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 7, 2008

There Will Be Blood

There’s blood on that floor – my blood...

“Gloves -- can’t work with ‘em, can’t work without ‘em.”
The eternal lament of juicers everywhere...

If that tattered pair of gloves in the photo at the top of this blog could talk, they'd tell a Dickensian tale of unremitting physical abuse, of being burned, scraped, cut, and finally ripped apart at the seams over the course of several months on the job. They'd speak movingly of gloves that came before them, long since discarded, and those that would come after -- still new and smooth, with the sweet, earthy scent of fresh leather. They would weep and share a drink at the tragedy of giving up their lives so that others could live, then throw their empty glasses into the fire.

There but for those gloves, go my hands...

The physical infrastructure of a sound stage – pipe grids, green beds, and the catwalks up high – is not a user-friendly environment. The stage floor can be just as bad, with sets jammed together cheek-to-jowl, leaving only the required 4 feet of open space around the perimeter of the stage as a fire lane – and all too often, even this supposedly sacred safety zone ends up compromised by overzealous set designers. When they manage to resist that temptation, the fire lane typically ends up jammed with equipment, props, or set dressing (and their endless supply of giant cardboard boxes) that should be stored elsewhere. The set itself is a light but surprisingly sturdy construction of one-by-three inch pine glued and staple-gunned to Luann – but by the time it’s been fully dressed, becomes a minefield of potential injuries. Cabinets, wall sconces, and other wall-mounted fixtures are usually attached with needle-sharp drywall screws that protrude through that thin wood to rip the clothing/flesh of hapless juicers who must continually squeeze between the sets to hang and adjust lamps. Many of the stages I’ve worked on lately are the proverbial twenty-pounds-of-shit-in-a-five-pound-bag. With a forest of sharp edges/projections everywhere, there’s endless opportunity to have one’s body cut, scraped, ripped, bruised -- and on a really bad day, broken – in the course of doing your job.

Most accidents are avoidable, assuming one is allowed to work at a reasonable pace, taking time to assess and avoid potentially dangerous situations. With more work to do than time to do it, though, the atmosphere on many shows becomes “do it as fast as possible, let’s get it done and go home.” It’s easy to be caught up in that – which is when the majority of accidents happen. I was rigging on just such a show when one of the carpenters accidentally triggered his pneumatic staple gun, shooting a two inch metal staple deep into his thigh.

That pretty much ruined his day...

The crew on any show has time to learn their way around the stage and sets, but a day-player has no such luxury: he or she has to hit the ground running on a strange set, and come up to speed fast. If you’re working for screamers, or in a particularly tense situation, the odds of getting hurt skyrocket. Being a Man Without a Show, I’ve been day-playing a lot the past few weeks. As soon as I returned from a much-too-short sojourn to the home planet, I worked a day on “The Game” (a sit-com gone bad, having been lured over to the Dark Side of filming single-camera style, like an episodic), then spent a busy day hanging lamps on the new set for “Entertainment Tonight”, scheduled to shift over from their current digs at Paramount and go into full production at CBS Radford sometime in mid-September. I made it through “The Game” unscathed, but by quitting time on “E.T.” (a strenuous 11 hour, up-ladder, down-ladder scramble) I found myself bleeding from a nick on one shin and a small hole on my forearm. I had no idea when or how the bleeding started, but neither ding required more than a good band-aid to staunch the flow. In that respect, it was a typical rig-day.

It’s generally one’s hands that take the worst beating – fingers sliced and punctured by sharp metal or splinters of wood, knuckles scraped and bloodied on one of the hundred of nuts and bolts up on a pipe grid. Wearing gloves can prevent such dings, but sooner or later a task appears that simply can’t be accomplished with fingers encased in leather. When faced with an abundance of such tasks, it becomes too much hassle to keep pulling those gloves off and on, so you just go au natural, and suffer the consequences. I did ten days of rigging to get “The Game” up and running last season, and by the time it was over, both hands had accumulated so many slow-to-heal cuts and scrapes that I couldn’t even play my guitar for a week afterwards. That’s not really typical, though -- “The Game” just happens to be an exceptionally fucked-up show.

Locations can be more hazardous than working on stage. I got hurt on my very first job as a real crew member (read: no longer a production assistant), working as a greener-than-green grip on a micro-budget feature.* Finishing up our 80+ hour Week One (on a flat-rate rate of $265/week) at 2:00 a.m. Saturday, the Key Grip told me to bring the dolly out of the suburban house serving as our location. This was an old Stint dolly (hand built by Bob Stint), with a low metal skirt around the back. As I pushed the dolly slowly out the front door, our gaffer suddenly came around a corner, picked up the front end of the dolly, and pulled it out the door. His intentions were good – to help me get that heavy beast over the door jamb – but it so happened my left foot was on that doorjamb, directly in the path of the metal skirt. Pulled by the mass of nearly 400 pounds on the move, that unyielding steel skirt scraped across my toes like a bulldozer blade, breaking the big toe and ripping the toenail halfway off. It didn’t really hurt – the pain would come later – but having gone through a broken leg from a motorcycle accident a few years before, I knew some damage had been done. Three hours later, I hobbled home from the emergency room on crutches, thoroughly bummed that my first big Hollywood break – getting a feature film – had slipped away.

