass.

I’m no stranger to deer. Growing up in the sticks of Northern California, deer were as common as dogs are in the city. Despite my father’s best efforts to protect his vegetable garden, armies of hungry deer would leap any barricade of barbed wire or electric fence, and easily sidestepped my clumsy adolescent attempts to ward them off with a home-made trip-wire cannon.** Back home, deer were everywhere – but not here in LA, and certainly not at the gridlocked confluence of Hollywood Boulevard and Laurel Canyon. And yet here they were, a family of deer serenely feeding a couple of hundred feet above all these stalled automobiles and gawking humans as if we weren’t even there.

I felt a sense of wonder at the sight of these sleek, ethereally graceful creatures so comfortably at home in their little green Eden overlooking the city. Then I remembered the earthquake back in January of ’93, when the city shook like a rat in the jaws of a terrier just before dawn, leaving millions of us scared and in the dark – but in that shockingly dark sky above were stars like I’d never seen before in LA. The night sky here is normally a joke -- a handful of wan stars barely visible in the overpoweringly bright urban glow -- but the quake knocked out the power, and thus all the lights, allowing us a brief, precious glimpse of a primordial night sky blazing with stars.

Such moments of actual reality (as opposed to “reality”) are all too rare here in the urban dystopia. Trapped in this bright and noisy rolling hamster cage of modern life, we drive and work and work and drive – and then we watch TV – in a routine that eventually flatlines into the steady hiss of static. In time, we lose track of anything beyond the day in, day out struggle of the rat-race. We forget who we really are, and what we actually need to thrive as human animals. Blinded by the lights of the Industry and technology, we just keep churning away as memories fade of the paradise from whence we came.

But here were three emissaries from that forgotten world, bearing a silent reminder that we would all do well to stop, look, and listen every now and then. Maybe we in the Industry are a little too proud of our slavish dedication to work -- our willing eagerness to do whatever is necessary to get the job done, no matter how long it takes, regardless of the toll exacted on us as human beings. Unfortunately, that’s what the Industry demands. Anything less than an all-out, white knuckle effort is seen as the selfish, slacker behavior of lesser beings who just don’t get it. It’s a bit like trying to reason with Al Queda – how can we reach a livable accommodation with such an inherently uncompromising system?

I have no answers, only questions. When we work for The Machine, perhaps we inevitably turn into machines ourselves. Maybe there really is no going home again. Maybe losing Paradise -- and living to regret it -- is simply an inextricable part of the Devil’s bargain that is conscious life.

I really don’t know.

The traffic signal finally turned green, the gridlock broke, and the great herd of four-wheeled machines finally began to move, carrying us all home as the deer ate their fill. Like everyone else, I poured a drink, nuked some dinner, then turned on the toob, applying the usual modern anesthetics to numb body and brain, gearing down from one work day in preparation for the next.

Keep those gears polished, lubricated, and in good working order...

But later, while drifting off to sleep, I could still see those deer up on the hillside.

I see them now.

* 4’0 has long been the foundation of most lighting rigs, each cable capable of carrying 400 amps of power. The smallest practical 4’0 rig (using three phase AC power) consists of five separate cables -- three hots, one neutral, and one ground – for a total carrying capacity of 1200 amps. That's a lot of juice -- enough to power six suburban homes with all the lights on and every appliance running full blast. But that kind of capacity comes at a price: a hundred foot coil of 4’0 weighs between 84 and 96 pounds, depending on the thickness and grade of insulation, and thus remains both the bete noir and the daily bread of the rigging juicer -- our cross to bear.

** I’m ashamed to admit that this “cannon” eventually exploded like a bomb, sending our neighbor’s innocent Persian cat to the vet for a long and expensive stay. The cat survived, but his hunting days were over – after suffering through that blast, the poor animal couldn’t hear any better than a rock.

Friday, March 28, 2008

The Biggest Asshole in Hollywood

Update to the previous update:  An anonymous cyber-hero found and sent me a working link to the post that sparked this one.  The old link had gone bad, and being something of a digiliterate, I was unable to find a good one.  But that's been fixed, thanks to this mystery benefactor, so click away, my little droogies, click away...

Michael Taylor, February 27, 2020

Update:  The following is more than ten years old, linking to a wonderfully well-written account by a script girl of working for a legendary commercial director -- referred to as "Mr. Evil" -- a man who, by all accounts, ranks as one of the biggest assholes in Hollywood.

I say "by all accounts" because I never met nor worked for Mr. Evil, even though I spent more than fifteen years working my way up from juicer to best boy to gaffer in the world of television commercials. At one point my gaffer was put on hold for an eight day job with Mr. Evil, and as the best boy, I'd have to go along - but the horror stories of his abominable behavior on set were legion.  He'd supposedly broken an ad agency man's arm during rough play after badgering the poor guy into a game of pickup basketball at lunch, then threw a football in a perfect spiral across the set, nailing some hapless PA squarely in the head.  

Were those stories true?  I don't know... but I wasn't the only one who heard them.

The man is reportedly huge -- an impulsive, ill-tempered, six foot-eight inch Sasquatch who happened to be one of (if not the) best director of commercials in the business... in other words, a comic book anti-hero come to life.

Much to my relief, that job with Mr. Evil never happened.  Why, I have no idea - it's possible his regular gaffer was just playing hard to get in order to leverage a raise, and maybe he won that battle.  The last I heard (this was several years ago), his key grip and gaffer were getting something like $800/10, considerably more than most gaffers and key grips were paid at the time, mainly because Mr. Evil was such a pain in the ass to work for.  Can I confirm this? No, but the guy who told me had spent a couple of years working on his lighting crews, and had some ugly stories of his own to tell.

I have no idea if Mr. Evil is still working, still a major league asshole, or is still any good at directing commercials... and truth be told, I don't care. Being very good at telling cinematic lies -- which is what commercials are -- is not a skill I particularly admire if you're going to be a major league asshole in the process.  

Michael Taylor, August 10, 2019

Truth be told, there's probably a top ten of these soulless creatures in this town -- a rogue's gallery of sorts -- but any readers curious as to what it's like to work for an overbearing, pathologically abusive, quasi-psychotic director should click here.

