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, April 27, 2008

Promo Land: Walking in the Shoes of The Other

Despite many recent ups and downs – the latest insult being a withering blast of wind-borne heat that howled in from the desert to broil Southern California like one of those supermarket rotisserie chickens -- it’s still early Spring here in LA. And even in this most troublesome of years, with Hollywood wallowing in the choppy wake of one strike while another looms on the June horizon (the actors this time, should SAG and AFTRA fail to make a deal), we remain in the midst of pilot season. Not the normal, frenzied, pedal-to-the-metal pilot season, mind you -- but an ear placed to the ground at the right time, in the right place, can detect the busy hum of pilots being hammered out all over town.

For me -- twice-burned in the Pilot Derby already during this most uneasy Spring -- the sound and fury of all these pilots has been just that: the low rumble of very distant thunder. A raft of cancellations threw sand in the gears of the pilot schedule at my home lot, and after three days of rigging/wrapping, I took work on the outside doing TV promos for the “up fronts”* in NY later this spring.

I’m fairly new to Promo Land (yet another port of call on my long and winding Hollywood journey), and although not particularly physically taxing, promos do present their own set of challenges. With a generally minimal lighting package (we used less than a dozen small lamps on each promo), there’s no heavy cable to run through stinking alleys, or B.F.L.’s** to drag up onto location rooftops -- but the crews are very small (often just a gaffer, juicer, and a grip), which means everybody has to pitch in to make it happen. That’s fine so long as the Giant Brains higher up the food chain stick to their original plans, but when they wander off the reservation and start getting “creative,” the problems -- and subsequent fuckage du cluster -- are sure to follow.

At the moment, promos remain in the nether world of non-union production, which means the crew earns no contributions towards union health or pension plans. Some of the crew are non-union, so for them, this is a non-issue. For those who do the occasional day of promos between union gigs (moi), this is irritating but tolerable, since I get enough union hours working at the studio. But those union crew members who (for one reason or another) have come to depend on Promo Land for their bread and butter are caught in a decidedly uncomfortable squeeze between a rock and a hard place. That's not a good place to be.

Still, television promos offer gainful employment, and in this year of living dangerously close to the Hollywood edge, work is money, and money is life. I haven’t yet met the landlord or credit card company that gives a damn where the money comes from, so long as my check ends up in their hands in a timely manner. We do what we can -- and what we must.

That said, there are downsides to Promo Land. These production companies tend to fly on a wing and a prayer, and thus bid their jobs on a 12 hour rate – that is, the crew receives no overtime until 12 working hours have elapsed. Maybe I’m just incorrigibly lazy, but even after thirty-plus years of this kind of work, I still consider 12 hours to be a long day, especially considering this doesn't include travel or meal time. Factor that in, and you’re often looking at a 14 hour day from the moment you walk out the front door until you return home. Fortunately, most promos are one-day jobs, so I haven’t had to work two consecutive long days in Promo Land. Not yet, anyway.

Then there’s the tedium: once the lights are set up, there’s nothing to do but wait for the “talent” (the show cast members) to become available for our camera. So we wait, and wait, and wait... and when the actor/actress finally does show up, there’s a mad scramble to adjust the lighting to that particular individual, then we sit in absolute silence while the interview proceeds. Over the course of twelve hours, this means a lot of waiting.

I have to remind myself that I’m getting paid to wait. Sure, it's tedious -- but at this point, a little tedium is better than breaking my back lugging tons of cable, as on countless other jobs.

For me, the worst aspect of promos for me is the sense of trespassing -- like a carpetbagger -- onto someone else’s set. I’ve done enough features and television shows to know exactly how if feels to have another crew come onto our stage, and shoot on our sets – our turf -- and I didn’t like it one little bit. Whether it was an Entertainment Tonight crew showing up in the snows of Vermont to tape a brief snippet with our actors, (then hop back in their warm van and head to the hotel bar while we worked another 12 hours in the miserable cold), or a video crew filming interviews on one of our stage sets to promote a network sit-com, I couldn’t help feeling an ugly resentment towards such interlopers. After all the hard, painstaking work we'd done lighting a location or stage, it was galling to watch another crew saunter on set to as if they owned the place. To me, they were just parasites, taking full advantage of our labor while offering nothing in return. That we were expected to supply these auslanders with power for their lights only served to sprinkle salt into the wound.

