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, November 2, 2008

Week Two: A Monday By Any Other Name...

“Five o’clock in the mornin’, I’m already up and gone. Lord I’m so tired, how long can this go on? Workin’ in a coal mine, goin’ down down...”

“Working in a Coal Mine” by Lee Dorsey

Part Three of how a sit-com pilot is made, from down in the trenches.

The alarm goes off at 4:15 on this dark Monday morning. Much as I hate getting up so early -- and I really hate it -- one benefit of these early calls is the minimal pre-rush hour traffic, especially on surface streets. All that wide-open pavement allows me to pull into the Sony parking structure barely twenty minutes after leaving home.

It’s noticeably quieter on stage today. The construction crews worked all through the weekend (probably just to have a couple of days free from the fear of being crushed by our man-lifts), and now the sets are almost done. Only a couple of carpenters remain to finish up the last few details. The painters are still here in force, but there’s not nearly so much crap in our way.

Construction crap, that is. Now that the table saws and sanders are finally gone,  a sudden tsunami of set dressing has flooded every set. Although much of the paint is still damp, the set dressers have already moved a prodigious quantity of rugs, chairs, sofas, tables, table lamps, standing lamps, wall hangings, paintings, and other assorted furnishings into the remaining sets. Each piece has been carefully placed under the critical eye of the Set Decorator, and I have to admit, the sets look pretty good. Trouble is, we still have to get in there and hang more lights, which means everything that isn't nailed down will have to be moved, repeatedly. Having all this furniture in the way makes whole process infinitely more difficult for everybody, but I suppose the Set Decorator and our show runners need to evaluate the fully-dressed sets to determine what, if any, changes must be made.

She's got her job and we have ours. I understand and respect what the set decorators are up against, but that doesn't mean I like the process. Sooner or later, every pilot seems to end up an endless struggle to cram twenty pounds of shit into a five pound bag, with the same predictable result.

At least all those clouds of finely powdered sawdust are gone, leaving only noxious paint fumes to contaminate the atmosphere. That’s the good news. The bad news is now we’re lighting in earnest, which means the huge elephant doors at either end of the stage must be closed to keep the daylight out. Unfortunately, this keeps the fresh air out as well. Since the producers won’t spring for air-conditioning on the rig -- such luxuries are meant to keep the actors comfortable, but the actors aren't yet here -- the lowly juicers, grips, and set dressers will just have to suffer. With all our big incandescent lamps burning away, the stage heats up in a hurry. Pretty soon we're all dripping with sweat, the hot, sticky air thick with paint fumes.

At times like this, I really wish someone could remind me just why I was so excited about getting into the movie biz three decades ago...

We broke for an hour at lunch, and after wolfing down a sandwich at the commissary, I took a walk around the Sony lot. There’s a huge feature going on called “Angels and Demons” -- which is either the sequel or prequel to “The DaVinci Code”, depending on who’s telling the story. I haven't seen the movie nor read the books, and thus haven’t a clue. Half the lot is taken up by this monster show, employing hundreds of people. Between stages, I ran into the Key Grip of the movie – who, as it happens, I worked with on the first real movie of my career.* While I spent the next thirty years meandering through the hinterlands of the Industry, he pretty much stuck with features, working his way up doing bigger and bigger movies. He's hit the big time now -- it’s hard to get much bigger than a show like “Angels and Demons.”

A few minutes later, one of the riggers tells me the budget for this uber-movie is within spitting distance of $250 million. The old Hollywood rule of thumb holds that a movie must gross at least two and a half times its budget to move into the black. If true, that means this movie won't turn a profit until $625 million has rolled in -- an awfully big number.

Whatever the true budget, it's obvious that they're throwing Very Big Bucks at this thing. I checked out the rig on one of the bigger stages, which used more heavy 4/0 cable than I’ve ever seen deployed in one place. A wide river of cable fed power from the main cans into air-conditioned shipping containers packed with racks of dimmers, where the modulated juice was then run onto the stage and up high to the perms, energizing hundreds of big lamps.

If the rig was impressive, the real jaw-dropper was on stage, where construction crews had built a full scale replica of the Sistine Chapel, made perfect down to the last detail with the aid of computer imaging. Spread across the ceiling high above was a recreation of Michelangelo's famous painting, with the a bearded God reaching out to touch the outstretched finger of man. Gazing upward, I was reminded of the old Hollywood, from the enormous sets built for D.W. Griffith's “Intolerance”, to later epics like “Gone With the Wind”, “Spartacus”, and “Ben Hur.” It's nice to see that Hollywood still knows how to build such wonderfully enormous sets -- the old ways live -- but all around the stage were the modern tools of the trade, huge glowing green screens that help create the cinematic miracles we now take for granted.