Working for assholes comes with the Hollywood turf. Sooner or later, we all have to work for one of these ogres, but there's nothing in my thirty year career quite as harrowing as the long, ugly day endured and beautifully described by The Script Goddess. Although I don't know for certain, I have a pretty good idea who Scripty had the misfortune to work for -- and he's The Worst, a legend in the television commercial community for all the wrong reasons. That he's so very talented at what he does only makes his monstrous behavior all the more infuriating.

Read it and weep. Just be glad it was Scripty, and not you.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Stranger in a Strange Land

Portrait of the juicer as a young man. A milk man...

”I’m not an actor, but I play one on TV”*

Working below-the-line generally means a solid, if unspectacular career behind the scenes, toiling long hours to make a decent living, then retiring just in time to die in anonymous obscurity. There are notable exceptions to the rule, however -- some surprisingly famous names who got their foot in Hollywood’s door working below-the-line. Legend has it Marion Morrison was working as a prop man and set dresser when John Ford spotted him, then began grooming the young man who would become John Wayne for a career in front of the camera. Harrison Ford worked as a carpenter before becoming a full time actor. Early in Kevin Costner’s Hollywood career, he pushed a broom as a stage manager at Raleigh Studios, just across Melrose Avenue from Paramount. While finishing up a job at Raleigh a very long time ago, I talked with young Mr. Costner one night as he swept up the stage. “I’m not gonna be doing this forever,” he declared -- and whatever your opinion of his subsequent career,** he was true to his word. The impression I have is that Wayne more or less stumbled into his life’s work as an actor, but Ford and Costner had their eyes on the prize right from the start, coming to Hollywood prepared to do whatever was necessary to rise from the shadows into the blazing heat of the spotlight.

They came here to be actors.

That said, swinging a hammer or pushing a broom is hardly the inside track to a screen acting career, and most who start out below-the-line, stay there. Film making can be a remarkably fluid enterprise, however -- particularly in the low budget world of non-union features and music videos, where circumstance will occasionally conspire to drag some hapless crew member from his/her safe haven behind the lens and thrust them in front of the cameras. Perhaps there is a little ham in everyone, but that doesn’t mean every grip, juicer, or prop man harbors a secret desire to perform in the merciless glare of the spotlights. When called on, some do surprisingly well out there, but most want nothing more than to crawl back into the comfort zone beneath their own craft-specific rock. Anybody who thinks what actors do is easy – and the good ones do make it look effortless – just doesn’t have a clue.

My own cinematic debut came early, during my very first Hollywood job, working as an unpaid production assistant on a micro-budget feature with the rather stilted title of “He Wants Her Back.” For reasons that were never clear – then or now -- the script called for a brief reenactment of the 1973 shootout between FBI agents and members of the American Indian Movement at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. It was a night shoot, with every lamp pulled off the truck and burning, while the camera prepared to make a thirty foot dolly move along a row of actors playing FBI sharpshooters. Halfway through the setup, the director realized he needed another body on the firing line. Being fresh out of actors, he looked around, then fixed me with his intense glare.

“Hey Farm Boy,” he barked. “You know how to shoot a rifle?”

Word of my rural upbringing had leaked out, branding me with the moniker “Farm Boy.” Such is lot of the lowly, unpaid production assistant – a life of insult heaped upon indignity.

“Sure,” I shrugged. As a kid, I’d spent many a long afternoon wandering the then-empty hills and valleys of the Bay Area with my trusty bolt-action .22.

“Go to wardrobe,” he ordered.

Like it or not, I was an actor now.

Fortunately, this was not a demanding role. All I had to do was squeeze the trigger as the camera dollied past, then chamber another shell and fire again: a simple task I’d performed a thousand times before, albeit without a film crew watching my every move. But the more I thought about it -- the lights, the camera, all those people staring at me -- the more nervous I got. Minutes passed like hours, and by the time they were ready to roll, I was as tight as a brand new spool of thread.

I took my position with the real actors, lying down behind a dirt berm with the rifle nestled into my shoulder, aiming into the darkness. The director issued last minute instructions, then after a couple of dolly/camera rehearsals, there was a long moment of stillness.

“Roll camera!” the A.D. barked.
“Rolling,” the first A.C. replied.
“Speed,” said the boom man, and the second A.C. snapped the slate.
"Action!" the director yelled, and the lens floated towards me.

I waited until the camera was dead in my sights, then squeezed the trigger. Flame belched from the barrel. I snapped the bolt back to eject the spent shell and slam a fresh one home – but the mechanism jammed. I panicked, frantically shoving the bolt back and forth, but it was no use... and then it was too late, the camera past me now and rolling smoothly down the firing line under a barrage of flame from the waiting rifles.

"Cut!" the director yelled.

I felt like an idiot. It didn't matter that I had no interest in becoming an actor -- I'd been handed one of those magical Hollywood opportunities to rise from the pack and show what I could do: to actually help put something on film after two weeks of picking up cigarette butts, bringing coffee to the director (black, no sugar), and driving the set-dressing 5-ton from one location to the next. Instead, I’d blown it. “Farm Boy” couldn’t even shoot a gun right.

My ears burning, I blurted an apology, but the director waved me off with a grin. He wanted to portray a night of confusion and gunfire during which two Indians were killed and an FBI agent wounded in the shootout – and since I’d looked confused and angry on camera, he was happy. At the cast and crew screening, I was relieved to see the lens flash past me in an instant, and that at least I managed to get that first crucial shot off on screen.

But I still felt like an idiot.

My next moment in the spotlight came several years later, while working on a commercial for a then-fledgling cable network called Showtime. Part of the commercial was designed to offer a “back-stage” view of a film crew hard at work -- which is how I found myself up on the green beds (wooden scaffolding suspended from chains) getting ready to pull a Big Eye Ten K (a huge 10,000 watt studio lamp) from the deck of the stage floor. A Big Eye Tenner is as bulky as a washing machine, and almost as heavy. Standard procedure in taking such a massive lamp up to the green beds is to use a "mule" and block-and-falls (an electric hoist with a pulley system), but our director had something more dramatic in mind: a juicer pulling that beast up on a rope, hand over hand. Since those old Big Eye Tenners weighed around 140 pounds -- and at the time I might have weighed 150, soaking wet -- there were two of us up there on the greens preparing for our close-up.

