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)

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Christmas Already?

On my way home from work tonight, I drove by a house on Hollywood Boulevard festooned with red Christmas lights. An enormous illuminated-from-within plastic Santa Claus stood guard.

Santa did not look happy.

I don't blame him. It was 91 degrees in LA today. It's not even Halloween yet, much less Thanksgiving, much less frigging CHRISTMAS! The season of peace, love, joy, giving, receiving, and guilt is eight full weeks away. We haven't even elected a new president yet, but the people in this house saw fit to start spreading the joy anyway.

Unless you're a Phillies fan, this has already been an exceptionally bad year in just about every way imaginable -- and there's not much reason to think things will get better anytime soon. Quite the opposite, actually. Joy will be in short supply for a lot of people this Christmas, so maybe we should wait with the flocking, tinsel, and twinkling lights until we're at least within shouting distance of the actual day. Let's make it count this year.

I understand the fiscal imperative that prods WalMart and the rest of Retail America to ram these holidays down our unwilling throats six weeks beforehand -- but now the citizens seem to be joining in the madness as well. Could we at least wait until the daytime temperature drops below 85 degrees to start with the ho-ho-hoing?

Give us a break, please. Don't squeeze the trigger of your Xmas Spirit Happy Gun until you see the whites of Santa's eyes...

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Day Two: The Pipe Grid Clusterfuck

Small man-lift with bucket fully extended

This is the second part of an explanation detailing how a television pilot is made from the bottom up. In cased you missed it, here's Part One.

The widespread use of pipe grids for lighting on sound stages is a relatively recent phenomenon in Hollywood. Studio sound stages were built to facilitate the use of “green beds” – rectangular wooden platforms hung from the overhead perms on chains, then securely fastened together and braced to form a stable work platform over each set. A properly constructed system of green beds provides a safe, user-friendly environment for juicers and grips to work, with plenty of room to deploy most of the lighting equipment required for any production. Green beds allow quick and easy changes or adjustments to the lighting without disturbing the sets down below, or impacting the other departments at all.

That's how it was when I started in the biz, but times have changed in that regard, and not for the better – and for the usual reason: money. Instead of paying for a crew to hang green beds over the sets, the Money Men now insist on using a pipe grid. Although this might make economic sense for a pilot or other short-duration production, pipe grids are increasingly common on long running shows as well. This represents a false economy at best, and a dangerous one at worst. For the producer to save a few bucks at the start, the crew and production end up paying dearly in many ways on down the line. When working with a pipe grid, juicers and grips must rely on small man-lifts (pictured above), and scissor lifts to hang the lamps, which creates a whole new set of problems. But we live and work in the world that is, rather than the world we'd like to see. And so as always, we bend to reality, make the best of a bad situation, and do whatever it takes to get the job done.

We hit it early Thursday morning, and hit it hard. Two men headed up high to run the power cables out along the catwalks and drop them down where needed, while the remaining two juicers (me included) begin hanging lamps, roughing in the lighting with 2000 watt “Juniors”. Thanks to the continued presence of the construction and painting crews, we’re forced to start with the only set that’s remotely close to being finished, a simple three wall set dressed with stacks of dusty televisions and radios – either it’s meant to be an old-fashioned small appliance repair shop or a thrift store set. There’s no way to know until I read the script, and I haven’t had time yet. We work as a team, with my younger co-worker in the bucket of a small man-lift, while I prepare and feed him the lamps. Picking our way through the construction detritus and growing piles of set dressing, we only manage to hang ten lamps over the next couple of hours. This is pitiful progress, but it’s the best we can do under the circumstances. In an industry that measures time and money on the same warped ruler, none of us has the luxury of working in an organized, efficient manner. The production company only has the stage for a month, and a week of that is already gone. Everything else will have to get done in the remaining three weeks, so we march forward through the noise, sawdust, and paint fumes, in a crowded rugby-scrum of five separate crews trying to work in the same confined space.

In other words, it's a major league clusterfuck. Such is the nature of working on pilot.

But the real kicker comes minutes after we finish hanging those ten lamps, when the production manager strolls down from the office to inform our gaffer that the set we’d just ringed with lights is being “written out” of the script. The writers came up with a better scene that will require a different set altogether -- and that meant the last two hours of work we just finished was all wasted effort. Nobody seems to know what the new set will look like or exactly where it will go, so we just leave those ten juniors right where they are: hanging in effigy, more or less, as a fitting symbol of futility. The space on the stage floor they’d recently occupied has already been filled with set dressing, so there’s no place to put them anyway.

We press onward, doing what we can, where we can, when we can. As the carpenters and painters leave for their breakfast break, we go in with all four lifts (two small man-lifts, and two scissor lifts) to put up as many big lamps as possible. Upon their return, we stay right there and keep working: possession, as they say, being nine-tenths of the law. The carpenters and painters aren’t thrilled by this, and I don’t blame them. Having the wheels of a 2500 pound man-lift creep inches from your unprotected body – a lift controlled by some guy you’ve never met and have no reason to trust – is more than a little disconcerting. No doubt they’d be much happier if we’d just go away until they finished. We feel the same way about them, of course, but it ain’t gonna happen. We’re all stuck with each other for the duration.

