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, January 25, 2009

Hiatus Week Four: Who You Callin' Yonque?

Yep, it must be street-sweeping day...

One of the odd rituals many denizens of Hollywood must observe – those of us who, thanks to the cold-hearted parsimony of evil landlords, are forced to rely on street parking rather than harboring our cars in a clean, safe garage – is the weekly mass migration of vehicles from one side of the street to the other. On my block, Monday morning brings a noisy lumbering mechanical street-sweeper to hoover up the assorted broken beer bottles, dead animals, pizza crusts, dog shit, plastic bottles full of urine, discarded dildos, used condoms, mysteriously tied-up grocery bags full of Something Really Nasty, and great, dirty snow drifts of advertising fliers that invariably pile up in the gutter over seven days time. To accommodate this essential urban ablution, all vehicles must vacate the east side of the street between 9:00 and 11:00 a.m. Come Tuesday morning, the situation reverses when the west side of the street receives its own badly-needed cleaning.

Prisoners of the nine-to-five civilian life need not be concerned with any of this -- they’re long gone by the time the meter maid cruises by on her fund-raising rounds, and thus do not fear the curse of street-sweeping tickets. We who work free-lance, however, lead unpredictably chaotic lives far off the mainstream cultural grid of five-days-a-week, fifty-weeks-a-year normalcy. With our highly variable work days/hours, we're often at risk of violating these iron-clad rules of the street. If I go to work on Monday afternoon, toil through the night, then drive home at 7:00 a.m. Tuesday, I must remember to seek out a parking place on the eastern side of the street before hitting the sack – and by that time, these precious ticket-free spots are in very short supply.

The price of forgetfulness is a forty-five dollar ticket these days. In what now feels like another galaxy, far, far away and a long time ago, street-sweeping tickets around here used to cost five bucks – but that was back before cities, counties, and the state (not to mention the Federal Government) all went broke. Now that we’re apparently doomed to lives of permanent debt deep in the Red Zone, every level of government is raising funds any way they can. I wasn’t happy about getting dinged for five bucks back in the old days, but after coming home dirty and exhausted from an 18 to 20 hour day, it seemed a small enough price to get to sleep as soon as possible.

Forty-five bucks is a different story -- I’ll drive around for half an hour in the pre-dawn dark seeking out a ticket-safe parking spot, even if it means leaving the car a dozen long blocks away from home. But in our modern Zero Sum world, this creates another problem: trying to remember the next day where the hell I parked the damned car in my post-work fog of fatigue the night before. I’ve taken many a rambling, bleary-eyed early afternoon walk around the neighborhood searching for my car, all the while wondering if some shit-head really did steal it this time.

So far, so good, but it’s never a comfortable feeling.*

At a certain point, the street-sweeping schedule becomes more or less embedded in one’s brain – but alas, perfection is not possible in life. A few weeks ago, I overslept and had to bolt from the warm bed, jump into my work clothes, and lead-foot it over Laurel Canyon to get to the studio on time. It was only while crawling home in the post-work traffic crush that I realized it was Tuesday, and that I’d forgotten to move my ancient motorcycle to the east side of the street. The rest of the way home, I thought about all the things I could have done with that forty-five dollars – maybe a nice dinner at a decent restaurant, or two bags of groceries from Trader Joe’s, or a bottle of Knob Creek Kentucky Straight Bourbon and two bottles of more-or-less drinkable red wine from the local BevMo. Forty-five bucks could lend a hand to a worthy organization such as Greenpeace or the Union Mission, or buy half a goat for some Third World family halfway around the world.

It could also pay the cable bill for another month of All-U-Can-Watch TV.

Every other choice held infinitely more appeal than throwing forty-five hard earned dollars into the bottomless Black Hole bureaucracy of City Hall, where it would vanish without a splash, in utter silence. It was too late, though – I hadn’t even seen the ticket yet, but that money was already gone.

Sure enough, a pink and white ticket was tucked into the motorcycle seat strap, along with a cheap flyer. I studied the ticket long enough to make sure the meter maid hadn’t neglected to dot an "i" or cross a "T" -- thus leaving me a legal loophole (no such luck) -- then looked at the flyer. There in basic black-on-white, was a picture of a tow truck hauling away a wrecked car.

“SE COMPRAN CARROS PARA YONQUE DE $100 A $500” it read, “PREGUNTE POR JESSE.” A phone number was printed at the bottom, the area code scratched out and another one scrawled in.

Given that my grasp of Spanish remains exceedingly weak, this appeared to be an offer by some guy named “Yonque” to buy a car for between $100 and $500 for a poor pregnant girl named “Jesse.” Maybe “Yonque” had knocked-up his girlfriend, and was now looking for a cheap car. Exactly how a hundred-dollar car might solve his problems wasn’t quite clear to me until I turned the flyer over and found the English translation on the other side.


So much for my high school Spanish.

This was disappointing on several levels. No longer a romantic tale of a young guy struggling against the odds do the right thing in a world gone wrong -- the instant movie I'd created in my head -- this was simply another money-hungry vulture hoping to pick clean the bones of other people's misfortune. It was also mildly insulting. If “yonque” meant “junk,” then Jesse the tow truck driver must have cast his critical eye upon my trusty old Honda and judged it an aging pile of yonque. Must I now add gratuitous, profit-seeking insults from total strangers to the endless hail of slings and arrows flung in my face each and every day here in this sun-blasted urban dystopia?

So it seemed. Death, where is thy sting?