That Big Eye was a monster. Pulling the rope over the green bed rail required a maximum effort from both of us to get the damned thing four feet off the ground, where the D.P. ordered us to halt while he lay on his back and slid underneath. His brilliant idea was to shoot straight up so the enormous lamp would fill the screen to start the shot. With so much weight on the other end, our half-inch hemp rope felt like piano wire through my gloves, particularly with the DP lying right in the Kill Zone directly beneath the lamp. If that rope slipped or broke, he’d have less than a second to roll out of the way and avoid being crushed – and it’s not easy to move that fast while peering through the viewfinder of a camera.

This wasn’t quite so much fun anymore. Getting fired off a job is one thing – most of us have been fired at one time or another -- but being fired for dropping a Big Eye on the DP (with potentially fatal results) was the kind of stinking albatross that could follow both of us through our entire careers and on into the grave. It was too late now, though – with the camera rolling, the director yelled “action!” so we pulled as hard as we could. The huge light inched upwards. “Faster!” he shouted. We, put everything we had into a gut-busting effort that left no room for error – one slip, and that beast of a lamp would plummet like an anvil. With the entire crew watching our every move, we finally pulled the massive lamp high enough to drag it safely onto the green bed. Both of us were sweating like pigs, partly from the sheer physical strain, but mostly from the stress.

This acting thing is tougher than it looks.

Many years later, lightening struck again while filming a music video for Randy Newman’s salute to modern culture, It's Money That Matters. With a six-day shooting schedule (a long shoot by music video standards), and everyone on the crew working at half our normal rates, this was one job none of us really wanted.

“Don’t worry,” said the producer. “It’ll be fun.”

Thanks to my lifetime enrollment in the Joe Frazier School of Higher Education, there are many words I’ve learned to associate with the term “music video”– few of them usable in polite company -- and “fun” is definitely not among them. Still, this production company was one of our main commercial clients, and in Hollywood (as in life, marriage, and just about everything else), sometimes we have to take the bad with the good. This was one of those times.

Oddly enough, the job actually did turn out to be fun. With six days to do the work, we were under very little pressure, working ten hour days at a relaxed pace, with none of the usual shouting and screaming from coked-out directors or rock stars with egos larger than the pyramids at Giza. It made a huge difference that Randy Newman was such a pleasant, low-key guy, setting the tone for the whole shoot, which featured a small army of local celebrity cameos -- among them, Marcus Allen driving a Rolls Royce, Robin Leach (of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous”) popping his head up from the moon roof of a limousine, and Mark Knopfler of “Dire Straits” playing his guitar while floating high above the street, strapped into the seat of a crane arm on a Shotmaker camera car cruising slowly through Westwood.

Things were going fine until we arrived at a little house in West LA early one morning to shoot a scene featuring a milk man. There was no sign of the actor by the time we were all set up -- and that’s when I noticed the director and his A.D. standing together, nodding, and staring at me.

Not again...
Yes, again.
“Go to wardrobe,” said the director.

Minutes later, I was leaning back in the makeup chair wearing a white milkman suit, being fussed-over by an extremely attractive make-up girl murmuring sweet nothings in my ear while she worked.

“Everybody knows the milkman always delivers,” she purred, in a smoldering, sexy voice.

It was only then that I realized how much more goes into a make-up artist’s job than the skilled application of camera-ready war paint. A good make-up girl knows how to pump an actor up, making him feel as terrific as he supposedly looks, giving him the confidence he needs to perform. In my case, this lovely woman didn’t have much to work with, but still, she sent me out of that make-up trailer feeling like a million bucks, buoyed by a wonderfully confident sense of well-being that carried me all the way to the set -- where it vanished like a prayer over a roulette wheel as I confronted the cold glass eye of the camera lens. That’s when I remembered – again -- just how much I’m not an actor. With the director barking orders, the camera rolled, and I did my best to make it happen, but it was painfully obvious to all that my “best” wasn’t good at all. Bathed in sweat, with a rictus grin etched on my aching face, I suffered through take after take after take, feeling like a complete fraud every interminable second of the ordeal... and then it was over. Flooded with relief, I took off the white hat and suit, and turned back into a pumpkin. Again, in the finished product, my appearance is blessedly brief – maybe a second or two, at most – but even that seemed much too long.

Did I mention how hard this acting thing is? Really hard.

With any luck, that was last time I’ll ever have to step in front of a movie camera. In the twenty years since, I moved from the wild-and-woolly fringes of the Industry into its placid mainstream, where we pretty much do our jobs and that's it. Still, you never know -- while working on a sit-com a few years ago, the producers decided we needed a middle-aged guy to play a janitor, pushing a broom across the set to open one of the scene. Rather than call Kevin Costner (hey, I've seen him push a broom, and he's good) -- a call that would have tipped the budget way into the red – they sent our Director of Photography to wardrobe and makeup, and thus it was he who had to suffer through a trial-by-camera in front of a live audience of 250 people. That night, he discovered what I learned a long time ago: there are good reasons why actors are the ones out there in the hot lights, performing for the lens -- very good reasons -- while the rest of us remain behind the camera.

I know what I am -- a juicer, not an actor -- and just as well for all concerned.

*I stole this line from Larry Reibman, an old friend who worked as the gaffer for “On Wings of Eagles” (1986), a television miniseries starring Burt Lancaster and Richard Crenna. Larry made his big-screen debut when drafted by the director (Andrew V. Mclaglen) to portray an American ambassador opposite Richard Crenna’s Ross Perot. This was no mere walk-on, but a four or five minute dialog scene requiring extensive coverage. Larry did an excellent job in front of the camera that day -- such a great job, as fate would have it, that a couple of years later he became...a Director of Photography. A very good one.

** Personally, I think Costner’s portrayal of the veteran catcher Crash Davis in “Bull Durham” (1988) – one of the best sports movies ever -- was spot-on perfect. Say what you will about Kevin Costner, but he got that one right.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Joe Frazier School of Higher Education

It's the School of Hard Knocks

Professor Joe Frazier delivers a tutorial to the great Muhammad Ali.

You'll occasionally find a reference in this blog to something I call “The Joe Frazier School of Higher Education.” This is not an accredited institution -- indeed, it’s not an institution at all. A Google search will turn up no website, no lovely photos of ivy covered walls, no football stadium or sexy cheerleaders, nor photos of beaming young co-eds gliding serenely across a leafy campus on their way to class.