To paraphrase the immortal words of Rodney King, “We’ll all just have to get along.”

When operating a man-lift in such conditions, I warn those down below where I’m heading and what I intend to so, trying to reassure them that I won’t drop a heavy lamp on their heads. This is no joke – with the pipe grid 18 feet off the stage floor, even a small lamp can do a lot of damage if dropped. The Baby Tener I’m about to hang weighs close to sixty pounds, which could seriously hurt or even kill someone from that height. For the guy in the lift, the actual weight of these lamps isn’t the biggest problem -- we routinely deal with cable that's considerably heavier, but the cable itself is much more compact, and thus easier to keep close to your body. When lifted properly(letting your legs take most of the load), the strain isn’t so bad. The lamps we’re using on this pilot aren’t particularly heavy in absolute terms, but that weight is distributed in a bulky, awkward package. When working from a man-lift, your legs can't offer much help in manhandling a big lamp -- it’s the lower back and upper body muscles that bear the load and take the pounding.

If I was working on an open floor, the process of hanging lamps on the pipe grid would be relatively simple. But the set below is crowded with obstacles (including people), so a straightforward ascent is out of the question. To hang this Baby Tener, I must first extend the bucket of the man-lift all the way, then go up and creep in towards the pipe. At a certain point, I have to climb out of the bucket and take a stance with one leg on the set wall and the other on the rail of the man-lift. This is a flagrant violation of Sony safety rules, as well as the official Industry safety procedures laid down in classes we’ve all been required to take over the last few years.* Such a blatant violation puts me at considerable risk, since being caught by one of the studio safety officers can result in my being fired on the spot and sent home without pay. Repeated violations could have me banished for life from working at Sony Studios.

That would be bad. Very bad.

Remember all those papers I signed yesterday morning? Among them was an agreement to observe the studio and Industry safety procedures, and by willfully ignoring the terms of that agreement, I’ve put myself beyond the studio’s legal umbrella. If while violating those terms, I were to drop a lamp on some hapless painter or fall and break my neck, the show producers and studio would be absolved of any legal liability.

This is the Catch 22 so many of us face every day on the job: due to the nature of the sets where we toil -- and that damned pipe grid -- the work often can’t be done in any officially approved “safe” manner. But the job must get done, so we do it -- and in the process, walk a tightrope over the abyss with no net of legal or financial protection below. We’re on our own out there.

Welcome to the laissez faire world of modern Dickensian industrial life, where accountants and lawyers rule – and ruin -- everything...

Just because I’m breaking the safety rules doesn’t mean what I’m doing is particularly unsafe. So long as I pay full attention and proceed with due caution, there’s very little chance either the lamp or I will fall. At my age, I can’t afford to fall – an accident like that would probably end my career in more ways than one -- which gives me every incentive to do the work as carefully as possible. And that’s exactly what I do, straddling the lift and the set wall to heft the big 10,000 watt lamp onto the pipe. Once that crucial task is done, I tighten the clamp, hook up the safety and power cables, and label the lamp with a number, using white tape and a magic marker. The gaffer and dimmer operator can now identify and adjust the intensity of the lamp when required.

One of the painters below shakes his head as I back the lift out.

“Piece of cake,” I grin, lying through my teeth.

And so it goes all through the morning and deep into the afternoon. The job itself isn't terribly complex, but working under these conditions demands serious concentration. The constant din, the billowing clouds of sawdust, and the lingering fumes of slowly drying paint all conspire to confuse and distract, and with so many people working below (in what I call “the kill zone”), any lapse in attention could be disastrous. But after a while we all more or less get used to it, and fall into a good working rhythm. The lamps go up, the time passes, and the work gets done. By the end of the day, we haven't crushed any sets, set dressing, set dressers, carpenters, or painters. Nobody gets hurt, and no tempers flare. Our man-lifts are gradually destroying all those shiny new floors, of course, but that was ordained right from the start.

All in all, a good day.

The three big lamps hanging from the pipe grid here are a Studio Senior (5000 watt) on the left, a Studio Junior (2000 watt) equipped with "barn doors" in the middle, and another Senior on the right -- this one with what is known as a "Croney Cone" projecting from the front. In the background are three more Juniors, a 1000 watt nook light, and a 1000 watt "Baby."

Note the juicer's head in the lower left of photo -- he's up in a small man-lift behind the set wall, preparing to adjust the aim of the Senior. Unlike O.J. Simpson (extra huge) or The Artist Formerly Know as Prince (bizarrely small), this juicer has a normal sized human head, which gives you an idea how big these lamps are.

And thanks, Al, for the use of your head...

Thank God it’s Friday...

The alarm goes off at 4:15 a.m., dragging me from the quiet refuge of sleep into a dark world of pain. My back hurts, my arms and shoulders are sore, and my head throbs with a sinus headache from all the sawdust and paint fumes we’ve been breathing the past couple of days. I wash a couple of Advils down with some OJ, then crawl into my work clothes and head to the studio with something less than cheerful enthusiasm. At this point, I’m just grateful this pilot started on a Wednesday rather than Monday. Three straight days of this is quite enough, thankyouverymuch -- a full week might plunge me into a terminal depression. Low on sleep and bone-tired from performing the physical gymnastics required to hang lamps under such awkward conditions, I’m more than ready for a couple of days off.

