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)

Friday, December 26, 2008


I wasn’t going to post anything before the New Year – and it’ll be a while after that – but I ran across three very different Christmas stories in the last couple of days that to me, say a lot about our modern life.

It’s a safe assumption that any newspaper story headlined “Man in Santa suit opens fire at Christmas Eve party” isn’t going to end well. Sure enough, this horrific tale of a quiet, divorced, church-going loner turned into a cheap horror movie when the demented fool donned that Santa suit, picked up his guns and a homemade flame thrower, then knocked on the door of a house where his ex-wife was attending the party. Bullets flew, flames were thrown, and when the smoke cleared, nine people were dead and the house was in ruins. I can’t imagine most of you haven’t heard/read about this one by now, but if not, here you go – the ugliest, saddest Christmas story I’ve ever heard.

Thankfully, it wasn’t all guns and fire this Christmas Eve. In a town called Burnsville, Minnesota – no kidding – it was just fire, as a big apartment building burned down, torching the possessions and lives of everyone living there. But sometimes Christmas miracles really do happen: an anonymous donor came to the rescue in a very big way, providing the fire victims with a new start. This is a good one - a fairy tale Christmas story that happens to be real.

Then we have the big picture from Jon Carroll, who writes an excellent daily column for the San Francisco Chronicle. Here, he puts this peculiarly unique holiday in perspective – what matters, what doesn’t, and why.

Read it with someone you love.

Happy New Year, folks...

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Screenplay Game

“Nobody knows anything.”
William Goldman

I’ll close out the annus horribilis that was 2008 (to borrow a phrase from the Queen of England) with a look at an aspect of the Industry far from the down-and-dirty world of hauling cable and hanging lamps: writing screenplays.

What do I, a juicer, know about writing screenplays? Nothing, really. Writing scripts is an above-the-line job, and I toil in the murky depths far below decks -- but anyone who spends more than a little time in this business will have ample opportunity to read scripts. Every television show and movie starts with a script, and copies are usually easy to come by on set. These are the winners -- scripts that successfully ran the gauntlet and managed to reach actual production. For every winner, dozens of losers stumbled and fell somewhere along the way, ending up in the Great Circular File of Despair.

Although I like to read the scripts for any show I’m working on, I have no interest in writing screenplays. I took a stab at it a very long time ago, and although it was an interesting exercise (essentially, you’re creating an entire movie in your head), I didn’t take to it. As it turned out, screenwriting just isn’t the sort of writing that interests me. That doesn’t mean I don’t respect the craft -- a well-written script for television or movies is a unique form of magic. I don’t regard screenwriters as lesser artists than novelists, short-story writers, or poets, since they all represent different tributaries feeding into the river that is the art of story-telling. True, a successful screenwriter makes gobs more money than a successful poet, but that says less about either individual’s skill with words than it does about our culture as a whole.

When you get down to it, all writing is hard. If done well – be it a screenplay, sit-com script, novel, or poem – the result is always something special.

The old cliché that everybody’s writing a screenplay in this town isn’t so far from the truth. I’ve met grips, juicers, prop men, sound guys, and security guards who write screenplays, along with actors, extras, stand-ins, and production assistants. I’ve read a few good ones, a few really bad ones, and lots more that fall somewhere in the tepid nether-world in between. I know people who worked hard, caught a break, and became highly paid professional writers in Hollywood. I know others who worked just as hard but never managed to get that crucial break, and years later, they’re still pounding away at the keyboard, striving to achieve that elusive goal.

I applaud them all. It’s a miserably hard business to crack into – and if you do break through, there’s no guarantee you’ll being able to stay. It’s a lot like trying to play major league baseball: just getting a shot in the big leagues is almost impossibly hard, but staying there is even harder. All but the established superstars of the screenplay game lead a life of constant struggle, always trying to write and sell the next script so they can keep the mortgage paid. They’re freelancers, just like the rest of us, only more so.

I stumbled across a several items recently that got me to thinking about what a bitch it is to be (or try to be) a writer in Hollywood. While catching up over at “Burbanked”, I came across an interesting/entertaining post detailing the life of a “D Boy” (or D Girl) -- a Development Person. Charged with finding, reading, and analyzing scripts suitable to pass on upstairs, the life of a “D Person” is one of a Hollywood hunter-and-gatherer, foraging for suitably literate cinematic sustenance on the vast wastelands of the urban veldt. In this post, ex-D Boy Alan tells the story of one script that came across his desk, and eventually worked its way via the magic of studio peristalsis through the digestive system of Hollywood, finally to appear on the big screen.

Anyone trying to write and sell screenplays will be interested – and maybe a bit horrified – at what happens to those scripts once they’ve been fed into the studio bureaucracy. Having spent so many years in the trenches below-the-line, this post offered a rare peek through the keyhole at life above that ephemeral but oh-so-real line of demarcation.

It’s worth a read.

Then I saw yesterday’s post by the Anonymous Production Assistant, which directed me towards an interesting piece on John August’s blog, detailing the down-to-earth realities every successful screenwriter must face. August points out -- albeit in a much less crude manner -- the life of a screenwriter ain’t all bourbon and blowjobs, as the old saying goes.

The last item came from Patrick Goldstein, who covers the movie world for the LA Times in his column “The Big Picture.” First on his LA Times blog, then in the print edition, Goldtstein recently pubished a great piece about the screenwriter of Clint Eastwood’s latest film, “Gran Torino.” The guy’s name is Nick Schenk, and his story is one you really should read for yourself.

I can imagine what an impact this story must have on those trying hard to break into the business of screenwriting: would-be screenwriters, fresh out of college and raring to go, will probably find it inspirational. But those who have been working hard at the keyboard for years now -- beating their heads on the hard brick wall surrounding the golden circle of Hollywood Success -- might find it more infuriating than encouraging. Like so many others, they came to Hollywood to write and sell screenplays, but have thus far found only frustration. After all that, it must be extremely galling to read about some shlub – a construction worker, for God’s sake, who sometimes drives a fruit truck to make ends meet -- who stayed home in Minneapolis rather than come to Hollywood, and managed to hit it big anyway. Nick Schenk got up every morning and went to work, then came home, grabbed his notepad, and headed down to the local bar (Grumpy’s) for a beer or three, which doubtless unlocked the wellsprings of inspiration. With an assist from a couple of young producers, he managed to get the script – supposedly* his first feature screenplay – to Clint Eastwood, who liked it, bought it, and made the movie just as it read on the page, refusing to change a single word.