Still clutching the ticket and flyer, I stepped back to inspect my two-wheeled mount -- something I seldom do, for reasons that became increasingly obvious the longer I looked. With an old bath towel tucked in around the edges of the seat to serve as a cover, the remaining chrome rusting and dusty in equal measures, the once-shiny black gas tank faded to a mottled gray by the merciless Southern California sun, a pair of seriously cockeyed rear turn signals (the result of some long-forgotten mishap), worn tires, and a weathered wooden clothespin clamped on the choke cable to help control the fuel/air mixture, my once-upon-a-time gleaming new motorcycle did indeed resemble a rolling pile of yonque. The messy, leaf-strewn spider web spun across the handlebars and headlight only added to the impression of a mechanical steed that had given its best, and was ready for the glue factory.

Enter Jesse and his tow truck...

We all get old, humans and machines alike. If this motorcycle looked a hell of a lot better when I bought it back in 1984, well, so did I. The years have taken a heavy toll on both of us, but it still gets me to the Farmer’s Market down on Ivar every Sunday morning, where parking spots are more precious than gold. The bike can be parked almost anywhere, in a matter of seconds. I’ve seen people trapped in their cars wait twenty minutes or more for a space to open up – and in that time, I’ve already filled my bag with fresh produce and am on my way back home. When I need to get to the grocery store, bank, or Post Office -- where parking a car requires the patience and opportunistic reflexes of a hit-man to nail a recently-vacated spot before one of the endlessly roving herd of well-coiffed, over-caffeinated, cell-phone yakking Yuppie Scum in a shiny new Ranger Rover nabs it first -- the motorcycle is the only way to go. The modern urban parking environment is a Darwinistic arena in which only the quick can survive and prosper – and there, the motorcycle retains a distinct evolutionary edge.

In general, I’m not one to anthropomorphize machines. Unlike some people I’ve known, I don’t assigned names to my vehicles. In my blissfully heedless youth, I was acquainted with a young woman who did just that – naming her car “Alpha,” and her VW van “Bus” -- as though she was the queen of a small tribe, and those two vehicles her loyal subjects in the fantasy world between her ears. For me, a car or motorcycle is a collection of moving parts designed to take me where I want to go -- and I pretty much stick to that story right up until it’s time for us to part. But when I finally do have to sell that vehicle to some stranger (or as on one occasion, sign over the pink slip in the impound yard), I no longer see things quite so clearly. Suddenly that collection of moving parts comes to represent all those miles we traveled together -- the joy, the pain, and the flatline drone of boredom in between. When the new owner drives it away, I invariably feel a deep pang of regret.

Which is how I felt clutching this flyer, and looking at my once-sleek motorcycle.

Sorry to disappoint you, Jesse, industrious collector of vehicular yonque that you are. While I respect your hard working self-promotion, this old motorcycle isn’t quite ready for the junk pile yet. Sure, it looks like hell, can be cranky and hard to start, burns a little oil, and leaks gas every now and then, but mostly it just keeps chugging along, answering the call whenever needed. You could say the same things about me -- a highly imperfect collection of aging parts navigating through an equally imperfect world -- and in time, we’ll both be hauled off to the junk pile. But until then, we still have a few miles to travel on this Hollywood journey, and many more places to park.

Sometimes on the wrong side of the street.

* This is highly irrational, I know. There’s just as much chance my car would get broken into or stolen when parked directly in front of my apartment as when it spends the night many blocks away in the company of strangers, but insecurity and fear do not walk hand-in-hand with well-reasoned logic. This is doubtless the ancient Reptilian Brain doing what it does best – really, the only thing it does – serving as our own personal primordial guardian of hearth and home...

Friday, January 23, 2009

Got 10 minutes to spare?

Then click on over to the most recent post at “Below the Line.” I won’t bother attempting to describe it -- just go, and enjoy a really good read.

If you’ve got four more minutes to spare – or in need of filling – the current “Martini Shot” (from Rob Long via KCRW) offers some interesting and amusing advice from Hollywood to our new president. Rob’s insights on life above-the-line in general (and Hollywood in particular) are always illuminating, and this week’s commentary is no exception.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Ugly Future is Now

Links, links, and more links...

Today’s post is pretty much “inside baseball,” offering alternate viewpoints on some of the issues currently facing those of us who depend upon the Industry for our daily bread. Civilian readers are welcome, but probably won’t find much of interest here – in which case, check back on Sunday.

I’ve been dropping in on Jeff Wexlers’s blog periodically for the last few months now. Jeff is a sound mixer, but his blog deals with a wide spectrum of subjects far beyond the sound department, always in a calm and thoughtful manner. He recently posted and linked to further discussions of the new IA contract we’ll be voting on in the not-too-distant future, a deal that includes some seriously onerous provisions. The worst of these will make retaining our health plan a lot harder for many of us come August, 2011. If you thought nailing down 300 union hours every six months was tough (and for some, that’s the case), buckle up, because the new requirement will be 400 hours.

Unless you’re on the core crew of an ongoing show, this is no gimme. Last year I logged all of 815 hours – enough to qualify me under the proposed new rules, but only by a hair. Had I worked just two days less – 16 hours – I’d then have to dip into my bank of hours to qualify. That’s what the bank is for, but with 100 more hours needed every six months, a little leak like that can eventually turn into a flood that will drain one's bank of hours. Take a look around at what’s happening -- every studio slashing jobs, NBC dumping episodics from the 10 pm slot in favor of more lame jokes from Jay Leno five nights a week, more and more shows heading out of state or overseas, and a floundering economy that can no longer support previous levels of production. Less work means fewer hours, and more people falling off the boat, losing their health coverage.

It's getting uglier every day.