There’s no logic at all behind this sense of resentment. Every film or television show is designed and made to be sold, and the more good publicity it gets, the easier it is to popularize and sell that show. A popular show has a much better chance at staying on the air, and thus offer continued employment – which means I should have been happy to help these crews as much as possible. And of course, I did help them a smile – but it was a shallow, toothy Hollywood grin.

Although I don’t pretend to fully understand this phenomenon (which represents astonishingly childish behavior), I can only assume it goes far beyond the bright and sunny surface world, down into the misty swamps of the most primitive human behaviors ruled by the Reptilian Brain. There in the dank shadows lurks the Cranial Lizard, staring with unblinking eyes that evaluate everything and everyone in the starkest terms of Friend or Foe. Logic stemming from even the most basic understanding of the Big Picture clearly dictates that such promo/publicity crews are Friends -- but some darker, cold-blooded instinct can only view them as The Other.

Nobody likes to be that Other, least of all a small film crew entering the turf of a much larger crew. So when we stepped onto sets of “Ugly Betty,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” and “Dance With the Stars,” I felt a distinctly uncomfortable sense of role reversal – suddenly I was one of those reviled interlopers, getting the cold shoulder from the show crew.

And once again I learned how humbling it can be to wind up on the receiving end of Karma.

Fortunately for our little band of trespassing brothers, all three of these shows provided experienced day-players to supply us power and bring up the existing set lighting to the extent needed to shoot our interviews. Day players tend to lack the emotional investment of the regular crew – they’re more like distant cousins of the show, rather than part of the immediate family – and thus are free of the who-the-hell-are-you edge the show crew quite naturally feels. These people (juicers, dimmer operators, grips, and set-dressers) were immensely helpful to us, and at the end of each day, I felt an odd blend of gratitude and shame -- grateful that they were so helpful, and ashamed of my own idiotic, pathetically provincial resentments in the past.

Maybe it’s a good thing to walk a mile in the shoes of The Other.

That said, it looks like I’m done with Promo Land for a while. The Gods of Pilot Season decided not to shun me after all, in the form of an insistently ringing telephone on Friday morning: one of those stalled pilots at the studio had finally solved its casting problems, and the show was ready to go on. With a slot on the crew open, I was to report for work at 3:30 that afternoon.

The good news is this means a week of work. The bad news? It will be a real week of work. Due to scheduling issues with the studio (caused by the delay while the casting problems were solved), we’re plowing straight through the weekend and deep into next week to light, block, and shoot the show -- and then wrap the stage. What with those promos last week, this may turn into a seven or eight day run, with no time off for good behavior. As one who works to live, rather than lives to work, the notion of working eight days a week is daunting.

But we take it as it comes this Spring: feast or famine, for better or worse.

Then there’s the cameraman we’ll be working for -- a genial fellow who also happens to be one of the most notorious “tweakers” in the known world of sit-coms: a man famous for never being satisfied with the lighting. For many years now, I’ve been hearing stories of how he keeps his crew running like meth-fueled hamsters in a rolling cage, constantly adjusting and readjusting the lighting right on through show night. So now I get to find out, first hand, if those stories are true...

That’s okay. Good, bad, or ugly, it’ll all be over in a week. This remains the overriding virtue of an otherwise crazy Industry – few jobs go on so long that you can’t see light at the end of the tunnel. A short but solid run of work at union scale (well, “pilot scale,” meaning a buck-an-hour less) and paying full benefits, is just what the doctor ordered.

In these restive times, that’s a good thing indeed.

