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, September 21, 2008

It's the People

For most below-the-line workers who suckle at the great swollen teats of Hollywood for daily sustenance, there comes a time to take stock, review the past, and peer into the gray mists of the existential void that is the future. I find this happening with some regularity these days. To a certain extent, this is due to the increasing weight of years upon my shoulders -- I’m a lot closer to the end of my Hollywooden career than the beginning – but there's more going on than simple aging. When the hopeful, earnest enthusiasm of youth begins to sour, taking shelter in the bitter refuge of jaded cynicism seems only natural. But even that hard protective shell eventually burns off into the ozone we all breathe here in LA, leaving a solitary, all-encompassing question floating on the surface of consciousness: what does it all mean? Not life in general – that’s much too big a subject for a simple blog post (although like you, I’ve got my own half-baked ideas on the subject) – but life in Hollywood.

What’s that all about, Alfie?

It’s not really about the work, anymore – not for me, at least. For a long time it was: year after year of getting the work, doing the work, talking about work, and worrying about work. It takes a while to learn what matters and what doesn’t, how to do the job The Right Way, and be a pro. For the most part, that’s all in the past now. If I get to work on a good show that makes people laugh, it's just icing on the cake. Such is not always the case -- and when the show's a steaming pile, I still have to do the work and get through the day. Although this will sound like the hoariest of cliches, I really do learn something new on every job, but at this point, work has come to represent the honest exchange of time, sweat, and experience for money and benefits. Nothing more. Usually it’s a reasonably fair trade, but not always -- and yes, I’m talking to you, Disney and HBO.

Despite the constant exhortations of the cheery/dreary little newsletter sent out by my union every couple of months, I’m not particularly interested in staying atop the cutting edge of technological progress in the entertainment lighting field. Lights are lights, and they’re only as good as the person using them. Much of the fancy new lighting equipment coming out these days is nothing more than a high-tech gilding of the lilly by someone hoping to cash in on yet another re-invention of the wheel. If this sounds like the sour grousing of an aging dinosaur, maybe it is – but I’ve seen too many young DP’s and gaffers fall madly in love with some new and expensive lighting gadget they just happen to have purchased at great expense in order to rent back to the production company. I understand the economic imperative at work here, but would feel a lot better about the whole thing if these young geniuses would first master the old technology (read: cheap, simple, and reliable) before leaping onto the Brave New World bandwagon hurtling past the twenty-seven ways we already know of skinning that proverbial cat.

At a certain point, I realized I didn’t want to work with young cameramen anymore – never trust a DP under 40 became my motto – “kids” who, although usually well-intentioned, had a bad habit of saying “Why don’t we try...” Believe me, this is the very last thing a film crew wants to hear. What usually follows is some hair-brained scheme requiring an enormous effort that often proves a huge waste of time. And when the Bright New Idea doesn’t work quite so well after all, we usually end up doing what we should have done in the first place – what has always worked since the beginning of time in Hollywood: putting the proper lamp in the right place.

Perhaps it was Yoda who had the best answer for the question “Why don’t we try...” when he replied “Is no try. Is only do.” When you want to “do”, you go with what works. There’s always room for new ideas, of course, but if they don’t save time, money, or sweat – while doing just as good or better a job than the old ways -- then maybe they’re not so brilliant after all.

In the end, however many ways you learn to skin that hapless-if-proverbial cat, the work is just that – work. Once you get over the initial rush at being paid to perform an inherently abstract problem-solving task, the joy tends to fade. After you’ve flown to enough far-flung locations, slept in enough seedy hotels, and seen enough stunt cars hurtle into open space, crash, and/or blow up, the whole process isn't all that interesting anymore. So what – other than the paychecks -- makes this kind of work worth doing after all these years?

Good question.

My dad spent his entire adult life doing social work, first for a variety of government agencies during the depression, then a full career working for the Red Cross, followed by a long post-retirement stint with FEMA, many years before George Bush and Hurricane Katrina turned that agency into a cruel joke. During his FEMA years, he’d go out for three to four weeks at a time -– a man in his late 60’s to mid-70’s working longer hours than I’m accustomed to -- in the ground-zero conditions of post-hurricane, tornado, and flood disaster zones. After spending fifty years helping people in need, he learned a little about what matters in life, and tried to pass this on to his only son. Time and again he’d tell me “People are the most interesting thing in the world.”