Granted, 2008 was something of a disaster, thanks to the WGA strike that immediately torpedoed pilot season. If that wasn’t bad enough, SAG’s yes/no, to-strike-or-not-to-strike dithering began to squeeze the life out of Hollywood back in November, and has now brought much of the town to a standstill. A lot of us are staring at the phone while waiting for the next unemployment check in the mail.

In a normal year, most juicers and grips could log at least 900 to 1000 hours – but that was the old “normal.” I’m not sure if we even have a “normal” anymore, but thus far, 2009 has gotten off to a rocky* start -- I have yet to work a single day in the new year. Given the feeble finish of 2008, this is not what I had in mind, and I'm not the only one. There was a gathering of the union clans last weekend (grips, juicers, and props, among others) to discuss the upcoming contract. I ran into several familiar faces, none of whom are working. That’s the way it is right now: if you’re lucky enough to be on an ongoing show, you’re working. Otherwise, forget it. In such an atmosphere, the rank and file were not very happy to hear the grim details of this proposed contract.

Jeff ran another guest post contending that now – as our economy plummets into the abyss of what could turn into a catastrophic recession/depression – is not actually a bad time for an aggrieved union (SAG) to go on strike. Michael Everett details the bitter history of strikes that took place during the 30's and other periods of major economic disruption, many of which were successful in improving wages and/or working conditions at the time. Not having studied the history, I can’t argue on that basis. My view that this is not a good time for SAG to strike is based on my own situation, and that of so many of my fellow below-the-line workbots. None of the juicers, grips, or camera people I’ve worked with in the past six months is in favor of SAG going on strike. We simply can’t afford another prolonged work stoppage. One juicer I talked with last week told me that he will likely lose his house (which he’s owned for the past 13 years) if we have to suffer through another long strike.

I don’t want to see that happen, and thus am not in favor of a SAG strike.

Still, the other side deserves to be heard, and Everett makes an interesting case for taking the larger view of being willing to sacrifice now in order to create a better situation for everyone later. Is he right or wrong? I don’t know – read it and decide for yourself here.

A rather grim view of Hollywood’s immediate future can be read here, in a Hollywood Reporter piece by Industry lawyer Schuyler Moore, who has been around long enough to have participated in the wave of bankruptcies that swept so many high-profile independent production companies into the gutter during the 80’s.

An interesting and provocative interview with Moore was broadcast Monday on KCRW (listen here), where he elaborated on the problems facing the Industry today, predicting another unwelcome avalanche of economic disaster for Hollywood in the not-too-distant future. He did offer some potential fixes – but given that these "solutions" would require getting rid of residuals altogether, they won't go over well at SAG, the WGA, or the DGA. And since we who work below-the-line receive some residuals in the form of payments to our health plan, I don't much like the idea either.

It’s worth hearing Stroock out, even though the picture he paints is anything but pretty.** I don’t know if he’s right, wrong, or just another over-energetic caffeine junkie who likes to hear himself talk. The KCRW broadcast is more informative than the Hollywood Reporter piece, offering a longer and more nuanced analysis/discussion of the problems our Industry faces. My only complaint: at fifteen minutes, it was much too short. As bad as this guy's news might be, I wanted to hear more details.

If he’s right, we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg -- and that big monster is dead ahead.

*The LA Times confirms this here.

**Stroock wrote his piece for the Hollywood Reporter in May of 2008, predicting then that big name actors would be recieving half their accustomed rate to do movies in 2009. Turns out he was right, as this article in yesterday's LA Times attests.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Losing the Moment

Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.

Shakyamuni Buddha

At one time or another, most civilians have had the experience of suddenly recognizing a street, building, or other familiar real-world locale while watching a television show or movie. This happens a lot more often if you happen to live in or near a major urban population center, rather than say, the rural paradise of Polebridge, Montana. Big cities have always been popular settings for movies, and sooner or later a street, bridge, building, or skyline close to your heart is bound to appear on screen while you watch.

Like most people, I too am a fellow consumer of the visual media. For the most part*, those of us who make the stuff watch it too, which means we see familiar locations all the time – in commercials, television dramas, and feature films. It’s a bit different for us, though, since these usually aren't just places we happen to recognize, but actual film locations we’ve worked on at one time or another. While civilians seem to find this kind of thing fun – “hey, I know that street!” – to me, the experience is invariably jarring. It grabs me by the throat and jerks me away from the comfortable “willing suspension of disbelief” so crucial to maintaining an emotional/intellectual connection with any on-screen drama. Instead of following the action, I’m suddenly remembering the movie/show/commercial we filmed at that particular location, thinking about the circumstances, the people involved, and how it all worked out.

The only thing I can never seem to recall is where the paycheck from that job went...

I’m not sure the Buddha would agree, but in a way, being fully engrossed in watching a good movie or television show really is living “in the moment.” Instead of thinking about next week's doctor’s appointment, or that stupid jerk in the Range Rover who cut me off in traffic while yakking on his/her cell phone, or what time I’ll have to set the alarm to get up tomorrow, my full attention is focused on what’s happening on screen right now. This may not qualify as any sort of meditative Zen experience, but when the show/movie is over, I usually feel somewhat refreshed and invigorated. If that means television really is the modern opiate of the people -- supplying the universally-sought-after false sense of well-being – then at least it’s cheaper than drugs, and legal too.

But when a familiar location flashes on screen, the spell is broken, and my concentration splinters as the sudden flood of work-memories pulls me right out of “the moment.” By the time I manage to process it all and regain my equilibrium, five or ten minutes has passed -- and as anyone who’s ever been interrupted in the middle of heated lovemaking knows, it’s not always easy to get back in the mood. Not that I mean to draw any serious comparison between cinematicus interruptus and the other kind, but you get my drift.