* The annual dog-and-pony show wherein the networks trot out their new shows to seduce the advertisers into buying time on the fall lineup. That means commercials: the shit in the shit sandwich that remains the Devil’s Bargain of “free” network television programming .

**Big Fucking Lights: usually 18K HMI’s or 20K tungsten lamps that weigh up to 145 pounds – and that’s just the lamp head. If you include the requisite ballasts, feeder cables, lamp stand, cable and power distribution equipment, you’re talking many hundreds of pounds.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Parade Magazine’s Glamorous World of Hollywood

This isn’t the first time I’ve addressed this issue, nor do I suppose it will be the last -- Sisyphus had his rock, and I’ve got mine. So here we go again with the “glamorous” business of Hollywood...

On a recent sweltering Sunday morning (for a while there, April was the “new August” in Southern California), I was sorting out the wheat-from-chaff of the Sunday LA Times – a weekly ritual wherein a blizzard of glossy advertisements and other useless crap flies into the recycling pile, while any potentially interesting/readable sections land on the breakfast table. By the time it’s over, fully two-thirds of a very thick newspaper lies in the big blue bin.

Such is the nature of our consumer economy.

One of the first items to go is usually “Parade,” a cheap-ass, feel-good piece of nationally syndicated fluff/advertising that seems to take pride in masquerading as a kind of poor man’s Reader’s Digest -- all that’s missing is anything useful, interesting, or informative. Not that I’m any fan of Reader’s Digest, mind you, but where R.D. at least makes an honest effort to inform its readers on some semi-useful level (none who read it will forget the riveting “I am Joe’s Spleen”), Parade is content to wallow in the celebutainment muck of soft-core, tabloid-lite trash. Still, even a blind pig finds the occasional acorn, and this issue of Parade tried hard in a cover piece titled “What People Earn: Our Annual Report.”

I don’t know why I should care what anybody else in this world earns (unless I’m a just a deeply closeted reality show fan in major-league denial...) but I couldn’t resist taking a look before tossing it – and for that, I hang my head in shame. As I sat there clucking over the reality of working in America these days – according to Parade, a farmer in Ohio earned $30,000 last year, growing food with his bare hands, sweat, and back-breaking labor, while the odious Dr. Phil raked in $90 million vomiting pre-digested platitudes into the open, waiting mouths of a vast and oh-so-needy television audience – I came across a section titled "What You Can Make in Entertainment."

Well, well, well, my little Droogies -- inquiring minds do want to know.

After disclosing that George Clooney makes $20 million/movie (this is news? I assumed everybody from Jim Carrey to Julia Roberts makes twenty million every time they open their preternaturally large mouths), the piece claimed that the median wage for actors in the U.S. is less than $12/hour. That could even be true, given that the majority of actors are actually waiters and waitresses slaving for minimum wage and tips while counting the hours until the next audition. Then again, it could be complete bullshit -- on this, I’m not really qualified to argue with the Bureau of Labor Statistics as quoted by the editors of Parade.

At that point, though, those same editors revealed just how shallow and polluted their research aquifer really is, in declaring “As for the rest of the crew, they’re clearly doing it for the glamour, not the money.”

Yeah, it’s “the glamour” all right -- clearly. Nothing sends stardust-sprinkled shivers down my spine like getting up at 4:30 in the morning to make a 7 a.m. call, then working 12 to 14 hours doing a very physical job, before crawling home with barely enough time to shower, inhale a stiff drink or two, and hit the sack in preparation to run the same grueling gauntlet the following day -- and the next, and the next, and the next. Apparently the editors of Parade didn’t bother to ask anyone who actually knows what it’s like to work a feature film or episodic television show with a work week that kicks off at 7:00 Monday morning, and doesn’t end until 6:00 a.m. Saturday – a week that burns through a minimum 60 to 70 working hours only to reboot all over again the following Monday. Try working that kind of pace for a full season from July through April, then tell me it’s all about “the glamour.”