The stage remains a colossal mess. Carpenters are still cutting, sawing, hammering, and sanding, while the painters continue to brush, roll, and spray their arsenal of multicolored paints. At this point, the atmosphere is thick with enough toxic crap to have this stage condemned as a Superfund site.

To make matters worse, the set dressers are now invading “our” space on the sets. Until today, they’ve been content to unload truckload after truckload of stuff, stacking it wherever possible. As we arrive this morning, they’ve already begun filling one of the main sets with furnishings. We all know there’s no truly good reason for this – that it is, in fact counterproductive in the extreme -- but their boss is impatient to see how the sets look, and they must obey. They too face their own impossible mountain to climb, so we’ll just have to work around each other as best we can. To ease the stress, I climb out of my lift and make the effort to meet each of the three working set dressers, shaking hands all around. They seem like good guys, and now that we’re on a first-name basis, getting them to move their stuff when necessary will be a lot easier.

We keep at it, each crew pushing their own big rock up the same steep hill. This is what we do -- that’s why we’re here – and by the end of what feels like a very long day, the progress is measurable: each set ringed with lamps ready to burn. We’re nowhere close to being done (many dozens of lamps remain to be hung in the week to come), but we’ve made a good start.

And the truth is, that feels pretty good -- especially on a Friday.

*I’ll discuss this in greater depth in a future post

Next: A Monday by Any Other Name

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Gulliver's Travels: a Pilot Unfolds

Martian War Death Machine, or Sony Studios Watertower?

I've been posting a lot about television pilots lately, mostly concerning what happens before and after the pilot is made. In looking back over some of those posts, I realized that many of you have no way of knowing what it's actually like to work on such a pilot. With that in mind, the next two or three posts will take you through the messy, frustrating, and ultimately exhausting process of making a sit-com pilot -- the very pilot I wrote about in last week's post. I won't name the show (which didn't have a real name anyway -- just the "Untitled So-and-So Project") nor the star, for fear of jeopardizing my spot on the crew should it get picked up. Producers exercise tight control over any and all publicity for their shows, and most definitely do not appreciate anyone who talks out of school. To that end, we have to sign all sorts of non-disclosure agreements prior to starting work, which means I must be careful what I say.

Here in the house of the hangman, we do not speak of rope...

Day One: Wednesday

It's 6:45 on a Wednesday morning, and our sound stage at Sony Studios is a churning cauldron of chaos. Construction crews have been building and painting sets – working 12 hour shifts -- for several days now, and until today, had the stage to themselves. Not anymore. Today this pilot moves into the next phase as the grips and juicers arrive.

That the sets are nowhere near being finished doesn't seem to matter. Those who control the purse strings have decided it’s time to start lighting.

Sony rigging grips have already prepared the stage for us, hanging an interlocking grid of two-inch diameter steel pipes from chains running up to the “perms” – a immensely sturdy framework of heavy wooden beams thirty-five feet above the stage floor. The pipe grid is laid out in four distinct sections following the rough contours of each set, three to four feet above the set walls. Most of the lighting equipment -- our lamps and the grip's flags (deployed to cut and shape the light) -- will be hung from this grid. Rigging juicers ran enough power on stage to energize six big dimmer packs, each the size of a refrigerator, then put in “the waterfall” -- a thick black river of heavy cables running from the dimmer packs all the way up the perms. There, some of our crew will run those cables out along a network of catwalks and drop power down to the pipe grid as needed. By the time we’re ready to film, close to 250 lamps of all sizes will be hung and adjusted to light the four sets currently under construction, each lamp powered by an individual circuit controlled by one man at the dimmer console.

All this will unfold over the days to come – the mountain ahead is high and steep – but today is mostly about receiving equipment. Lots of equipment. Everything from 200 watt “Inkies” to 10,000 watt “Teners” will be delivered from the lamp dock (the studio warehouse where lamps and cable are stored) to the stage. Every studio has their own way of handling this, in what essentially remains an equipment rental business. At CBS Radford (which used to be Republic Studios), a teamster-driven forklift delivers the lamps to each stage in huge metal baskets. Paramount just shrugs its shoulders, spits on the sidewalk, then lights another cigarette while each show’s lighting crew pulls, tests, and loads every lamp from Paramount storage onto stakebed trucks driven to the stage by teamsters. Disney – never missing a chance to squander a dollar if it means saving a dime -- washed their hands of this equipment rental business a few years ago by closing their lamp dock and selling off the lighting equipment. I’ve done commercials at Universal, but we always brought in our own trucks and equipment -- I have no idea how well Uni supports television shows in the shadow of that big Black Tower on Lankershim Boulevard. Here at Sony, the lamp dock juicers themselves bring the equipment to stage neatly stacked on rolling carts, using an electric tugger that also functions as a forklift.

Very self-contained, very civilized, very Japanese.