I'm told the producers originally planned to shoot much of this movie on location in the Vatican, but when the Church found out the story was based on another Dan Brown book, the Holy Henchmen pulled the Divine Plug, and the whole production had to come back to LA. If there is a Hell –- and assuming the Pope has enough pull with the Creator of the Entire Universe -- I’m guessing there’s a particularly nasty flaming pit down there reserved for Mr. Dan Brown. Maybe right next to one right waiting for Rush Limbaugh.

On my way back to our stage, I run into yet another old friend, a camera assistant I’ve known for 30 years, now working on an ongoing sit-com. With a grin, he tells me he just saw Tom Hanks ride by on a bicycle -- and for a moment, this really does feel a bit like the old days in Hollywood. Sony used to be MGM not so long ago, and at a studio with art deco office buildings named after stars like Gable, Garbo, Chaplin, Tracy, and Hepburn (among others), you can't help but feel the history of the place.

The lunch hour passes much too quickly, and soon I'm back in my man-lift, sweating like the proverbial pig. There's much to do, because soon, everything is about to change.

Tuesday: Day Five

At last, a later call – 11:00 a.m. Today I get to sleep in and enjoy waking up at a reasonable time, in a leisurely manner, and at least enjoy the illusion of feeling semi-human before heading for work. When I arrive on stage, the carpenters are gone for good, leaving only a couple of painters to touch things up. We continue lighting all day and into the evening, and it's a bitch. Most of the big lamps are up, but getting into tight corners to hang the smaller units means fighting our way over, under, around, and through a mountain of set dressing.

It's a good thing those set dressers are nice guys.

Wednesday: Day Six

Today we have a 3:00 pm call, marking yet another major shift in the rhythm of the show. Until now, we've assumed a sort of "ownership" of the stage -- it was ours to light and make beautiful (along with the set dressers, of course) -- but from this point on, the stage belongs to the director and actors. We'll be having late calls right up until the blocking/shoot days, while the Above-the-Liners come in early to rehearse and hone the script. There's an odd sense of loss at this. After having had the run of the stage for more than a week, we suddenly find ourselves in a subservient role, tiptoeing around as quietly as possible whenever the "talent" is present. Assistant Directors and a small army of Production Assistants are everywhere now, rushing here and there with a frantic sense of mission, while the director lords it over everyone like a king. Now that "they" have taken possession of "our" stage, the relaxed, wisescracking, just-get-it-done atmosphere of rigging has abruptly vanished, replaced by something harder and colder. The business of laughter has suddenly become a very serious endeavor. But this is the natural order of things, and a reminder of why we're here in the first place: to make those sets and actors look as good as possible. In the end, it always was about them, not us.

What was ours, is theirs, and what's theirs... is theirs.

We've now moved into the typical schedule of an up-and-running sit-com. Some crews like to come in very early to do the lighting, then go home when the actors show up, but most opt for the late afternoon calls, working into the night. This is good for missing traffic on either end of the day, but making the transition from early morning calls to late afternoon takes a toll. The extra time in the morning is nice, allowing me to deal with of real-life things -- medical appointments, car maintenance, grocery shopping (and writing this blog), but it also means going to work in the midst of an afternoon let-down. Starting the work day at such a low ebb really makes the time drag -- hauling those lamps up the ladder seems a lot harder now than it did just a couple of days ago.

Accordingly, this first late-call work day administered a serious butt-kicking to yours truly. We were down two of our four man-lifts -- one of the small lifts suffered mechanical failure, while the other scissor lift simply vanished -- and since the grips needed both remaining lifts to hang their huge translight backings (giant photographic transparencies that provide the illusion of a real world beyond the windows/doors of each set), I was stuck using a 12 step ladder to hang those 25 pound lamps on the pipe grid. The drill was thus: climb ladder carrying a 15 pound stirrup hanger (a telescoping device allowing the lamp to be raised or lowered), then head back down to grab the lamp. Climb ladder, hang lamp, power lamp, turn lamp on, move and adjust lamp as required -- then do it again and again and again. Standing on the top rung of a wobbly 12 step, with one foot on the equally wobbly set (which makes two blatant violations of the Studio/Industry Safety Guidelines I've sworn to obey), has a way of focusing one's attention while expending a huge amount of energy.

There's a right way to do this, of course -- which also happens to be the smart way, and thus much easier. One juicer throws a rope over the pipe, then ties it to the lamp, so he/she can do the actual lifting while the other juicer guides the lamp up the ladder onto the pipe. There's very little danger of any accidents this way, and nobody takes a beating by doing all the work alone. Unfortunately, it takes two to perform this tango, and the rest of the crew was busy working on the other sets. I could have thrown a snit, and insisted that one of them come help me, but being the old dog on this crew, I take a perverse (doubltess misplaced) sense of pride (which some might call "stupidity") in setting an example for the younger pups, who often seem rather too willing to wait for circumstances to improve before tackling a particularly difficult task.