At some point in the next couple of days, I decided not to let that happen. I bought a pair of steel-toed work boots, and after a week off, limped my way back to the set and worked the rest of the film. Although I missed a full week’s pay, (and the true highlight of that show -- a fistfight between the sound mixer and director on location at Magic Mountain), at least I managed to finish the movie and land my first real credit.

The next time I went down was again on location, at the coliseum in Los Angeles, then preparing for the 1984 Summer Olympics. A huge crew had been thrown together to shoot a spot wherein a giant box of Fuji Film – covered by an enormous Olympic banner – would be unveiled as a helicopter pulled the banner up into the air. The scene on the field was mass confusion, with the gaffer and key grip barking orders while that small army of grips and juicers ran all over the field hauling and setting up equipment. Halfway through the morning, a forklift driver committed one of the cardinal sins of his trade – leaving the forklift unoccupied and the forks a foot-and-a-half off the ground. When the gaffer yelled for somebody to get a lamp, I turned and ran for the truck, smashing my right shin directly into one of those heavy steel forks. I went down in a world of hurt, with a massive bump rising at the point of collision. The bone didn’t break, but hurt like hell, and after trying to solider on for another hour or so, I finally gave up and drove home, considerably wiser.

I’ve been very careful around forklifts ever since.

The last time I got seriously dinged was back at the studio, while stripping a sound stage in preparation for the arrival of the reality show, “Big Brother.” That particular stage is a nasty place to work if you have to go up high, where three catwalks run much too close to a fire safety system made up of water pipes bristling with unshielded sprinkler heads. To avoid banging my head, I had to shuffle along hunched over like Quasimodo. This worked for a while, but after hauling a dozen loads of cable to the drop zone, I failed to duck quite far enough. There was a blow, and I went down to one knee, barely managing to keep from spilling that load of cable over the side. It didn’t seem bad at first, but then came the warm gush of blood from my scalp, where that cookie-cutter sprinkler head had sliced the flesh open like a razor blade. Blood ran down my face, dripping onto the stage floor far below. After a trip to the doctor and several stitches, I went home with my head trussed up like some poor sap in a Monty Python comedy sketch.

“Big Brother” has been ensconced on that stage for three seasons now, but I’m told by Someone Who Knows that a chunk of my scalp – complete with hair – remains stuck to that particular sprinkler head.

Compared to that, my little nicks on “Entertainment Tonight” were nothing more than the normal wear and tear of a work day. Given that down on the killing floor, the production of film and television is a rough-and-tumble manufacturing industry, it’s no surprise that people occasionally get hurt in the course of their duties. Shit happens -- and sometimes it can be really bad. As in so many other manufacturing industries, people occasionally get killed while making movies and TV.

There's nothing worth dying for on a film set. Still, as in any human endeavor, accidents on set are inevitable. That's why I carry a plastic bag with a variety of band-aids in my work bag. Sooner or later, on stage or location -- no matter how careful you are -- there will be blood.

*A film so lame and obscure it can't even be found on the IMDB website...


Burbanked said...

Thanks for the terrific - if cringe-inducing - production war stories. I wish I could say that Hollywood studio story development offices were filled with the same kinds of accidents, but well they simply aren't.

I've excerpted and linked to your post in my "From the brains of other bloggers..." box. As ever, excellent work.

Nat Bocking said...

Oh so true as ever. Ever looked down and seen the point of a 8 inch nail poking out of the top of your boot?

Every set dresser should know that you back every fixture you put up on a luan wall with a block of wood. It not only protects the grips on the other side, it prevents the fixture falling out mid-take when the drywall screws pull through the luan. It happens. Any points left sticking out should busted off.

Michael Taylor said...

Alan -- be glad the carnage didn't extend to those studio development offices, although I suspect there's more blood on those floors than the rest of us realize, albeit of a different sort.

Nat -- I've stepped on many an upright nail or drywall screw in the dark recesses of a soundstage, but never an 8 inch marlin spike. That sounds ugly...

The set dressers do back up the luan with blocks of wood, but they still use two inch drywall screws, which leaves an inch of needle-sharp metal projecting beyond the wood -- and they never break those points off. In any frequently used behind-set corridor, I usually cover those points with layers of gaffer's tape to prevent bloody punctures.

Unknown said...

your first injury brought back memories of mine. When I moved out to L.A. at the ripe young age of 39, I had to start over. I got here 2 weeks before 9/11 so breaking into the industry was a slow process. Background to P.A. to Camera P.A. in the then still slightly new and open field of reality television. I finally landed my first regular gig on a primetime reality show as the single Assistant Camera and then on the third shoot day promply broke my big toe. Trying to wrap gear for the day in total darkness, I ran into a piece of gear left on the ground. First episode, third day, new show. If I went to the doctor what could he do besides send me home? But if I got sent home, I wouldn't have been replaced for a few days to a week, I would have been replaced permanently. Plus, it's reality. No insurance. My solution? I limped for two months and paid out of pocket for the ingrown toenail surgery that I needed over the next year. I guess it was worth it. I'm writing this from my hotel room as we finish episode 1 of season 5 of that same show. Funny thing though...five years later the toe still hurts...