Your search might, however, turn up this, wherein you will learn something about Joe Frazier, aka: Smokin’ Joe, a heavyweight boxer legendary for his relentless attack, lethal left hook, and a willingness to take three punches so long as he could land one. It was Joe Frasier who dealt Muhammad Ali -- "The Greatest" himself -- his first professional loss in a heavyweight title fight back in 1971. Joe Frazier was a force of nature in the ring, where any fighter who made a mistake paid a truly awful price – and for most, that fateful mistake came the moment they signed a contract to fight Smokin’ Joe. The result was usually a foregone conclusion, with the only question being how bad the beating would be.

In boxing, however -- and Hollywood -- there’s always another lesson waiting to be learned. Joe Frazier’s turn came in 1973, when he was knocked down six times in the first two rounds – “smoked,” as it were -- by a younger, bigger, and much stronger George Foreman: the very same, seemingly invincible heavyweight champ who would later suffer his own soul-crushing defeat at the hands of a man the boxing world had all but dismissed as a spent and over-the-hill fighter -- Muhammad Ali.

See?  What goes around, comes around.

Just when you think you’ve got it all figured out -- whoever you are, and whatever “it” might be -- life has a way of sending another lesson your way. The bill for every act of smugness or hubris will eventually come due, and sometimes that price will hit with the all the brutal force of Smokin’ Joe’s murderous left hook. Thus “The Joe Frazier School of Higher Education,” where the learning never stops, and the lessons always hurt.

Like it or not, every Hollywood free-lancer is enrolled on a continuing basis in Smokin' Joe's school of hard knocks -- and although none of us will ever graduate with a cap, gown, or diploma, the lessons learned there will never be forgotten.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Nepotism: Part Two

What you know -- or who you know?

You hear it all the time, at every level of society concerning any paying job in creation: “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” Whether one seeks employment flipping burgers at the local Golden Arches, as a CEO steering a major corporation, or occupying the hot seat in the Oval Office, it helps to be connected -- and there is no more fundamental connection than blood. Family takes care of its own: always has, always will.

In this, the film/television industry remains Exhibit A. Above and below the line, relationships are crucial to opening doors that would otherwise remain locked. A would-be screenwriter with the world’s greatest script will get exactly nowhere until he or she can find a sympathetic insider with the right connections and clout to unlock those doors. Even then, the odds are high that some grinning hyena in a three thousand dollar suit will take full advantage, leaving that young writer sadder but wiser to the bruising, dog-eat-dog nature of life in Hollywood -- where real knowledge always comes at a price. Trust is more of a concept than a reality above the line, where every transaction seems to be a zero-sum game in which one person’s success can only come at the cost of someone else’s failure. The brittle smiles exchanged in the executive suites are not meant to convey warmth or affection, but rather to mask the naked, shake-your-hand, stab-your-back reality that comes with playing on high-stakes turf. Above-the-line Hollywood remains a Darwinian jungle ruled by the biggest, baddest, and most devious, while all the lesser furry creatures engage in a ceaseless struggle to acquire and maintain position on the banks of the watering hole.

Things aren’t quite so treacherous below-the-line. Who you know is important down here, but there’s generally more room at the feeding trough below decks, where connections tend to be more tribal than anything else. The power structures within crews are very much like those found among our hairy primate cousins in Africa, the Great Apes. The larger crews (set lighting, grip, and camera) are run by a department head who serves as the tribal leader -- the Silverback -- without whose blessing, nobody joins the tribe. Immediate family has priority, of course, but not everybody in the film biz has the good fortune of being born into a well-connected family, nor does every Industry son particularly enjoy working for his father. There’s usually room for a few worthies who lack blood ties, although they must find other ways to forge the bonds necessary to keep them inside the metaphorical cave by the warm fire of employment, rather than outside shivering in the cold.

The essential ingredient in creating and maintaining such bonds is as ancient as intelligent life itself – the I’ll-scratch-your-back, you-scratch-mine symbiosis that binds all primate societies, hairy or not. These Industry bonding rituals range from very subtle to brutally straightforward. I’ve seen Key Grips demand that their crews work on weekends maintaining and repairing grip equipment the Key then rents to production companies on the job. In a stark quid pro quo, the crew is not paid for this maintenance work, nor do they receive any cut of the rental income -- but they do get hired to work the jobs. Refusing to participate is not an option: anyone who balks at the unpaid extracurricular work is off the crew: in effect, banished from the tribe. As in the dark green jungle, the penalty for crossing a Silverback can be harsh.

Most working relationships are more casual. Department heads (Director of Photography, Gaffer, Key Grip) want people on their crews who take the work seriously, do a thoroughly professional job, won’t cause needless problems on the set, and have a good sense of humor. A good, experienced crew forms a tight unit able to get almost any job done without need for detailed instructions. Once the particulars are understood, they get to it, working as a team with the smooth precision that comes from constant repetition. A department head with such a crew knows that his guys will do the job right – they won’t screw up – which leaves him with one less thing to worry about. This makes it hard for newcomers to crack the lineup, though: why take a chance on a new guy who hasn’t yet earned one’s trust?

Working on a good crew is a pleasure, offering the very real satisfaction of doing physical teamwork quickly and well. Toiling on a bad crew riddled with personality conflicts -- incompetent, selfish, or lazy personnel -- is like doing prison time at union scale. One truly bad apple can make life miserable for everybody else, and if that jerk happens to be related to the boss, there’s not much you can do but endure the ordeal with all the professionalism you can muster – and pray that another job with a different crew comes along soon.

There’s a self-correcting dynamic that tends to limit the tenure of truly bad crew members in the film Industry. In a free lance world, we’re all only as good as our last job -- including department heads, who can’t afford to risk their own future employment prospects by hiring a bad crew. Thus the unofficial below-the-line variation of the Hippocratic Oath: “If you can’t help me, don’t hurt me.” Ultimately, the main goal of every smart crew member is to make his boss look good: because when the boss looks good, you look good -- and the best way to make the boss look good is to do your job in a conscientious, professional manner. Sometimes circumstance and fate will conspire against this, at which point the least you must do is avoid making the boss look bad. Screwing up in a manner that draws attention is serious business that can, in extreme cases, interfere with your boss’s ability to get work in the future. A Cameraman, Key Grip, or Gaffer is judged by many things, including how quickly his crew gets the work done, how smoothly they interact with the other departments, and how few problems they create for the production staff. Production managers are acutely aware of what goes on during the work day -- they remember a crew that’s fast, pleasant, and makes no unnecessary waves. But if a crew member is always mouthing off, squabbling with the other departments, pestering the craft service person, making endless petty demands of the production staff, and who somehow finds a way to disappear whenever there’s heavy lifting to be done – he too will be remembered. In general, a crew member who continually causes problems will have to straighten out or replaced. As one Gaffer I worked for put it: “No flies on electric” – meaning that any of his crew who habitually screwed up or caused needless problems would not be hired for the next job.

