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, 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...


The Grip Works said...

Dear Michael,
Wow !! You really ought to be a writer not a juicer. I'm a big fan of your writing.
All the best with the Pilot. I hope it works out.

Anonymous said...

I've got my fingers crossed for you too.

I am going up for vote this Sunday for the Local, and hopefully I will have my card before your next scheduled blog. And I already have a line on a couple of gigs to get up and running. It means leaving the career I have gave twelve years to, but I guess rolling the dice is my choice as well.

Michael Taylor said...

Grip Works -- some argue that anyone who writes is a "writer", while others hold that one must make a living at the keyboard to paste such a label on his/her forehead. I lean toward the latter argument, which means for the foreseeable future, I'm a juicer.

But I do like to write, and very much appreciate your comments.

Chris -- thanks for the good vibes. I wish you the best of luck as you turn the page and move on to another phase of your career.