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, June 29, 2008

Another week, Another Loss

After three weeks (and three more episodes) on the sit-com, I’m back on the home planet for another brief hiatus, coughing in the pall of smoke from somewhere between 800 and 1200 forest fires currently turning the dark green hills of Northern California into a lunar wasteland of ash. In one radio interview, a fire fighter described watching big redwoods – usually impervious to fire – going up “like matchsticks.”

“Wood’s wood,” he sighed, his voice hoarse from smoke and fatigue. “Heat it up enough and it’ll burn.”

It’s hot enough, all right. The hillsides and trees are dry and crunchy – and with more heat lightning on the way, this is beginning to look like a long summer indeed. The disasters are compounding on a biblical scale, as water drowns the heartland and fires burn the coast.

If a rain of frogs starts dropping from the sky, I’m heading for the nearest bomb shelter.

Another plague has been hitting us lately, taking a lot of good people before their time. George Carlin wasn’t a young man, but he died much too early. Although chronic heart trouble respects neither age nor social status, I still have a hard time grasping why such good and creative people die before their time, while so many others -- among them, some of the worst among us* -- still breathe and walk the earth. This remains one of the most unfathomable and infuriating mysteries of life. Either Carlin was dead wrong about the God he made such wonderfully funny sport of – and the Creator of the Entire Universe then struck him dead in return -- or else he was spot-on in his argument that there really is no God, and thus no justice whatsoever in this randomly chaotic series of cosmic collisions we call life.

Either way, I don’t like it.

I met him once – very briefly -- many years ago while filming a commercial showcasing the galaxy of stars slated to appear on a fledgling cable network. The many luminaries we filmed that day (and they came at us in a seemingly endless stream, as if delivered by an assembly line) were all entertainers –people like Dolly Parton, Howie Mandel, and Billy Crystal: smart, successful, talented stars of that era. George Carlin was all that and so much more, with a depth and gravitas none of the others could match. His intelligence was formidable, his humor quick, dry, and lethal. As a keen observer of the foibles and contradictions that come with the modern human condition, he had few peers.

We’re all the losers here. George Carlin left us at a crucial time, as we slowly turn to face existential threats converging from several different angles. The onrushing tsunami of change will challenge our ability to cope and adapt in ways few of us are yet willing to admit – but it’s coming just the same. It would have been nice to have somebody like George Carlin around to keep our eye on the ball, and help us laugh at ourselves in the process. But there is nobody like George Carlin – he was the only one -- and now he’s gone.

Among the many eulogies detailing the impact Carlin had on us all, my favorite came from the pen of Steven Winn, who writes on art and culture for the San Francisco Chronicle. It's worth reading, and you can find it here.

On a brighter note, I finally gained brief access to a computer with a broadband connection, and was able to watch the first seven webisodes of “Grande Con Carne,” a very funny, well-made web series by R.J. Thomas. A one-time camera assistant (and published author) who managed to make the caterpillar-into-butterfly transition to director, Thomas has run his own industry blog since 2004, and recently launched a dedicated website that makes viewing “Grande Con Carne” very simple. He’s since released an eighth episode, which – with any luck – I’ll be able to see very soon.

A labor-of-love made on the cheap, “Grande Con Carne” makes good use of skilled actors, punchy scripts, and crisp camera work to explore the tensions generated by ambition, longing, lust, and confusion here in the low-budget heart of Hollywood. This is really good stuff -- playful, smart, and lots of fun. Each webisode is only three to four minutes long, but once you start watching, you won’t want to stop until you’ve seen them all. And then – like me -- you’ll be left wanting more. Check it out here.

* I have my own “why isn’t this asshole dead yet?” list, and I’m sure you have yours.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Craft Service

For one of his recent weekly commentaries on KCRW, Rob Long wrote a nice little meditation on a subject that never fails to stun and amaze civilians who visit a film/television set: the craft service table. This cornucopia of comestible delights varies wildly in quality, quantity, and variety from job to job, but even in its most elemental, low-budget form, remains the most basic and irresistible of perks – free food.

As a veteran writer/producer for television, Long’s perspective comes from a comfortable perch above-the-line – and thus his pithy, entertaining stories have more to do with late night chocolate souffles and bottles of expensive Cabernet than the hot dogs, packaged cookies laden with trans-fats, and warmed over pigs-in-a-blanket treats typically set out for the lower castes who do the actual heavy lifting.

