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, February 27, 2009

Back to the Grind

It’s late Friday morning in nice quiet neighborhood of South Pasadena, where three of us sit in the dining room of a beautifully restored Craftsman home reading the paper – Lee with the front page, Chris perusing Sports, while I ponder the increasingly dismal economic news in the business section. After reading about the latest breakdown in SAG’s negotiations with the producers (not the news any of us was hoping for), I turn to “Dilbert” for a dose of workplace absurdity I can relate to.

With things looking bleak and bleaker, sometimes a laugh is the best you can hope for.

From the next room, the morning quiet is suddenly punctuated by the desperate, choking moans of an attractive young real estate saleswoman being stabbed in the belly by a cold-eyed psycho killer -– qu’est ce que c’est? -- another brooding loner with a murderous thing for blonds. It’s tough enough trying to sell real estate these days without being targeted by a twisted mind channeling demonic impulses that always seem to end up with blood on the carpet, and another slowly cooling body on the living room couch.

Hard times, indeed.

No, I haven’t gone over to the Dark Side, or joined some Mansonesque cult bent on slaughtering yuppies in their natural habitat. That I’m once again in such casual proximity to senseless bloody violence can mean only one thing: I’m back in the traveling circus of episodic television.

Yeah, I know – I swore I’d never do this again, but beggars can’t be choosers these days, and when the phone suddenly went quiet last week, I officially became a beggar. The single offer that eventually came in over the wires was for this long day on a popular major-network crime drama. What was supposed to be a one-day call morphed into three additional days next week – or more accurately, two long days followed by a movies-‘til-dawn all-nighter on Friday that will blow my weekend to smithereens.

All-nighters are just about my least favorite thing in this silly business. I did more than my share of night work during the first twenty years of my so-called career, and have tried to avoid it ever since. Working ‘til three or four in the morning is one thing – at least you still have a chance to get to bed (and maybe to sleep) before the sun actually comes up – but movies-‘til-dawn means working all through the long cold night, then wrapping several tons of equipment back to the truck in the blinding glare of that big yellow thermonuclear ball we call the sun. You drive home in a state of wired, bleary-eyed exhaustion to a fitful sleep, waking up in late afternoon feeling like death warmed over. A hot shower, coffee, and some food helps – soon followed by copious quantities of alcohol -- but nothing really works as well as another night of sleep, after which you begin to resume human form.

The problem now is recovery time. In my twenties and thirties, I could bounce back pretty quickly from working nights. On my first real movie, I worked as a PA for three straight weeks of nights, arriving on set in late afternoon and driving home in the slo-motion stampede of morning rush hour commuter traffic in LA. This was a rude introduction to Hollywood reality, but fueled on a high-octane blend of hope, youth, and anxiety, I could take it. Not anymore -- I need three or four days to fully recover from an all-nighter now, and would have to be seriously desperate to accept a job working consecutive nights. Unfortunately, night filming is impossible to avoid, especially when toiling in the dark alley of episodic urban crime dramas.

In a way, a career in the biz is a bit like a marriage: for better or worse, the good with the bad, one as much a part of the whole as the other. Working nights is definitely “the bad" part of the deal.

But that will be next week, and this is now. Here in leafy South Pasadena, the only sounds pervading this lovely neighborhood come from a few crows overhead, listlessly complaining to each other, and the occasional flock of big green parrots (twenty or more) careening through the sky, frantically squawking as though the Devil himself was on the wing. With their bright red heads, these birds are much bigger than the green and yellow parrots of Hollywood.

Southern California, the entropical paradise.

We shoot a few exteriors first, to move our killer into the Death House, then go inside to shoot the actual murder. It takes all morning and well into late afternoon to grind out “coverage” of the brutal, bloody stabbing (masters, two-shots, “turning around” and close-ups), and every time the camera moves, so do the lights. We’re using a battery of HMI pars -- 4k’s, 2500’s, 1200’s, and a couple of 575’s – most of which must be repositioned with every new shot. This poses no problems until the sound department starts moaning about our ballasts. None of these are particularly noisy, but sound mixers tend to be nerdishly obsessive about delivering as clean a track as possible, and after being forced to endure the constant squawking of all those parrots and crows outside, this mixer is in no mood to overlook the quiet whisper of small cooling fans inside our ballasts. I can’t blame him, really – he’s just doing his job -- but now we have to put all our ballasts outside the house, feeding cables back in through open windows to power the lamp heads. Every time the camera moves, it sees another batch of cables, so we have to yank them out and find another window where the lens can’t see. This keeps us moving fast all day long and into the night.

During my years in sit-coms, I grew accustomed to (and fond of) a very different pace, mainly because we did the bulk of our lighting from early afternoon into the evening hours after the actors had gone home. There was always a certain amount of last-minute scrambling during blocking and shoot days, but the broad strokes of lighting the sets was done in a relatively pressure-free environment. Episodics are a very different beast, requiring the entire crew to remain metaphorically crouched in the starting gate, like sprinters tensed and waiting for the gun. The only time you can fully relax is at lunch, a mere thirty minutes of freedom, but by the time you wade through the line of steam tables and load up a plate, you’re lucky to have fifteen minutes left to inhale all that food. It’s hurry-up, rush-rush, work-work, be-quiet -SHUSH! all day long. For 12 to 14 hours, we’re in a state of constant alert, ready to spring into action the instant our radios crackle.

Ah yes, the radios. It used to be that only production -- AD's and PA's -- had walkie-talkies, but now wearing a radio is de rigueur for grip and electric crews. Many crew members even buy their own “security headsets” – small earphones like the Secret Service wears – rather than rely on the bulky and cumbersome (read: cheaper) over-the-head earphone/microphone units typically supplied by production. I hate wearing a goddamned radio for a number of reasons – the extra weight I don’t want to carry around for fourteen hours, the remarkable way a radio manages to fall off my belt at the worst possible moment, all those little wires that inevitably catch on on things as I crawl/climb through a stage or location set, and the serious intrusion on my own personal space that comes with being tethered to an electronic leash. When the little voice inside my head starts yelling, I have to drop whatever I’m doing and kick into action. Radios are just a bit too Orwellian for my taste – and being an old dog, I'm not particularly fond of such shiny new tricks.

But even though I despise radios – halfway through the day, that little earpiece starts to feel like a big termite boring into my head – the business as we know it couldn’t run smoothly without them. Radios allow quiet, effective communication that saves time while avoiding the confusion generated in the past when loud bellowing between takes was the only way to communicate across a big set.

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, we're stuck wearing them.

