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 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.


Unknown said...

Sorry to hear about the pilot, Michael. My husband the grip has been doing some really tough rigs the past coupla weeks-heavy construction that should be done by much younger men, but that's the only job that was offered. He started on a set construct yesterday that (so far) seems easier on a guy who has been in the business for many a pilot season. But after months of being workless, you can't be too picky. Good luck to you!

egee said...

While I don't understand the industry, I do understand disappointment. Here's hoping the phone rings in the near future with better news!

Michael Taylor said...

Thanks Moose and Egee -- I appreciate the good vibes.

There's a glimmer of hope this week -- not for the pilot, which is gone, gone, gone -- but for something else almost a sweet.

It's anything but a done-deal, though, so mum's the word for now. With any luck, the dice will roll my way this time -- and maybe I'll have some good news (for a change) in the next Sunday Post.