This happened again a few weeks ago while I was watching "Sons of Anarchy," a silly but entertaining outlaw biker drama on FX. The young hero (“Jax”) was up on the roof of the biker lair doing his brooding Hamlet thing (the plot required him to come up with a way to slip a load of stolen machine guns past a car full of ATF agents waiting outside on the street), when it hit me that I'd been there -- not smuggling AK-47's for survivalist creeps, but up on that very roof. I wasn’t sure at first, but as the camera pulled back to a wider shot, all doubt vanished.

I’d been there, all right. A couple of winters ago (back when it still rained in California), I did two long and stupid days of promos with the three leads of “The Sarah Connor Chronicles,” prior to that show’s broadcast debut. One of my many tasks was to rig and power half a dozen 1000 watt tungsten lamps from the roof high above an alley, forming pools of light for “Sarah,” the young “John Connor,” and Summer Glau (playing a sexy killer robot from the future) to pass through as they walked towards the camera.** This was to be a night shot, so the plan was to rig and power the lamps in late afternoon, then wrap them in plastic trash bags to ward off the predicted rain.

All this sounded simple enough, but the task turned out to be a real ankle-turning bitch: the lamps had to be rigged on a radically curved roof that happened to be very steep and slippery -- an extremely awkward, user-unfriendly place to work. I managed to get it done without spraining anything or falling off the roof, but it was a pain in the ass. A location like that -- the roof of a small, crappy sound stage way out in an industrial area of the San Fernando Valley -- sticks in your mind. Seeing it again on screen reminded me of those long two days, and the 12 hour, non-union rate that came with them. Being that "Sons" is a basic cable show (which usually means low budget/low rate), this is a good place for them to film – meaning relatively cheap.

They can have it. I never want to see that roof while working again...

In a way, "Sons" reminds me of a big clumsy puppy – a bit sloppy and silly at times, but I can't help watching it anyway. Ron Pearlman's steely performance as the club leader brings a sense of brass-knuckles gravitas to the proceedings, which helps pave over those frequent storyline potholes. Although the creator/producer of the show claims to have done extensive research into the real lives of outlaw bikers – without naming any particular club, mind you – and says he’s gotten positive feedback from those outlaw sources, I’m not sure “Sons” offers a realistic portrait of life on the biker fringe. Not that it matters, really – this is a drama, not a documentary. In a way, the show is a modern update on the Western, with Harleys instead of horses.

Still, I watch it with a grain of salt, through the lens of experience. Like everybody else who has ridden motorcycles for a while, I’ve run into outlaw bikers from time to time. They pretty much live and let live as long as you don't fuck with them – in which case you’d better be one well-armed, seriously bad-ass dude with lots of backup. Even then, there's really no percentage in it. Let sleeping dogs lie, as the saying goes. Then again, outlaw bikers aren't all the same – which is a good thing, since sometimes you have no choice in the matter. A simple cascade of circumstance put me around a campfire on a beach outside San Luis Obispo one night during my heedless youth, sharing wine with a biker gang out of Sacramento. As it turned out, “The Romans” were genial, good-time guys who meant no harm, and all was mellow that night. At one point, one of the bikers passed me the jug of wine, then asked a very odd question.

“Would you ever fight a woman?”
“What do you mean?” I replied, not really sure where this line of questioning was headed.
“We was playin’ nine-ball in a bar last week, when this woman came in. She waited her turn to play, then chalked up and ran the table on Ralphie, here. He never even got a shot after the break. Tell ‘em, Ralphie.”

One of the bearded Romans sitting across the fire nodded.

“I wanted another game, but the bitch just laughed in my face. Then she turns around, drops her pants, and wags her bare ass at me. If a guy did that, I’d kick the shit out of him – but she was a woman! What the hell was I supposed to do?”

I didn’t have a good answer, but that didn’t seem to matter. The rest of The Romans erupted with laughter while "Ralphie" shook his head.

All in all, it was an interesting night, but things don’t always go so well. That’s the problem -- you never can tell when the situation will suddenly go all wrong in the worst possible way. Take a look at Hunter S. Thompson’s seminal book “Hell’s Angels” -– a great read, by the way -- and you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Given that the bikers in “Sons of Anarchy” embody a don't-tread-on-me, one for all and all for one philosophy of self-gratification (in the form of booze, drugs, sex, money, and power), they seem to have wandered just about as far from the path of the Buddha as the rest of us. While our whole culture is based on quenching the thirst of desire – “the pursuit of happiness,” which so many think they'll find at WalMart, CostCo or Best Buy -- the Buddha’s goal was to banish all worldly desire from his consciousness, and thus transcend the pain, horror, and disappointment that comes with being human. There, in each distinct, discreet moment of living, he sought to find The Truth.

There’s a list of reasons longer than the phone book why I’d never make it as a Buddhist, nor do I have any idea just exactly what "The Truth" might be, but I do understand what it’s like to be “in the moment” -- and how much it stings when you lose it.

* I used to work with a juicer who was rather proud that he didn’t own a television, but he remains the exception that proves the rule.

**Much to my surprise, brief snippets of that shot were included in the show's weekly intro.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Save the Biz Video

The following e-mail dropped in my box last week. Lacking a broadband connection, I haven't been able to watch the video yet, but it sounds like something Industry people should see.