Not that I’m complaining. Despite the reputation of hard-drinking juicers, a glass of fifty dollar Cabernet (or even Two Buck Chuck) would render me worse than useless on the job -- and in fact, could easily cost me that job. It’s just as well the alcohol stays in the Green Room, reserved for those above-the-line, but I hold off on drinking until I’m safely home anyway.

Still, Rob Long has been around the block enough times to know how important it is to keep the boots-on-the-ground well fed. He also touches on the dangers such an abundance of treats and sweets can pose. One of my few battles with addictions in this life was over “Nutter Butters” – a devilishly tasty blend of peanut butter and edible industrial polymers seemingly formulated to paralyze my usually diligent dietary defenses.

What Kryptonite was to Superman, Nutter Butters were to me. Back in those fat and lucrative days of working television commercials, the craft service table was always well stocked with these deadly cookies, which I inhaled at a pace that would put Jabba the Hut to shame – and after a while, I came to resemble the Hut himself. While back on the home planet over the Christmas Holidaze, my mother sized me up in the kitchen one night, then gently poked the flabby spare tire around my waist with her index finger.

“My, you’re getting portly, aren’t you?” she said.

It wasn’t a question.

Portly. The word pierced my heart like Ahab’s harpoon. “Portly” was for middle-aged burghers with placid, cud-chewing wives, three wailing kids, and a house in the suburbs. “Portly” meant a guy who smokes a pipe and reads the evening paper after coming home from his steady – and spectacularly boring – day at the office. “Portly” was the pear-shaped presence of Robert Morley in “The African Queen,” Sidney Greenstreet in “The Maltese Faclon,” and Orson Welles in “Touch of Evil.”

“Portly” was Alfred Hitchcock playing golf.

I’d been skinny as a rail all my life – six feet tall and not even a hundred and sixty pounds according to my 1980 driver’s license. Sure, that information was ten years out of date, but no way could I be considered “portly.”

But a long look in the bathroom mirror confirmed my mother’s diagnosis – and that if anything, she’d been diplomatically polite. All those countless Nutter Butters had me tipping the scales at a hundred and ninety. Portly? In that bleak bathroom light, my pale and fleshy corporeal presence looked more like the Great White Whale itself.

The shock and memory of that moment reverberates to this day (every time I approach the craft service table), and gave me the strength I needed to resist the siren call of the Nutter Butter. Celery, fruit, and mixed nuts were okay, but the haunting petrochemical delights of Nutter Butters were strictly off limits.

Not that it was easy – really, it was almost as hard as quitting cigarettes – but it paid off. Over the next couple of years, I shed those ten offending pounds. If rail-thin was gone forever, at least I was no longer “portly.”

There are at least two factors at work here. The free-lance life is that of the hunter-gatherer, riding the boom-and-bust cycles of Hollywood’s feast or famine existence as they come. Driven by the knowledge that the latest burst of work/money/food will not last for long, we tend to grab all we can, while we can. The constant availability of free food on that craft service table is like being unleashed in a pre-paid all-you-can-eat buffet. Under such circumstance, the free-lance (or in this case, free-range) crew will feed with wanton abandon, like sharks gorging on the bloated carcass of a dead whale.

If you cook it, we will come, because God only knows when the next job/paycheck/free meal will happen.

The craft service table can be a good barometer of a show’s budget. On a big hit such as “Will & Grace,” there was money to burn, and the treats were very good indeed -- and they just kept coming. Less successful shows -- or those run by tight-fisted production managers who really will go to Hell (if there is one) when Their Time finally comes – offer a far less irresistible spread. When it’s the same stale bagels, BBQ flavored chips, and diet sodas day after day, avoiding the craft service table becomes a lot easier.

I can’t remember the worst craft service table I ever came across – and there have been some bad ones --but the worst lunch made a memorable impression. Our first day of filming “Full Moon High” took place at John Burroughs High School in the San Fernando Valley. We broke at the mandated six hour point, and found "lunch" waiting atop a folding table: a jar of mayonnaise, a squeeze bottle of mustard, two loaves of Wonder Bread, and a pathetically small selection of cold cuts. The paper plates and napkins were already blowing away in the hot wind.

This would have been a weak offering on the craft service table of a very low budget feature -- but for lunch?


Just this once, it was good to be working for The Screaming Cameraman, who launched an immediate and intense high-decibel assault on our suddenly hapless producer/director. By the time he was done -– and it didn’t take long -- we had a firm promise that This Would Not Happen Again.

And it didn’t.