This is nobody’s blueprint for Hollywood success, offering yet more evidence that William Goldman was right.

Not only did Nick Schenk keep his day job while writing (a good idea, according to John August) – and thus not have to starve, work nights as a waiter, or borrow money from his parents to survive, but rather than hole up in some dusty attic living like a tortured artist, he wrote his script while sitting on a barstool, sipping beer.

Well played, sir. Were I wearing a cap, I would doff it in your honor.

If a young writer has the personality for it, I suppose he or she could write anywhere – even a Starbucks – but it’s got to be more fun to write in a bar. The resulting script might not sell at all, much less to such cinematic royalty as Clint Eastwood (the magic of lightning rarely strikes the same spot twice), but at least the writer might have a reasonably good time in the process. Remember, though, Mr. Schenk used a notepad rather than a laptop. Drinking beer in a bar means making regular trips to the restroom – and unless you take the laptop with you each and every time, some low-life barfly is sure to steal it.

But a notepad? No problem.

I suppose the real lesson here is not to take any screenwriting advice from a juicer – hey, there’s a reason I haul cable and hang lamps for a living. Sure, it would be nice to do lunch with my agent at The Ivy, then take the Ferrari up the coast to my palatial Maibu estate (returning Spielberg’s call on the way, of course), but that ain't gonna happen. That sort of lifestyle is enjoyed by a tiny number of people, very few of whom are screenwriters -- but you get my drift.

The great mystery that has always confounded Hollywood is figuring out what will sell and what won’t. Sex and violence can be relied upon to draw certain viewers, while gauzy, dewy-eyed romance attracts others, and there always seems to be an appetite for dumb-ass, sophomoric humor -- Adam Sandler, anyone? – but nobody really knows the recipe for making the next big hit. It’s a crap shoot every time.

For every would-be screenwriter, this is a very good thing. The day some nerd-genius develops an algorithm good enough to predict hits and misses, the door to opportunity will slam shut in Hollywood. So long as this remains a dark mystery, the money-men and producers will be forced to take chances, roll the dice, play the occasional wild card – and that’s when new ideas, new approaches, and new writers can get their shot.

Given my far-distant perspective, any advice I have for would-be screenwriters is probably worthless -- but this being Christmas, I'll offer it anyway. If you enjoy writing screenplays, if the process is rewarding in and of itself, and makes you feel good at some point of the day, then go for it. You may or may not sell your work, or be able to make a living at it, but at least you’ll be pouring your heart, soul, and creative energies into something you believe in. That’s always a worthwhile endeavor, and in following your heart (or your “bliss,” as Joseph Campbell said) you’ll learn a lot, and eventually find your way. The more you write, the better you’ll get, and maybe -- with a little luck -- you might eventually hit the jackpot every screenwriter dreams about. But even if luck chooses not smile upon you, at least you will have made an honest, do-or-die effort. And if you do make it, maybe the rest of us will be reading a heartwarming piece in the LA Times about your rags-to-riches ride to into the Hollywood spotlight.

But if you’re only doing it for the money – if writing screenplays is merely a means to achieving some fantasy lifestyle that exists only in your head – then save yourself the heartbreak and go to law school instead. Unless, of course, you’re so bursting with talent that you can write great screenplays in your sleep -- screenplays that sell, I mean. And if you’re that good, you can probably write anywhere.

Even in a bar.

That’s all for this year. I’m catching the next rocket back to my home planet, where the realities of the Holiday Season will likely preclude further posting until 2009. Until then, thanks for tuning in. I wish you all a very Merry Christmas.

*read the comments at the bottom of Goldstein's column. I didn’t chase down the Variety story referred to, but at least one reader seems to think Nick Schenk wasn’t quite such a virgin after all...

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Obamalith?

“The people of an era must either carry the burden of change assigned to their time or die under its weight in the wilderness.”

Harold Rosenberg, art critic

Note: this is not a political post. Call if a meditation or flight of fancy on a cold winter’s day, but take it with the requisite grain of salt. Just be glad it's not some goddamned Christmas Letter...

You may have noticed an uptick in posting here lately, and for good reason: there’s not much work around these days. Other than the occasional wrong number/telephone solicitor, my phone went dead right about the time those feathery silver Christmas decorations magically appeared on the streetlights along Hollywood Boulevard. The freelance life is an individual journey of triumph and failure – mostly failure, now that I think about it -- and for me the work has dried up and blown away. At this point, so close to Christmas, it's highly unlikely any jobs will materialize from the Hollywood ether. My circle of work friends and contacts are either busy and don’t need any help, or else they’re marooned in the same boat I currently occupy: the SS Unemployed.

Thus I enjoy the gift of time, which is neither all good nor all bad. Looking back on a year that concluded a bit too early, I was lucky to more or less break even, thanks to the turmoil surrounding the WGA strike. If I’m not too thrilled about plunging into the holiday season without the usual small-but-comforting layer of financial fat, at least I’m not crawling into a cardboard condo under the Sixth Street Bridge every night, along the cold concrete banks of the LA River.

It’s useful to remember that things could always be worse -- and they will be, if those actors go on strike. But that’s next year’s worry. This is now, and now it’s Christmas.

Being unemployed provides ample opportunity to do the Xmas shopping, albeit with a much thinner wallet than I’d like. That’s life, giving with one hand while taking away with the other. In a way, this too has its upside – the Christmas shopping was finished in record time, although my people won’t be getting much this year.

2008 is what it is, and it was not a good year.

Digression: It occurs to me that this might be a lot what retirement will look like, should I manage to crawl across the finish line still breathing. This could be me then, staring into the glowing screen, pecking away at the keyboard for a while, then wondering what to fix for lunch. But there are many rivers to cross before reaching that Promised Land, and the way things are going, it looks like white-water rapids all the way. Still, if I do make it, is this really a preview of coming attractions?

Hmm, wonder what I should fix for lunch...