Many of these jobs – particularly the ubiquitous crime dramas -- involve lots of night filming in downtown Los Angeles, home to the largest concentration of homeless people west of Manhattan. Given that there are nowhere nearly enough shelters or bathroom facilities to accommodate all these people, parts of downtown LA have become the Calcutta of the West Coast. Certain alleys down there are nothing more than open sewers – and naturally, that’s where so many directors just love to shoot. Maybe they’re attracted by the haunting visual textures of a crumbling city -- or maybe they just like the smell of shit -- but as usual, it's the film crews who suffer the consequences. Production generally hires a water truck to make a pass through those alleys before we show up, which washes some of that human waste away -- but it also serves to rehydrate all the dried crap and urine that’s been deposited and baked into the pavement over the previous weeks and months, thus creating a fetid slurry of raw sewage in which we have to run cable to power our lights. I’ve seen nice neat cable runs fully submerged beneath six inches of shit and piss in those alleys, where a lungful of the foul, choking stench is enough to make you vomit.

If the editors of Parade Magazine consider this to be “glamorous” work, I’d hate to see what they consider a disgusting job.

The last time I worked under such conditions (while filming Rickey Martin’s music video, “La Vida Loca”), I staggered home at dawn after a long night of work and threw my shoes and gloves in the garbage can out back. I awoke later that afternoon with second thoughts -- those shoes weren’t cheap -- so I used a stick to drop them in a Clorox solution for a couple of days. Then I ran them through a Laundromat washing machine and dried them in the fierce LA sun. Still, it was a couple of weeks before I got that stench out of my nose.

There’s nothing remotely glamorous about such hard, dirty labor. It can be lucrative, though, especially if the job is at full union scale.* In that case, a grip or juicer can gross more than $2000 for a 60 hour week – and considerably more if they get burned to a crisp working 70 hours, since those last ten hours are paid at double-time. On an episodic (exhibit A: the “CSI” franchise and spin-offs), a crew member on first unit can expect to bring in $70,000 a year or more – and that, my ill-informed editors of Parade Magazine, is why they do it. It’s not for the dubious thrill of running into Gary Sinise or David Caruso at the craft service table.

We who work below-the-line got into it for a variety of reasons, but I suspect most Industry work-bots were never suited for the “normal” jobs offered by society in the first place. Some people have no interest in (or business) being doctors, lawyers, accountants, or pharmacists. For most of us, that route simply wasn’t an option. I can’t say why (some questions have no answers), but for me, it was either go to Hollywood or join the metaphorical circus -- and they weren’t hiring that week. If my own Hollywood journey didn’t start out to be for the money, that’s pretty much where it has ended up. Not that I make a lot – you have to work horrendous hours to bank those big checks, and I can no longer physically endure the relentless day-in, day-out grind of episodics or features. So I take less demanding, less lucrative work. But that’s okay -- where else am I going to make thirty bucks an hour packaged with a medical, dental, chiropractic, and vision plan? Those benefits represent money too, and are worth suffering for.

Some of my peers may feel differently, but I don’t do this work for the supposed glamor of rubbing shoulders with stars and celebrities. Although I’ve done plenty of freebies over the years (public service spots and spec shoots to help friends trying to break free of crew work and breathe the rarefied air above-the-line), in general, I will not do this work for free. Like any self-respecting Hollywood whore, I do it for the money. Sooner or later, that's what it comes down to for most of us: we do this to earn a living -- that much, at least, we share with the rest of the workaday world.

Even though Parade had now lost any last shreds of credibility, I checked out the rest of the piece, which revealed a few tidbits. Maybe they’re true, maybe not – but according to Parade, a “competitive eater” in New York grossed $25K last year, a “weight-loss facilitator” in New Hampshire earned $27K, Leona Helmsley’s dog “Trouble” took in $12 million, Miley Cyrus (daughter of a man who just might be the least-talented professional singer in the history of music) made $18.2 million, while Oprah raked in a cool $265 million. But even Oprah – reigning She-Goddess of Television, standing astride our media culture like the Colossus of Rhodes – is but a small, noisy insect compared to “John Paulson,” a 52 year old man who (according to the dubious sources at Parade) runs a hedge fund in New York City. He might resemble nothing so much as a pale, startled lab rat, but Mr. Paulson somehow contrived to make $3.5 billion dollars last year – and yes, that’s billion, with a “b”.