For some thoughtful first-hand perspective from The Script Goddess on the importance of the craft service table, click here and here.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Oh Canada...

Mexicans have a traditional lament about the difficulties of living next door to the United States: “Pobre Mexico, tan cerca de Los Estados Unidos, y tan lejos de Dios.”

Poor Mexico, so close to the United States, so far from God. 

Canadians doubtless have their own pithy phrase to describe the ups and downs of living in such proximity to the U.S. It can’t be easy having such a loud, arrogant, and obnoxious neighbor downstairs: We play the boom box all night long, litter the lawn with garbage, let the dogs run loose in the neighborhood, and pass out drunk on the front porch – metaphorically speaking. Meanwhile, a very real tsunami of gray-haired Americans surges across the border every day to strip Canadian pharmacies of cheap prescription drugs. When anyone has the temerity to speak of our boorish behavior, we get all red in the face, draw our guns, and start bellowing "USA! USA! USA!" Adding injury to insult, the last few years have seen some of Canada’s most beloved hockey teams – the heart and soul of that northern country -- uprooted by the dynamics of modern capitalism, and transported south to places like Texas and Florida, where the only ice most people ever seen is the crushed variety in their snow-cone Margaritas.

Canada – a beautiful country populated by really nice people -- did nothing to deserve this. They stand by us through thick and thin, even as we remain ungrateful for (and thus unworthy of) such loyal support, and are generally too polite to complain when we routinely abuse their good nature. I’ve met a lot of Canadians over the years, here and across that northern border, and the vast majority were terrific people.

And so to those few readers of this blog in the Great White North -- this post is not directed at you, personally, but rather at certain actions of your government that had a great impact on Hollywood, and thus upon me and my fellow below-the-line workbots.

Nobody who works in the Industry needs to be reminded about “runaway production.” We’ve all suffered to a certain extent over the last ten to fifteen years – some more than others -- as work once done in Hollywood migrated elsewhere. Production has fled Hollywood in search of lower costs, including cheaper labor, which often means non-union workers willing to toil under considerable abuse for less money at the hands of ruthless producers who don’t give a damn how much hell they put a crew through so long as their precious movie/commercial/video is completed. Non-union workers enjoy no health or pension plans (and often, no overtime), which means they’re in it for the money they make each day, and nothing more.

I’ve been there – like many others, I started there -- and know very well how bad a place that can be.

There are compelling reasons to film outside of LA, particularly for lower budget productions. Not every movie can afford to shoot on a studio sound stage, where elaborate (read: expensive) sets must be designed, built, dressed, and propped for each scene. Nor is location filming particularly cheap here in LA, where permit fees and local regulations (not to mention the demands of our increasingly cranky residents*) can blow big holes through a small budget in short order. Depending on the circumstances, it can be cheaper to take a non-union crew from LA out of state to film on a distant location, or else take only the essential union personnel, who then staff their crews with local labor as much as possible.

In the late 80’s, I did a feature in Oxford, Mississippi – a period-piece set during the early days of the civil rights struggle in the Deep South. We shot in the same locations that had appeared in grainy black and white on our nightly news broadcasts back in the late 60’s – including the infamous steps of the Lyceum at Ole Miss, where James Meredith once walked into the vortex of a cultural shit-storm. Most of the limited budget went to a few “name” actors: Treat Williams, Alley Sheedy, Phoebe Cates (and a very young, very hot Virginia Madsen) – but by using a non-union crew in a state where permits, locations, and housing were relatively cheap, the producers were able to get the film made. To shoot that same movie in LA would have cost considerably more, which means in all likelihood, it would never have been made at all. While this wouldn't have been a tragedy for the movie-going public, those of us who worked on that movie appreciated the employment. So did our landlords, back home in LA.

There was a time when most location shoots far from a major population center would bring the entire technical crew from LA. Film making seems to be a mysterious process at first, but the basics aren’t all that complicated -- and as the locals watched, worked, and learned, they caught on. Nowadays, a decent crew can be found almost anywhere, and the best of them are solid professionals.

This is all well and good. Anybody willing to invest the time and effort to learn the essential skills of the craft has every right to put those skills on the market. LA doesn’t – and shouldn’t – have a hammerlock on every last film job in the country. For a long time, we competed on a relatively level (if ever-shifting) playing field here in the U.S., where each region had something to offer. So long as nobody got too greedy, there was enough work to go around.