All things being equal, having connections can make a huge difference, but since things are seldom equal in this world, even good connections don’t guarantee success. Unless you consistently deliver on the job, only the very best of connections can keep you employed. Over the long run, who you know doesn't matter as much as what you know: not just your actual performance on the job, but how gracefully you handle the pressures and frustrations endemic to Industry work. That said, it’s not an either-or proposition: to stay busy and thrive in a free-lance industry, you need to know what you’re doing and have good connections -- but the former has a way of creating the latter. A good worker with a professional attitude will earn the kind of reputation that helps build a web of connections essential to success. The lazy or obnoxious jerk who relies upon family loyalties to remain employed often leaves a trail of burning bridges in his wake, and in time, will find his connections have gone up in smoke as well. At a certain point, it’s too late to put a shine on such a tarnished reputation.

The value of being connected at the beginning of one’s Hollywood journey is obvious, but those connections can mean a lot near the end of that career as well. This Industry is ruthlessly efficient at culling the herd and making room for fresh blood. No matter who you are, how many years you have in the business, or what you did in the past -- that was then, and this is now. Like a shark that must continually move forward to maintain the flow of oxygenated water through its gills, an Industry free-lancer has to stay close to the top of his game to keep working – and even that isn’t always enough. The wisdom that comes with age and experience may be respected around the camp fire, but “gray-listing” remains a fact of Hollywood life. It doesn’t always matter that you can still do the job: the fact that you’re no longer as young and strong as the competition lowers your perceived value as a crew member. Some department heads wonder why they should hire an older guy when there’s a line of younger, stronger men ready and eager to take the job. Others are plagued by personal insecurities, and thus prefer having a younger, more malleable pup on the crew rather than an older guy with more experience -- a guy who might have a better idea how to get the job done. Age can work against you in many ways. The older Industry veteran has to know when to keep his mouth shut, and his ideas to himself.

When you’re young and starting out, giving anything less than your maximum effort is held against you. You can’t afford to relax in mid-career, either – any slacking off will be noticed and held against you – but it’s worse for the older worker, who has to prove every day that he can still do the work, still carry the load, still uphold his end of the deal. If not, a silent judgment will be made, and the phone will soon stop ringing. By then, only the very best of connections can help: the blood bond of family, giving the older worker a job where sheer physicality is not an issue. This might not be fair to the rest of the crew, who must then shoulder the extra burden, but such is life in an Industry town. Without such gold-plated familial connections, the older worker who has lost a step or three is generally finished. Although it may not add up to a bleak “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” scenario, when that phone stops ringing, it no longer matters who or what you know: like it or not – and ready or not -- you’re done.

And they say we’re always the last to know...

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Set Etiquette and "Totally Unauthorized"

On "Totally Unauthorized," Peggy Archer has posted a list of rules for proper set etiquette that should be Required Reading for everyone who ventures on set -- civilian or Industry vet -- on any film location or sound stage. There's a right way and a wrong way to behave on set, and Peg hit the bulls eye in delineating the right way.

Check it out.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Nepotism: Part One

Who’s Your Daddy?

“Nepotism: favoritism shown to a relative (as by giving an appointive job) on a basis of relationship.”
Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary

From the day I rode my motorcycle to LA, determined to crash through the walls of The Industry, I heard stories about nepotism in below-the-line Hollywood: the clannish ritual of doling out work via family dynasties, from fathers to sons, brother to brother, uncles to nephews. Most of these stories turned out to be true, and then some. The tendrils of nepotism extend from the top levels of many craft unions right down through the roots and into the very groundwater that nourishes the Industry.

Nepotism is more than a stubborn weed happily thriving under the hot sun and eternally smoggy Hollywood sky -- it’s a basic fact of Industry life.

The last job I had as a full-time member of a set lighting crew – not just a rigger or day-player – was a on a sitcom that went 12 episodes-and-out, lasting slightly more than half a season before the network pulled the plug. Ours was a five man crew, composed of a gaffer, best boy, dimmer operator, and two juicers. The father of my fellow juicer had retired as a gaffer. The dimmer operator’s dad worked a full career as a grip. The best boy’s father spent his working life as a teamster driving for the major studios, while the gaffer grew up watching his dad pound out screenplays, one after another, in the shadow of the Warner Brother’s Studio in Burbank. The Director of Photography – sitting atop the entire crew food chain -- got his first union card thanks to the pull of his father and uncle, both long time members of IATSE local 728. I was the odd man out: the only member of our crew who didn’t grow up in Southern California, with direct family connections to the Industry.

Despite the widespread practice, nepotism still carries a taint, conjuring up the image of some weak-chinned, under-qualified twit being promoted over a square-jawed, hard-working, up-through-the-ranks All American guy whose only fault is not being related to the boss. Allowing blood lines to trump honest merit seems inherently unfair, and thus un-American – exactly the kind of slimy, underhanded practice our ancestors thought they’d left behind in fleeing the class-stratified, socially sclerotic world of 17th, 18th, and 19th century Europe. According to Sanctified Myth, that sort of thing isn’t supposed to happen here in America, where anyone by dint of his or her own hard work can grow up to become President. In this world, though, myth and reality seldom live under the same roof.