The thing is, these radios must be equipped with a headset or earpiece, which production is supposed to supply. Otherwise, the radio is constantly blaring all over the place, driving everybody else crazy. Without the earpiece, you have to remember to turn the volume all the way down during rehearsals and takes, then turn it back up to receive any instructions. This gets old in a hurry, which leads to turning the radio down all the time, at which point you've pretty much defeated the purpose of wearing a radio in the first place. But without a radio, you’re forced to stick very close to another crew member who does have an earpiece, constantly asking him/her what’s going on. That doesn't work either.

To fit in and become a functioning, useful member of the crew (which is the only way you'll be invited back), you have to wear a radio with an earpiece.

I manage to avoid wearing a radio in the early morning – being the new guy, I’ll let the best boy give me a radio when he thinks it’s appropriate. We’re doing exteriors with no lights, so I don’t really need one yet. But once the camera goes inside the house, there’s no way to know what’s going on or be useful, so I ask the best boy for a radio and headset. He returns with a radio, but no headset.

“We’re out of headsets,” he says.
“Can’t you get one from production?”
“They don’t have any,” he shrugs.

Great. In a gesture of supreme futility, I dig an ancient earpiece from my tool bag – the same earpiece that didn’t work the last time I tried it – and am not at all surprised to find that it still doesn’t work. The microphone transmits well enough, but the earpiece won't receive, which means I’m unable to hear the gaffer or any of the crew. I try riding the volume knob for a while, but this just pisses off everybody else on the entire crew. A noisy walkie-talkie on a quiet set is worse than useless. Finally, one of my fellow juicers takes pity and lends me an extra earpiece he happens to have in his bag, and suddenly I can hear what’s going on.

At long last I’m more or less part of this crew. That’s the good news. The bad news is that now I too am fully plugged into the hurry-up, lets-go, shut-up-and-wait grind.

But it’s a job, and the way things are these days, I’m just glad to have it.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Payback's a Bitch

“Those to whom evil is done,
Do evil in return.”

Excerpt from “September 1, 1939”, by W.H. Auden

You meet all types in Hollywood, above and below-the-line, from straight-shooting, salt-of-the-earth people with a slightly bent sense of humor towards life in general, to arrogant, back-stabbing, power-crazed shitheads who squint at the world through the telescopic gunsights of their own warped me-first/fuck-you perspective. The former can make a long day at work seem a lot shorter than it really is, while the latter are masters at the dark art of turning an average day into an endless march through the Valley of Pain.

Among the bad ones are some who should have been drowned at birth were there any real justice in this world, but as is abundantly clear to anyone with eyes, ears, and a conscience, “justice” remains in short supply these days. Maybe it always has been. And maybe, as the Good Book so piously proclaims, The Meek really shall inherit the earth in the bloody, bitter end -- but it’s a safe bet that won’t happen until every green meadow has been paved over with asphalt, every clear-running stream sucked dry and bottled for sale at the nearest 7/11, and the earth’s oceans polluted until they've become toxic oily swamps reeking with death. Meanwhile (as some believe), the Chosen Few shall be floating towards a heavenly paradise leaving their clothes, cars, and maxed-out credit cards behind for the rest of us unwashed sinners to pick through.

The future just ain't what it used to be, but until then, The Meek shall keep on getting the same thing they've been recieving since the beginning of time: the shit end of the stick.

I’ve worked for more producers and production managers than I could ever count, a small number of whom were excellent human beings. The vast majority were at least competent, but I've run into a select few who really should have gone into another line of work. It’s not always immediately apparent who the good ones are -- some who at first come across as my-way-or-the-highway hard-asses turn out to be real pros as the show unfolds. Having made several trips around the block, they've learned the hard way what matters and what doesn’t. They might not smile a lot or buy you a drink, but they’ll do a good job and treat you very fairly so long as you do the same. At the other end of the spectrum is the grinning, nice-guy producer or production manager who jokes around and slaps your back like he’s your good buddy, then spins on a dime and morph into a vicious finger-pointing weasel the instant things get a little tense. Long ago, I did a series of big Budweiser commercials for an attractive young female producer who seemed pleasant and competent on the location scouts, but she soon grew horns, a tail, and a long forked tongue whenever a decision involving money had to be made. Every day brought another battle, turning that summer into one long, grueling ordeal.

I don’t mean to pick on women, here -- I’ve worked for some great female producers and production managers who were smart enough to hire a good crew, then trust that crew to do their jobs as efficiently as possible. In some ways, I prefer working for a good female producer, since all too many male producers feel compelled to establish their Alpha Dog bonafides by demonstrating just how massive and hairy their balls really are – and at this point, that sort of chest-thumping, crotch-grabbing behavior just makes me weary. When a producer (male or female) treats me right, I’m not going to cheat them or do anything to make them look bad. Quite the opposite – I’ll go out of my way to avoid busting their lighting budget and make things go smoothly, which will help make them look good. That such positive-reinforcement behavior makes me look good as well is just icing on the cake, creating a win-win scenario for everybody. It's hard to beat the Golden Rule.

But occasionally you run into people who seem incapable of grasping this simple rule. I’m not vindictive by nature – to paraphrase Rodney King, I’d much rather just get along with people – but there were times when some of these putative authority figures acted like such complete and utter jerks that when opportunity arose, I couldn’t resist the temptation to indulge in a little back-stabbing revenge of my own.

We all learn from each other in life, and when the universe calls upon you to deliver a richly deserved dose of Instant Karma, one cannot ignore the summons. Such moments must be chosen with care, however, since administering a hard lesson often means you’ll never work for that person again. But life's too short to keep on working for assholes, so maybe it's just as well for all concerned.

One such producer was a big lout from England – let’s call him “Basil” – an arrogant, pompous ass utterly lacking in the wickedly dry, high-and-inside sense of humor that usually makes working with the Brits so much fun. While setting up to film a commercial on an indoor ice rink, he strutted about barking orders like a modern-day Mussolini. Once we had everything off the truck -- cable and lights, grip equipment, and camera dollies – and were ready to move out onto the ice, I put on a pair of spiked golf shoes to provide some traction. Basil nearly went ballistic, yelling at me to keep off the ice. Apparently this overstuffed moron assumed I didn’t know enough to stay behind the lights, and might wander out onto the pristine ice where the commercial’s star, Dorothy Hamil, was to skate.

There's no reasoning with idiots, though, so I ignored him and went about my job adjusting our lamps out on the ice. The shoot went fairly well, despite the constant huffing and puffing of Basil, and at the end of the day, the grips (who’d been slipping and sliding on that ice all day long) asked me to push their dollies off the ice. I was happy to oblige – with those spiked shoes, traction was no problem.