Some very big features have gone to New Zealand in recent years, and there has long been a steady drumbeat of low-rent U.S. productions shooting features in Eastern Europe, but I don’t see this posing any real threat to the domestic Industry or American film workers. You want to shoot your low-budget vampire movie over eight miserable weeks of night-filming in Romania? Please, be my guest…

TV movies began migrating to Canada twenty years ago, to save money and take advantage of modern urban architecture that could easily pass for a U.S. city. I didn’t begrudge them that – share and share alike, remember? Besides, working a TV movie generally means four hard weeks of long, ball-busting days, and I’m way too old for that. But during the mid-90’s, the Canadian government succumbed to the siren call of greed, and began offering incentives in the form of extremely generous subsidies to lure more U.S. productions north. This tactic worked very well, and at a certain point in the mid-to-late 90’s, it was as if a dam suddenly collapsed on the border, sending a flood of commercial and feature production north, leaving much of Hollywood high and dry. At the time, I’d been riding a ten year wave as a gaffer doing television commercials – but it wasn't long before all of my clients ceased operations here and began doing their filming in Canada.

One of my main clients was a commercial company that owned production facilities in West LA, including two stages. This meant they didn’t have to pay stage rental whenever a job came along -- a huge advantage that saved them buckets of money. But once the Canadian subsidies came along, it became cheaper for that company to fly to Vancouver, rent a stage, and shoot their commercials up north (with Canadian film workers), than to do the job using their own facilities and crews here in LA. Even with the added expense of flying a producer, director, cameraman, art director, assistant director, and actors a thousand miles north, then putting them up in expensive hotels (while paying everybody a fat per diem over the duration of the shoot) – it was still cheaper to film in Canada. All totaled, the favorable currency exchange and government subsidies added up to a fifty percent savings over filming in the U.S.

The economic advantage was overwhelming. We cut our rates and agreed to work longer hours in an effort to stem the tide, but it was never enough. No matter what we tried, the work continued to hemorrhage north. Pouring salt in the wound, Canada’s labor regulations made taking American crew members north of the border a prohibitively expensive proposition: for every American grip or juicer on the crew, a Canadian worker had to be hired, needed or not.

With the deck stacked against us in every way, many of us were soon out of the television commercial business altogether. The cameraman I’d worked with for fifteen years managed to land a job shooting second-unit on an episodic television show, while I was lucky to get a job juicing on a multi-camera sit-com. My crew (Best Boy and several juicers) scattered to find employment wherever they could. Our tight-knit little band -- grips, juicers, camera, art department, sound, and production people -- who had done a lot of good work together for a long time, went our separate ways to survive.

Nobody said it would be easy in the Big City. When shit happens, all you can do is shrug it off and make the best of things in adapting to the new reality. I never blamed Canadian film workers for my own misfortune -- in reaping the rich rewards of this tectonic shift in Hollywood economics, they were simply taking advantage of suddenly favorable employment conditions. In their shoes, I'd do the same thing. But it’s one thing for U.S. producers to head north following the cheaper Canadian dollar, and quite another for the Canadian government to further lure producers north with such irresistibly generous subsidies.

That, my Canadian brothers and sisters, was stepping way over the line…

Our government did nothing, of course. The fact that so many of us in Hollywood were no longer paying nearly so much in taxes on our drastically reduced incomes didn’t seem to bother Washington in the least. Nor did our mother union, led by the Great and Glorious Leader for Life, Mr. Tom Short, pay anything more than cheap lip service to our plight. While the LA and New York locals screamed bloody murder, the head of IATSE – which also has jurisdiction in Canada – looked the other way. “My hands are tied,” sniffed Mr. Tom. “Canadian workers are members of IATSE too.”

Translation: Tom Short to Hollywood -- “Drop dead.”

Thanks for nothing, Brother Tom. But really, why the hell should he care? After all, his fat annual income wasn’t cut by a single penny, much less take the two-thirds hit so many of us did out here on the front lines. Apparently he figured this was our problem, not his – and considering how things worked out, I guess he was right.

They say misery loves company, though, and I recently noticed something interesting on the bumpy road from Bad to Worse. Guided by the unparalleled ineptitude of our political leadership these past eight years (the worst politicians money could buy), the value of the American dollar has plummeted. In and of itself, this is not particularly cheery news. Should the dollar fall too far, our once undisputed heavyweight champ of world currencies could end up a punch-drunk has-been, staggering from one bar to the next, glassy-eyed and sliding towards the gutter. But it is indeed an ill wind that blows no good, and the dollar’s plunge has not gone unnoticed by U.S. producers, who no longer find it so advantageous to head north. Large numbers of television commercials are once again being filmed in the US, and although those odious Canadian government subsides remain, I’m hearing that more and more productions are deciding to shoot south of the border – drum roll, please -- to save money. The snow-shoe is suddenly on the other foot, as Canadian film workers find their jobs migrating across the border, thanks to (ahem) “runaway production.”