So I’ve been using this extra time to post more frequently – straying a bit from my mission of exploring the underbelly of Industry life -- and to catch up with old friends. While trading e-mails with one of those old pals the other day, the subject of Stanley Kubrick came up. R.D. happens to be a huge fan of Kubrick, and raved about a documentary he’d seen on Sundance called “Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes.” Here’s what he had to say:

“When Kubrick died, he left behind thousands and thousands of boxes of, well, Stanley Stuff, every bit of it indexed and itemized and packaged and stored with all the megalomaniacal care and attention he lavished on his movies. The film-maker got permission to pore through these boxes and share what he found and it is absolutely fascinating. The greatest discovery of all, for me anyway, were the hours of unseen documentary footage one of Kubricks daughters shot of him directing "Full Metal Jacket." Hey, you mean that's the God Kubrick? The guy not throwing tantrums? The guy laughing and shooting the breeze with the crew? The guy scribbling F. Lee Armey's Drill Sergeant vulgarisms into the edge of the script as he improvised it?

I would give anything to watch every mundane minute of each of those hundred reels of film...”

Thinking about Kubrick got me to musing about his epic "2001", remembering that wonderful scene where the space liner gently docks with the gracefully spinning space station as both future-tech craft circle the earth. From the first time I saw it, that scene felt like a beautiful metaphor for sex, in the form of a weightless pas de deux consummated to the gloriously soaring strains of a Strauss waltz. As the world’s first cinematic space fuck, it was damned impressive on the big screen forty years ago.

Then there’s that mysterious black monolith -- first we see it mesmerize our ancient monkey ancestors, and later, a space-suited row of baffled humans standing on the cold gray surface of the moon.

I was thinking about all this while staring at the blank screen, lost in memory, with the current dismal state of the world drifting in my background thoughts... and that’s when it hit me:

Obama is the monolith.

He's tall, he’s black, he remains shrouded in mystery, and he’s caused enormous consternation amongst humans of all political persuasions across the globe. His seemingly miraculous ascent to the Presidency comes at a time of extreme crisis on all fronts: economic, environmental, and geopolitical. Across the boards, the situation is on the cusp of critical (just as in the movie*), with humanity in deep trouble, even deeper denial, and -- whether we know it or not -- standing at the crossroads. The question is, can we summon the foresight, discipline, and will to change our ways enough, and thus allow us to survive in sustainable manner on this planet? If so, maybe life more or less as we know it will go on for a long time to come. If not – if we keep trudging down the current path, or settle for the half-measures of political convenience – then we risk descending through the many levels of Dante's Inferno, one bloody step at a time.

Nobody knows exactly how it will go down, but it’s clear that unless we do change, we’ll all find out the hard way – and that if we go that route, things are gonna get very ugly indeed.

So here comes Obama, our first black President, saying all the right things (well, some of them, anyway) about changing our national direction from the current road to oblivion towards a new and infinitely challenging course that might lead us to a viable future. As I see it, a positive change on this order of magnitude would represent a major step in our evolutionary intellectual development.

Wasn’t that the point of 2001 – that at crucial moments of our history on earth, some kind of cosmic nudge is needed to point us in the right direction? Without a massive asteroid hit 65 million years ago, our ancient mammalian ancestors would likely have remained dinosaur food, and monkeys might never have come about at all, much less evolved into modern humans.

I’m not seriously equating the election of a politician to the meteor strike at Chicxulub, much less a dusty celluloid icon from a forty year old movie – but on the metaphorical level, at least, one could view Obama as our real life monolith: the Obamalith.

It’s been widely noted that our President-elect faces the most challenging national and international circumstances since FDR took office, and that fixing the current mess alone will be a task akin to the Fifth Labor of Heracles (Hercules), cleaning out the Augean Stables.

Unfortunately, this isn't the comfortable world of mythology, where even the most monumental job can be finished in a single day. Fixing this will take a long time, and addressing the rest of the problem -- actually changing the mind-set of Americans and the rest of the world so that we’ll all have the chance to create that viable future -- will take an even longer, harder effort.

I’m not sure any one person could live up to such expectations, even if everybody were to get behind him all the way -- and we know damned well that ain't gonna happen. But we do have hope now, which is something we haven't had much of for very long time. I've no idea how this will all play out, and truth be told, don’t expect to see all the essential changes come about during my lifetime. This needs to be a long term effort over the next few decades. Maybe the changes – and the consciousness required to galvanize those changes -- will only come once it’s too late, or maybe they won’t come at all. Maybe humanity is doomed to choke, drown, and starve in the misery of our own mass-produced petrochemical crap.

In the spirit of the season, let's hope not.

*I'm not so sure where HAL or the Space Child fit into this politico-cultural cosmology. Maybe the dog Obama gets for his kids will be a canine of uncanny intelligence and -- one can only hope -- superpowers...

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Not-So-Ancient Mariner: Rob Long at Sea

The Lengths a Writer must go to Write...

Rob Long, esteemed weekly commentator* on KCRW (see “Martini Shot” on sidebar), and veteran television writer/producer, is at sea. Literally. He's on a very big boat, traveling a very long way in a serious, doubtless expensive (well, it will be a tax write-off...) quest for a significant stretch of undisturbed time. Bedeviled by the myriad distractions of modern urban life, he has chosen a unique form of self-imprisonment – in effect, solitary oceanic confinement – in the hope of finding sufficient empty mental space to fill those otherwise blank pages. Traveling as a passenger aboard a mammoth container ship called the “Hanshin Miami,” Long is chugging across the vast Pacific from Seattle to China via the coast of Alaska, Russia, and Korea, trying to finish writing a script on the way.

As anyone who listens to his KCRW broadcasts knows, Long is an excellent writer. He’s been involved with some very good, successful shows over the years, and a few others that although well-written and funny, were for one reason or another unable to catch the magic of lightning in a bottle, and stay on the air. You win some and lose some – and that’s assuming you’re good enough (and lucky enough) to achieve the status of “player.” Long has been a player in the television wing of Hollywood for quite a while now, but staying in the game these days isn’t easy. Maybe he's feeling the strain, and thus has resorted to such seemingly desperate measures.

Or maybe he just wanted to shake things up a little, take a radical tack into the unknown, and see what happens.

At any rate, you can hear him explain it a lot better than I have by clicking here. His website has a few photos from the voyage, with brief descriptions of his trip thus far.

