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, July 27, 2008

Christmas in July

It's all fake -- phony brick wall, plastic snow blankets, fake bushes, and a painted backdrop -- but at least the Christmas lights are real...

Making film and television has always been a labor-intensive, time-consuming endeavor. Accordingly, a Christmas movie or television episode – and there seems to be an unwritten rule that all television comedies must do a Christmas episode – has to be finished and ready for release/broadcast well before our seasonal tsunami of guilt-induced binge-consumption actually arrives. With much shorter lead-times than features, television shows can shoot their Christmas episodes as late as November. Marching to the same seasonally-driven schedule, a Thanksgiving episode will thus be filmed near Halloween, while Halloween episodes are shot during September.

In some parts of the country, September brings the cool, crisp air and turning leaves of Autumn, but here in LA, we typically suffer through the hottest weather of the year in Fall – and that means filming Halloween episodes in 104 degree heat. Granted, much of each show is filmed on an air-conditioned sound stage, but scenes featuring suburban exteriors crowded with young trick-or-treaters are usually filmed on the “residential street” back lots at studios around town (each a little piece of ersatz middle class suburban heaven) that have been festooned with ghosts, goblins, and faux tombstones for the occasion. Although the scenes are filmed at night, the street and houses must be rigged with power and lights for the shooting crew in the full heat of a September afternoon.

That kind of rigging is hard-earned money. Still, work is work, and if the end product doesn’t always induce thigh-slapping, laugh-till-you-weep comedy (truth be told, I found the sight of Jim Belushi parading down a suburban street in full drag-queen regalia a few years ago more disturbing than funny), at least it puts another check in the mail.

For this year’s final week of production on “The Bill Engvall Show” (Thursday nights on TBS), we shot the Christmas Episode – Christmas in July -- complete with a pair of live deer on our blessedly air-conditioned stage. Deer tend to emerge from their natural environment when you least expect it here in LA, and since a sound stage is an entirely unnatural environment for any living creature, it was very strange indeed to watch a mature doe and her yearling fawn take their first cautious steps onto an 80 foot carpet of rubber matting leading from the stage door to our Christmas set. The matting had been securely taped to the floor to prevent the deer from slipping – traction being a Big Deal to creatures whose ancestors learned the hard way that survival depends on speed and maneuverability.

With all non-essential personnel herded out of sight -- and instructed to stay absolutely quiet -- the immense stage door slowly crawled open, flooding the stage with brilliant sunshine.* Out of that blazing light came two graceful creatures entering an utterly alien world, each step tentative, their ears at full attention, eyes wide.

For once the stage was silent as a tomb, everybody watching with rapt attention. In the back of my mind was the fear these delicate creatures might startle, and suddenly bolt through the set. A film set is not a deer-friendly place, jam-packed with lots of equipment and many sharp edges. A panicked deer could easily mistake the huge canvas backing – painted and lit to look like the open fields and distant snow-capped mountains of Colorado – for the real thing, and leap headlong into it. But there was a wall behind that backdrop, and many hot lamps. Cornering and calming two terrified, disoriented deer under such circumstances would be a difficult, dangerous task. People and deer could end up hurt.

I’ve seen quite enough blood on film sets, most of it fake, but some that was all too real. I don’t need to see any more.

As it turned out, there was no reason to worry -- these wranglers knew what they were doing. Luring the deer with bowls of food pellets, they quietly positioned both animals in the plastic “snow” just outside the windows of the living room set. When the actors inside were ready, the cameras rolled. On a silent cue from the A.D, one of the wranglers made a low whistle – and both deer looked up at the same moment.

It was perfect.