Being a lot younger back then, I had a much thornier temper, and Basil’s haughty, stick-up-his-ass attitude really rubbed me the wrong way. As I was removing a 12K HMI globe from one of the lamp heads (standard procedure at the time to prevent the expensive globe from breaking in transit), I noticed a hairline fracture in the glass. There were lots of bugs in those early 12K globes – occasionally one would explode after burning thirty seconds, others would blow after an hour or two, while some would burn for months with no trouble at all. The small but unmistakable crack in this one meant the production company would have to pay for a new globe: around $1200 at the time.

When the crack appeared was a mystery – and here I must admit that as the Best Boy Electric, it was my job to check the equipment for any damage before we burned those lamps. That way, I’d know if the rental company sent out a cracked globe in the first place, and could call them on it, thus saving the production company from having to eat the cost of a new one. On a feature or pilot, there’s plenty of time to check the equipment on the load-in, but commercials operate at a much faster pace with a considerably smaller crew. Still, I should have taken the time to inspect those three 12K globes first thing in the morning – but instead I helped my small crew run cable before we each globed up a lamp and got them burning. Having left the company vulnerable, it was now my job to deliver the bad news to the producer. Ordinarily I dreaded such awkward conversations –- damaged equipment always makes the Best Boy look bad -- but I'd long since lost all respect for this producer, and didn't give a damn what he thought of me. Instead, I had the rare opportunity to make a pompous jerk really feel the burn.

I showed Basil the cracked globe, and told him he’d have to eat the cost of a new one.

“Who the hell cracked it?” he demanded.

“Damned if I know,” I shrugged, confirming in his mind what he already considered me to be – a stupid below-the-line clod. “I didn’t have time to check it this morning, so it could be the rental company sent it out that way. Some kid in the shop might have cracked it, but now you’re the one who has to pay. You’re getting royally screwed, man, but there’s nothing we can do about it. It’s a real shame.”

This wasn’t entirely fair to the rental company, who would certainly feel Basil’s wrath when the bill came due, but rental houses have lots of practice handling irate producers. Besides, much of the equipment they’d sent out on that job was sub-par crap anyway, which meant it was entirely possible they had sent us a cracked globe in the first place. At any rate, I figured they’d probably earned a little karmic boomerang, right along with Basil -- and having stuck the knife deep into his wallet, I turned and walked away with a big shit-eating grin, leaving him red-faced and sputtering.

A few years later, I ran into another poor-excuse-for-a-human-being-turned producer, a large florid woman whose high opinion of herself was equalled only by her dim view of everyone else, including the crew. The shoot took place on one of the more venerable stages at the old Raleigh Studios in Hollywood. Finding sufficient “house power” -- wall outlets for computers, fax machines, and other electronics -- can be problematic among the ancient, dusty circuits of an old stage like that. With no Local 40 man (studio electrician) to consult, and the stage manager nowhere to be found, this producer didn’t have the sense or good grace to ask me where she might plug in her new Apple desktop computer.*

While we began roughing-in the lighting, she found an outlet on her own and started tapping away. This being a pre-light day, the gaffer had ordered only a basic lighting package. As Best Boy, it was my job to get whatever additional equipment we might need – and as it turned out, we needed a lot. Normally, I’d just call the lamp dock or go down there myself to grab whatever was required, but this producer insisted that I run every single request past her, explaining exactly why we needed each item. She wasn’t very pleasant about it, either, acting as though we were consciously trying to run up the bill by ordering more equipment than we needed. To top it off, she seemed to enjoy making me wait while she typed away on her keyboard. Meanwhile, the gaffer was on my ass to get that equipment so the crew could keep lighting the set.

It went on like this all the way up to lunch, six hours into our day. I headed to the studio cantina with the rest of the crew for a burger and a beer, and returned feeling much better -- but the instant I walked on stage, this fat bull-bitch was in my face over some piece of equipment she thought I’d ordered without her royal permission. The gaffer stepped in to smooth her ruffled feathers, but now I was pissed.

An hour later, while tracking down a wall circuit hair and makeup could use the following day, I came across a small electrical box with an old bull switch. Kneeling down to trace the circuit by eye, I saw that the conduit ran along the wall a good fifty feet away to the plug feeding the producer’s computer. At that moment, watching her tap away at her keyboard, the proverbial light bulb went on over my head. Smiling inside, I grasped the switch and yanked it down hard. She let out a high-pitched squeal, like a hog hit by a Taser.

“Oh, was that your computer?” I asked, a dumb look plastered on my face.

“Six hours of work!” she shrieked, her mouth and eyes wide. “Gone...”

“Sorry about that,” I lied, slamming the bull switch shut to re-energize the outlet. “I thought this circuit went somewhere else. Maybe you should get one of those battery back-up things.”

Her withering glare could have fried a cockroach at ten paces – but she barely said another word to me for the next two days.

Point, set, match.

I’m not particularly proud of these incidents. I was a cocky kid back then, and took offense a lot easier than I do now – much too easily, really. At this stage of things, I try to let all that stuff splash off my back. It’s not worth the stress of getting all bent out of shape, and fortunately, I haven’t had to work for too many total jerks since then.

But they’re still out there. An old friend recently told me of having a post-shoot drink with the gaffer at the Beverly Garland Holiday Inn bar a few years ago. The gaffer was English, and after a few rounds, warmed up enough to tell a story about working with Michael Winner, director of “Death Wish,” and “Won Ton Ton, The Dog Who Saved Hollywood.” Mr. Winner, it seems, was well known among British film crews for his arrogant ill-temper, and for saying things like “A team effort is a lot of people doing what I say.”

According to the gaffer, after completing the final scene for the film, Winner was surprised and delighted when a large, beautifully decorated cake was wheeled onto the set. The crew broke into a chorus of "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow" as the director stood next to the cake, beaming in the face of this generous display of affection from his much-abused crew – which is when two grips waiting on a catwalk above dumped “an ashcan full of water onto him and his cake.”

I don’t know if this story is true, but I hope so. The man who said “Revenge is a dish best served cold”** knew what he was talking about – and I think it goes rather well with cake.

Anyone in a position of power would be smart to offer their workers the same respect they expect to receive in return. Those who treat their crews badly should remember that every department has a dozen quiet, subtle ways of exacting revenge. One way or another, such assholes will pay for their sins. Most of us really do reap what we sow in life, and are sooner or later repaid in the same coin.

And no matter what the currency, payback really is a bitch.

*This was back in the prehistoric era before laptops came on the scene...

** Pierre Ambroise Francois Choderios de LaClos (1741-1803), from his 1782 book Les Liasons Dangereuses: "La vengeance est un plat qui se mange froid."