I’ve heard of writers going to great lengths to find the solitude essential to writing — hunkering down in isolated cabins in the north woods, or tiny remote villages deep in Mexico – but given the reach of modern electronics, it’s no longer so easy to really get away from it all. Rob Long thinks he’s found a way, and if those South China Sea pirates don’t take him hostage, it’ll be interesting to hear how it all worked out.

*I hate to quibble, but is that a real word -- commentator? Shouldn’t it be “commenter”, as in one who comments? And if not, just how does one “commentate?”

To me, “commentator” sounds like some rather plebeian variety of potato, rather than a person with something to say...

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Something's Rotten at Blogger

This post has nothing to do with the Industry, but rather the host of this blog -- which has allowed many thousands of us to put up blogs for free. Under the circumstances, it seems churlish to complain, but lately things seem to be going a bit sideways at Blogger -- particularly when including photos with a blog post.

My latest post ("Adventures in Grip Land: Cranes") took forever to put up -- and by forever, I mean several hours. I'm not talking about the actual writing, but just trying to get the post -- and photo -- up on the blog in the format I wanted. Apparently, there's something about the addition of a photo that mucks things up, compressing the formatting of any text below. I put the damned thing up half a dozen times, trying every variation I could think of, but never could get it right.

For me, writing is about many things -- voice, pacing, and rhythm, among others, each of which contributes to the final post. Other than the occasional photo, all we've got here are words on paper (okay, words-on-screen...), so formatting -- spacing, essentially -- can be a crucial tool for controlling pace and rhythm. Losing the ability to control the format makes the process all that much harder.

In the end, I gave up, and you can see the results below. The best I could do was putting those huge gaps between paragraphs -- much larger gaps than I wanted. Every time I tried to make those gaps smaller, I ended up with giant run-on paragraphs that made no sense at all.

I settled for the lesser of two evils.

It wasn't always like this. Until very recently, adding a photo to a post presented no problems whatsoever -- I'd cut and paste the text into the blog, format the text as desired, then add the photo and hit the "publish" button. Everything came out fine. Now, I'm going back and forth between the "view" and "compose" sections, and finding that what I put up there doesn't necessarily match that which appears on the blog. The frustration and extra time wasted trying to fix all this adds up.

I understand that all this technology/software is constantly evolving, and that such evolution often comes with rough edges -- it too remains a work in progress. Change is inevitable, but maybe Blogger should work a little harder to ensure that "progress" doesn't actually make life worse for the end users of their services.

I don't know -- my knowledge of computers and the digital arena is sketchy at best, and maybe I'm just doing something wrong. If anybody out there has any ideas or suggestions how to avoid these problems, please let me know.


Adventures in Grip Land: Cranes

Uh, how do you get that thing off the truck...

During my first five or six years in Hollywood, the boundaries between the worlds of grip and electric were extremely fluid. Although I was much more comfortable juicing, opportunities kept arising to work as grip. Work is work, and if the resulting paychecks won't buy love, they'll buy just about everything else. It's a long time before a free lancer is able to say “no” to any paying work.

As it happened, the first movie job to come my way that didn’t involve being a Production Assistant offered the chance to work as a grip. Needless to say, the budget was minuscule – three hundred thousand and change. Granted, $300K represented a lot more in real dollars during the late 70's than it does today, but there was no way to put lipstick on this pig: it was a bottom-feeder production all the way. It started at the top, too -- unable (or unwilling) to afford an experienced feature DP, the producers hired a guy who’d shot a few sky diving films, but not much else.

I don’t mean to be overly critical here – he was still a DP who knew a lot more about cameras, lenses, and shooting film than I did about gripping or juicing at the time – but I'm just trying to give you an idea what kind of production this really was. There were only four of us on the entire grip/lighting crew – the key grip, gaffer, and two best boys. Fresh from the PA ranks, I was perhaps the single least qualified best boy grip in the history of professional film making. I understood sandbags well enough, but even though I knew what to grab when the key grip called for a C stand and a flag, I had no idea what to do with the damned things once I reached the set.

We managed to stumble our way through the four week schedule, during which I endured (and for the most part, enjoyed) a steep climb up a very bruising learning curve. By the time the last week rolled around, we were filming a car scene out on the then-unfinished 118 freeway in the north San Fernando Valley, a frequent location for film crews before the freeway finally opened to the public. The scene called for a big crane shot, forcing the producer to open his wallet for a truly impressive piece of machinery: a Chapman Titan crane. Even with my limited experience, I knew that a Titan was no mere crane, but a moving camera platform able to cruise along the road while a camera operator and assistant did their work way out at the end of the long crane arm. The wheels of a Titan could even “crab” like a dolly (all the wheels turning in the same direction), enabling the driver to put the camera and lens exactly where the director wanted it. With the weight balance adjusted by pumps moving liquid mercury within the arm rather than manually-loading lead weights, the Chapman Titan was a top-shelf item -- other than the camera itself, probably the biggest and most sophisticated piece of film equipment available at the time.

As usual, the crew gathered for our morning ritual of slurping bad coffee and inhaling donuts while the first AD went over the day’s work ahead. Halfway through his spiel, the Titan crane drove up the empty freeway and pulled up right in front of us.

The DP squinted hard, then turned to the crew with his usual look of befuddled irritation.

"We don't have enough guys to get that thing off the truck," he complained, shaking his head in disgust.

A moment of stunned silence followed, during which nobody quite knew what to say or how to say it. It was the AD who finally -- gently -- suggested that maybe this didn't pose much of a problem after all.

The rest of us turned away or stared hard into our coffee cups, desperately trying to maintain. It was a hell of a start what ended up being one very long work day...

I returned to my comfort zone of juicing after that movie, but eventually the Grip World reached out a long arm and dragged me back – which is how I found myself sitting at the wheel of a Nike stage crane a couple of years later, doing a twenty foot move atop a set of aluminum “I” beams. Having had no experience driving such a crane -- and with a camera operator plus assistant way up there on the long end of the arm -- I was sweating bullets. The steering was safely locked off, but there’s not much room for error atop those narrow “I” beams, and on every run, one of the crane’s steel wheels would roll right out to the edge and beyond. Had that wheel gone just a little bit further, the resulting six-inch drop could have inflicted serious damage on those entirely too-trusting camera people.

