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 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.


D said...

What an excellent freaking post.A pleasure to read. Over the years I have played a prisonER (In the Heat of the Night), a grip (Pet Semetary 2), a reporter (Boycott) and I still haven't hit it big. I do happen to know Andrew Mcclaglen, though, whose daughter and son I have worked with many times (I actually had him sign a DVD of "McClintock!". I never looked as good as you in that milkman suit though.

Scripty said...

Nice you got singled out a few times. A buddy of mine's favorite story is about a lucky grip. For reasons I cannot remember a grip was chosen to make out with a famous actress for a scene. After the first take the boys where whooping "let's hear it for local ##!”

Unknown said...

Hell yes:

(Two minutes, thirty-four seconds, boys...)