"I stumbled upon your site the other day, and would like to bring to your attention a video circulating the web that your readers may want to see: a brief video against the SAG strike. This short video was produced in an effort to inform people about the ill effects that would accompany a SAG strike. Please help us spread the word against a SAG strike before it’s too late. The benefits go beyond what you see on the big screen. Watch the video here:"

I don't know the person who sent this to me, but the website looks to be for real. Ordinarily, I wouldn't post a link to something I haven't actually seen, but Lord knows when I'll get within shouting distance of a broadband-connected computer, so I'm taking a leap of faith here. A SAG strike would be a calamity right now, and anything we can do to prevent it is worth the effort.

I hear SAG will be meeting later today to discuss the strike authorization vote. There's an interesting rumor floating around that Doug Allen -- chief negotiator for SAG against the AMPTP -- just might get fired. I certainly hope so, and that with any luck, Allen will soon be joined on the unemployment lines by his fellow hard-core bomb-thrower Alan Rosenberg.

Hey, this is Hollywood -- we can always dream...

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Paying Your Dues

"Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die."
Albert King

The Anonymous Assistant recently ran a series of pithy, dead-on posts about paying your dues, and the profound difference between the almost entirely cerebral world of film school and the very real, very gritty nature of life in the Industry. Having graduated from the former to the latter, his words ring with the clarity of truth learned the hard way – which really, is the only way.

I didn’t go to a real film school, but rather an institution offering a limited if lively film curriculum run by a handful of passionate, knowledgeable, and articulate lecturers. None were full professors, as I recall – with no actual film program or film major, the best the school could was to hire and support these lecturers -- but that didn't matter. They loved movies, and did a great job communicating their passion to the students. I fell into their clutches more or less by default, since nothing else in the academic realm held much interest for me at the time. The school had a very flexible approach, allowing a properly motivated student to slide into almost any sort of independent major, so long as a professor in a more-or-less related department gave it the okay. And that, my little droogies, is how I ended up majoring in “Aesthetic Studies.”

Yeah, I know how ridiculous that sounds -- and believe me, on those rare occasions when I've had to confess this little tidbit to my fellow crew members on a job, the result is always a good belly laugh.

There were benefits to such a loose form of study. I took some great classes, watched hundreds of movies, made a few of my own student films, and helped with the projects of my fellow young film fiends. All of this infused me with a passion for process of making movies, some of which remains after all these years. Interesting though it was, most of what I learned in school (with one notable exception) proved utterly useless in Hollywood. I had no clue what a grip, gaffer, or a best boy was. I couldn’t identify (let alone properly use) the most basic tools of the film making trade: a C stand, flag, or an apple box. I didn't know what any of the following were: a Big Eye Tener, Baby Senior, Baby Junior, Baby Baby, 2K Zip, beaver board, bazooka, grumpy, rosemary, becky, ubangi, menace arm, mombo-combo, high roller, block-and-falls, spider box, 4/0, threefers, banded cable, gang box, lunch pail, a trapeze, crank-o-vator, or a "BFL." These items, each of which provides a means to solve one of the vast panoply of problems that confront every film crew, may as well have been from another planet.

Sure, I could bore you silly blathering on about the films of Goddard, Edgar G. Ulmer, Sam Fuller, and Nicholas Ray, but when it came to doing anything remotely useful on a professional film set, I didn’t know shit, nor did I have a clue just how astonishingly, colossally, abysmally ignorant I truly was. Which was just as well, really -- otherwise I might have been intimidated by the bottomless depth of my ignorance. As it was, I just blundered in, asking a lot of stupid questions and doing whatever I could to help out. I had a lot to learn, and just like everyone else who eventually became an Industry veteran, I learned it all through the bruising process of paying my dues, taking graduate-level courses from the Joe Frazier School of Higher Education.

There’s just no way around it -- if you want to earn the respect essential to any kind of success in Hollywood (above or below-the-line), you’ve got to pay your dues. I’m not talking about union/guild dues, either, although you’ll end up paying your share of those too. Paying your dues means experiencing the full spectrum of horrors your chosen path has to offer: slaving for long hours and lousy money doing what you’re told, whether or not you understand it. Eventually some of it begins to stick, as you learn to anticipate and be ready for the problems that confront every day of filming. At the same time, you begin to recognize who knows what they’re doing and who doesn’t, and thus who to follow and who to avoid -- a useful skill, that. Sometimes you’ll end up working for sadistic shit-heads who know only one way to do things – their way – and if you don’t toe the line, these bastards will make your life miserable on the job. In time, you’ll work for enough different people to learn that there’s almost always another way to solve the problem, and that yelling doesn’t really help. You’ll learn what it takes to perform under the most difficult circumstances: toiling all night in the rain, slaving from dawn ‘til dusk in the broiling desert sun, or working in the disgustingly fetid alleys of the big, dirty city.

It's all part of the process of becoming a pro.

Occasionally someone -- through the intervention of a Higher Power -- will manage to attain a position of responsibility beyond that warranted by their level of maturity or experience. Sometimes they’re good enough to pull it off, but even these unusually talented people have a hard time earning the true respect of their crew. When a less talented newbie is promoted above his/her level of competence, a professional crew will nod their heads, smile, and get the job done in spite the burden under which they toil, but the process won’t be much fun for anybody involved.

I’ve done my share of those jobs. One was a long day on a commercial working for a gaffer who had experience as a grip, but had never done even single day working as a juicer. The guy hadn’t paid his dues – any of them. As a gaffer, his ignorance was as deep as it was wide. In and of itself, that’s no crime: ignorance is merely a lack of knowledge, and at one time or another we were all as ignorant as dairy cows about the business. But what got under my skin was how proud this clown seemed of knowing nothing about electricity, running power, or setting lamps.