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

For Rent

“There’s something happening here, just what it is ain’t exactly clear...”

from “For What It’s Worth,” by Buffalo Springfield

I’ve been seeing a lot of “for rent” signs around town lately – and I mean a lot. In my neighborhood and all over town, people seem to be on the move. Increasing numbers of houses and apartments – one and two bedrooms, and maybe even studio units, for all I know – are suddenly becoming available. This is a stark contrast to the past five years or so, when “for rent” signs were rare and didn't stay up for long. Now I see a dozen or more in a single day. Whether this is due to the recesso-depression currently tightening its coils around the neck of our collective economy, or simply a seasonal migration of some sort, remains unclear. The middle of winter has to be the worst time for anybody to move – believe it or not, it actually does rain in Southern California from time to time (quite a bit, lately), and moving in the rain isn’t anybody’s idea of fun. Schools are still going strong, so it’s not the time of year for college students to be moving out of town.

I don't know what's going on here. Such highly unscientific observations aren't much to go by, but there's no denying that the unemployment rate in California is approaching 10%. People are losing their jobs left and right, and starting a grim slide down the economic ladder. Downward mobility has become the the new reality here and all over America. If the mortgage is too steep, you rent a house. If that becomes a burdensome expense, you cram your life into a two bedroom apartment. If two bedrooms cost too much, you shoehorn everything into a one bedroom unit, and when that busts your budget, there's always the cramped economies of the single room studio, or “efficiency.”

At every step down the ladder, you jettison more “stuff” at yard sales, Goodwill, or simply leave it on the sidewalk for others to take. Once you’ve pared all the way down and still can’t afford to rent on your own, either you move in with friends or get used to sleeping in a cardboard condo under the Third Street Bridge -- and at that point, life will never feel quite the same again. A lot of people who never dreamed they’d face such dire circumstances are learning some brutally hard lessons these days, with more on the way every week.

I've been lucky enough to work fifteen days so far this year, roughly half what I'd normally have logged by mid-February. But this is the "new normal," and the way things are, I'm just glad to get those fifteen days -- and I'm keeping my fingers crossed that more work is on the way.


This week’s “The Business” on KCRW is an interesting show, discussing how the advent of new technology has changed the way movies are made and viewed ever since Edison filmed that first famous steam train. The final segment -- an interview with Dean Devlin, producer of TNT’s “Leverage” – is particularly good. Devlin describes how his show uses digital technology (and the new “Red” camera) to save money while increasing the visual quality. Since I’ve never seen the show, I can’t judge whether or not he’s blowing smoke here, but according to Devlin, this new technology saves him around two million dollars per episode over doing the same show in film.

That’s a lot of money.

But it’s not just about saving money, Devlin says – it’s about offering a lot more options for the writers and directors to tell the story. More options sounds good, and in theory, more choices can make a better show, but there's really no substitute for having someone at the helm who actually knows what he/she is doing in the first place. I can't count the times we've toiled deep into the night shooting "coverage" from fourteen different angles ("Hey, I've got an idea -- let's shoot the POV of the sidewalk"), all because some idiot director (the kind of clueless tool who couldn't direct traffic on Sunday morning) never bothered to learn how to properly stage and shoot a scene.

If Devlin really is saving nearly two million bucks per episode, that means he can easily afford to to pay his crew full union scale, rather than stiffing them with the usual cut-rate, sidebar deal bullshit* so many cable networks force their crews to swallow. Is he? I have no idea, but knowing producers, I'm never an optimist when it comes to such things.

Despite my instinctive below-the-line misgivings (I don’t trust most producers any farther than I can throw them...), the Devlin interview is really interesting. He and his show seem to be on the very sharp cutting edge of truly useful digital technology, which means the rest of us will be using it soon enough. I suspect the real benefits will trickle down to Indy film makers, enabling them to make visually sophisticated movies on much more affordable budgets. In the long run, this could be good for everybody in the Industry.

In this informative and surprisingly entertaining interview, Devlin is describing the shape of things to come. It's worth a listen.

*that would be the meat-grinder rate of five dollars an hour under scale, and no double-time paid until after 14 hours worked...

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Mother Ship

Just another day in Hollywood, shooting the “meat pipe.”

The manner in which employee parking is allocated on major studio lots reveals much about the class structure of the Industry. At CBS Radford, for instance, the VIP above-the-liners -- producers, directors, high level executives, and actors – usually have their names on parking spaces very near the sound stage where their show is made. Their lesser production brethren (who also end their work days with clean hands and clothes) are assigned parking on the first three levels of the six floor parking structure down by the great concrete ditch of the LA river. Everyone else – including those of us who grunt, sweat, and get dirty doing the heavy lifting – must park on a first-come, first-served basis on the 4th, 5th, and 6th floors. With their ungodly 4 to 5 a.m. calls, construction and set painters get the choice spots near the elevators, followed by rigging and episodic crews, who usually arrive between 6 and 7 a.m. Needless to say, there are very few cars on the first three levels at that hour, but as the sun rises in the East, the 4th floor up is jammed like a mall parking lot the day after Thanksgiving.

I guess those above-the-liners really do need their beauty sleep.

None of this applies to a juicer working on a sit-com, who enjoys a uniquely varying daily schedule -- but since I don’t have show right now, I join the rest of my fellow work-bots waking up in the dark, then squinting into that rising sun while driving in great elongated ellipses all the way up to the fifth or sixth floor of the parking structure. Such is the nature of life, where we must accept the bad with the good, even while hoping for more of the latter than the former. In that light, it’s useful to remember that things can always be worse: at the dusty, dank gulag of Paramount, for instance, riggers and crew members must pay for the privilege of parking in dark, cramped multi-tiered structures outside the studio gates, across heavily traveled streets on the Eastern and Western flanks of the lot. I've been there, done that, and don’t really want to go back.

I left my car on the fifth floor at Radford the other morning and took the open stairway down, enjoying a panoramic view of the studio. The parking structure elevators move at a geriatric pace, and although I’m in no real hurry to put on the work gloves, I avoid those elevators as much as possible. They’ve been known to get stuck between floors on occasion, and being trapped in an elevator full of extras freaked out about being late to the set – some of whom have driven a long way and will need to find a bathroom soon -- is not my idea of a good time.

Although many shows have gone down recently – the most senior of those being “According to Jim,” which ran more seasons than anyone thought possible before making its final exit to the great sit-com stage in the sky – some productions are still going strong, notably “CSI New York.” The shooting crew was back on the lot this particular morning, returning from four days filming on location – four days out/four days in being their usual routine. Five big 40-footers were parked outside the stage on the south side of the parking structure: the grip truck, electric, special effects, camera, and wardrobe, each being supplied with electricity via long black cables snaking out from the stage. A couple of dozen male and female extras in varying sizes, shapes, ages, and colors stood shivering in the morning chill at the tailgate of the wardrobe truck, waiting to receive their thespian garb du jour – uniforms of the cops, civilians, detectives, doctors, nurses, or forensic lab workers they would portray as “background action” for this particular episode. The alley beyond was bustling with activity, grips pushing carts laden with sandbags and C stands, while the juicers rolled several big Maxi Brutes mounted on Road Runner stands in through the big stage door. Teamsters were jockeying their stake-bed trucks into position, the carcinogenic stench of diesel exhaust mingling with the endlessly irritating beep-beep-beep of commercial vehicles backing up. Around the corner, away from the vortex of noise and confusion, sat the big catering truck, serving a stand-up breakfast to the cast and crew.