Nailing such a tricky shot on the first take happens more often than you'd think, but this invariably seems to catch everybody by surprise -- and then comes a long moment of awkward indecision. The whole crew knows the first take will end up on screen, but the brain trust in "video village"** has a hard time accepting that any first effort represents the best they can hope to achieve. I suppose it’s human nature to Always Want More (along with following the unwritten rule of providing sufficient coverage for one’s highly-paid, above-the-line ass), but having gone to all the expense of assembling the specialized equipment and personnel required to get a tricky shot, it usually doesn’t cost any more to give it another try. Or two, or five, or ten... Sometimes – extremely rarely – this pays off with an even better take, but the usual pattern is for each successive attempt to fall short in a different manner, as if to demonstrate just how many things really can go wrong. Eventually, a take almost as good as the first one is achieved – at which point, the A.D. starts looking at his watch. This is the signal for the director to surrender to reality, and move on to the next shot.

Following in the footsteps of tradition, we kept trying the same shot until it was painfully obvious that first take really was the winner. Finally, the wranglers led the deer back along that rubber carpet and out the door, their work done for the day.

Our day, however, had just begun. A full slate of pre-shoots kept us busy until mid-afternoon, after which we had the rest of the show to rehearse and block in preparation for the following day’s shoot in front of the live audience. All day long, the sound crew piped Christmas music over the PA system, and after a while it got into my head – with the all the sets lit up in Christmas lights, ersatz snow all around, and holiday music in the air (which was suitably crisp, thanks to the very effective stage air-conditioning), it really did start to feel like Christmas.

Then we wrapped, and walked out into the steaming cauldron that is the San Fernando Valley in July.

Still, even The Heat couldn’t drive that Christmas music out of my head. On the way home, I stopped at a Rite-Aid, and while waiting in the checkout line, found myself humming “Jingle Bell Rock.” The checker shot me a guarded look, then shook her head. I could imagine the story she’d tell her kids when she got home, about the crazy gabacho who came through her line humming Christmas songs in the middle of July.

Hey, it’s Hollywood...

* While working on a stage, one’s eyes adjust to the artificial lighting. It often seems quite bright on set, but the light level inside is nothing compared to real daylight.

**A cluster of monitors displaying the feed from the cameras -- and thus where the writers, producers, and director gather.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Two Crazy Weeks

Image excerpt provided by Clipland
Excerpt/Image shown under fair use. All rights of the respective owners reserved.

The last couple of weeks have been rather hectic, to say the least. I returned from my home planet to plunge directly into our final two shows on the sit-com (“The Bill Engvall Show” on TBS), which meant working eleven of twelve days. For their own quiet reasons, the producers moved our last episode up a day, leaving us with only Saturday off before coming back to work six days straight, including two ten-hour, all-work, all-the-time wrap days during which we dropped most of the 250 or so lamps that had been so laboriously hung, powered, and adjusted over the past few months.

Granted, this is sit-com work, not the Death March of Lost Souls that is episodic television. But at this point, sustained work at an episodic pace is out of the question – had I marched through that purgatory these past two weeks, I’d probably be in the hospital right now. Still, this involved lots of very physical work, and if we didn’t suffer the grinding hell of fourteen-hour days, a lot got done in a relatively short span of time. Although losing that Sunday off really hurt, we managed to put both shows in the can, get half the stage wrapped, then enjoyed the warm group-hug of a very mellow wrap party on Saturday.

Free food amid good company, a live band playing the blues, and all the beer/wine/liquour we could drink – what’s not to like?

The upshot of all this? I’m one whipped puppy. As regular readers have no doubt deduced by now, this is a typically long-winded way of saying “I’ve got nothing.” Truth be told, I did work on a post in my few spare moments this past week, fully intending to put it up today... but it’s just not ready -- and to paraphrase the late, great Orson Welles in the sad twilight of his stellar career:

“I shall put up no post before its time.”

That post will appear at a later date, but in the meantime, I did not come empty-handed. Nat Bocking, of “The Water Tower Project”, has unearthed another little gem. Any of you familiar with our Industry will find some resonance here.

Don’t forget to follow the link down at the end, which will lead you on a most unexpected – and entertaining – thread.