The equipment won’t show up for another hour, though, so we sit down to fill out our "start forms": deal memos, I-9 citizenship forms, time cards, and W-2 forms, along with the usual battery of sexual harassment and safety bulletins. It's all boilerplate stuff we've filled out a thousand tedious times before -- but in the dense, stilted prose of that last document is the following statement: “Make sure you get the right help when lifting or moving heavy or awkward objects. Avoid lifting them whenever possible.”

This gets a belly laugh from the entire crew.

Earth to Safety Dude – lifting and moving heavy and awkward objects, often without any help, pretty much defines the job of a juicer during these first frantic days on a pilot. Once the lamps are up, we can do the more delicate work of adjusting and fine-tuning them to properly light the set, but until then, lifting and moving heavy objects is what we do...

Shortly after we all finish scrawling our names, social security number, address, and signature a dozen times on half a dozen different forms, a train of big carts arrives from the lamp dock, each heavily laden with lamps. The first load contains a hundred and twenty "Studio Juniors” – 2000 watt incandescent lamps about the size of a five gallon water bottle. Subsequent loads will bring a a couple of "teners", a dozen “seniors” (5000 watt lamps), sixty “babies” (1000 watt lamps), forty “tweenies” (650 watt lamps), along with forty “inkies” and “midgets” (200 watt lamps). We'll also get a load of "skypans" and "pony pans", lamps shaped a like Chinese cooking pans, used to light scenic backings behind the sets.

All in all, it's enough equipment to keep us very busy for the next couple of weeks.

The real work of lighting won't start until tomorrow: today, our job is to hump all those lamps onto the stage and stack them in compact rows beneath the audience grandstand and out onto the stage floor. Carrying and stacking is mindless, sweaty toil, but at least this sort of work has a well-defined objective. The hard part will be hanging them over two biggest sets, one of which – at two stories -- is exceptionally tall for a sit-com set. The real work lies ahead. In all the ways that matter, this is the easiest day we’ll have for a long time.

There’s just one big fat fly buzzing in the ointment: the construction crew and painters. Carpenters are everywhere, turning raw lumber into sets, building and installing stairways, cabinets, and bookshelves.. Power saws, sanders, drills, impact drivers, and poorly-functioning vacuum rigs run full blast all day long, filling the air with the screams of tortured wood. Finely powdered sawdust drifts everywhere, thanks to those crappy vacuum rigs. Three boom boxes blare at maximum volume, each tuned to a different station, blending with the intermittent shrieks of power tools to create a deafening cacophony.

Meanwhile, the painters are busily painting everything in sight – brushing, rolling, and spraying -- filling the air with toxic fumes. Many wear respirators to protect their lungs and sinuses, and at least half have their ears plugged in to Ipods. Thus insulated from the noisy, stinking environment, they live and work in their own little music-video world.

In a way, I envy them.

The capper, though – and Exhibit A in The Sheer Idiocy of Sit-Com Pilots – is that some fool high up the food chain decided to have the floors installed today. That means a crew clad in industrial-strength kneepads is busy measuring, cutting, and installing hardwood veneer, carpet, and some kind of ersatz linoleum flooring on the various sets. These poor guys are trying to do their job in an extremely user-unfriendly environment – not only are the carpenters and painters all over the place, but now grips and juicers have been added to the mix. With so many different crews working at odds and in each other's way, life has been made infinitely harder for everyone. It's really a bitch for us juicers, who need to use 2500 pound manlifts and scissor lifts to hang most of our lamps. Turning the wheels of a manlift on this freshly installed faux flooring can carve big holes in it, which means we have to put down 4-by-8foot sheets of layout board (thick cardboard) to protect the flooring. Not only is this a time-consuming pain in the ass, but it doesn’t really work. The scissor lifts do okay on layout board, but the small manlifts -- essential for working in smaller sets and maneuvering in tight quarters -- are designed to operate on smooth warehouse floors, not over an uneven surface. When the layout board bends and folds – as it always does – the manlift suddenly refuses to go up at all. This built-in (and utterly infuriating) "safety feature" ends up making our work much more difficult, and occasionally more dangerous. We'll do our best to use the layout board whenever possible, but in the days to come, the flooring of each set will be damaged to one degree or another. Some of those floors will require extensive repairs before the filming can begin.

This is nothing new -- it happens every time. After paying for such do-it-again floor repairs in pilot after pilot, you’d think Somebody Important might understand that it makes dollars-and-sense to wait until the grips and juicers have finished the heavy lighting chores before having those floors installed. You’d be wrong. That kind of logic doesn't seem to apply in Hollywood, where they do what they do for reasons all their own -- and if you let it, the sheer stupidity of all this can drive you crazy. The difficulty of making a pilot isn't so much doing your job – although that’s hard enough, it’s only half the battle – but in all the additional maddeningly stupid little tasks one must perform simply to reach point where you can actually do your job.

It’s all part of the unique madness that is a pilot.

Truth be told, it’s a fucking zoo on that stage. Merely contemplating all that must be done – and how hard it will be to do -- is daunting. Trying to work in such a chaotic atmosphere is an exercise in terminal frustration. In a way, I feel a bit like the hapless Gulliver, tied down by a thousand tiny threads until he is finally rendered immobile. On Day One of this pilot, it seems impossible that any real order can ever emerge from all this.