The Mother Ship was in.

I did the first season of “CSI-NY" working on the Insert Unit, which had a relatively easy schedule of two or three 12 hour days each week, filming on whatever stage was convenient while first unit was out on location. We worked with a small crew -- a gaffer, me, and couple of grips, along with a D.P., camera operator, camera assistant, prop man, and a two-man prosthetics crew. Occasionally one of the special effects guys would make an appearance to create bullet hits or explosions of one sort or another, but most of their crew was out on location, dying the death of a thousand cuts.

Our job was to shoot all the “insert shots” First Unit couldn’t get around to during their 12 to 14 hour work days. This usually meant doing abstract close-ups in the forensics lab, computer room, autopsy room (creepy, that) or other parts of the vast set. Much of what we did were what I called the “meat pipe” shots – the very odd P.O.V. (point of view) shots that remain the distinguishing feature of the CSI franchise. Since every episode dealt with a murder of some sort, our task was to create P.O.V. shots as the murder weapon passed into and through whatever internal human organs were destined to suffer the death-dealing trauma -- shot, stabbed, crushed, or burned -- in a given week’s episode. Sometimes the lens would chart a bullet’s course entering an abdomen, a knife slicing a throat, or for one particular show, the interior of a man’s chest cavity being crushed by an immense weight of a shipping container. The prosthetics crew created these filmable body parts by layering rubbery, flesh-toned plastic inside and outside a thin-walled piece of PVC tubing of the proper diameter -- a "meat pipe." Once an appropriate quantity of dark red movie blood was added, the results could be disturbingly realistic.

To light these shots, we’d pound the biggest, hottest lamps we had at very close range into the designated meat pipe, trying to get the shot before the whole thing melted, using special thin tubular lenses that could be inserted deep into any cavity. The whole process was rather disgusting at first, but soon became routine – and as you can imagine, the resulting black humor from all involved was as funny as it was unprintable. As countless generations of cops, hospital workers, and soldiers have learned, laughter really can help get you through a long, gory day.

It wasn’t a bad job, really. Three 12 hour days a week weren’t enough to grow fat on, but the job kept my bills paid while leaving me with a four day weekend. Although we always seemed to face an endless list of insert shots for various episodes, the work proceeded at a reasonable pace without all the self-important huffing, puffing, and shushing of the first unit shooting crew. Isolated from their high-pressure anxiety, we didn’t get ground into the dirt.

When the Mother Ship was in, though, things weren’t quite so relaxed. As the mere Insert Unit, our schedule was of no importance. First Unit had priority over all three stages, so if we happened to be set up where they wanted to shoot, we’d have to scurry out of their way like cockroaches spooked by the kitchen light, dragging our equipment carts, lamps, and props off to another stage. Much of the time that meant shooting on a stage where more sets for future episodes were under construction, working amidst the primal screams of wood being ripped apart and devoured by power tools. This was not so much fun -- breathing clouds of fine sawdust and paint fumes all day tends to make me very cranky.

But in tune with the cosmic order of the universe, it’s an ill wind that blows no good, and the Mother Ship was accompanied by support vehicles -- namely a craft service truck laden with tasty treats -- along with a caterer providing hot meals, which allowed us to avoid paying for breakfast and lunch at the studio commissary. It’s easy to blow twenty dollars a day in that commissary, which adds up after a while. As for the work itself, the only real advantage to having the Mother Ship close was being able to borrow a couple of BFL's from the electric truck when necessary. Not much of a perk, that, but you take what you can get.

Best of all, once we’d logged our 12 hours – and the production manager had very strict rules about the lowly Insert Crew costing him money by going into double-time – we were done for the day, heading home while First Unit slogged on into the dark night. It’s not that I wished ill upon our brothers and sisters on the shooting crew, mind you, but there’s always something a little bit sweeter in being released from bondage while others continue to suffer.

Human nature is a nasty little beast.

My tenure on CSINY ended after Season One. Wholesale crew turnover is common in episodic television, especially in the early, grueling years of any show, and this was no exception. The new Insert Unit DP brought his own crew along, so I did the Hollywood freelance shuffle, moving on to other opportunities. Industry veterans know what this is all about, but for any of you who might suffer delusions that the freelance life sounds somehow cinematically romantic (like a cowboy strapping his bedroll to the saddle, then mounting up and riding into the setting sun), it’s not. We’re more like itinerant farm workers, really – braceros -- going from crop to crop as the harvest rolls in. And that’s in good times -- in not so good times (like now), a more accurate comparison might be with dumpster divers, foraging for food and whatever else we can find amid the stinking alleys deep in the shadows of that big white sign in the Hollywood Hills.

But such is the Faustian bargain we all struck when first embarking on an Industry life – and having made that particular bed, here we must sleep.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Wednesday, Bloody Wednesday...

“The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”
William Blake

After five days of filming, followed by five more days wrapping stages – hundreds of lamps and tons of cable for two different shows – I awoke feeling like the Tin Man who’s just spent a month out in the rain. All my joints were full of rust, my every move unleashing an atonal, discordant symphony of pain. Everything hurts - knees, ankles, thighs, lower back (really bad), upper back, neck, shoulders, wrists, and hands.

Some days, there really is no escape. You just have to hunker down and let the healing proceed – which means this pain-wracked Wednesday is a fine day to read the newspaper.

The LA Times (“Great Newspaper! Great Use-paper!”) has slimmed down quite a bit recently, victimized by the mass migration of classified advertising to the Interet. Newspapers across the country are drowning in a rising tide of red ink thanks to the (entirely understandable) popularity of sites like Craig’s List. I hate to see this happen. With a newspaper in hand, all you need is a little daylight to catch up on what’s going on around the world – you don’t have to worry about plugging it in, turning it on, booting it up, or forgetting to charge the batteries. You can take it into the bathroom, leave it on the front seat of your car, or stick it in your back pocket and head out to the beach without worrying someone might steal it. Once read, you can use that newspaper as kindling for the fireplace or to soak up an overflow from the kitchen sink.

Try that with your laptop.