“I do the lighting,” he declared, in a snotty, dismissive tone. “My Best Boy handles the electricity.”

This kind of white-gloves, holier-than-thou, Executive Gaffer attitude really rubs me the wrong way, but it doesn't get in the way too much so long as His Royal Highness the Gaffer has an experienced crew to get the job done. On this job, though, the crew was just those two -- the Gaffer and his Best Boy -- which is why I got a panicky phone call on the morning of the shoot. They were filming in an airport terminal (always a pain in the ass), with Mr. I-Paint-With-Light holding his meter and pointing while the poor Best Boy ran around like a greyhound chasing a rabbit, trying to lay the cable, unload and set up the lamps, get them burning, then adjust them to the fickle whims of this Executive Gaffer. The Best Boy knew his stuff, but working alone in a cluster-fuck of confusion can bury the best of us, and he just couldn’t keep up. By the time I got there, the set was mess. It took both of us working flat out for several hours to catch up and get things running smoothly.

So how did such a pompous jerk manage to become the Gaffer on this job? It should come as no surprise that his Daddy happened to be the director – a textbook case of nepotism gone bad. The kid hadn’t even come close to paying his dues, and everybody knew it but him. Last I heard, he was still stumbling his way up the ladder of success, trying to become a cameraman. I pity his gaffer and crew...

I can't imagine that anybody would go all the way through one of the top film schools – USC, NYU, UCLA, or any of the others – with the intention of becoming a juicer, grip, or boom operator. A few will concentrate on cinematography with the goal of becoming a DP, but that’s as far below-the-line as most film students can see. I don't blame them -- there’s no reason to pay/borrow fifty thousand dollars or more for a film degree to prepare for a career hauling cable or carrying sand bags. Film school graduates see themselves occupying the top ranks of the Industry – they want to make films, not get their hands dirty, and I hope they get to do just that. We need more smart creative people at the top to keep this Industry from turning into an assembly line pumping out mindless dreck like “Marley and Me” and “American Idol.”

On your way to the top, though, it's useful to spend a little time below decks, where you can get a feel for what it actually takes in the way of lighting, grip, set dressing, props, and everything else -- the sheer human effort -- to make possible your four minute steadi-cam homage to the astonishing opening sequence in “Touch of Evil.” A little hands-on knowledge can make you a lot better at what you’ll eventually do up there above-the-line, where a whole new set of dues await to be paid. In the end, there’s simply no substitute for putting in the time, paying attention, and learning how everything works. You might have all the protean talent of a young Orson Welles, but if you don’t learn how the system works – and how to work the system – it's all too easy to crash and burn. More than a few very smart, extremely creative people got a little sideways trying to take shortcuts, and instead of enjoying long, successful careers, went up in smoke here in the shadow of the Hollywood Hills.

Don't let that be you: pay your dues and learn your craft the right way.

But if things don't work out up there in the land of milk and honey -- and the attrition rate is high on those lofty peaks -- you just might find yourself facing a choice between leaving the Industry altogether or working below-the-line. In that case (assuming you've got what it takes), give it a try. It's not an easy life, but nothing in this business comes easy, and there are compensations down here. And on that note -- in all the hundreds of Industry blog posts I've read during the past couple of years, nobody has described the the pain, pleasures, and satisfactions of crawling up through the ranks below decks quite so well as "D" from "Dollygrippery."

This one came straight from the heart, and he nailed it.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

And a Happy Fucking New Year to You Too, Alan Rosenberg

Is this what we have to look forward to in 2009?

"Fasten your seat belt, it's going to be a bumpy night.”

Margot Channing (Bette Davis), in “All About Eve.”

So it’s out with old and in with the new, and now the bright, shiny New Year lies before us, just waiting to be unwrapped.

Good riddance, I say, looking back at the smoldering wreckage of 2008 – but it’s useful to remember that things can always be worse. A lot worse, actually, so I’ll hope for the best while braced for the worst, and keep a jaundiced eye on events as they unfold.

As bad as 2008 turned out to be, 2009 is looking like her big ugly sister knocking on the door – a hulking brute with eyebrows like Leonid Brezhnev and a bulging suitcase slung under each hairy arm. With the economy going down in flames ala the Hindenburg, financial markets frozen in a wide-eyed panic, and unemployment roles rising to levels not seen in decades, it appears this ugly hag means to stay awhile – and at such a dismal time, it would seem unthinkable that any professional organization of highly paid workers could actually be planning to go on strike.

But we live in the age of the unthinkable, which might explain why the wild-eyed, spittle-flecked zealots currently leading the Screen Actors Guild seem so eager to call a strike. As the beaten and bloody mess of 2008 staggered towards the finish line, SAG president Alan Rosenberg and chief negotiator Doug Allen were forced to push back the strike vote by another two weeks. It seems the rank-and-file thespians finally pulled their heads out of their gym-sculpted and oh-so-perfectly botoxed asses long enough to take a good look at the headlines, then realized maybe now isn’t such a great time to walk away from jobs paying more than you or I can ever hope to make.

So the Dynamic Duo of Rosenberg and Allen -- who apparently can’t find anything useful to do in life – called a strategic retreat, pushed the vote, and brought in whatever big guns they could find to round up the stampeding herd and drive them back into the SAG corral. First to answer the call was Ed Asner, who issued his sermon-from-the-mount on radio and the LA Times*, declaring that “the only way to get what we want is to strike.” Doing his best two-fisted, tough-guy Norman Mailer imitation, Asner claims that calling a strike now is important not to protect the A List stars, but rather “the hardworking players whose faces you see in countless television shows and movies.”