We got through the shot without killing anybody, but I think that’s when it finally hit me that I really shouldn’t be putting other people in jeopardy due to my own inexperience. Taking chances with my own well-being was fine – at least I could judge each situation and react accordingly – but I didn’t like being a player in a situation where other people could be seriously hurt if I screwed up. With no experience driving a crane like that, I had no business being there.

That's the thing about cranes -- people can get badly hurt when things go wrong. I got a good look at the potential for such trouble many years later, while working as a gaffer on a cheapie commercial out in Griffith Park. One of the scenes was to take place at the park’s ancient wooden carousel, a sequence which included a crane shot.*

We were under-crewed as usual, trying to do too much with too little, and by the time we arrived at the carousel, the sun was already behind the hills. Rushing to get the shot before full darkness fell, there was only one grip on the crane – a Nike stage crane. Before rolling film, one of the agency guys wanted to see the shot – and since we lacked video-assist (low rent jobs are such a joy....) the crane grip had to buckle this guy into the camera assistant’s chair and give him a ride through the move. He was a big boy, too – at least 6-3 and well over 250 pounds.

There's nothing wrong with this so long as everybody follows the procedure, and that meant listening to and obeying the orders of the crane grip -- neither the director (who was behind the camera) nor the agency man were to do anything without his okay. When the agency guy was securely belted in, the grip added lead weights to the rear to compensate for the extra hundred-plus pounds of dead weight. Once the crane was properly balanced, he moved in front of the post and smoothly lifted the arm up through the move, ending with the camera well under the scalloped wooden lip of the carousel ceiling. After seeing the move, the agency guy was happy, so the grip brought the crane back down.

The agency man had been told to sit tight until the the arm was locked down, and the safety chains attached, at which point the crane grip would give the okay for him to step off. But he didn’t wait. The instant the arm touched down -- before the grip even had a chance to lock it off -- the big man popped his safety belt and jumped off.

I was wresting with a lamp thirty feet away when I heard the scream. As I turned to look, it flashed through my mind that I was watching another man die on set: the camera and director heading skyward fast as the arm shot up, the crane grip dangling from the rail. He’d managed to grab the arm, but at a good 90 pounds less than the agency man -- and with all the momentum and leverage working against him -- he didn’t have a prayer of stopping that arm. He managed to slow it down a little, but not nearly enough. I saw the director duck his head as low as he possibly could just as he and the camera disappeared under the lip of the carousel.

We all ran to the crane and helped pull the arm down, fearing the worst, but by some miracle, the crane arm had ended up exactly between two thick scallops of painted wood – a narrow slot into which rose the director's neck and head. Had the crane arm moved a few inches either way, one of those scallops would have acted like a giant hammer, crushing his neck and spinal cord. As it was, if  the camera hadn't taken the brunt of the impact (turning the Arriflex into an expensive pile of junk), he’d have been dead anyway.

But luck rode with us that day, allowing the director to escape death -- or at the very least, permanent paralysis -- by a hair. It was a terrifying thing to witness, and something I never want to see again.

To his credit, the director got right back up on that horse. In minutes, the backup camera was mounted on the crane, and we got the shot before dark. The agency guy fell all over himself apologizing, but there's really no way to make up for doing something so inexcusably stupid. The director was very gracious about this incident, but as I recall, we never saw that agency man again.

Two images remain burned in my brain from this incident: the crane arm carrying that helpless director up to his apparent death, and the ashen look on the face of the crane grip a minute later. He was a very experienced, supremely competent guy --a man I did (and still do) trust completely -- but experience and competence aren't always enough to save us from the thoughtless idiocy of others.

Looking into his eyes that day, I was glad I'd long ago left the grip world behind.

* Nowadays, such a shot would likely be done with an arm and hot-head of some sort, enabling the operator and assistant to get the shot while sitting safely on the ground. Back then, such rigs were rare, expensive, and unreliable items.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Will the Elephants Fight Again?

When elephants fight, the grass gets trampled.

African proverb

Yeah, I know, I’ve used that line before – just about a year ago, in fact, when the WGA strike loomed over Hollywood. But here they come again, those belligerent, trumpeting elephants, shaking their heads and stamping their feet, threatening to flatten whatever’s left of Hollywood’s rather scraggly lawn. All over town these days -- on location sets, sound stages, coffee shops, and in the pages of our local LA Times* -- people are quietly asking the same worried question: “You think they’ll go on strike?”

The answer is always the same: "I sure as hell hope not."

This time it’s the actors rumbling about throwing a wrench in the gears of the machine early in 2009. If all goes wrong, just about the time our nation undergoes what promises to be a traumatic mass conversion to digital television -- leaving the warm and fuzzy days of rabbit-ears analog in the sepia-tinted past -- we'll all be stuck watching re-runs while waiting for the next in a long series of unemployment checks. The latest effort to settle the issue failed when federal mediators were unable to pour enough free-range, soy-based, organically biodegradable and cruelty-free oil on the increasingly stormy waters being kicked up by the slow-motion collision of SAG -- which looks in the mirror and sees The Unstoppable Force -- and the Producers, who seem to take a thuggish corporate pride in being The Immovable Object. Rather than reach a reasonable compromise to solve the problem, neither side has yet been willing to budge, and so the storm rages on as we slip and slide towards what could be a very ugly New Year.

It’s hard to see any good coming of this. The actors have reason to be leery of the same thin promises already accepted by the other guilds and unions (as the WGA is learning, a promise only means something when both sides agree on the underlying terms), but under the current economic circumstances, I think SAG is missing the point.

I understand that they don’t want to get screwed again, or “leave money on the table,” as happened when the cable/home video deal was signed back in the last century. If I had to pick sides here, I'd come down for the actors -- no way could I support the Producers Association, who would happily crush widows and orphans to death under the wheels of their stretch limo Hummers if it meant stuffing another dollar in their swollen billfolds. But what SAG (headed by Alan Rosenberg, their hard core, no-compromise president who seems bound and determined to lead his thespian sheep right over the cliff) doesn’t seem to understand is that we’ve all been giving ground every three years when the contracts come up for renegotiation. Back when times were fat, the money flowed, and life was good for everyone – actors, writers, and below-the-line crew. But we passed the high point of all that a long time ago, and it’s been downhill ever since.