The Internet is an amazing place, but if the time comes when it has driven the printed newspaper out of existence, we all may look back with regret. I don’t know, maybe just those of us who grew up with newspapers will miss them, while everybody else will be perfectly content staring hypnotized into their tiny cell phone screens. But when the newspapers are gone, where will you go to learn the news? “Fair and balanced” Fox News? MSNBC? Rush “Where’s my goddamned bottle of Oxycontin?” Limbaugh?

If the great (and not so great) newspapers disappear, we’ll be in a much darker place. All those great sources of actual news on the Internet? They feed off and link to newspaper web sites. When the newspapers fade away, so will their news-gathering organizations that have been generating all that “content” for last hundred years, and their reporters will scatter to the four winds. Without professional reporters in the field doing the hard grunt work of real journalism, we’ll end up depending on the self-serving, not-so-tender-mercies of corporate news for our information – and whether you fall on the liberal or conservative side of the political fence, if you think “the media” is biased now, just wait until the independent newspapers wither to dust and blow away with the wind. For a preview of coming attractions, you might want to rent a DVD of Mike Judge’s film “Idiocracy” – not a great movie by any means, but with enough memorable scenes to be worth the effort. Unfortunately, our newspaper-free future of collective ignorance won’t feature quite so much slapstick humor.

Newspapers aren’t quite gone yet, though, so I sat at the kitchen table this morning catching up on the world – and there I spotted a headline shouting “Vonn cuts thumb on champagne bottle.” It seems American ski star Lindsey Vonn cut a tendon in her right thumb while celebrating her downhill victory in Val d’Isere, France. To quote the Times (the italics are mine): “Vonn’s problems began when she couldn’t open the champagne bottle because the cork broke. Someone used a ski to extract the remaining piece of cork, breaking the bottle in the process. Vonn didn’t realize what had happened and grabbed the damaged bottle as the champagne flowed.”

Now, it’s been a while* since I’ve opened a champagne bottle, but I don’t ever recall employing a ski to help get that cork out. Last time I looked, a champagne cork is very small, while a ski is relatively large. Seems to me that a Swiss Army knife would have been a lot more useful to extract a broken cork, and with these party-hearty skiers in France -- just a hop, skip, and jump away from Switzerland -- why use a ski to liberate that bubbly? I can only assume youthful exuberance carried the day, and that someone employed the edge of a ski as a hatchet blade to break off the top of the bottle. Still, this doesn’t sound like an easy task. We’ve all hefted a few bottles of champagne over the years, and those suckers are solid. Sure, you can shatter that dark green glass against the steel hull of a ship or a concrete floor, but otherwise, it’s pretty durable stuff. To break the top off with a ski would require some serious effort and probably a lot of elbow room.

Well, that’s what being young is all about – having fun, making mistakes, and learning. I think we can all be sure Lindsey Vonn will take a closer look before grabbing her next bottle of champagne.

So much for Sports – next up was the Calendar section, and here’s where the sun really began to shine. I noticed the byline of Mary McNamara, who has been one of my favorite LA Times writers ever since I stumbled across her regular (and wonderful) column about LA, “Drive Time.” Reading these columns was like paddling down a familiar, yet unexpectedly exotic river with a very perceptive guide pointing out out the absurd juxtapositions and contradictions of life in LA around every bend. Eventually – probably due to the ongoing contractions in the newspaper world – the Powers That Be assigned her the task of reviewing television, and although I do miss those “Drive Time” columns, her TV reviews are terrific. Her sharp eye, deadly wit, and perfectly crafted prose make reading about television a lot more entertaining than watching it – especially when it comes to reality-trash like “Real Housewives of Orange County.”

I can’t think of anything that would induce me to watch such garbage, even to mock it. Orange County is famous for many things – the John Birch Society, Disneyland, a popular teen soap opera called "The O.C.", and is considered by many who live outside The Orange Curtain to be a bland, vapid wasteland where American culture is slowly strangling on its own suburban bile.

Having spent only the occasional day working on location in Orange County, I don’t know the place at all – but if the actual flesh-and-blood females down there bear any resemblance to those in “Real Housewives,” then it's one very scary part of the world.

Who knows – "Real Housewives of Orange County" is just a TV show. Mary McNamara’s review, on the other hand, is a masterfully biting, snarky piece of writing. Read and see for yourself.

*Why? Don’t ask – all I can say is getting old really sucks…

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Bad Behavior

“...a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

From “Macbeth,” by William Shakespeare

Like everyone else in the civilized world this past week, I tuned into the internet rantings of Christian Bale indulging in his infamous emotional meltdown on the set of “Terminator Salvation.” Although I was taken aback by the ferocity and personal nature of his extended diatribe against Director of Photography Shane Hurlbut – and amazed that the star of any film would physically threaten the DP -- I wasn’t really shocked by the incident. Anyone who works on film sets long enough will witness bad behavior on the part of actors. It’s just a matter of time.

I don't mean to suggest that all actors are ticking bombs waiting to go off (although some are), but simply that actors are different from the rest of us – not better, not worse, just different -- which is one reason people become actors in the first place. When people who are plagued with the deepest of insecurities are paid huge amounts of money and placed under the extreme pressure of having to perform in a semi-public venue, bad behavior will occasionally result -- and be indulged. This is part of the reality anyone who works in films and television must accept.

It’s not right, but that’s the way it is.

Me? I wasn’t there, and don’t really know what was going on in the weeks before Bale blew his top. In our celebrity and scandal obsessed culture, it’s tempting to pass judgment on the first ugly rumor that comes floating down the tabloid sewer, so I try to resist the urge to throw that first stone. On the general subject of working with actors, though, here’s an excerpt from a post I put up last year:

I've worked with some wonderfully warm and friendly actors -- Alan Alda and Suzanne Pleshette come to mind -- talented veterans who treat every member of the crew with the same generous respect.

Let me just say this is not always the case, and leave it at that. Like racehorses, actors are exotic thoroughbred beauties -- a joy to watch in action, but also nervous, flighty and unpredictable. Their personal boundaries vary wildly from day to day. Wander inside the paddock at the wrong moment and you just might get kicked.

The only indispensable elements of any show are the principal actors -- everyone else, from the lowest grip to the director, can be replaced -- so if one of these actors decides that your presence somehow interferes with his or her ability to perform, you will disappear. Quickly. One soon learns to make no assumptions, keep a certain distance and always, always smile.

It appears that Shane Hurlbut managed to wander into the paddock at the very worst time, and got thoroughly (and very publicly) kicked for it. But if there’s one thing every Industry veteran has learned the hard way, it’s that you don’t stand in an actor’s eye-line. You just don’t do it. I’ve found myself in that eye-line a few times, and the feeling is one of sudden and utter vulnerability, like finding yourself stark naked in the middle of a minefield. Is this unreasonable? Maybe so, but acting is unlike any other job on a film set. It doesn’t matter that there’s an entire crew watching the action unfold – by getting in the actor’s eye-line, you’ve violated one of the oldest rules in the business. Shane Hurlbut has been around long enough to know that.