Believe me, my Canadian brothers, I know exactly how disturbing it is to watch one’s livelihood evaporate right before your eyes. Do you lie awake at night wondering how you’ll make the payments on your house, car, and the Ski-doo? I know the feeling. Well, maybe not about the Ski-doo -- there’s not much call for those here in LA -- but that sense of a trap-door suddenly opening beneath your surprised feet, sending you on a free-fall plunge into the dark, bottomless void?

Been there, done that – and I know how much it sucks.

I resist the sour pleasures of Schadenfreude. Crowing over the misfortune of others is bad karma, for one thing -- life has a way of making sure we all get our turn in the barrel – and as one of many who took a major, life-changing hit thanks to the actions of the Canadian government, I know just how devastating that can be. All I can say to my North-of-the-border friends is this: you enjoyed a very lucrative decade of abundant employment at our personal expense. If what I’ve heard is true – if some balance has indeed been restored to such an outrageously unfair situation -- then all I can do is offer you my hand and welcome you to the barrel. It’s not much fun in here, but it’s certainly been an educational experience for me. I’m sure it will be for you, too.

Tell you what: call me ten years down the road and we’ll hash things out over a couple of beers. Hell, I’ll even buy – Molsen’s, if you like – and lend a truly sympathetic ear. As one who knows exactly how much fun it is adjusting to life on a drastically reduced income, I feel your pain.

Really, I do.

*I completely understand – and have great sympathy with – the frustration felt by civilians who find their street/block/neighborhood under siege by a film production. Suddenly there are huge trucks hogging all the parking spaces, and people everywhere acting as if they own the place. But this is a subject for another post...

Sunday, June 8, 2008


"Sometimes the magic works, and sometimes it doesn't."

Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George), in "Little Big Man"

My crude (but free) Google software reports a lot of new eyeballs stopping by “Blood, Sweat, and Tedium” these days. Some stick around to read, while many more hit and run. So it goes -- if there's one thing I've learned thus far, it's that this blog isn't going to please everybody. My own wandering explorations of the internet have taught me how daunting it can be to wade through the dusty archives of even the most intriguing blogs, searching for tasty kernels of wheat amidst the inevitable chaff. My goal of putting up at least one post every week means I've produced my share of the latter for this space, but it’s the nature of the beast that some posts will be more successful than others at connecting with readers.

This post is an attempt to cut to the chase in creating a user-friendly shortcut for new readers who lack  the time or interest required for archival exploration. The ungainly title -- "Blogessence" -- came about mainly because I couldn’t think of anything better, and because the posts listed here really do represent the essence of this blog. If you don’t like any of these, then you should probably keep on cruising through the cyber-void to greener pastures.

Deciding what should be included here was not solely up to me. The Google software I mentioned in the opening pointed out the posts readers liked along with those they chose to ignore: so really, it’s they -- the vox populi -- who made the decisions.

I did, of course, get the final vote.

So here you go, a guide for new readers to posts they might find interesting, and an easy way for any regulars to find ancient posts that might otherwise have been overlooked. There are lots of other posts you might find worth reading, though, so I hope you'll view this list as a doorway to my little part of below-the-line Hollywood, rather than the sum total.

But that's up to you.*

Disclaimer: the leadoff post is the very first I wrote back in 2007, and meant to serve as a introduction  for visitors who stumbled across this blog while wandering through cyber-space.  Thus it's a bit long and wordy, and maybe not the best place to start unless you're curious as to how and why the blog came about.  I should probably re-write it, but until that day comes, you might find yourself half way through and wondering when the damned thing is going to end… and in that case, bail out and give the next few a try -- they're all shorter and more to the point.  But if nothing in those posts resonates either, then maybe this blog isn't for you.  It's not for everyone, but as the Aussies say "No worries, mate." 

Welcome to the Dream Factory


Industry Romance

Do NOT Look the Monkey in the Eyes

A Little Magic on the Boulevard

Just Another Day in Paradise

Working Sick: The Post that came in from the Cold

Stranger in a Strange Land

What the Hell is a Best Boy?