During those golden years, Hollywood existed in a vacuum of sorts, pretty much as a world of its own making. The Indian film industry cranked out more films every year, but Hollywood’s product dominated the global marketplace, flowing out from Southern California all over the world. Times have changed. There's a lot more competition now that film and television production has gone global. Add in the ever-accelerating digital revolution -- aided in no small measure by some very bad management -- and we see the old economic models crumbling, the fat times over. The Reaganite dream that deregulation and economic globalization would create a rising tide of wealth to “lift all boats” didn't work out so well for anybody whose boat happened to be firmly anchored to the bottom, and as it turned out, below-the-line labor was in one of those sinking boats. The huge corporations that swallowed up so much of the Industry brought a strict bottom-line approach to the biz, encouraging productions to go wherever labor is cheapest. As jobs migrated across our borders, concessions were demanded -- and conceded -- with every new contract. There wasn't much choice, really. I didn't like it then, and I don't like it now, but that’s the way it is these days.

I hear some people comforting themselves with the notion that Hollywood is “recession proof.” In hard times, so this line of thought goes, people need and want entertainment more than ever, so production will continue at a steady pace. There's not nearly so much truth here as people like to think. Hollywood might be recession-resistant, but it’s not recession-proof – and anyone who doesn't understand the distinction should try wearing a “water resistant” coat rather than one labeled “water proof” the next time he/she goes for a long walk in the rain. We may not make cars here in Tinsel Town, but Hollywood still rises and falls on the same economic tides that sustain the rest of our economy. Right now -- and for the foreseeable future -- that tide is running out in a big way. The WGA strike inflicted serious damage this past year on most of us who depend upon film and television for our livelihoods, and any recovery is far from complete. With the economy tanking at an alarming pace, there’s very little chance any of us will be made whole in 2009, even if SAG and the Producers pull off a Christmas Miracle by settling their differences tomorrow.

But if the actors do go on strike, the trapdoors will swing open and we'll all plunge into the abyss. Disaster will pile upon disaster, compounding the misery and deepening the pain, as two stubborn entities, strangling each other in a death grip, take the rest of us down with them.

There’s a time to hold the line, and a time to go with the flow. Enlightened leadership on every level of the Industry knows this – everybody, it seems, but Alan Rosenberg and his fellow militant jihadis now steering SAG full speed ahead into these troubled waters. Yes, the Producers Association are miserable scum, but now is not the time to go to war with them. SAG should cut the best deal they can, using the WGA. DGA, and AFTRA settlements as a template, and leave the crucial issues of internet income for the next go-around three years from now. With luck, maybe we’ll be on our way out of this mega-recession by then -- and if nothing else, at least we'll have had three more years to see which direction internet programming is headed.** With more information, better decisions can be made. Plunging into a cage-match, all-or-nothing battle to the death right now is more than stupid, it’s suicidal.

The only good news in all this has been the emergence of a dissident group within SAG called “United for Strength.” Led by 2000 working actors who don’t support Rosenberg’s headlong rush to disaster, UFS seems to be gaining enough strength to challenge the hard core militants. Hopefully, their calm voices will prevail as we settle into winter.

Maybe what were seeing now is just so much kabuki theater, the loud-but-hollow posturing of two bull elephants flapping their ears and rattling their tusks in an effort to frighten the rival away without actually doing battle. Actors read the newspapers too, and they know how bad things are all over these days. I find it hard to believe SAG’s membership would be dumb enough to call for a strike – not now, for chrissakes -- and even if they do, a last minute deal is certainly possible. Stranger things have happened, and after all, this is the season of miracles.

But if push does indeed come to shove, then we might see those all-too-familiar picket lines outside studio gates in 2009. In that event, there won't be much we can do about it – but just in case you find yourself tempted to take some form of rash action like... oh, I don’t know, maybe heading down to a picket line waving a couple of samurai swords to put the Fear of God into those striking actors – don’t. Some heavily-tattooed clown tried that a couple of weeks ago at our local Scientology Headquarters here in Hollywood, and it didn’t work out so well.

Me, I'll leave the swords home and keep my fingers crossed that we don’t all end up with a lump of SAG coal in our Christmas stockings.



Sunday, December 7, 2008

Adventures in Grip Land: Dollies

Uh-oh.  No good can come of this...

In a recent post, "D" (of “Dollygrippery”) asked his fellow dolly/crane grips for stories of shots or shooting situations that went bad. If you missed it, the responses are worth reading. Pushing a camera dolly or operating a crane is serious skill requiring experience, good judgment, and the ability to modulate a delicate blend of brute force with a light and accurate touch -- all on the fly. It’s an art, really. As far as I’m concerned, a dolly/crane grip deserves every bit as much credit as the camera operator when together they pull off a really spectacular shot.

Being a juicer, I don’t have many good dolly stories, and already told my bad dolly story here, But it’s not like I was born a juicer. When getting started in the biz, the rule of thumb was to say “yes” to every job offer, no matter what, which is how I stumbled into my first dolly grip job for a small stage shoot. Having played with a Fisher 10 a few times, I didn’t figure this would be any big deal: the arm goes up, the arm goes down, and the wheels go ‘round and ‘round. It was only while discussing my potential employment with the producer that I learned we wouldn't be using a modern dolly at all, but rather an ancient Moviola* stage sled I’d never even heard of, much less seen or operated. Sensing my hesitation, the producer began peppering me with a series of probing questions, expressing particular concern that I knew how to “bleed the hydraulics.”

“Oh sure,” I lied. “That’s no problem.”

Unconvinced, he pressed the issue. It was too late to back down -- I'd already taken my first fateful step into the dark abyss of mendacity -- so I parried every question with another baldfaced lie until he pretty much had to call my bluff. The job was mine.

I hung up the phone wondering what I’d just gotten myself into. “Bleed the hydraulics?” -- I had no idea how to bleed anything more sophisticated than the disc brake line on my motorcycle. But with the job a few days away, I activated Plan B, and called the only experienced dolly grip I knew. After explaining the situation, I asked him -- well, begged, actually – to show me the ins and outs of the Moviola. He was not enthusiastic, but after a long pause followed by a reluctant sigh, he agreed to meet me at an equipment rental house in Hollywood later that afternoon.