And you know what, oh wise and learned editors of Parade?

I’ll bet he does it for the money, too.

* If the show is produced by one of the cable networks (and here, HBO is the prime offender), the crew will work a lot harder and make considerably less money thanks to “sidebar” sweetheart deals signed with the union when those cable outfits were first formed many years ago. More work for less money – now THAT’s a glamorous business. I just wish the editors of Parade Magazine could personally experience such “glamor” by spending a few months working ten more hours each week for a check that comes in nearly 30% lighter...

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Kick the Can

“We come with the dust and we go with the wind.”
from “Pastures of Plenty,” by Woody Guthrie

Sometimes, it seems, you just can’t win. It may be true that every Hollywood life – above or below the line – remains an inherently unstable endeavor, but this is getting ridiculous. My own little corner of Hollywood has been a roller coaster ride these past two weeks: rocketing up, plunging down, and careening around neck-snapping hairpin turns I never saw coming. Maybe there’s no such thing as mental whiplash – but I just might call the doctor anyway on this, the first weekend of April...

Working free-lance is something of a high-wire act performed over the yawning void, with nothing more than six month’s worth of unemployment checks as a safety net below. Unless you have an unusual burden of financial responsibilities -- or have been livin’ way too large -- those bi-weekly checks will usually cover the rent and some portion of the grocery bill. That’s a lot better than nothing, but if six months comes and goes with no serious work, you’ll be staring at a free-fall plunge into the abyss, sans parachute. You don’t want to lose your balance up there on that high wire -- the blend of experience and perspective that serves as an inertial guidance system keeping you more or less on track. Allowing yourself the indulgence of getting too high (over a good run of work) or too low (due to a sustained lack of work) can upset that delicate balance and send you into a tailspin of self-fulfilling expectations. Learning to manage your expectations can be pivotal to maintaining that crucial sense of balance.

This is no problem during good times, but these are not good times in America – and despite the endless blathering of certain Talk Radio foghorns, Hollywood is just as much a part of America as Cincinnati, Ohio. The WGA strike dropped a big stinking boulder into our local work-pond, where shock waves still reverberate through an already unsettled Industry. Finding a securely stable point of balance – a zen-like state of grace -- in such troubled times may not be realistic, but rather a goal to which the free-lance Industry work-bot continually strives. One way or another, though, it’s important to keep the faith that things will work out in the end. They always have in the past, so why should that change now?*

The good news is that I’m back and working -- five full days last week, and three the week before, starting the moment Doc Sawbones gave his approval for me to resume gainful employment. For this, I feel fortunate, given how many of my fellow work-bots are still waiting for the phone to ring. The flip side – the bad news -- is that the events of the past couple of weeks served notice that I can’t expect to have much control over my working fate in 2008. This will be a year of catch-as-catch-can, during which what happens, happens. All I can do is hope for the best, take what comes, and try to kick the proverbial can down the road a ways.

Truth be told, this is pretty much how Hollywood works at every level -- from network execs down to production assistants, we do what we can (and what we must) to kick the can down the road. In an Industry so inherently unpredictable that only the most hard-wired optimist would dare make any plans beyond that day’s work, short-term coping mechanisms are key to creating some rough semblance of stability. Like our ancient hunter-gatherer ancestors, we grab what we can here and now – today -- and worry about the unpredictably mysterious future later. We kick the can down the road.

That’s essentially what the writers did to bring an end to their recent WGA strike. The negotiating committees made measurable progress (along with some serious compromises) towards dealing with the Big Issues embedded in the technological tsunami that is the digital revolution – but mostly they agreed to disagree, settling what little they could while leaving the more nettlesome details for the next contract battle.