The Circle of Confusion

Living the Dream

Have Gloves, Will Travel: Working on Location

Parade Magazine's Glamorous World of Hollywood

So You Want to Come to Hollywood...

Small Miracle on Laurel Canyon

The Biggest Asshole in Hollywood

The Joe Frazier School of Higher Education

Generation Wireless: Across the Great Divide

April is the Cruelest Month

Promo Land, and the Return of Pilot Season

Oscar’s Big Night

Forever and Throughout the Universe

It's the People


Feed the Beast

Three Hundred Seconds of Freedom

Time Traveler

Mike and Kevin's Not So Excellent Adventure (a series)

Genny Trouble -- Part One

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Gulliver’s Travels: A Pilot Unfolds

Pipe Grid Clusterfuck

A Monday by Any Other Name

Kill the Pig

Pilot Season 2016

Directors (a series)

Directors: Part One

Directors: Part Two

Directors: Part Three

Directors: Part Four

Directors: Part Five

A Brief Return

I Can See by Your Outfit

*Note: Although there are no hard-and-fast rules for this blog, I try to post something relevant to the Industry every Sunday.  It doesn't always work out that way, though, so if you don't feel like stopping by on a regular basis, sign up for e-mail notification in the box on the right side of the page under the photo of the gloves.  All future posts will then be delivered straight to your in-box.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Not a Pretty Picture

"Judge not that ye be not judged."

Mathew 7:1

While perusing today’s Bay Area cyber-fishwrap, I came across an AP article reporting the impending foreclosure on Ed McMahon’s home in Beverly Hills. A glance at the first twenty (of nearly eighty) comments left by readers on this sad bit of news was disheartening, to say the least. A few expressed sympathy that anyone so old (85) could face eviction, rightfully wondering how his finances could have been so mismanaged -- but all too many were laced with the sour joy of Schadenfreude.

So much for the supposed tolerance of those lucky enough to live around San Francisco Bay.

I too find it hard to comprehend how someone so successful in his professional life could end up in such a dismal situation, but Hollywood is littered with the sun-bleached bones of celebrities who trusted the wrong people to handle their financial affairs. Parasites, con-men, and blood-sucking predators are as much a part of life in the dark, pulsing heart of the Industry as bright lights and chilled champagne.

There’s something ugly in human nature that loves to tear down those who have been elevated to positions of cultural prominence. So long as these icons manage to preserve an image of being above the foibles of mere mortals, they’re reasonably safe from the public’s wrath – but the instant they display any hint of human weakness, that protective bubble vanishes, the bugle blares, and the hunt is on. Apparently we deeply resent anyone who achieves public success. Some part of us hates them for doing that which we are incapable of (or uninterested in) doing.

Maybe it’s some ancient remnant of our shared hardscrabble evolutionary past, the hungry beast inside us all that never quite lost a taste for the blood of others. I don’t pretend to understand this, but truth be told, I feel it too from time to time -- this disturbing urge to join the mob howling at those who dare to disappoint and disillusion us. It’s much easier to do with those we’ve never met: people we know only as abstract images on the television screen. That’s just what Ed McMahon was to me for many years, playing the guffawing Sancho Panza to Johnny Carson’s deft and dapper Don Quixote.

Then I got a job juicing on a feature called “Full Moon High,” a low-budget, non-union werewolf movie starring the young Adam Arkin. Ed McMahon played the role of Adam’s father. Being my first real movie as a juicer, this proved to be a memorable experience.

Most of Ed’s scenes were shot at locations in Beverly Hills, but at one point we spent two long days filming in an underground bomb shelter that had been built underneath a ranch-style home in Ladera Heights back in the Cold War 1960’s. Beneath the floor of an extra-large closet was a metal stairway leading down to a heavy steel submarine-style door behind which was the actual bomb shelter, designed to give the 60’s family a few weeks protection from radiation and nuclear fallout after World War Three.*

Yeah, I got a bit tired of Big Ed’s big laugh down in that crowded tin can over the course of the next two days, but he was unfailingly pleasant, a genuinely nice man with a good (and earthy) sense of humor. We didn’t become fast friends or best buddies – he was the star and I was a juicer, inhabiting very different worlds – but he treated everyone on the crew with respect.

That’s all you can ask of any actor.

In my experience, Ed McMahon was a decent human being – so don’t look for me among the mob taking their bitter pleasure from his current misfortunes.

* Presumably, they’d then emerge to take advantage of the bombed-out property values that would doubtless abound amid the smoldering ruins...