I thought he was crazy, of course. Hell, I was young enough to know pretty much all there was to know back then. As far as I was concerned, it was music, motorcycles, women, alcohol (along with certain other, ahem, “attitude-enhancers”) -- and later, movies -- that made life interesting. If that sounds like the blowhard manifesto of a remarkably dense and oblivious young man, well, nobody ever accused me of being a deep thinker. Not then, not now.

In the end, though, life seems to teach us all the lessons we need to learn. It was only after many years toiling in the movie biz that I began to notice how interesting many of my co-workers really were – particularly those who came from other parts of the country (and the world) to live and work here in shadow of the Hollywood sign. These people didn’t grow up in the Industry, but left hearth and home to seek out and forge a new life in an alien world. They’re not your average John and Jane Cudchewer from Normalville, USA. There’s nothing wrong with Mr. and Mrs. Cudchewer, mind you – salt-of-the-earth, backbone-of-the-country Americans who pay their taxes, vote on election day, and fly the flag every 4th of July. But if the Cudchewers are fine people and good citizens, they’re not necessarily the most fascinating people to talk to. Those who made their way to Hollywood, who couldn’t fall in step with the comfortable patterns of life back home -- who for one reason or another, simply had to get out -- tend to be interesting people simply because of the drama they endured to get where they are.

They’re the ones that got away.

When you get down to it, I suppose all people are interesting -- accountants, farmers, pretzel makers, factory workers, sand hogs, cops, plumbers, sheet rockers, pizza cooks -- everybody. Truth be told, my pre-Hollywood, three-year stint in the food industry introduced me to some extremely memorable and colorful characters – but that was during the wild oats portion of life, when my definition of “interesting” was a bit more simplistic. After thirty-plus years in Hollywood, what I mostly know is the film/television business, an Industry made up of a lot of people who – in essence -- ran away to join the circus, and thus have interesting stories to tell. Beyond the basic life-sustaining equation of work-for-money, getting to know those people and listening to their stories is what makes going to work worthwhile.

Turns out my dad was right all along. It’s the people.


Nat Bocking said...

This post reminds me of a story:

A young tyro director just out of film school lands as his first gig on an episode of a long running sitcom. For his first day as a real director, he (isn't it always he?) plans an intricate shot requiring careful blocking of actors, complex dollys and synchronised moves between cameras to get the coverage. On the set, he brings together the D.P, and Key Grip to explain the shot, walking around acting out the scene and even holding his hands to make the 'frame'. After listening intently, the D.P. and the Key Grip, nodding, turn to each of their crew and say; "guys, get me XXX, he wants to do shot forty eight..."

D said...

I think it IS the people. Huh.

Anonymous said...

I thought you might get a kick out of my Hollywood story. If you're interested, check it out:

Peggy Archer said...

Oh, Michael.

You're the old crank I aspire to be someday.

And while reading your post, the words that stuck in my mind were "Ruby Seven".

The Grip Works said...

I love your post. Being from India, and having spent 18 years in the business now, I can say that things are pretty much the same in the world of Grip / Electric the world over. Actually the whole film business is pretty much the same.
Great writing. Very insightful!

Crew Chamberlain said...

Well written as always, but profound in it's wisdom. I have been in the IA in Hwood for 30 years and the early thrill of getting in and moving up has long ago lost it's rush. The Characters that we work with day in n out are what keeps me in the game these days. What a group of originals. Nice observations.

AJ in Nashville said...

What a great post. Your Pop was indeed right, Michael; people are truly the most interesting part of life and you have a unique gift in bringing their color to your stories.

I do beg to differ with one thing you said, though: "nobody ever accused me of being a deep thinker. Not then, not now."

Well, I can't say anything about 'then,' but as of 'now,' consider yourself officially accused, my friend.