The Gods of Hollywood are famous for their proclivity to giveth and taketh away, dispensing bitch-slaps and pats on the back according to their own capricious whim. After the pilot vanished (last week’s post), I took the first job that was offered: a few days working on the studio lamp dock, which is suddenly very busy meeting the demands of this strange pilot season. It didn’t take long to fall back into the familiar routine (ten hour days working on that hard concrete floor), but late Friday afternoon brought some entirely unexpected (and extremely welcome) news: as of the following week, I would be traded to a sit-com for a juicer-to-be-named-later.** It wasn’t to be a permanent gig – as if anything in this seismically-challenged town could ever be considered “permanent” -- but would go for a good three weeks. After four months with no work at all, I finally knew where my next three paychecks were coming from. Things were going to work out after all.

Best of all, the show was an honest-to-God four camera sit com, working with a really good crew led by one of the nicest gaffers I’ve ever met. There were no whiners, no screamers, no inflated egos or bent and bitter personalities soured by decades of disappointment -- none of the petty bullshit that so often ruins what could otherwise be a really good show.*** From the actors to the production assistants, the stage was full of cheerful people going about their business calmly and efficiently as possible, and always with a good sense of humor.

Had I died and gone to heaven?

Not exactly – work is still work, and there aren’t many of us willing to do it for free – but I was very happy to be here for three weeks of humane, non-abusive hours (at full union scale), enjoying the amenities that come with any decent show: lots of laughs, free food, and all the bottled water/coffee I could drink. More than that, this was a chance to belong somewhere again, to – however briefly – be part of a terrific crew doing its level best to make a good show every week. That may sound like the most ephemeral of benefits to working a show, but in some ways it’s the most important perk of all. The freedom of working free-lance can be a wonderful thing, but every now and then, we all like to come in from the cold. A good show is like a having a home away from home – shelter from the storm -- especially the way things are in the chaos that is Hollywood these days.

This opportunity arose when a pilot started up on another stage at the studio, and one of my new show’s juicers got the nod for the Best Boy job on that pilot. The result was a win-win for us both: he’d make more money doing less physical work on his new job, while I got a steady three week gig on a very sweet little show. Symbiosis is a beautiful thing. That the pilot he happened to be going to was in fact the very same pilot central to last week’s post (the one that got away), only made the deal all the sweeter. All’s well that ends well, and seeing the scales of justice swing back towards a more equitable balance restored my own recently-tested faith that things really do work out in the end.

There’s a price to be paid for everything in this world, though, and the bill for this little piece of heaven would come due in three weeks when that pilot ended, and the man I replaced returned to claim his job. At that point, my lovely chariot would morph back into a pumpkin – and after three weeks of bonding with the crew on such a great job, that would be tough. But such is life, which cannot exist without the hovering inevitability of death. Besides, three weeks of predictable paychecks would make up for losing that other pilot, allowing me the luxury of worrying about May (and beyond) only after April was over and done.

The show turned out to be the best working environment I’ve yet encountered in ten years of toiling for the Great Beast of Television: better than I’d ever thought possible. But sometimes, the can you thought you’d kicked clear out of sight just won’t stay down that road -- the wind, or fate, or some other malign force blows it right back in your teeth. That bell tolled for me in the form of a phone call late Wednesday night: the pilot (yes that pilot) had been abruptly cancelled over casting issues, and was now consigned to the garbage heap of history. Not only did that crew lose their three week job at the last possible moment, but the guy whose job I had assumed on this sweet little sit-com would now be replacing me. I could work the Thursday shoot night and help with the following day’s filming of the title sequence, but that was it. My three week job was down to two days and counting. And to pour salt in the wound, I’d already turned down two weeks on yet another pilot. I had no choice, being already booked on a three week gig – but now it was too late to even get that job. So here it is, closing in on 5 p.m. of a sweltering Sunday (95 degrees here at the keyboard), and instead of looking at two solid weeks of steady work – work I thought was in the bag – it looks like Monday will be a day off.

The burn goes deep. Sometimes it's not so easy to manage those expectations.