Sunday, June 1, 2008

The Gift of Time

Back on my home planet for an all-too-brief escape after two rather strenuous weeks on the sit-com. “Strenuous,” of course, is a relative term – these past ten working days weren’t remotely difficult compared to the soul-crushing misery of working an episodic show – but I grade on a curve in which the coefficient of age is now an integral part of the equation.* For every juicer, film and television remains a very labor-intensive, hands-on business: we’re constantly climbing ladders, hanging lights, and/or running cable – and it’s all hard work. But in the full spectrum of Hollywood labor, sit-coms tend to be less physically demanding than anything else.

Sit-coms have another unique virtue: most work a schedule of three weeks on (completing one episode per week), then take a hiatus week off. When and why this custom began, I’m not sure, but I like it a lot. True, the lowly juicer does not get paid for that week off, but I prefer to think of the hiatus as the “gift of time.” Those with five bedroom/three bath mortgages, expensive cars, and speedboats to pay off – or children in college – generally prefer to chain their nose to the grindstone and keep those paychecks coming in. This, I understand, but being blessedly free of any such fiscal black holes, I’ll take the week off, thankyouverymuch, and get the hell out of town.

And so while heading for the northbound freeway Friday morning, I found myself waiting for the long red light at the intersection of Highland and Hollywood Boulevard. And there, striding across the street amidst a group of understandably bewildered tourists, was the oddly disturbing figure of The Dark Knight himself. At first glance, this Batman looked all too real – at well over six feet tall (including those pointy ears), he towered over the visiting mortals in their civilian garb. Then I noticed the six inch black platform shoes the Man from Bat was wearing, and a distinctly non-superheroic frame hidden beneath that long black cape.

This, as it turns out, is nothing new. The entire block between Highland and La Brea -- from the grotesquely garish Kodak Theater/shopping mall complex, all the way down to what used to be Sid Grauman’s Chinese Theater – is now nothing more than a giant tourist trap sanctified by the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. The sidewalk has become an open-source Disneyland of sorts, where dozens of out-of-work actors and other assorted misfits costumed as Charlie Chaplin, Superman, Spiderman, Yoda, Chewbacca, and Batman (among the many other putative superheros) stake out their turf to prey upon the tourists. Unlike Disneyland, these are all free agents working for themselves, rather than assembly-line clones of Mickey, Goofy, and Snow White serving the dark overlords of The Franchise. Without the eyes-everywhere, iron fist of Disney security, things occasionally get out of hand.

Although I find this whole scene altogether sad, depressing, and tawdry, I won’t judge these people. If someone lacks the qualifications or motivation to take a “real” job in society – and yeah, that’s me in the back row, raising my hand – you do what you can to survive. In the great scheme of things, I don’t suppose it’s any more ridiculous to strap on platform shoes and a Batman suit in preparation for the workday ahead, than to don heavy boots and gloves for hauling cable and hanging lights.

Batman or juicer, we’re all in our own ways following the elephant of show business, shovel in hand.

For another perspective on Batman worship -- and a great little story -- click here to enjoy a very entertaining tale from Burbanked.

Death of a Producer

In the late 70’s, a couple of my fellow production assistant friends landed jobs working for a small special effects company doing work for a movie called “Meteor.” One of many bloated disaster epics released during that era, “Meteor” featured the usual blend of fact, fiction, and hammy drama, this time in the form of a giant meteor howling in from the dark void of space on a collision course with earth. Not only did the killer asteroid threaten the entire planet with destruction – The End of Life as We Know It! -- but it also brought further strife into the already fractious love-lives of the many handsome/beautiful characters in the cast, including Sean Connery.

Hey, even James Bond has bills to pay.

If I remember correctly, the plot called for bomb-laden missiles to blow the monster asteroid to bits: a divide-and-conquer strategy that would save the planet – And All Mankind! -- at the price of horrendous damage as those smaller meteorites pummeled the earth’s surface like cosmic buckshot. The special effects company’s task was to create shots of meteor fragments smashing into mountains and other terrestrial objects -- effects accomplished by firing small chunks of simulated meteors into models while several high speed cameras recorded the action. Running at speeds up to 2500 frames per second, these cameras routinely burned through a ten minute reel of 35 mm film (at normal projection speeds) in a matter of seconds.