Although I’ve never worked with Hurlbut, I know people who have. Among them, he has a reputation for being an excellent cameraman, absolutely dedicated to doing whatever’s necessary to create the best possible shot, day in and day out, for whatever project he’s working on. If that means flogging the lighting and grip crews to within an inch of their lives, he doesn’t care. In and of itself, that’s fine – doing whatever it takes to get the shot is what Hollywood is all about. But he’s also known for his own unique brand of preparation (or lack thereof), wherein massive last minute changes are the rule rather than the exception – a method so chaotic that he seems to be winging it much of the time. In the end, he gets good results, but at great human cost to the crew.

The same stinking albatross hangs from the neck of the director on “Terminator Salvation,” a man so full of his own wonderfulness that he christened himself “McG.” He's been described by those working for him as “the world’s best shoe salesman,” able to fire up a crew with his great enthusiasm, but apparently lacking in any originality or actual ideas of his own. I wasn't surprised to hear this, given that the man is better known for his ridiculous self-anointed nickname than any of the movies he’s made. Like so many other highly visible, self-made celebrities (Paris Hilton, anyone?), “McG” seems to be a yet another over-hyped product of our own rapidly corroding Gilded Age.

With the key non-thespian, on-set personnel (director and DP)famous for making it up as they go along, one can understand why the film’s star might get a bit cranky -- and indeed, Christian Bale repeatedly abused Hurlbut for his lack of “professionalism” in that long, expletive-laced harangue. Given that the crew of “Terminator Salvation” privately referred to this $200 million dollar epic as “the biggest low-budget movie in history,” and the collaboration of McG and Hurlbut as “a perfect storm of ineptitude,” Bale might have a point. From what I’ve heard, a less explosive confrontation between Bale and Hurlbut took place six weeks earlier, sowing the seeds for the later, now-legendary scream-fest.

Does this mean I forgive Christian Bale for raving like a frothing-at-the-mouth Rush Limbaugh three weeks into another Mescal and Oxycontin bender? Not at all. As far as I’m concerned, Bale’s verbal assault on Shane Hurlbut was inexcusable. The way I heard it (from a crew member of “Terminator Salvation”), Hurlbut’s video monitor went dark halfway through the shot. Given that the Director and DP are typically secluded in a blacked-out “video village” watching the action unfold on expensive high-def monitors, it’s completely understandable that the cameraman would come out to see what happened. The DP has every right – indeed, he has the absolute responsibility -- to know what’s going on with lighting and camera. But since Bale had already gone ape-shit over previous violations of his eye-line, The Actor apparently couldn't resist the opportunity to go postal.

That an explanation can be found for Christian Bale’s extremely bad behavior doesn’t excuse it in the least. There’s no excuse for acting like that on a film set, period.

And just to demonstrate what a classy human being “McG” really is, I’m told he sided with Bale immediately after this outburst. Rather than back up his DP, he chastised Hurlbut for making things so difficult for Him, the Mighty and Wonderful “McG.” That’s nice – just throw your DP under the bus in order to suck up to a movie star who has gone temporarily insane.

Although there’s an abundance of talent in Hollywood, much of the Industry is not a Meritocracy, but a Suck-ocracy. Just as on Wall Street or in politics, the rich and powerful are allowed to indulge in all kinds of bad behavior until they finally go too far, and word of their gross excesses leaks out. All you can do is try to ignore the bullshit – which includes people like “McG”-- and concentrate on doing your own job the best you can. If you get caught up in the madness, you’ll go crazy too.

This incident sparked a wildfire of opinionated outrage on the Internet. A wide spectrum of those opinions can be read in the comments following Patrick Goldstein’s interesting piece on Bale’s tirade in the LA Times.

One thing I’m very weary of hearing (usually from civilians) is how they’d never put up with such abuse. “I wouldn’t take that kind of crap from anybody,” they proclaim, puffing up their chests. “If some goddamned actor talked to me like that, I’d punch his lights out.”

No, you wouldn’t – not unless you wanted to get fired and arrested/jailed for assault, sued for three times your total worth, and effectively blacklisted from the Industry. Shane Hurlbut stood to make a ton of money shooting “Terminator Salvation” – a film that could catapult him onto the “A list” of cinematographers. For him to take Christian Bale’s challenge and start throwing punches would have been professional suicide. Whatever his faults, he’s worked too long and hard to get where he is now to throw it all away over a few minutes of splenetic rage on the part of a thoroughly unhinged actor. Rather than allow Bale to push him off the show, he just hunkered down in Video Village whenever The Actor was working on set. It can't have been easy after enduring such abuse, but by sticking with the show, he made his money, and thus far has (wisely) kept his mouth shut. Shane Hurlbut did the smart thing, so give him credit for that, at least.

If nothing else, this incident serves as a useful reminder just how ridiculous our business can be. Making a movie is always hard. People get tired under the long hours and relentless pressure, and tempers inevitably flare. I can't count the times I've been on set when someone tried to calm things down by saying "Hey, it's not like we're curing cancer here -- we're just making a movie."

I hope Christian Bale remembers that next time. I hope we all do.

*By now, even Mr. Bale seems to agree, although I’m not sure this represents sincere remorse on his part, or merely a carefully calculated attempt to repair the considerable damage done to his public image. I found his explanation that he was “half John Conner... half Christian” rather weak. It’s hard to listen to that tape and not conclude that he was a hundred percent crazy at the time.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Below the Line

Every now and then you run across a book that reverberates from start to finish with the stark, unflinchingly brutal honesty that comes from one who has walked barefoot through the burning fires and has the scars to prove it.

J.R. Helton's Below the Line is that kind of book. Helton writes in a relaxed, unpretentious style that draws you in to his life working as a “scenic” (set painter) on a long succession of feature films and television dramas shot in and around the southeast during the late 80’s and early 90’s, beginning with the mini-series “Lonesome Dove.” Refusing to glorify or gloss over the inherently messy process of movie making, Below the Line offers an up-close-and-personal insider’s view of what this work is really like: the inflated egos, the body and soul-crushing hours, the endless stupidity, waste, and petty personality conflicts that plague so many film projects. Although Helton’s narrative spares no one (least of all himself), his pen is particularly lethal at eviscerating the self-important little dictators who often oversee (and take credit for) the hard work done by others. His descriptions of the crude and inexcusably boorish behavior on the part of certain big-time movie stars -- a stark contrast to their on-screen image -- will make you cringe.