The basics turned out to be simple enough – booming up and down, pumping up the tank, and switching from rear-wheel-only to four wheel crab mode. The only real trick was a two-stage hydraulic riser on the front of the arm, where the camera mounts. I’d never seen anything like it, but the riser was easy to operate with a simple lever switch. Having finally laid my hands on the mysterious beast, I began to relax. Maybe I could pull this off after all.

“So how do you bleed the hydraulics?” I asked, trying to sound casual.

He shot me a cold glance, as though such a question was beneath his dignity, then took a drag on his cigarette. “Don’t worry about that shit,” he said, dismissing my question with a cloud of smoke. Rather pointedly, he looked at his watch. "I gotta go."

I thanked him, not really satisfied, but unwilling to press the issue.
He started to leave, then paused.

“Look, if they plan a lot of dolly shots, just make the first one shaky. Believe me, they’ll cut way back on the dolly.”

I didn’t know enough to be worried about making the dolly moves – hell, you just push the damned thing where the DP wants to go, and how hard could that be? -- but I couldn’t shake the nagging fear that I might be called on to bleed those mysterious hydraulics. The dolly we’d be using was part of the equipment package at the stage, a low-rent operation that kept their overhead down by using old (read: cheap) equipment that wasn't in the best of shape. For all I knew, that dolly was a leaky piece of junk nobody at the stage cared – or even knew -- how to maintain. Maybe it seeped hydraulic fluid all over the stage floor, and needed to be “bled” every couple of hours. What if that’s why the producer asked me about it in the first place?

I’d be fucked, that’s what.

Arriving early on the shoot day, I was fully pumped on a high octane blend of nerves and adrenaline. I found the kid acting as our stage manager, and together we checked out the big dolly. Everything seemed to work okay – the arm, those funky risers, the various steering modes, and even the brake, a primitive rod-and-lever device that held the dolly in place by raising the rear left side of the dolly ever so slightly off the ground.

“When’s the last time you bled the hydraulics?” I asked.
The kid's face went blank. He shrugged his shoulders and shook his head.

In a way, this was reassuring. If this dolly had chronic hydraulic problems, the stage manager would know – even a kid like this -- which meant I was probably okay. At any rate, I’d done all I could to prepare, and it seemed do-able. Now I just had to pretend I knew what I was doing and try not make too big a fool of myself.

The shoot was a series of “wrap-arounds” -- intros, segues, and exits by an actor playing the host of the show – to be cut into several programs already on film. First up was a long dolly shot across the stage, past several big photo placards and ending on a medium close-up of the actor. This shot would open the show, so it had to be good. While the gaffer and his best boy lit the shot, I helped the AC mount the camera, then waited for the cameraman to make himself comfortable behind the lens. Once he was ready, we made a run.

It didn’t go so well. With the camera and operator aboard, that Moviola must have tipped the scales at close to seven hundred pounds. Weighing barely a hundred and fifty dripping wet, it took everything I had just to get the damned thing rolling. I did it, though, but after practicing the shot a couple more times, the cameraman decided the shot was too wobbly.

“Maybe we should put the whole thing up on a Western dolly?” he suggested.

“Sure,” I replied. Being unencumbered by any actual knowledge, I had no clue what a dumb idea this really was. A Western dolly is just a big wooden platform equipped with four fat pneumatic tires, a push bar on the back, and a pull bar on the front -- useful four hauling heavy items on location when there are no vehicles available, or even for sliding burning lamps back and forth while doing “poor man’s process” shots – but it’s not much of a camera dolly.

It took the whole crew and a couple of production assistants to lift that Moviola atop the Western dolly. Once it was secure, we made another run. Those fat rubber tires made the suddenly very heavy Western dolly much harder to push, and with a higher center of gravity, the camera wobbled worse than ever. After a couple of manful tries, we surrendered to reality and put the Moviola back on its own wheels. The clock was ticking, and I’m sure that producer had already begun to regret having hired me.

I was certainly beginning to regret it. Maybe there was more to being a dolly-grip than I‘d figured...

Needless to say, I had no trouble making the move shaky, despite my best efforts to keep the shot smooth. As it turned out, that Key Grip I’d talked to was right: after the wobbly first move, the director dropped all but the simplest dolly shots from the schedule. Even those moves weren’t easy for me, but we got it done. Although I never did have to face the issue of bleeding those dreaded hydraulics (and to this day, I’ve never heard of this being done on set), I gained a huge appreciation for the skills of a real dolly grip.

Some people never learn, though, because the next time the phone rang with a dolly grip job, I said yes.

This one wasn't even a real dolly grip job at all, but rather a quick screen test for some young actress on 16 mm film on a tiny stage somewhere in Hollywood. I wouldn’t have to fake it with any fancy hydraulic dollies this time -- all I had to do was push a simple doorway dolly, the much lighter baby brother of a Western dolly, small enough to roll through a normal sized door.

We were a three man crew, a gaffer, his best boy, and me. I knew the best boy from previous jobs – but in those, he’d always worked as a grip. We both had to laugh at the deeply embedded irony here: me (a 150 pound juicer) working as the dolly grip, while he (a 250 pound, six-foot five grip who knew a bit about pushing dollies) was the best boy electric.

Still, we soldiered on. The DP turned out to be a very large man -- not so much tall as wide, and extremely heavy. When he and his chunky female assistant both climbed aboard that little doorway dolly, its little rubber tires flattened out like something in a Road Runner cartoon. Trying to push them both down a hallway -- on carpet, no less -- then onto the stage, was almost impossible. Even when the assistant got off, I could still barely push this rig.

I looked at the best boy, who was struggling atop a wobbly ten foot ladder trying to hang a light. He looked back -- and that’s all it took: from then on, he pushed the dolly while I hung the lights.

Order had been restored to the universe.

Right about then, the talent quietly walked onto the stage – and that young actress turned out to be the astonishingly attractive Priscilla Presley, freshly arrived in Hollywood to start her acting career. I have no idea what she was being tested for (although several years later, she got a juicy part in the prime-time soap, “Dallas”), but at that moment, she was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen in person. My jaw gaped, and I’m not really sure just how I kept from falling off that ladder.