That’s it for now. I’ll do my best to post something worth reading next week.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Another Reason to Hate Starbucks

“There’s no way to delay that trouble comin’ every day...”
Frank Zappa

Summer. The sun beats down like a blacksmith’s hammer, pounding every living thing into submission. It’s bad enough in Hollywood, but over in The Valley, heat waves shimmer off the pavement as if rising from a barbeque grill, the asphalt turning soft under the relentless thermonuclear assault from 93 million miles away. Out on the streets, the homeless drag their hopelessly overloaded shopping carts under any available shade – a tree, a billboard, a telephone pole -- to wait out the long afternoons until darkness brings a measure of relief. Everything and everybody moves at a slower pace except the eternal rush of traffic, as air-conditioned, over-caffeinated drivers in big black Escalades and shiny new Beemers mash pedal to the metal in their eternal race to be first to the next red light. To the “winner” goes the honor of sitting there -- baking in the hot sun while waiting for the light to turn green – just a little bit longer than the “losers.”

And when that green light finally comes, the race begins anew.

I suppose this rat-race insanity will be with us in one form or another so long as we live in such crowded cities, but it’s increasingly clear that change really is marching our way – big change. The Arabs have a phrase to describe what’s coming:

"My grandfather rode a camel. I drive a car. My son travels in jet airplanes. His son will ride a camel."

Our kids and grandchildren may not end up riding camels, but the ground is shifting under our feet. Sooner or later, everything we now take for granted will be in flux. Nobody can predict exactly how it will all work out, but a hint of our collective future is there for anyone who fills up at a gas station these days. That's just a taste, though – in Hollywood-speak, a preview of coming attractions. Like it or not, there’s more of the same in the pipeline for us all.

A lot more.

"That will be then," we say, comforting ourselves. "This is now." But if the past is any guide to the future, we’ll keep chewing this comfortable old bone until “then” finally does morph into “now.” When that time comes, we’ll find ourselves blinking in the harsh light of a brand new day.

A day that will feel a lot like summer.

* * *

It was back to work on the sit-com last Monday, after our final one-week hiatus -- lighting, rehearsing, and shooting the first of two remaining episodes for this season. That means two more decent paychecks and then... who knows? The immediate future beyond mid-July remains as murky as Baghdad in a sand storm. AFTRA’s vote to accept their new contract jabbed a sharp elbow into the ribs of SAG’s leadership, which had waged an expensive last minute jihad attempting to sway AFTRA members into voting against the deal. Having decisively lost that battle, SAG then rejected the “final offer” from the studios. The upshot of all this is anybody’s guess -- but SAG still has the option to call for a strike vote. Whether they could muster enough member support to authorize a strike -- given the current dismal economic realities in Hollywood and beyond -- remains the Great Unknown. Nobody with a lick of sense wants to see another work stoppage cripple Hollywood.

Whatever happens, I’ll get through the next couple of weeks. Even if SAG decides to go to war, it takes awhile to make a strike happen, so we’ll finish our show -- but late July/early August is when the mainstream of television programming usually gears up for production in a big way. In a normal year, stages that have sat empty since early May would fill up with set construction crews, painters, grips, and juicers in the next few weeks, working long, sweaty days to get the new and returning shows up and running for the Fall season. In an Industry that walks the high wire over raging waters of uncertainty in the best of times, waiting for SAG to make a decision is like having a giant hand shaking that wire. No forward progress can be made so long as the Industry is hanging on for dear life. What should be a fat, money-making part of the year for most below-the-liners has become a time for staring at the calendar and wondering what’s coming. Will the networks take the chance (and expense) of building and rigging all those sets under the assumption SAG will settle soon, or will they hold off in fear of getting caught with their financial pants down by yet another protracted labor stoppage? And if they do decide to hold off on production, what becomes of the 2008/2009 television season?

I guess we'll find out.

* * *

While sitting in our tiny set lighting room last week (where we wait for rehearsals to end, so we can get to work lighting), we kicked around the subject of another work stoppage, which led to a discussion of the WGA strike last winter. K.C. (our Set Lighting Best Boy) mentioned he’d heard that Starbucks outlets in LA were handing out free coffee to any writer who flashed his/her WGA card over the duration of the strike.

This was news to me, since I'd been occupied with some surgery and subsequent recovery at the time. As a gesture of right-on, power-to-the-people worker solidarity, it sounded pretty good -- and since writers tend to drink a lot of coffee, a shrewd business decision on the part of Starbucks.