Faith is just that: a belief system based on nothing more tangible than hope. No actual facts bolstered by logic or reason stiffen the gossamer foundation of faith – either you have it, or you don’t. Up until late last week, I had faith that things would always work out in this silly business – and maybe they will yet. Maybe the phone will ring next week with good news that actually stays good. Maybe that can will stay down the road.

Maybe. Right now, I’m not so sure. My faith is being tested, so it seems, and things are getting a bit wobbly up here on the wire.

And there's no can in sight.

*Well, lots of reasons, truth be told, but let’s leave that for a future post...

** Bad baseball joke

*** I’m talking about the quality of the working experience here, not of the actual show. The thing is, these are not entirely unrelated. It’s been my experience that a happy crew (actors, writers, production, and work-bots) often ends up making a better show.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

April is the Cruelest Month

“Soy un perdador, I'm a juicer, baby, so why don't you kill me?”
With apologies to Beck...

I was not one of those giant-brained English majors in college – their intellectual reach far exceeded my own limited grasp – and thus I’ve never been sure just what T.S. Eliot had against the first true month of Spring. Back on my home planet, April is a lovely month of warm sun and crisp, rain-washed air, as the lush green hills erupt with violently bright colors of wildflowers in all their dazzling, promiscuous glory. Even the urban desert of Los Angeles – a wasteland in ways the long-dead poet could never fathom – is something of an Eden-on-wheels right now, bombarding the senses with brilliant color at every glance: the intense orange of California poppies splashing across parkways and front yards, the vibrant crimson, hot pink, and lurid purple of bougainvillea sprawled across red tile roofs, the soft lavender kiss of wisteria dangling from arbors – and everywhere, Mockingbirds singing out loud and proud.

April is a time to hope, not to worry. Still, the events of the last week make me wonder if Eliot wasn’t on to something after all.

April is pilot season. Even in a strike-poisoned year that left so many stillborn projects rotting in their network wombs, it’s still pilot season. And indeed, pilots are undergoing the painful birthing process right now -- but not nearly so many as usual this time of year, when soundstages are typically booked solid for six weeks. During a normal April, set construction crews are bleary-eyed from working so many back-to-back jobs. Not this year, not after the strike. Given the ugly reality, landing one of these precious few pilots has become the hottest ticket in town -- a chance to salvage something from this bleak new year and go into the summer hiatus with enough money in the bank to keep the bills paid until the 2008/2009 television season finally kicks off in late July.

Then again, there might not even be a hiatus this year -- and the possibility remains that the actors (drama queens, one and all) will go on strike in June to further pummel those of us who depend on this most undependable Industry for our livelihood. Nobody really knows what the hell’s going on in the chaotic world of television these days.

My phone rang Thursday afternoon in the last week of March with the most unexpected and welcome news: we had a pilot. Well, we probably had a pilot, since “our” director of photography (the Silverback leader of our little tribe) was not only in the running, but one of two finalists for the job. His competition had only recently been bumped up to D.P. after a long stint as a camera operator, and thus has vastly less experience shooting multi-camera sit-coms – which is why we figured this was essentially a done-deal. Formalities would have to be observed, of course (no high-fiving until the official word came), but with one of the line producers and the production manager pulling hard for us, it looked like we’d be among the lucky winners of this April’s Pilot Sweepstakes.

Therein lies the dark beauty at the heart of this boom-and-bust Industry: no matter how long you’ve been sitting there drumming your fingers on the breakfast table, waiting for the unemployment check to arrive and silently praying the landlord will let the rent slide another month, the phone can suddenly ring to turn those gray skies a bright, sunny blue. And when that call comes, it brings a giddy rush of pure adrenal euphoria – the much-desired false sense of well being. For a few sweet minutes, you damned near feel you can fly.

Maybe that’s why we do it. Maybe all of us who work in Hollywood are gambling addicts who just haven’t figured it out yet -- that we’re well and truly hooked on the saved-by-the-bell, outhouse-to-the-penthouse thrill of it all when the phone finally does ring...