I came to hate the word “nepotism” during my early years in Hollywood, watching people breeze into the various unions – guys whose fathers were union members – while I remained outside, taking whatever non-union jobs I could find, working with no protection or benefits beyond the daily paycheck. Eventually I managed to join a small union whose members worked mostly on television commercials, but the big union -- the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees, which handles all big-budget feature films and a majority of television shows produced in this country – remained beyond reach until 1992. At that point, my little union merged with IATSE, at last endowing me with the coveted IA card. But that, it turned out, wasn’t quite enough. While most IA locals allowed these newly minted members to work under the contract and accrue benefits, mine followed its longstanding tradition of Jurassic-era obstructionism by refusing to grant “roster status” to any new member (merger be damned) until we worked a full thirty days on a union show. But since a union member is not allowed to work a union job without first gaining roster status (with limited exceptions), we were caught in a classic Catch 22, required to pay annual dues to maintain our membership without being allowed to accept union work. This was a rude and unexpected twist of the knife, and damned near enough to make a mild-mannered guy go postal.

The only way around this roadblock was to get a job on a non-union film or television show that would at some point “turn” -- sign a union contract with IATSE after production commenced -- or else accumulate thirty days of work in the course of twelve months at one of the studio lots as a “permit.” When the industry is so busy that all eligible union members are working, studios are permitted to hire non-union workers off the street. This has long been the traditional route into the industry, but without the necessary connections, accruing those thirty days remains a steep hill to climb. I heard countless stories over the years of people doing permit work for twenty-nine days, only to be laid off, one day short of the goal. Then it happened to me – after twenty eight days of work at Warner Brothers, I found a yellow lay-off slip waiting for me when I clocked out. Close, but no cigar, kid. Better luck next year.

Que the backstage laughter...

It took me three years to land a television movie that finally turned union, and at the ripe old age of 45 – a good twenty-five years later than most career juicers – I finally achieved the roster status allowing me to work any union job. It was only then, working shoulder-to-shoulder with members of various family dynasties, that I realized just how deeply nepotism is rooted in the bedrock of the Industry. I also learned to be very careful what I said, and to whom I said it. In a business where everybody seems to be related, a little loose talk can put you in the doghouse – and that’s not a good place for an unconnected, unrelated industry outsider to be.

But by then I’d also learned something else: nepotism will get you in the door, but it won’t keep you there if you don’t perform.* Working below-the-line is a punishing business, where those unable to take the pace and pressure won’t last. The hours are often absurdly long, the physical demands relentless, and the working conditions can be atrocious. Anyone who thinks working on movies is a glamorous endeavor should ponder the reality of slaving all night in a driving rain, muscling heavy cables charged with enough pulsing electricity to vaporize steel, all the while moving, setting up, and constantly adjusting very hot movie lamps – and doing this until the sun finally rises to put an end to the suffering. But sometimes the director decides he’s not ready to go home just yet, so the crew moves inside to shoot interiors on stage for another few hours... The money can be good for a job that doesn’t require much in the way of formal education (and certainly not a college degree), but this work isn’t for everybody. Still, people flock from all over the country to Hollywood every year, hell bent on getting into “the movies” – most of them without a clue of what they’re in for.

I know how that feels. Like so many others who roll into Tinsel Town fresh off the turnip truck, mine was a face-first, sink-or-swim education in the realities of Industry life. Clueless but motivated, I worked long and hard to build a good reputation, and in the process, began to understand what those before me already knew: talk is cheap. It’s easy to say you’ll work your butt off doing whatever it takes to learn the business, but actually doing it is something else. Like any truly meaningful knowledge, it can only be learned the hard way, through experience, in the arena of the Joe Frazier School of Higher Education. Industry veterans have good reason to regard the earnest-but-ignorant enthusiasm of young wannabes with such a thoroughly jaundiced eye. After a few years of taking my lumps, it finally dawned on me why I’d been greeted with such naked, lip-curling skepticism by the old-timers – and rightfully so.

Most Industry kids grew up around movie sets, and are thus unencumbered by starry-eyed fantasies of life in the movie biz. Those who follow their fathers into the Industry know just what to expect and how much will be demanded of them: the good, the bad, and the ugly -- and if scaling the walls of Hollywood from the outside is tough, sliding in under the wing of nepotism is no walk in the park. Every father’s son who enters the business has a reputation to live up to – or live down. If his dad was a good worker, the kid will have to work even harder to prove himself worthy. But if the old man was known for less-than-stellar work habits – and many among the older generation were raging alcoholics -- his son will have to make a sustained effort to overcome the bias that “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” Many of the true legends of the biz, actors and crew alike, were known for burning the candle hot and bright at both ends. Stepping into the oversize shoes of such a legend is an unenviable task.

Unlike outsiders, who get to leave the eternally contentious father/son dynamic at home, an Industry kid often ends up working alongside that father, learning the nuts-and-bolts of the trade from a hard-driving man who never seems to tire of reminding his son that he’d better not embarrass the old man. Learning under the weight of such highly-charged expectations is a bruising process, but out of this crucible comes the backbone of the Industry: solidly-trained professionals who know how to do the job right, do it safely, and do it fast. Workers like these make everyone around them better, and in the process, save time and money for production companies in a thousand unseen and typically unappreciated ways. It’s all part of being a professional.

Things don’t always work out quite so neatly, of course. Some Industry sons come into the biz bitter, stay bitter, and will doubtless die in that bilious state of perpetual bitterness about the whole thing. These people are a drag on everybody around them, making a long work day even longer -- the proverbial bad apples who taint the Industry barrel, and give nepotism such a bad name -- but with the occasional glaring exception, they rarely rise high enough to do serious damage. Nepotism will forever (and justifiably) wear the stigma of being inherently unfair, but without it, the Industry would be a very different place – whether for better or worse is hard to say. A couple of years back, Warner Brothers Studio adopted policies to prevent fathers from working on the same crew with their sons or daughters. This doubtless sounded good on paper to the suits-and-ties who have no clue what it means to get one’s hands dirty at work, but in the real world, such rules aren’t necessarily fair, nor will they work in the long run. With college expenses skyrocketing every year, and manufacturing jobs that pay a decent wage steadily migrating overseas, following the parental footsteps into the film industry remains one of the few viable options left for many Industry kids.

There’s no telling what the future holds for Hollywood. The continual evolution of technology and the Internet are sure to raise thorny challenges to established modes of film and television distribution, with serious repercussions for all of us who work in the Industry. The music business is currently floundering in the wake of the digital revolution, and in time, Hollywood may well get hammered in much the same way. It’s possible the Industry will eventually be turned upside-down, with vastly more work going digital, outsourced to Asia. In that unhappy event, all bets are off. But until then, there’s one thing I know: so long as a domestic work force is needed to do the heavy lifting that puts television and movies up on the screen, nepotism is here to stay.