The rest of the story wasn’t quite so heart-warming. Since K.C. -- like almost every other below-the-line workbot in town -- had been summarily dis-employed by the writers decision go on strike, he decided to stop by his local Starbucks and show his union card.

“Can I help you?” said the young, too-cool-for-school barista behind the counter.
“I hear you’re giving the writers free coffee.”
“Yeah,” replied Mr. Starbucks.
“Does that go for the rest of us? We’re out of work because of the strike too, you know.”
“Sorry, dude,” the young man shrugged. “Free coffee's just for the writers.”

So much for worker solidarity. In the eyes of Starbucks, it seems, the writers are worthy of respect (in the form of free coffee), while the rest of us -- we who sweat and toil to turn those scripted pages into on-screen entertainment for the profit of all those above-the-line -- remain the dirt beneath their feet. We’re so far under the radar they don’t even know we exist, even though most below-the-liners I know buy a lot of coffee from Starbucks. But Starbucks decided to get some publicity by giving out free coffee to writers (whose paychecks typically dwarf those of the rest of us) while ignoring everybody else thrown out of work by the strike.

I’m not bagging on the writers or the WGA. They made a hard decision to fight the power of the greedy, soulless, spawn-of-the-Devil AMPTP, and were willing to pay the price of going three long months with no income at all. They stood tall behind their principles, and for that, earned my complete respect.

Starbucks is a different story. Had they offered free coffee to all unemployed Industry workers, the public relations victory would have been huge. K.C. told me that when he called a few other businesses also offering discounts to striking writers, many were quick to sign on. “Give us your union’s phone number,” they replied. “We’ll extend the same offer to the membership.”

So why not Starbucks? Yes, such an across-the-boards policy would have eaten into the corporate profit margin for three months, but they could have offered conditions – free coffee for all out-of-work Industry people three days a week, maybe, or even one highly symbolic day per week. But instead they went for the cheap publicity of “supporting the strikers” while snubbing everyone else – people who wanted to work, but couldn’t because of the WGA strike.

I’m no a fan of giant chain stores in general, but for a company smart and compassionate enough to say “we’re all in this together,” I would certainly make an exception.

Not now. From this point on, there’s no way Starbucks gets any of my business. It’s done, over, terminado, kaput, finito. Starbucks, as Tony Soprano might say, is dead to me. As far as this juicer is concerned, they can take their little green mermaid and shove her where the sun don’t shine.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Do NOT Look the Monkey in the Eyes

“Nature red in tooth and claw...”

From “In Memoriam A.H.H.” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, 1849

A few years back, I worked on a sit-com whose writing staff emerged from The Room late one night clutching a script that featured a subplot involving a monkey. For one scene, the writers decided this monkey should crawl from the Designated Actor’s arms up to his shoulders, then atop his head, where it would finally escape to a conveniently located prop tree.

All in the greater service of Art, you understand.

What doubtless seemed like a stroke of comedic brilliance during that long, late night made a rather awkward transition to reality a week later. Before the first on-set rehearsal, the animal wrangler cautioned the Designated Actor against making eye contact with the hairy primate.

“Do not look the monkey in the eyes,” she warned, before taking the creature out of its cage.

Easier said than done. When a monkey is only 18 inches high, even a brief glance in the general direction of the beast can be interpreted by the simian brain as looking into its eyes. Sure enough, no sooner did the Designated Actor gingerly take the monkey into his arms than the little brute suddenly went ballistic – ape-shit, so to speak – baring a matched set of extremely sharp fangs while shrieking at the top of its lungs.

Work on the stage came to an abrupt halt, for this was a primal scream straight from the dark, pulsing heart of the jungle -- a heart-stopping howl of prehistoric rage that sent a jolt of pure adrenaline directly into the crew’s collective Reptilian Brain, that most ancient and unevolved enclave of the human mind.