Great reserves of patient persistence will be required from every member of the crew if any such order is to emerge -- but emerge it must.

And emerge it will.

Next: Pipe Grid Clusterfuck

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Strangest Year Ever...

“It’s not often easy, and not often kind. Did you ever have to make up your mind?”

"Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?",” by the The Lovin’ Spoonful, 1965

October, and a pale blue sky as clear as a baby's conscience. No helicopters cutting tight, angry spirals overhead, no sirens paralyzing the eternally gridlocked traffic, no car alarms sounding the universal bleat of urban distress. No rapid-fire gunshots in the night, either -- just the quiet whisper of a cool breeze out of the north, filtered through a million pine trees.

A fat green apple hangs low on the tree. I polish it on my sleeve and take a bite. It's crisp, tart, perfect. From the dense brush comes the long furry chirp of a Rufous Sided Towhee, while above, an Osprey carves a restless path through the infinite blue, keening with a plaintive, urgent cry. Three big poplars – easily sixty feet tall – sway ever so slightly in the gentle breeze, their green-turning-yellow leaves shimmering in the low, hard light of the autumnal sun.

Those who claim there are no seasons in California simply aren’t paying attention, and Fall – along with her twin sister, Spring – is as good as it gets.

But that was last week, returning to the home planet for an all-too-brief visit. This week, it’s back to the grind, the gray dust of the city, and the endless yammering assault of urban life. Back to the Doomed City of the Future. Back to reality.

Back to LA...


So there it was, early September, and -- much to my stunned surprise – I found myself staring down the barrel of a sit-com pilot. Being offered a pilot this time of year is a new experience for me, one that must have come about due to the lingering downstream turbulence from last winter’s WGA strike, and subsequent truncated pilot season.

I can only assume this pilot (should it get picked up) is destined as a mid-season replacement -- one of those vulture shows that circle the Fall television landscape waiting for one of the brand new shows to stumble and fall, at which point the network hit men will quickly dispatch the wounded beast, thus opening a slot for a mid-season replacement to swoop in and fill the gap over the course of twelve or so episodes. From the network’s perspective, the idea is to always have a Plan B, and thus a fallback strategy for retaining those oh-so-fickle audience eyeballs – and thus retain at least some portion of the parent company’s market share.

Fortunately for those of us who eke out a living below decks, TV remains a dark and mysterious art rather than any sort of remotely predictable science. Desperate for saleable “product”, the networks are forced to throw buckets of money at a wide variety of projects, and enough usually slops down through the planks to keep the rest of us alive and well. That said, I can only guess as to how this pilot came about. One of the curses/blessings of working below-the-line is having no actual knowledge of the Shakespearean court intrigues playing out further up the food chain in the executive cabins. These are the concerns of ambitious, hard-eyed types (male and female), armored-up in their four hundred dollar haircuts, three thousand dollar suits, and cold, gleaming smiles.

Down here in the dark, chained to the bench, we know nothing of that. We’re just the hired help, the muscle that propels the ship, quietly awaiting the order to row. Lest that sound terminally depressing, there’s a certain freedom here as well. Having no say means not worrying about things over which we have no control. “Que sera, sera”, as the song says: what will be, will be. Whatever happens -- good, bad, or ugly -- we’ll make the best of it. That’s how life is below-the-line.

Regardless of its genesis, the offer of this pilot came as a welcome, if unexpected, development. While toiling at the lamp dock one long ten-hour day, I used the afternoon break to drop in on a stage where a few friends were working on a sit-com. It was shoot night, but the audience hadn’t loaded in yet, so I found the crew relaxing in the Set Lighting Room, some sleeping, the rest watching TV. We chatted for a minute, and when it was time to go, one of them got up walked me off the stage. Once outside, his words stopped me in my tracks.

“I’ve got a pilot starting next month. You want to do it?’

Did I want to do a pilot? Is the bear a Catholic? Does a pope shit in the woods? Hell yes, I wanted to do it -- and just like that, I had a pilot.

That was the good news. The flip side of that coin was having to do the actual work. A pilot is anything but a relaxing stroll through the green, sun-dappled forest: it’s hard work, all the time, pushing the big rock up the steep hill every day for three long weeks. Such is the price of the lottery ticket, though, because once again the promise of a job on the crew lay in the balance should the show get picked up.

As anyone familiar with this blog knows, we’ve been down this garden path before, and it didn’t end so well. But like it or not, this is how the game is played – you pays your money, takes your chances, and hope for the best.

Complications soon clouded what should have been a very simple decision, though. A week later, another one of those agonizing should-I-or-shouldn’t-I conundrums arose to create a fog of confusion where once had been a clear path into the light. The guy who offered me the pilot was leaving his position on that already up-and-running sit-com, thus creating an opening on the crew – and the Best Boy of that show offered the slot to me. The choice was stark: take the pilot, and suffer through three weeks of non-stop, ball-busting labor -- or ease into a still-warm chair on a show scheduled to motor along on cruise-control through mid-November. The two jobs were mutually exclusive. I could do one or the other, but not both.