I've seen some real jerks on film sets over the years, but nothing quite like this. Maybe I've just been lucky. If you think you know people like Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, Don Johnson, or James Cann simply because of their fine acting performances on screen, Helton will set you straight.

In the hands of a lesser writer, Below the Line might have ended up a slash-and-burn, tell-all screed. That it didn’t remains a testimony to Helton’s allegiance to the truth as he experienced it. He draws appreciative portraits of the good people he met on these films, hard-working technicians doing their best to get the job done under difficult, frustrating circumstances. Anyone who has worked in this business will find something of themselves in these pages – good, bad, and ugly -- while those planning on entering the Industry will get an unvarnished look at the process as it really is.

First released in 1996 (a second edition was published in 2000 with a new cover by R. Crumb), Below the Line is anything but self-serving. Indeed, Helton walks through some very dark territory in this book, unwilling to sugar-coat any aspect of his bruising seven year odyssey into, through, and eventually out of the film business. If he occasionally walks the line between cynicism and bitterness, it's not without good reason. Living what is essentially a hand-to-mouth existence at the whim of Hollywood-sized egos who seem to care more about how they look in the mirror than treating other people with respect -- that's enough to drive anyone away from the light and into the shadows. Fortunately, Helton has a connoisseur's appreciation for the ironic and absurd -- two legs of the three-legged stool that is the movie biz.

In a very real way, this book represents the final slamming of the door on his film career: once you’ve named names and told stories like these in public, the Rubicon has been crossed. There’s no going back -- and this is what sets Helton's book apart from anything else you've read about the Industry.

Above all, Below the Line is a terrific read: pithy, funny, and dead-on target. I first read it shortly after the second edition was published, then (while going through my bookshelf looking for something else) picked it up again last week. Now I'm hooked all over again, thoroughly enjoying the re-read.

This is a hugely entertaining and informative book. Whether you're in the biz, hope to be someday, or are simply curious what it's really like to work behind the lights and cameras, do yourself a favor and check it out.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Back to Basics

Beggars can't be choosers...

For the free-lance Hollywood work-bot, the rhythms of life often go through wild swings between working constantly or not at all. The transition from one extreme to the other can happen with suddenness of flipping a switch: one day you’re gainfully employed on a television show, movie, or pilot, and the next thing you know it's over -- and once again you're adrift in the horse lattitudes waiting for the phone to ring. Maintaining some form of mental/emotional balance in such an inherently unstable world is a crucial coping skill for every Hollywood free-lancer: learning how to go with the flow and make the best of the situation at hand.

After nearly ten weeks of steady unemployment (some if it due to the holidays, but mostly thanks to the endless dithering of SAG), my telephone rang late Monday afternoon with a rigging call at one of the studio lots. I spent the following day as part of a five man crew sending several thousand pounds of cable up high on a stage for a television pilot.

It seems the pilots are back, albeit not in great numbers. Hopefully more are on the way, and soon.

All in all, it was a good day. Whenever I spend two months away from anything having to do with the Industry, I seem to forget everything I ever knew about work. “Rust never sleeps,”as Neil Young once said, and rigging is a nice way to scrape off all that mental corrosion. Two of us stayed on the floor to run “the mule”(an electric hoist), sending the heavy coils of cable forty feet up, while the other three guys pulled them in and laid the cable out along the catwalks for the lighting crew of the pilot to deploy as needed. This kind of work is physical without being overly punishing, and at the end of eight hours, my arms, shoulders, back and legs let me know I'd done something real. Ten big bins that were full of cable when we arrived in the morning sat empty now, with all that cable high in the perms as we headed back towards the parking structure in the low sun of late afternoon.

There's a basic human satisfaction in a day like that, doing an honest day's work at a steady pace, absent all the sturm und drang of actual filming -- the tension and yelling and shushing from a small army of assistant directors and production assistants. I felt good walking back to my car, and as so often happens in a business where random coincidence can make the difference between a good week and another unemployment check, happened to run into a familiar face on the way -– a gaffer who needed extra guys for the next three or four days of stage and location filming on his show.

“You available?” he asked.
“You bet,” I replied.

So just like that, a one-day rigging call turned into a full week's work.

Things are seldom as simple as they seem, though. Had this not been such a brutally dry period, I probably wouldn’t have taken the job at all – not because the show happens to be crappy (although it is, for the usual reasons: bad premise, bad writing, and bad acting), or that the crew sucks (they’re good guys I enjoy working with) – but because the director is a classic genial idiot: a nice fellow who doesn’t have a clue what the fuck he’s doing. I've done enough work on this show to know the pattern, and it's always the same -- this guy wastes the first half of each day doing take after take after take of some stupidly simple scene any real director could knock out in twenty minutes. By the time we break for lunch, we're invariably three hours behind schedule (or more), and as the magic twelve hour mark draws near (at which point double-time kicks in for the crew), panic sets in. Suddenly the day turns into a frantic elbows-and-assholes scramble to get the scheduled work done.

“A fish rots from the head,” as the Chinese* say, which means there’s no way a crew can make up for such a lousy director. Working like this makes me feel like an idiot, but when a director is allowed so much slack without a producer willing to jerk his choke-chain, he's not about to change.

I knew damned well what I was getting into, and it went pretty much as expected – a couple of fourteen hour days followed by a grueling fifteen-and-a-half hour Friday-into-Saturday to finish the week. Those long hours meant getting around five hours of restless sleep every night, which made each succeeding day all that much harder. Having been there and done that more times than I can remember, I was mentally prepared for it -- and that makes all the difference.

Having been burned by this show in previous seasons, I’ve turned down several offers to day-play with these guys, but that was before our economy went into the current death-spiral. It’s amazing how a couple of months of hearing bad economic news while waiting for the phone to ring can re-boot one’s perspective on the matter of what constitutes acceptable employment. As I look around at what's happening, and at all those thousands of suddenly unemployed people desperately looking for work, I realize how lucky I am to be in a business that tends to ride out tough economic times reasonably well. Hollywood is taking some real hits, but at least the studios aren't shutting down like the assembly lines of GM, Chrysler, and Ford.

If life isn't exactly hunky-dory in the Industry these days, things could be a lot worse.

I'm just glad to be working again. There's even a bright side to working on such a lame, poorly-run show: Stupidity + Ego + Confusion = Long Hours/Big Paychecks. That I no longer enjoy working such long and punishing hours doesn't really matter right now. We're getting back to basics, and long hours come with the Hollywood turf.

As they say on HBO’s incomparably wonderful show The Wire:
“It's all in the game, yo.”

* A phrase rather famously applied to Ronald Reagan during his benighted presidential reign...