Next: Part Two

* And the same applies above the line...

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Oscar's Big Night

Yeah, I'd be grinning too...

Taylor Hackford and Helen Mirren.
Photo by Paul Smith

“It is hard to laugh at the need for beauty and romance, no matter how tasteless, even horrible, the results of that are. But it is easy to sigh. Few things are sadder than the truly monstrous.”

Excerpt from “Day of the Locust” by Nathanael West

I first read Nathanael West’s dark reflections on Hollywood life shortly after arriving in this smog-choked* entropical paradise of Los Angeles. Fresh off the turnip truck, I was abysmally ignorant in the ways of the Industry, and eager for any insights on the nature of Hollywood, my new home-away-from-home. “Day of the Locust” proved to be a lurid, entertaining, and memorable read – but as a product of its time (1933), I thought it rather dated, and more than a bit over the top. Thirty years later, I can only offer a belated apology to the late, great Mr. West, who got a lot more right than wrong in nailing Tinsel Town to its very own gilded cross. He took a good look at the human dilemma facing every artist who comes to work in the movie business, poking a hard finger into the pretense and phoniness layered like six inches of sickly-sweet frosting atop the bitter cake of greed, fear, and insecurity at the heart of this heartless Industry. Much has changed in the last seventy-five years – the advent and ever-expanding reach of television, the dazzling virtuosity of modern film technology, and an exponential increase in the population of LA – but the essential truths underlined by Nathanael West still hold today.

Last Sunday was Oscar Night, Hollywood’s annual air kiss into the brightly lit make-up mirror of onanistic narcissism, a self-congratulatory salute to everything the Industry holds dear. I’ve never been a huge fan of the Oscars, or our perverse obsession with celebrity here in Tabloid Nation -- gawking as youth and beauty march arm-in-arm down that famous red carpet dressed in ridiculously expensive, one-off gowns designed to be worn exactly once. The broadcast itself has metastasized over the years into a bloated carnival of glittering tedium, an endless parade of winners lurching from the relative anonymity of the audience up those steps and into the spotlight, there to blubber thanks to their agents, managers, lawyers, and other bloodsucking Hollywood leeches.

That much, I understand. In a business famous for its dependence on the highly volatile blend of talent and supersized ego (so often driven by the neurotic need to be “loved” by faceless legions of utter strangers), and equally infamous for behind-the-scenes backstabbing in the desperate, zero-sum struggle to grasp another rung on the slippery ladder of Hollywood success, an annual group-hug by and for the inmates of this gilded asylum makes a certain sense. It made a lot more sense back in the old days (way before my time), when the Oscar ceremony was a private affair for insiders only. All that changed in 1953, when the Academy allowed NBC to take the Oscars public with the first television broadcast, turning the event into an official network product: a bright, shiny bauble designed and staged to induce millions of viewer/consumers to sit through three-plus hours of expensive commercials. The Oscar broadcast remains unique among award shows in that it’s live – and in some ways, can be seen as the original “reality show” (a relatively unscripted drama involving carefully selected individuals) – but in essence, it’s now just another television show.

Everyone directly involved with a nominated film -- actors, writers, directors, and producers, along with highly skilled below-the-line craftspeople – has a vested interest in the Oscars. In a big little town like Hollywood, most of us living in the radius of the studio zone know somebody with a connection to a film in the running. But despite the dusty warnings of Nathanael West, I still have a hard time understanding why anybody outside the Industry – civilians – would actually care which movie wins Best Picture, or what director/producer/actor/actress/composer/editor/art director/cinematographer goes home with the little gold man. I find it astonishing that so many people are willing to line up outside the Kodak Theater and wait hour after hour on a chilly February afternoon just to catch a fleeting glimpse of a few movie stars and their parasitic celebrity-wannabe hangers-on. But they do, year after year. Although the LA Times complained that “only 33 million people” watched last Sunday night, that’s more than ten percent of the entire U.S. population, representing a huge public appetite for this elaborately staged, weepy, and well-coiffed spectacle. The audience may be aging, and down in numbers from past broadcasts, but a lot of people still love the Oscars.

I used to enjoy the event a lot more than I do now. During my early years in the biz, I dutifully planted myself in front of the toob on Oscar Night. Having worked so hard to become a tiny cog in the vast Hollywood Machine, I felt a sense of belonging, as well as a certain obligation to observe the rituals of the clan at large. I was finally part of Hollywood – if only as a bottom feeder, far below-the-line -- and when in Rome, one does as the Romans.

As my work shifted from features to commercials and music videos, the Oscars began to lose their relevance. At a certain point, I tuned-out altogether, ignoring Oscar Night for twenty years. I finally broke tradition to watch during the year Charlize Theron won for a performance in which she transformed her lithe and lovely self into a monstrously grotesque homicidal prostitute. In a way, this seemed like a mirror-image of the transformation Hollywood itself goes through every year for the Oscars, morphing from its actual Industrial self -- a cold and merciless money-machine -- into a glittering, beautiful blond lighting up the world with her ten thousand watt smile. If this sounds a bit harsh, remember that Hollywood is very much a bottom-line business that has left countless starry-eyed dreamers battered and broken in her wake. Perhaps this is the fate of dreamers everywhere – romantic idealism mugged on the mean streets of reality -- but the beatings meted out by Hollywood are particularly bruising.

That said, the Oscars are not the worst offender among awards shows. When it comes to the lamest and most purely commercial of award extravaganzas, the Grammys take the title every year. Lest there be any doubt, consider two words that sum up the Grammys in a nutshell: Millie Vanilli. Quality has nothing to do with it where the Grammys are concerned. Quantity -- as in gross sales income – is everything. The Grammies represent all that is hollow and rotten and ruthlessly corporate in the music industry, the one business that still makes Hollywood look good by contrast.

Finishing a distant second in the Award Show Hall of Shame are the Emmys, which slavishly follow the party line of conventional Industry wisdom when it comes to bestowing awards. I’m not saying those who receive Emmys aren’t deserving -- some of them, anyway – but rather that the Emmys remain grimly determined to take no risks whatsoever. Go out on a limb to reward a quirky, innovative show that hasn’t yet managed to attract millions of advertiser-pleasing eyeballs? Forget it, kid. The Emmys don’t go there.