Bloody hell...

At first glance, the choice seemed a no-brainer: two months of relatively easy work (with the added bonus of two hiatus weeks off) on an air-conditioned stage vs. three weeks of hard labor, followed in all likelihood by a return to breaking rocks in the hot sun on the rigging crew. Pilots always end up in a race against the clock, grunting, sweating, and straining all the while, trying to get the damned thing done. An ongoing show already has a couple of hundred lamps hung, powered, and adjusted on the permanent sets – which means all the crew really has to do is light the “swing sets” for each week’s new episode, and maybe do a few tweaks on the permanent sets to accommodate the blocking. The chance to slide into the saddle of such a show doesn’t come around very often.

But the decision wasn’t that easy. Shooting a pilot is an expensive proposition, which means they rarely get made at odd times of the year without some assurance of being picked up. Now more than ever, Hollywood is increasingly wary of throwing money down the toilet. If Somebody Important believed in this pilot enough to give it the green-light in September, then maybe it’s got a real chance to go to series – and once a show is up and running, anything can happen. With a little luck, the standard twelve episode pick-up could morph into a second season of twenty-two shows. At that point, with a big enough audience, the sky would indeed be the limit.

Such dreams are made of the glittering lie that is fool’s gold, of course. In a business so mercurial and unpredictable as Hollywood, it never pays to look too far down the road. Rehab facilities from Santa Barbara all the way to the Mexican border are full of people who let their imaginations run a little too wild, fantasizing themselves right out to the lip of the abyss – and often beyond. Sometimes the truly smart move is to take what comes and relax with that easy bird in the hand rather than bust your ass trying to get those two plump ones in the bush.

But not always. "No brass balls, no blue chips," as they say in the cultural calamity that is Las Vegas. In the end, my decision hinged on this: right from its very beginnings, Hollywood has been all about taking chances -- rolling the dice and hoping for the best. Sometimes you just have to put your head down and trust that the Gods of Hollywood will reward you in the end. If not, well, it certainly won’t be the first time they’ve looked down from on high and laughed their divine asses off as I chased a bright and shiny mirage down the Mobius Highway.

There was another factor to consider as well -- Hollywood is a tribal community, and I’ve pretty much lost my tribe. The cameraman under whose wing I flew on most of my sit-coms hasn’t worked for a couple of years now. Much as I'd like to see him stage a comeback – and being a very talented, resilient guy, he just might – I can’t afford to pin whatever’s left of my own Hollywood career on such hopes. Doing this pilot would mean working for a new gaffer and cameraman, and the chance to earn a place on their team -- in their tribe. As the waters rise all around, the search for higher ground becomes grows more focused, more intense. This is no time to let opportunity slip away, but the question remained: which job presented the better opportunity?

Sometimes you just have to trust your gut instincts and roll the dice -- then pray.

I kicked it around for a day, then called the gaffer to confirm I’d do the pilot. With that Rubicon behind me, I called the Best Boy of the sit-com and told him thanks, but no thanks. And so I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed hoping this pilot does get picked up after all – and that (to paraphrase the immortal words of “The Who”), I won’t get fooled again...

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Still the King

Elvis Presley in Tupelo, Mississippi, 1956
Photo by Roger Marshutz

I was a just a kid when Elvis Presley blazed across the American cultural scene like a meteor screaming in from outer space. The media soon dubbed him “Elvis the Pelvis,” but being too young to grasp what they were talking about, I couldn't connect with all the hype surrounding this kid from Tupelo, Mississippi. To my eyes, his national debut on the Ed Sullivan show was singularly unimpressive: there on our flickering black and white TV stood a nervous young man with a greasy pompadour, slapping his guitar and warbling “You Ain’t Nothin’ but a Hound Dog.” That this considerably less-than-riveting performance left my older sister giddily euphoric only confirmed my suspicions that here was yet another cultural flash-in-the-pan, a guy with “greaser” hair and swivel-hips enjoying his brief moment in the spotlight before fading back into obscurity.

Wrong. Before I knew it, Elvis morphed into a hugely popular cultural icon as a singer, singing-actor, and celebrity Army draftee. In no time at all, the kid from Tupelo had the world by the tail. That he ultimately wound up a sadly bloated caricature of his former lean and golden self -- sweating and staggering around the glittering stages of Las Vegas in that ludicrous white leather suit – remains a cautionary tale on the double-edged sword of the American Dream: be very careful what you wish for.

