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 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.

1 comment:

Peggy Archer said...

Wow. You win the 'worst lunch' contest hands down.

The worst one I had was hamburger casserole cooked by the director's mother.

I was a vegetarian at the time.