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 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.


Nat Bocking said...

There's no way around falling between two stools like that. It took me ten years to get a regular job on an established TV sitcom. Then for six years life was really good with eight months work a year and time enough during hiatus to get in a feature and a pilot or two. But, every season the stars wanted more money and each season we slipped down the ratings a little. Then when the two trends crossed, it was over.

Scripty said...

Those of us working in film must enjoy the drama of where our next paychecks are coming from otherwise, we would have ditched this career long ago and become corporate cube drones.

I basically consider myself chronically unemployed. And should work come my way. Yippee for me.

Unknown said...

I honestly do not know how we have survived all these years on the feast n'famine of below the line work. My husband the grip has done features, commercials, and just about every kind of tv there is. He did a sitcom for 4 years that was a sweet ride, in spite of the payroll being 3 weeks on and a week of hiatus where he wasn't carried. The money wasn't good, but it was a great cast and crew, lovely craft service, and a parking sticker. Now he is scrambling for rigging work, which is tough on the old bones. His take on this business is that it's the best part time job he's ever had.

AbsentDad said...

I read your comments on Life Below The Line blog and really liked them, so I came over and read this posting, which I like even better!

You exhibit such grace, style and wisdom in conveying the frustrating/rewarding life that is the BTL freelancer. I wish all those obsessed with fame and celebrity could look past the surface of the biz and see the real and interesting lives of those who work to make images come alive on screen.

It's appropriate you started the post with a Woody Guthrie lyric, since he was so attuned to the stories of the working class.