I really don’t know.

What I do know is this: for the set lighting and grip crew, a sit-com pilot can mean three solid weeks of work. What with all the cabling and setting of lights – typically two hundred and fifty to three hundred lamps in all -- each of which must be hung, powered through a dimmer system, roughed in, then tweaked through countless inevitable changes – it takes ten or eleven days to fully prepare for a one day shoot, followed by three days to take everything down and wrap it all up. It’s a lot of physical work, pushing the rock uphill the entire way, but in this free-lance, catch-as-catch-can Industry, three straight paychecks means getting back on the employment horse in style -- particularly in my case, after nearly four months off due to the strike and a stint under the surgeon’s knife.

More important, it’s a show. Not that I’m complaining about rigging, mind you – God Bless the studio rigging gaffer, who has saved my ass these past two years -- but a multi-camera sit-com represents more money for less hard, grinding work, and an honest shot at being picked up for the Fall season. Getting picked up usually means 12 episodes (at a week per show), which is enough to take the crew all the way to Christmas. If the show pulls in decent numbers, the network will order the “back nine” starting in January, for a full season that will keep those paychecks coming through the end of March. At that point you can start thinking about Season Two, when a more remote but utterly tantalizing possibility looms large: the show becoming a hit on the scale of “Cheers,” “Frazier,” “Seinfeld,” or “Will and Grace,” with strong enough legs to run eight or nine years. For those who work in sit-coms, a hit series like that represents the Holy Grail, all but guaranteeing employment for the foreseeable future. As far as this Hollywood juicer is concerned, it would mean the ultimate wave to ride all the way into the sunset of retirement.*

Such were the cotton-candy fantasies playing out in my head over the weekend. After a couple of tough years and a particularly bleak winter, things were turning around at last -- we’d finally caught a break.

We got a pilot...

The phone rang Tuesday afternoon, and for once I picked it up without the usual screening for friend-or-telemarketer-foe, figuring this must be the confirmation call. And that's exactly what it was – confirmation that we didn’t get the pilot.

The news hit like a sledgehammer. Apparently all the good Karma and support we'd had wasn’t enough – the other, infinitely less experienced D.P. got the nod over our guy to do the show. That was that, game over. Rather than doing a pilot, and all that might mean, I was going back to the rigging crew.

You never know why things work out the way they do in this business. It’s seldom a matter of being good enough – at a certain point, anybody up for a given job is good enough -- but rather that someone higher up the food chain had their own reasons for loading the dice to roll a certain way. Working below the line in Hollywood can be a bit like life for the Greeks of ancient mythology, powerless mortals treated as pawns subject to every capricious whim of the Gods. Bestow a favor here, hurl a thunderbolt there, and watch those puny humans scramble to cope. It’s all in the game.

What galls me is that I knew damned well not to get my hopes up. I’ve been around long enough to learn the hard way that it’s never over ‘til it’s over. All you can do is hope for the best, assume the worst, and don’t count those dollars until they’re safe in your wallet. In a town that sometimes seems crazed beyond all reason, this is the only way to stay sane.

But as the song goes, “a man hears what he wants to hear, and disregards the rest.”

I wonder what T.S. Eliot would say about that?

* Yeah, I know how pathetic this sounds, but such are the realities of life in Hollywood. Stick around long enough in this business, and I can promise you’ll someday begin thinking in those terms too. That’s just the way it is.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008


Due to an all-too-human error in a recent post titled "The Joe Frazier School of Higher Education" readers who followed one of the links were directed to the wrong informational website. This has been corrected. The links will now take you where they were supposed to in the first place.

My apologies to anyone who followed the erroneous link, and was puzzled as to why I seemed to think that the "Rumble in the Jungle" had anything to do with Joe Frazier's victory over Muhammed Ali in the aptly named "Fight of the Century."

The 20th Century, that is.

This old analog dog still stumbles over the new digital tricks.

Same as it ever was.