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 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...


AJ in Nashville said...

Boy when you say 'brief' you aren't kiddin! Congrats on your music biz career, Michael. I'm sure that video was a blast to do.

Great post. And yeah, all the young whippersnappers will 'get it' in about 20 years or so.


Michael Taylor said...

AJ --

They filmed a lot more of me in that white monkey-suit than made the final cut, but my acting abilites were (and remain) so atrocious that 99% went straight into the circular file.

Where it belonged...

And as always, thanks for your thoughtful comments.