This is just one juicer's opinion, of course. Lots of good people enjoy the Grammys and Emmys -– there is, after all, no accounting for individual taste -- but personally, I’d rather go to the dentist than sit through either of those shows. At least the dentist sends me home with clean teeth. The best I can say is that the Oscars look pretty good in comparison, but considering that we’re grading on a curve in the broadcast equivalent of a Third World whorehouse, such comparisons don’t count for much.

So did I utterly ignore the Oscars last Sunday? That’s not really an option if you live in Hollywood, with half the streets blocked off, helicopters buzzing around in circles, and far above, the Goodyear Blimp drifting back and forth among patchy clouds like a fat, blue-on-silver whale. When 5:30 arrived, I turned on the toob in time to see Regis Philbin wind up his one-man orgy of blathering, groveling self-humiliation, then watched the first half hour of the broadcast.

That was enough. I mean no disrespect to Daniel Day-Lewis, Javier Bardem, Marion Cotillard, Tilda Swinton, or the Cohen brothers – hey, congratulations to everyone who had a big night in the Kodak Theater, winners and nominees alike – but I turned off the television and found something else to do until dinnertime.

Given that life is usually more fun inside with the party -- rather than pressing one’s nose against the icy glass while peering in from the cold -- you might wonder if there's a reason for my sour attitude towards Oscar, some dark secret or private grudge I’ve nursed all these years, turning me against all that glitters on Oscar’s Big Night.

Mostly I just find the broadcast too dull for words, but truth be told (and if this blog is about anything, it’s about the raw truth of Hollywood life), there has indeed been a small, sharp Oscar-shaped bone stuck in my metaphorical craw for three long decades. Very early in my so-called career, I worked on a film that won an Oscar. In 1978 -- when “The Deer Hunter” was awarded Best Picture, Jon Voight and Jane Fonda won for “Coming Home,” Christopher Walken took Best Supporting Actor, and Michael Cimino (“Deer Hunter”) beat out Alan Parker (“Midnight Express”) for Best Director – a film called “Teenage Father,” written and directed by the young Taylor Hackford, won the Oscar for Best Live Action Short. It was barely half an hour long (short films by definition being... short), but the golden statuette Hackford held in his sweaty palms that night was just as big and shiny as Jane Fonda’s – and as far as Hollywood is concerned, winning an Oscar for anything is the rough equivalent of receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor. In this town, there is no higher award.

So did I get a golden statue? Of course not. Did I deserve one? Absolutely not – as a wet-behind-the-ears swing man on a three person grip/electric crew, I was just lucky to get the job in the first place. Besides, other than an occasional technical achievement** award, neither grips, juicers, nor gaffers are eligible for Oscars. The closest we get to Oscar Night is when a film we worked on wins for Best Cinematography – and that represents a combined win for the grip, set lighting, and camera departments. If they’re lucky, the winning D.P. might remember to thank the crew before he walks offstage clutching his little gold man.

Other than the paycheck, the only thing I actually deserved (along with the rest of the grip/lighting crew) was a credit: my name somewhere near the bottom of the crawl at the end of the film. Credits are a throwaway -- the cheapest of perks routinely doled out to those who do the heavy lifting essential to making any film. As anyone who has endured the full ten-to-fifteen minutes credit roll at the end of a feature screening knows, everybody who works on a movie -- from the lowest production assistant to the lead actress’s husband’s girlfriend (generally listed as a “producer”) -- gets a credit. Whoever you are, and whatever you did (or didn’t do), you get your name in the credits. It’s part of the deal, just like getting paid. And don't for a moment think that we crew members won't sit there in the dark waiting for our names to appear up on the screen. Many will deny this, but we all do it. As silly as it seems, those credits matter.

But not on “Teenage Fathers.” None of us – not the gaffer, key grip, or lowly swing-man received a credit at the end of that film. If those credits had been limited to actors, director, and producer, I’d have been okay with it, but when the production assistant got a credit -- she who brought coffee and donuts in the morning, kept our minimal craft service table stocked, and cleaned up the locations after we wrapped – I smelled something rotten in Denmark. That P.A. worked hard, and fully deserved her credit, just like the rest of us. But unlike us, she happened to have a very famous last name, well-known in literary circles and beyond -- she was somebody, and thus more deserving than those of us who carried the sandbags, ran the power, and set the lights.

That was one of my first lessons in The Way Hollywood Works. It wasn’t the last.

Do I sound bitter? Moi? Nahh, it’s nothing. I got paid for the job, and that’s supposed to be enough, right? Hey, this is America, where (in the words of Randy Newman) “It’s money that matters.”


Right. But that money is thirty years gone, and there wasn’t all that much of it in the first place. Short films are made on equally short budgets, and I’m sure the writer/director and his producer were just trying to save a few precious dollars by skimping on the credits. But to this day, I feel a tiny surge of adrenaline every time I hear or read the name “Taylor Hackford.” Not only did he win his Oscar, then go on to enjoy a richly rewarding Hollywood career, but he ended up marrying Helen Mirren, a wonderfully talented actress, and the sexiest sixty-something woman in the world – which is reason enough to give him a hard time.

And no, I never thought I'd ever use the words "sexy" and "sixty-something" in the same sentence...

It’s not possible to work in Hollywood for any length of time without taking a few slings and arrows along the way, and there’s always more where those came from. All you can do is throw them on the back of that overloaded camel groaning in the shadow of the Hollywood sign – and when my camel finally collapses with a broken back, I’ll know it’s time to go.

So I raise a glass in this post-Oscar week to Mike Popovitch and Josh Rich – two superbly skilled lighting grips who taught me a lot when I knew nothing at all. We didn’t get the credit, but thirty years ago our efforts helped win an Oscar. Not everybody in this town can make that claim, and not even Taylor Hackford – or those missing credits -- can take it away from us.

*In the late 70’s, eye-stinging, lung-searing third-stage smog alerts were everyday life in the summer. For those who lacked the blessing of air-conditioning – yeah, that’s me raising my hand in the back -- late August and September in the Valley was like crawling naked through all nine flaming circles of Hell. Some things do get better over time, and although smog still plagues Southern California, it’s not nearly so bad as it used to be.

** In 1983, Dicky Deats won a Technical Achievement Oscar for the design and manufacture of the Tulip Crane – or “Little Big Crane.”