I’ve always had a problem with performers who seemed to achieve their greatest success out there in the desert. Las Vegas is an outland planet scorched by a merciless sun, uninhabitable without the modern miracle of air-conditioning. It’s a freak show built on a foundation of sand, a place where entertainment dinosaurs go to die in the sunset of their careers, and thus the unnatural habitat of such quasi-humanoid creatures as Wayne Newton, Siegfried and Roy, and Celine Dion. Like the prostitutes who ply their sweaty trade in the “ranches” surrounding Clark County, these celebrity-performers come to Las Vegas for one reason: the money. There’s nothing inherently wrong with money – without it, we’d all be hunter-gatherers clad in scratchy loincloths, rooting and grunting for survival in some grim post-apocalyptic future – but when it comes to shameless vulgarity and turbocharged, no-holds-barred excess, Las Vegas has no equal. Given that Elvis finished off his career (and his life) suckling on the swollen plastic teat of this neon-lit nightmare in the desert – America’s Adult Disneyland – it was hard for me to accept that he ever represented anything remotely authentic, other than the dark, needy underbelly of our warped communal soul. Everything about Elvis seemed to embody the “I Want More, Bigger is Better” ethos that led our society down a cheap and glitzy road marked by enormous tail fins, padded bras, extra-long cigarettes, and the World of Tomorrow – each promising far more than could ever be delivered. Some of his songs were good, but that wasn’t enough to keep me from viewing him through a jaundiced lens of cultural contempt. That he remained wildly popular until the day he died -- and beyond -- only deepened the mystery. The hysterical idolatry surrounding his image simply didn’t compute. All I could figure was that it had to be about sex: American women all wanted The King in bed, while American men yearned to be just like him. To me, Elvis was just the punch line to a long-running joke.

During my post-college, pre-Industry life, I spent a year-and-a-half working behind the counter of a deli in Santa Cruz. One of our regulars used to sail through the doors almost every afternoon dressed in a white leisure suit, his hair slicked back in a black pompadour, striking a hip-thrusting stance just like his hero, Elvis. Kenny was a cheerful guy in his late-twenties, always wearing the sweet, happy grin of someone we’d now call “mentally challenged.” Still, he was more or less able to get through life under the wing of his spiritual big brother, Elvis. If it all seemed a bit strange, well, Kenny was a friendly guy who never bothered anybody – which was more than I could say for some of our customers.

Kenny was still hanging around the deli late one night when my shift ended. As I headed out the door, he asked for a lift back to his apartment. It was on my way home, so I told him to hop in. Once there, he insisted I come in. All I wanted to do was go home – it had been a long day on my feet, dealing with endless waves of customers -- but Kenny seemed wounded by my reticence, so I agreed to come in for a minute. Only when I stepped inside did I finally grasp just how deeply rooted his obsession with Elvis really was: the interior of his apartment was a shrine to The King: velvet paintings and posters of Elvis lined the walls, with little plaster statues cluttering every horizontal surface. Elvis ashtrays, Elvis table lamps, Elvis everything.

Truth be told, it was kind of creepy.

Grinning like a fool, Kenny watched me take it all in, delighted to share the temple he’d created to honor his living God. Until that moment, I didn’t realize just how far out on the limb of fantasy he really was.

I excused myself as soon as politeness allowed and drove on home. A couple of months later came the news that Elvis had died while sitting on a toilet in one of his many gilded bathrooms. Kenny came into the deli the next day, a gaunt shell of his once-happy self. With his golden calf having turned to dust in such a brutally public manner, the poor guy was utterly lost. I felt bad for him, but since I never understood the Cult of Elvis in the first place, didn’t quite know what to say. Having lost a few icons of my own during the turbulent 60’s – JFK, Bobby, Martin Luther King, Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison -- the death of Elvis came more as a surprise rather than a shock.

Kenny didn’t even want a sandwich -- he just moped around looking miserable. One by one, the swing crew went over to pay our respects, and tell him how sorry we were. Only then did he leave, a forlorn puppy trying to find his way back home. The death of innocence is an ugly thing to see. His sweet, happy grin was gone for good.

Two weeks later, so was I. Determined to give Hollywood a shot, I strapped a bulging pack and sleeping bag on the back of my motorcycle and headed for LA.

Calendar pages fly off the wall as the next ten years slip away. Now working as a Best Boy Electric, I take a job on a movie to be shot in Oxford, Mississippi, a period feature set in the late 50’s, at the dawn of white involvement with the civil right’s movement. Five weeks through our eight week schedule, we finished the daytime filming and went into nights, shooting from late afternoon until dawn, six nights a week.

Working twelve to fourteen hour days is tough enough, but you’re still more or less in sync with circadian rhythms that have governed all of life on earth since it first crawled out of the oceans. Even when working such brutally long hours, going to work at sunup and heading back to the hotel after dark provides the illusion of working a semi-normal life. Switching from days to nights blows that flimsy shield of denial all to Hell, turning everything upside-down: suddenly you’re going to work as the sun sets, and staggering home after it comes up – and that’s just the beginning of the pain. Depending on the circumstances, filming in the daytime is often a relatively simple matter of enhancing and maintaining existing lighting conditions -- balancing the fierce sunshine with artificial light to make each shot look good on film -- but it’s dark at night, which means every bit of illumination required to light each shot must be carefully placed, powered, and adjusted by the set lighting crew. It takes a lot of equipment to make that magic happen, tons of cable and lamps, all of which must be rapidly deployed, then moved and readjusted dozens of times throughout the night to meet the lighting needs of each individual shot. Only when the sky grows bright in the east can any serious thought be given to wrapping all that equipment, and by then -- in the cold light of dawn -- everybody is thoroughly exhausted. 

Night shoots are a bitch.