The poor actor was terrified, his face inches from an apparently deranged wild animal capable of doing horrendous, career-ending damage in a matter of seconds. Before any of the stunned crew could react, the wrangler grabbed the hairy little beast and stuffed it back in the cage.

Had I been that actor, I might have walked off the set, straight to my car, and never come back. Fuck the goddamned monkey – tell those writers to come up with another, less lethal gimmick, and send that crazy ape back to the jungle from whence it came. But the Designated Actor was made of sterner stuff. Rather than fly into a self-indulgent panic, he simply waited for the monkey to calm down, and once the wrangler gave the okay, went about rehearsing the scene until man and monkey got it right. I gained a world of respect for this particular actor that day – who subsequently led the cheer for weeks thereafter, in what became the catch-phrase for the show: “Do NOT look the monkey in the eyes!”

In a way, this sums up the dilemma faced by all of us who work with actors, especially when a new one comes on set – you’re never quite sure what to say or do. The safe stance is to politely acknowledge the actor’s presence, then take your cues from them. Some walk on set like they own the place, and start cracking jokes to get everybody laughing, while others (not many, but enough that you dare assume nothing) remain quiet, nervous, and brittle out there in the glare of the lights, as if haunted by some horrible private pain that threatens to be unleashed by a careless smile – a monster that once loose, might carry them back to their own personal Hell.

Those ones, you avoid like the plague.

There’s at least one well-known actor currently working in sit-coms who refuses to allow anyone not directly involved with decision-making to watch rehearsals -- never mind that on shoot night, several hundred complete strangers will be watching his every move in front of four cameras all night long. Were he a truly gifted comedic actor, a case could be made that such mercurial talent must be indulged – but his talent is garden-variety (at best) in the spectrum of Hollywood. Still, being the show’s headliner gives him the power to make people jump -- and bully that he is, he enjoys using (and abusing) that power. When it’s time for rehearsals, the crew vanishes. They’ve learned the hard way not to look the monkey in the eyes.

To be fair, this sort of behavior is not limited to a few neurotic actors -- pop stars and other glitterati of modern media culture are often afflicted by the fear that non-paying, non-adulatory eyeballs might fall upon their visage, thus somehow soiling their tender psyches. Early in my career, I spent far too many long and miserable days (and nights...) working on music videos. One of those jobs (“Billie Jean”) called me in late, well after the rest of the crew, and thus I missed the warning not to look directly at The Gloved One. God only knows what his problem was (at the time, he still bore a resemblance to a normal human being), but during a slow point in one of the set-ups, I looked up from the lamp I was adjusting and found myself eyeball to eyeball with this strange boy/man, not ten feet away.

Suddenly everything got very weird.

It wasn’t that I wanted to look at him, but once our eyeballs met, his intense, piercing gaze locked on and simply would not release – he stared long and hard, violating every rule of non-verbal etiquette in the book. He didn’t nod, wink, smile, shrug his shoulders, make a face, or in any other way acknowledge my presence/existence: those eyes just bored right through me like X-rays, as if I wasn’t there. It got very creepy, very fast until I broke the spell and looked away.

King of Pop 1, juicer 0.

This may not sound like much, but the incident was way too weird for words. I stayed far away from Michael Jackson the rest of that day.

Many years later, the phone rang one brutally hot summer afternoon with a job to help light some promos for a certain television celebrity who has forged a gold-plated career by administering on-camera therapy to our nation of needy, troubled souls. I won’t identify him in this public space (yes Virginia, I do have to work in this town again), but unless you’ve been holed up in a cave with Osama Bin Laden for the last few years, you know his name -- and since I don’t want to end up on anybody’s Do-Not-Hire shit list, let’s just call him The Great Man.

The job entailed a full day pre-light followed by a one day shoot, which was plenty of time to get everything primed and ready to go. The Great Man did not grace us with His presence during the pre-light, instead sending his official stand-in for us to light. The stand-in turned out to be considerably shorter and wider than The Great Man, but this posed no serious problems -- that’s what apple boxes are for.