Nicely put, Ed, but those are the same “hardworking players” who stand to lose their houses and health plan if SAG goes on a protracted strike in 2009. If you really want to protect them from this more immediate threat to their well-being, you’d do better to urge Rosenberg and Allen to sign that deal with the AMPTP, and keep their powder dry for another day.

I read his piece in the Times*, and although his arguments have an undeniably stirring Frank Capra/Tom Joad/I-stand-up-for-the-little-guy appeal, they really don’t hold much water on closer inspection. In making some very convenient, one-sided assumptions cloaked in a gratingly paternalistic tone, his screed boils down to this: “I’m older than you, so I know better. Now shut the fuck up and do what I say.”

It’s easy enough for Big Ed to take this stand. At 89 years and counting, his long and lucrative career is over and done, leaving him financially set as he wobbles off into the sunset. A strike, no matter how long and bitter, won’t touch him in the least. The vast majority of the rest of us – actors, production, post-production, and crew – are not in his fortunate position.

I checked the SAG website to see some recently posted videos of various actors urging their fellow thespians to support the strike vote. There were five of these videos on the opening page, only one of which rang with any real authority. Hal Holbrook made a compelling case that the only way to go into a serious negotiation is with a club in your hand, ready and willing to inflict serious damage on the opposition should push come to shove.

He’s got a point. I have no more faith in the good will of the AMPTP now than I did last year when the writers took them on. As an organization, they’re miserable, greedy sons-of-bitches happy to tell any lie that might help get them what they want – and what they want is to buy lower than low, then sell at the highest possible price. A vote to authorize a strike could be just the club SAG needs to fight on even terms in their battle to stem the economic tide for the membership. If Hal Holbrook was heading the SAG negotiating team, I’d feel a lot better about all this -- but he isn’t. Unfortunately, Rosenberg and Allen will be leading the charge against the AMPTP, and I have no faith whatsoever in those two clowns. Everything they’ve said and done thus far leads me to believe they can hardly wait to call a strike – indeed, that their massive egos need a strike, and all the flurry of press attention that would result. A strike would thrust them into the heat of the spotlight, suddenly elevating both men to the status of Important People in Hollywood -- and the longer a strike goes, the more important they become.

Still, Hal Holbrook made a good case that at least caused me to stop and think.

His compatriots, however, were pathetic. First up was an actress named “Alicia Witt.” I don’t keep up on who’s who in Hollywood, so it doesn’t mean much that I’ve never heard of her, but she’s a very attractive woman well versed in the art of manipulation that is acting. Her words sounded good so long as she kept talking, but reflecting afterwards, it was clear hers was an emotional appeal based on very little in the way of facts.

A craggy-faced actor named “Clancy Brown” sounded just as sincere, but even less convincing. His point was as simple as it was non-informative: “This deal stinks,” he repeated, over and over again. Uh, thanks for the input, Clancy. Don’t call us, we’ll call you. Next...

That would be “Justine Bateman,” a name that sounded familiar even if her face wasn’t. Her argument was similar to that of Alicia Witt, only much more specifically dire, claiming that under the proposed contract, actors working in “the new media” will get no meal penalties, no “forced call” protection, residuals, health plan, or pension contributions. “All the networks now have affiliates,” she went on, her limpid eyes brimming with fear. “What if CBS decides to release its entire pilot season on” she asked breathlessly, leaving the clear implication that in this tragic event, actors will be doomed to live in cardboard condos beneath the Hollywood freeway between day-playing gigs on “Two and a Half Men” and “Big Bang Theory.”

Jeeze, that sounds awful, doesn’t it? Nobody wants this to happen... and it won’t, for a number of reasons.

1) Yes, the networks all have an internet presence, but so does Joe the Plumber. Justine Bateman probably has her own website too. This doesn’t mean the Apocalypse Is Near because...

2) There’s no such thing as “releasing an entire pilot season” on the internet, the broadcast airwaves, or anywhere else. Pilot season results in a single episode of each proposed show. The only people who see these pilots are network executives and focus groups – lots of focus groups. Only if a pilot manages to run the gauntlet of multiple focus groups and the sharp knives of various warring network execs will it have a chance to go to series, at which point it is usually re-shot (often with new cast members) as the premier episode to lead off the season.

3) The notion that any network would release its new television season over the internet rather than the airwaves is beyond absurd. While it’s true that a few major network executives are overpaid fools, even the dumbest of them isn't stupid enough to ignore existing channels of broadcast distribution in favor of the internet. As things stand now, this would be a colossal blunder, smothering the entire new lineup in its crib. Tens of millions would be lost, and the exec who made that fateful call would be summarily issued his golden parachute and ejected from the corporate Gulfstream V.

Here’s how it works, Justine: when launching a new season, the networks need the widest possible audience to pay attention, and hopefully get hooked on the shows, thus providing lots of eyeballs for the advertisers who pay the bills. The only way to reach such a huge audience is over the airwaves. Someday (maybe), when every hamlet, village, and city across this great land has been fully wired up the wazoo for broadband, the internet might become the favored mode of new-content television distribution, but that day is a long way off. And since the SAG contract currently under consideration will last for only three years, there’s plenty of time to sort things out with “the new media.”

From what I’ve read, the vast majority of new internet-only productions are produced on shoestring budgets ranging from $15,000 to $30,000 per episode. Compare that to the typical network sit-com, which runs close to $1.5 million per show, or any of the high-gloss episodics, which spend a lot more -- two to four million dollars -- on each episode. How the hell is an internet show on a $30,000 budget going to pay full SAG scale, meal penalties, residuals, or anything else?