In the long run, they’re probably right. It’s just a goddamned job, after all, and there’s really no point in playing the martyr/hero when getting paid by the hour. But sometimes I can’t help myself, and this was one of those times. Whether I was trying to prove something to them or to myself is unclear -- probably both, now that I think about it -- but mostly I just wanted to get the job done. Besides, the kids need to learn that we can't always wait around for everything to be perfect -- sometimes, to paraphrase the Nike line, you have to suck it up and just do it.

The result, of course, is that I was absolutely whipped by the end of the night. Everything hurt as I limped to the parking structure with the rest of the crew – none of whom seemed nearly so tired – where we found both elevators out of order.

Like I said, sometimes you just have to do it – so we all trudged up the five stories to our cars.

That night, I slept the sleep of the dead…

Thursday: Day Seven

With a 3:30 call this afternoon, I arrive early enough to watch some of the rehearsals. It’s always interesting to see how the script is modified through the week, each scene tweaked and massaged to extract the most comedic potential. This type of television remains very much an art, not a science, and the alchemy only happens through the trial and error process of rehearsals. It's a kind of magic, all right, but one born of sweat and effort.

The mystery set has finally arrived, already built and painted by a construction crew that must have worked all night long. It’s just a small bedroom set with an attached bathroom, but it'll take at least a dozen lamps to light properly-- and on such small sets, each lamp must be set and adjusted with extreme precision.

Naturally, the set dressers have already filled it up with beds, night tables, lamps, and a ton of other crap that leaves us only the narrowest of channels in which to work. Getting a man-lift in there is impossible, so again we do most of the lighting from ladders.

We're still tweaking the lighting on the main sets, of course, a task that has become very difficult by now. When we first started lighting, the hardest part was dodging the construction crew and painters. As each day passed, more and more lamps went up, and the light from each lamp was then cut and properly shaped by the grips using large flags attached with a clamp-and-arm device called a "meat axe". All this equipment takes up a lot of space, and after a while, adding new lamps becomes much harder to do. After a certain point, even a small man-lift can no longer fit in between all those lamps and flags – which is when we really have to tap dance around those safety rules. There's often no other way but to take the lift up as far as possible, then climb up on the very top rail of the swaying lift in order to hang a new lamp. I often end up hanging on to the pipe grid with one hand while working with the other. A good sense of balance is crucial here, along with an ability to focus on the task at hand and ignore everything else.

Each day we enter this ever-narrowing crack between the rock of those safety rules, and the hard place of actually getting the work done. It's an impossible situation, really, but we really don't have any choice.

Friday: Day Eight

In terms of lighting, we’re down to the short strokes now, adding smaller accent lamps to brighten various up-til-now-unnoticed dark areas of each set. Sometimes it seems we’ll never finish with all this, and by now, it has become almost impossible to get in there and hang any new lamps. The "greens" arrived today -- the final in a long string of on-set insults -- which means we now have to contend with a dense forest of potted plants in all sizes (some real, some fake, up to and including twelve foot high trees) stacked between the windows of the sets and the big translight backings. Once again we find ourselves having to move increasingly heavy objects belonging to other departments just to be able to do our own work. At this point, our whole crew is tired of this crap -- the Set Decorator had plenty of hands to bring those greens in, but not enough to get them the hell out of our way. Once the greensmen finished unloading their trees and putting them in our way, they were gone.

If I'm sounding rather cranky here, it's because all this is really starting to piss me off. In a metaphorical sense, we're all bleeding profusely now, suffering the death of a thousand cuts. Good thing it's Friday -- if I had one more day of this, I just might end up driving one of our big scissor lifts right through a stand of these goddamned greens, crushing them where they lie.

It wouldn't be the first time...

But it is Friday, so I restrain my sullen reptilian brain from going full-postal, and instead, limp home for a desperately needed weekend.

*"Hometown USA"

Next: Kill the Pig


D said...

I pushed 2nd unit on "Angels". I didn't realize you were there at the same time or I would have stopped by.

Leetal said...

I got the same sense from the Angels set (and Tom Hanks biking around) That glimpse of Old Hollywood.

Nathan said...

In spite of the fact that I've never spent a day on stage, I sympathize. Gawd, who scheduled you guys.

On the "Safety" thing, I remember one show I was on, the studio decided to hold the initial pre-production safety meeting with someone from risk management on the phone and all department heads in the room because we were on distant location. She droned on for an hour while we went through the handbook with her. The ultimate lesson we learned was that if someone cut off their thumb, first, call the studio attorney, second, call risk management. And what what third? Gimme a minute, I'll think of it.

Oh yeah, call an ambulance.

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