The pre-light began with the usual jaw-flapping cluster-fuck of hyper-caffeinated confusion, but order began to emerge from chaos once a few key decisions were made. We commenced hanging, powering, and adjusting the lamps with the help of some of The Great Man’s show crew, who knew the stage rig backwards and forwards. Things went well, and after lunch, the cameras arrived, ready to be assembled and mounted – one on a dolly, the other on a crane. We worked our full ten hours tweaking things while the camera operators rehearsed their moves.

Before we left, the show crew had some advice for those of us who hadn’t worked with The Great Man before: be ready, and don’t fuck up. Once Himself was seated in his enormous Falstaffean throne, any adjustments of the lighting were to be avoided at all costs.

I’d already heard a few stories. Friends who had worked with The Great Man told me of his legendary temper, a veritable tsunami of blind, going-postal rage triggered by the tiniest of perceived slights. The tales were legion: how he’d tried to get a security guard fired after the man had the temerity to politely ask The Great Man’s wife to move her car from a “no parking” zone right in front of the main stage door, that he once stopped the show to go on a half-hour spittle-flecked rant because a camera operator dared whisper a response to the director, and how he’d fired yet another crew member who inadvertently dropped a pair of pliers in The Great Man’s presence.

If it sounds like The Great Man could use some serious anger-management therapy of his own -- well, that’s not my department. As the day ended, the producer gathered us around to issue a final warning: “When he comes on stage tomorrow, don’t stare at him, don’t talk to him, and don’t ask him any questions, okay? If you have to go in there to do some work, don’t ignore him, but please don’t initiate any conversation.”

So here I was on a very different show, once again being told -- in essence – not to look the monkey in the eyes.

We arrived on set the next morning ready to go. After seeing how big The Great Man really was, the director of photography told us to stand by the two back lights, ready to adjust them once he sat down for the cameras. This is standard procedure – no pre-light gets everything perfect, and even if the lighting really was spot-on the day before, the D.P. invariably has some brilliant last-second idea requiring an adjustment or two.

Or three...

The bad news was that those two back lights were twenty feet off the stage floor, hanging from pipes, with no way to reach them other than our single, noisy hydraulic man-lift. With yesterday’s warnings echoing through my head, we rolled the lift into position, whereupon I climbed in and hit the button taking me up. There I waited.

Warnings or not, we had no choice. The lighting crew is hired by the director of photography, and must follow his orders through hell or high water. Whatever else happens, happens, but the D.P. will be obeyed. So there I sat, gloves on, ready to work. When The Great Man finally sat down, I quickly adjusted the lamp, drove to the second lamp and adjusted it, then descended and rolled the lift off stage. Mission accomplished in less than two minutes – no harm, no foul.

Or so I thought. After watching The Great Man speak his softly urgent platitudes to the twin cameras for twenty minutes, I wandered back to the craft service table, where the show crew was grazing. Taking a bite of a cookie, one of them cocked his head and raised one eyebrow.

“What’d you do to piss him off?” he asked.

I assumed he was joking, but the look on his face said otherwise.

“He’s pissed off?”

“So I hear,” he nodded, pointing to his walkie-talkie. “What the hell’d you do?”

“Nothing. We had to adjust the back lights, that’s all.”

“That must be it,” he nodded. “I hear he wants to bring a new crew in.”

“Fine,” I shrugged. “Let him fire us.”

I was dead serious. We were on a ten hour deal, which meant we’d already made our money simply by showing up. If The Great Man wanted to pay another crew to come in, shoot the promos, then wrap all the equipment we’d rigged, so much the better – I'd be happy to take a full day’s pay for two minute’s work.

What happened was... nothing. We went about our business and finished the shoot by late afternoon without hearing another word about it. I’ll never know if The Great Man stifled his famously volcanic temper in the interest of getting the job done (and in the process, saving his company a nice chunk of change), or if the whole thing was just a stupid prank on the part of the show boys.*

All I know for sure is that we waited through the rest of that long day wondering what the hell was going on -- and once The Great Man left the stage, we still had to take all those lights down.

And I never did look the monkey in the eyes.

* There are many below-the-line who hold the practical joke to be a sacred ritual.