The ugly truth we all have to face is that as the old advertising-based network economic model crumbles, things are changing whether we like it or not. All of us in the Industry, across the boards, are taking hits from this ongoing revolution, and the actors don't get a pass this time. The gravy train we know is over, and we're all having to adjust to the new realities. I don't like either, but anyone who thinks they've got it bad working in Hollywood should be glad they don't have to sell cars or real estate for a living these days.

The last SAG video – and in some ways, the most galling to me – was the short clip of “Malibu” Martin Sheen droning “Let’s stick with the union.” No reasons given, no thoughtful arguments put forward, just a simple because-I’m-Martin-Sheen-and-I-say-so.

I’ve long admired Martin Sheen throughout his long and distinguished career, capped by his dominant presence as President Josiah Bartlett on “The West Wing.” Yes, he’s said some undeniably silly things at times -- declaring Malibu "a nuclear-free zone, a sanctuary for aliens and the homeless, and a protected environment for all life, wild and tame" during his tenure as honorary mayor of that fair city – but having made a horse’s ass of myself more than once over the years, I’m not about to throw the first stone on that count. Martin Sheen has always spoken up against the powerful, moneyed interests in favor of the working people of this country, and I respect that... which means I don’t really feel comfortable taking him on here, but some things just have to be said.

“The union?” Excuse me, but SAG isn’t the “Screen Actors Union” – it’s the Screen Actors Guild. A guild is a professional association of a few thousand high paid, highly skilled people backed by a hundred and fifteen thousand waiters and waitresses with a single credit to their name. That doesn’t mean they don’t work very hard – all of them -- or put everything they’ve got into building their careers, but they rarely get their hands dirty, and when they do, someone else is right there to clean all that dirt off. Like the writers (also a guild), actors create their own unique brand of magic on set, without which we couldn’t make movies or television, but they’re not members of a union, they’re members of a guild.

The dictionary might consider the terms “guild” and “union” to be synonymous, but here in Hollywood, the difference is as stark as night and day. Union members build, paint, dress, and light the sets. They hang the green beds, apply the makeup, push the dollies, record the sound, shoot the film/tape/hard drive, time the shots, edit the raw footage, record and add the music, then put the finished product up on the screen. Most of us really do get our hands dirty, busting our asses long before any actors step out of their air-conditioned trailers, and working long after every actor has wiped off the makeup and gone home.

That would be the little guys, ex-President Bartlett, the crew. We’re the ones who make it possible for you to look so good on the big and small screen, thus enabling you to earn the fantastic sums of money it takes to live in the sun-splashed paradise of Malibu. Let me put it in terms you can understand: none of your neighbors out there on the beach are working members of a union -- if they toil for the Industry at all, they’re members of a guild – and be it SAG, the WGA, or the DGA, they remain the highest paid workers in our business.

We who work below-the-line have been getting the short end of the stick on every new contract for the last fifteen years. You know what we lost in the latest round of negotiations? Up until now, we could maintain our health plan by working 300 union hours every six months. In fat times, this isn’t terribly difficult for most of us, but these are not fat times. Under the new contract, I’m told, we’ll now have to work 400 hours every six months to hang on to our health plan. Unless you happen to be on a show, getting 400 hours is no sure thing, especially in lean times – and there aren’t that many shows around these days. So now, right when we’ll be needing to bank all the hours we possibly can, Martin Sheen decides it’s time to call for a SAG strike.

The writers and directors already fought this battle. Whether they won or not is for history to decide, but we who work on the crews took a bath on the deal. Three months of lost work might not mean much to Martin Sheen out there on the beach, but it made the difference between a decent year and just barely breaking even. Thanks to the WGA strike, none of us who work below-the-line has much of a financial reserve heading into the new television season, which means we’re all counting on 2009 being a good year. That won’t happen if the SAG membership follows Alan Rosenberg off the cliff and into the abyss of professional suicide.

If "Malibu" Martin Sheen and Big Ed Asner manage to persuade enough of their fellow thespians push a strike vote through, Rosenberg and Allen are likely to push the button. In that event, we the crew people are among tens of thousands of non-combatants who will become collateral damage -- we'll be the apocryphal grass flattened by those fighting elephants. It that’s not bad enough, remember that things can always get worse: the state of California is currently on course to go broke by February, which means there’s no guarantee those of us thrown out of work by Martin Sheen’s strike will be able to receive those crucial unemployment checks. While he marches around the studio gates sipping Starbucks, carrying a picket sign, and grinning for the cameras, we may end up getting IOU's instead of checks from the state. If the Feds don't come to the rescue and bail out California’s EDD, there will be economic carnage in the ranks below-the-line. Meanwhile, after Martin Sheen's tough four hour stint carrying a sign, he’ll go home to Malibu for a fine supper while the rest of us -- those he helped put out of work -- contemplate another dinner of Ritz crackers and Alpo.

As I understand it, we have the New York branch of SAG to thank for forcing the hand of Alan Rosenberg and his band of headstrong fools. The New Yorkers aren’t stupid, they can read the writing on the wall, and unlike Ed and Martin, they know damned well this is the absolute worst time to go on strike. I don’t know what’s wrong with our West Coast actors – maybe too much of that botox leaked from their foreheads into their brains – but if they don’t wise up and listen to their East Coast brethren, we’re all going down together.

Well, everybody but Martin Sheen, Ed Asner, and the rest of their wealthy A list buddies who can easily afford a protracted strike.

How nice for them.

The rest of us? If SAG goes on strike, we're fucked, plain and simple. In that event, a happy new year is not in the cards.

Keep your fingers crossed.

*Read it here