With the help of three day-players hired out of New Orleans, we ground out the nocturnal cinematic sausage for two weeks, then in our final week, had a big scene wherein Alley Sheedy (portraying the earnest, idealistic young heroine of the story) was to attend an Elvis concert with Treat Williams, our male lead. The scene would be filmed at the Tupelo Fairgrounds, where a young Elvis Presley and his band performed many times during the late 50’s.

We climbed into the vans in front of our hotel for the late afternoon drive from Oxford to Tupelo. It didn’t take long to leave the city behind, and soon we were rolling through red dirt country, a vast rural landscape of lush green jungle rising up from the rusty soil. Narrow dirt roads ran off either side of the highway, disappearing into the dense canopy of trees. Occasionally the trees had been thinned out, revealing a collection of whitewashed shacks against all that greenery. There was a notable absence of pavement or gravel on the driveways, another sign of the poverty in Mississippi. To my eyes, this rural poverty seemed a lot cleaner than what I’d seen in depressed areas of LA, but that was probably just an illusion in the head of an outsider. Poor is poor, wherever you are. Compared to the people who lived in those shacks, I was rich, with a great job – a lucky man indeed. Still, all is relative in this life, and the knowledge of all the work that lay ahead that night thoroughly darkened my mood.

We hit the ground running, working fast and hard through the twilight, and by the time night fell, had the lights more or less roughed in. The grandstands were packed with extras dressed in 50’s garb, mostly Tupelo residents who'd responded to extensive radio promotions the production company had run the week before. These good people were being paid exactly nothing for the privilege of being in the movie --  a box lunch at midnight was all they'd get -- but this exercise in recreating history would be a labor of love, their own personal act of fealty to the dead King.

The poor bastards had no idea what they were in for.

We did the master shot first, a wide, sweeping vista with the camera rising up on a crane to show the young Elvis (portrayed by one of the many Elvis impersonators-for-hire in and around the Tupelo area) kicking his band into song in front of a rabid crowd. The director wanted to shoot this from the front, but when dealing with an icon like Elvis – and really, there are no others quite like him – one must contend with those who legally own and control his image. That spells money. At the time, the going rate for a frontal shot of The King’s impersonator in action was five thousand dollars, while filming from the back only cost fifteen hundred. Being that this was a low-budget production, you can guess where the crane went – carrying the camera smoothly up to reveal the stage, band, and Elvis from the rear, with the screaming crowd of extras facing the camera.

I watched from well behind the camera as the shot unfolded, taking in the whole scene – the stage, the band, the wildly cheering crowd packing the grandstands – and much to my surprise, chills ran down my spine with the sudden realization that this is how it was. We’d recreated a moment from history, in the very spot where these concerts took place thirty years before, and here were the sons and daughters of those who had actually been there in the grandstands, reliving a moment many of their parents had experienced. This kid from Tupelo – a young truck driver with a guitar and a dream – had risen up from that red Mississippi dirt determined to do something, to be somebody, and succeeded beyond his or anybody else’s wildest dreams. At long last I began to understand what made him so great, so admired, so loved – what made Elvis the King. It was an epiphany unlike any other in my life.

And when I think about that moment, I can still feel those chills run down my spine.

Unfortunately, that was the high point of the night. Once we finished all the shots featuring Elvis and the band, we went in for dialog and “coverage,” and the dull routine of tedium returned. Move the lights here, do the shot, move the lights there, do another shot: repeat ad nauseam. By the midnight, half the crowd had drifted away, their enthusiasm drained by take after repetitious take. Civilians are invariably disappointed by the mechanical reality ofmaking movies – the scales fall from their eyes as they realize it’s not all thundering rock and roll, thrilling car chases, spectacular explosions, or dramatic gun fights. It’s mostly a long slog though the night, waiting for someone else to do their job before you can do yours, followed by a few minutes of action. In this case, once the band was gone, the action was over -- the rest was listening to the same dialog over and over again as the camera moved from one character’s perspective to another, which was deadly dull as the night ground on. I’m sure none of those first-time extras realized that working in a movie all night long could ever be so boring.

Welcome to the Dream Factory, folks, and another fist-in-the-face tutorial from the Joe Frazier School of Higher Education...

By three in the morning, most of the unpaid extras were gone. The second AD and PAs kept herding the stragglers tighter and tighter, cramming them in to the background of each shot, until only the paid extras remained as the Eastern sky morphed from black to gray. We got the last couple of shots just before the sun rose, after which the actors and director were driven back to the hotel.

Our job wasn’t over. With the sun climbing steadily higher, we had to wrap all of our cable and lights, carry the gear to the truck, then pack it full before crawling into the van for the hour-long drive back to the hotel. Fortunately, there was cooler of beer on the floor of the van.

The pain from that miserable night has long since faded away. What lives with me still, twenty-plus years later, is that truly magical moment when I finally came to appreciate Elvis Presley for what he was and all he meant to the people from whence he came – and by extension, to the rest of my generation. To hell with Las Vegas -- most performers end up there sooner or later, so I can forgive him for that. In a hundred years, people will still know who Elvis Presley was: The King.

Elvis Presley, Jan 8, 1935 -- Aug. 16, 1977