With friends in low-level places, I got in to a screening of the dailies featuring simulated meteor strikes on “mountains” built in the model shop. In their raw form, these special effects shots were at first surprisingly dull: five or six minutes watching the slightly fuzzy image of the model mountain and nothing else. I sat there and waited... and waited... and waited... eventually wondering if I’d mistakenly stumbled into a screening of some execrable Andy Warhol film -- until suddenly the “meteor” entered the right side of the frame at a shallow angle and crashed into the “mountain,” blowing it apart in exquisitely slow motion.

Very cool indeed.

Another of my friends working in the editing room took one look at the officially approved theatrical trailer for “Meteor,” and thought it sucked. Sensing an opportunity, he cut together his own version of the trailer after work hours and on weekends, enlisting the aid of another pal with experience in radio to do the voice-over. It took a lot of effort and some of his own money to get it finished, but he had high hopes for a career-boosting payoff if he could just screen his trailer for Somebody Important.

The culmination of all his work came one afternoon at Goldwyn, when he somehow cajoled the executive producer of “Meteor” to have a look. The three of us sat there in the small screening room, anxiously waiting the arrival of Mr. Big himself. And suddenly, there he was in the flesh, ducking through the doorway larger than life. A big handsome man, Sandy Howard was well over six feet tall, dressed in a dark blue suit that looked like a million bucks. With his booming voice, quick grin, and hearty handshake, Sandy Howard was –- to my young eyes, at least -- every inch the big-time Hollywood producer.

“Let’s see what you’ve got,” he said, taking a seat in the back row.

The room darkened and the screen flickered to life. The trailer looked pretty good, actually – as good or better than most trailers I’d seen up to then. When it ended, the lights came back on, and there we sat at the moment of truth, all eyes on Sandy Howard.

“Nice job, boys” he nodded, then got to his feet and opened the door. "Ciao," he grinned, and with a wave of his hand, was gone.

That was it. He didn’t have another word to say about the trailer -- which, to my knowledge, was never screened again. Eventually, my would-be editor friend left the Hollywood circus behind, went to grad school, and embarked on long and successful career as a newspaper reporter. Smart move.

That moment -– as classic as it was absurd -- remained burned into my brain ever since. Sandy Howard is the only person I ever met who could actually use the word “ciao” without looking like a pompous fool. I never saw him again until last week, when he finally made the obituaries of the LA Times.

He did a lot during his fifty years in the Industry -- working on everything from “Howdy Doody” and “Captain Kangaroo” to “Island of Dr. Moreau” -- but is best known for producing “A Man Called Horse” and the subsequent sequels... and of course, “Meteor.”

For all that, he remained a lesser light in the Hollywood firmament, never cracking the A list of truly big-time producers. Still, he was the first real producer I ever met. If he was rude or unduly harsh to those working under him, I never heard about it – and if you act like an asshole in this town, it gets around fast.

Sandy Howard made an indelible impression on me in the infancy of my own Hollywooden career – a tiny moment that probably didn’t register on his own memory at all, but one I never forgot.

Ciao, Sandy.

Sandy Howard 1927 -- 2008

One more thing...

A few weeks ago I put up a post titled “Stranger in a Strange Land,” detailing my own misadventures in front of the camera. One of those stories concerned a music video I’d worked on, but hadn’t seen for twenty years – and being an old analog dog in this new digital world, I had no idea the video was still around, much less available for viewing.

Only recently did I noticed that a reader named “Aaron” had left a comment and link to a Utube site with that very video: Randy Newman’s “Money that Matters.” Here it is, for anyone who wants to see what Randy Newman looked and sounded like twenty years ago, along with my own awkward (and thankfully, extremely brief) appearance in that milk-man suit. If nothing else, you’ll see one of the very few music videos I ever worked on that wasn’t a complete pain in the ass. “Money that Matters” was actually a fun job to work on – the proverbial exception that proves the rule.

For me, watching anything I’ve worked on – be it a movie, TV show, music video, or even television commercials – triggers a cascade of memories from that particular job, mostly of the other people involved. It’s like stumbling across a dusty old photo album, except the people you remember aren’t in the pictures at all, since they were working behind the cameras. Given the anesthetic effect of time, even bad jobs have a way of morphing into good memories after all these years -- but “Money that Matters” was a good job, and watching it melted those years away, bringing back the past in living color. It’s a pretty good song, too, assuming your musical taste runs in that direction.

Thanks for the link, Aaron, whoever -- and wherever -- you are.

*Those of you in your 20’s have no way of knowing what I’m talking about here, but trust me, you will. In thirty more years, you’ll know it all too well...