No wonder Elvis tumbled head-over-heels into marriage.

We got the small set lit and ready, the dolly moved prepped and rehearsed, and then we waited. And waited. And waited some more... until the gaffer and DP were summoned off the stage. They returned a few minutes late and told us to wrap it up -- an agent or lawyer or Somebody Important had pulled the plug on the deal. We’d still get paid for the day, which now amounted to taking everything down that we’d just put up. Although this meant a short work day, I was disappointed not to see Priscilla go through her paces for the camera.

Yeah, she was that good looking...

It was several years before I saw her again, while working on a “Crystal Lite” television commercial for which she was the star. Sadly, the thrill was gone -- a lot of water had passed under the bridge by then, taking her golden moment of perfection out to sea. Not even the modern alchemy of plastic surgery could bring it back. Life is cruel that way, but at least she had that golden moment, which led to her modestly successful acting career. That's a lot more than most Hollywood Hopefuls ever get.

By then, I’d long since ceased pretending to be a grip of any kind – dolly or otherwise -- which was just as well for all concerned.

*Click here for photos of a McAllister dolly -- similar to the Moviola, I’m told, although the one pictured lacks that strange two-stage hydraulic head riser.

(Thanks to Nathan and D for the link.)

Next week: Cranes

Tuesday, December 2, 2008


So I was heading up Highland Boulevard the other day, and right at Franklin – just before the Hollywood Bowl – was a sight familiar to anyone who has been in town more than a year or two: a huge billboard of the pneumatic blond queen of Hollywood, Angelyne. I happened to have my trusty old digital snapshooter with me, and clicked a photo. Unfortunately, the camera settings were all wrong, and the result was brutally overexposed, like a photo lit by a nuclear blast. Sensing a potential post winging away into the autumnal smog – and being unemployed, with more than a little time on my hands -- I went back the next day (camera properly set up, this time) to take another shot. But things move fast in Hollywood, and Angelyne’s infamous billboard had been replaced overnight by another ad featuring some kind of French Mouse, hawking yet another animated movie about.... some kind of French Mouse.

It just isn’t Mickey’s world anymore, is it? I can only assume this French Mouse movie is another Disney product, which makes me wonder: in the long history of giant, soulless, heartless, Cheapskate Hollywood Corporations, has there ever been a company that made so many millions of dollars by exploiting mice in all their forms?

I doubt it.

Some dark day in the future -- when abandoned wrecks litter the empty freeways, clean, drinkable water has become more precious than gold, and our deep blue oceans have turned into warm, murky swamps thick with stinging jellyfish and foamy green slime -- the mice will emerge to have their revenge. I don’t know how or when, but we haven’t heard the last from our furry little friends...

Anyway, having failed to record this latest eruption of Billboardus Angelyenias, I culled the photo above from the web. It’s similar to the image I attempted to capture (although my light-blasted shot did not include Herself and her pink chariot), and will give those of you living out there in the real world beyond Hollywood some idea what she’s all about.*

I first became aware of the Angelyne Phenomenon back in the very early 80's, when black and white posters featuring her undeniably impressive physique suddenly appeared all over town. Those early posters must have struck a resonant chord, because it wasn’t long before big full-color billboards began to pop up throughout Hollywood. Lord knows where she got the financial backing for such big scale, high-visibility promotion, but those billboards propelled her to whatever position she now occupies in the virtual dreamscape that is Hollywood. Whether her original goal was to become an actress along the lines of Marilyn Monroe or Jane Mansfield, or simply to create her own iconic – and marketable – persona, remains a mystery, but at a certain point she succeeded in becoming “Angelyne.” If you drive around town long enough, eventually you’ll spot that famous pink corvette. The first time I saw her she was cruising down Beverly with car’s top down and her own top up, so to speak. Everybody who sees her for the first time does a double take, and I was no exception. A couple of years later, I pulled into a bank parking lot looking for an ATM, there she was again: Angelyne in that singular car, caught in the act of balancing her checkbook. I had to walk right past her on my way to the money-machine.

So what does one say to a Hollywood icon? Did silver-tongued flattery pour from my lips like warm desert honey? Not exactly.

“Lookin’ good, Angelyne,” is the best I could manage, accompanied by our culture’s thumbs-up gesture of universal solidarity.

Yeah, I kow -- highly unimaginative -- but at least I didn’t grab my crotch and bellow “Yo Angeleene, I gots sumptin’ for ya here...”

She responded with a smile, then squeaked a quick "thank you" and went back to adding up all those little numbers in her checkbook.

That’s it -- there’s no second act to this story, much less any dramatic conclusion. She was still sitting there, staring into her checkbook as I drove away with my freshly replenished wallet. I ran into her again in a natural foods store a few years later, where she looked more like some hapless refugee from an Andy Warhol production of “Alice in Wonderland” than a minor Hollywood legend of billboard fame. By then, it was glaringly obvious she’d come a long way from the salad days of her youth -- up close, the ravages of age and all that artificially buoyant flesh are impossible to hide.
Then again, I’m not quite so young as I used to be, either. The same thirty+ years has washed over me since I first saw those provocative black and white posters plastered on bridge abutments all over town. Age runs us all down in the end, taking back – with extreme prejudice – every precious gift bestowed by life.

I have to give her credit for persistence: after all these years, she’s still Angelyne, the buxom blond on the billboards. If the image she projects to the world doesn’t meet current standards of age-related feminine propriety or modern political correctitude, I doubt she cares a whit. She is who she is, a self-made icon proud of what she’s done. Whether one views this as a testament to individuality, will, and the human spirit -- or rather as some pathetic incarnation of blind denial ala “Sunset Boulevard” – probably depends on how you look at life.

Is that glass half full, or half empty?

Damned if I know. Sometimes I think it all depends on the weather. Either way, whoever she really is/was, "Angelyne" seems to be drinking deeply from a glass of her own making. If in the process she’s managed to imprison herself in a pink plastic cage, well, maybe she likes it in there.

It’s her life. Who are we to judge?

*Wikipedia's explanation of the Angelyne phenonmenon can be found here, or you can go straight to the source. Further examples of her various billboards can be found here.