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, 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.


Unknown said...

Great post that hits all the points. In defense of McG, I do know him to be a really nice guy who is aware of the flack his name (a family nickname) generates. Shane is also a good guy (I did a previous movie with both of them and have run into McG since). Who knows what exactly went down before the incident? The dolly grip on the show is a good friend of mine and said that it happened twice and the one everyone is hearing is the second, bigger one. Whatever the reason, there is no excuse in my book for that large of a tantrum in public. All this "tortured artist" crap is bullshit. You and I have worked with enough great actors who would NEVER do such a thing to a fellow worker. It kind of underscores what Sanjay has told me in the past about the difference between how actors in India stick up for and appreciate their crew members and he was amazed at the little amount of support we get from them in America.

Unknown said...

Sorry, Rebecca is my wife. The last post was from D of Dollygrippery.

180 said...

Great post. I don't know any of the people personally but I do love the part about 'civilians' saying they wouldn't stand for it. Having served in the army I always found it really interesting how people say they couldn't join the army because they can't stand being told what to do. I'd be interested to see a job you can have where you don't get that.

egee said...

Great post as usual. It definitely made me think. We all engage in bad behavior from time to time. The difference is that most people don't care enough to film it or report it or blog about it. I've always believed that one of the downsides of fame is the inordinate interest the entire world takes in your private affairs. However, I appreciate your point that it is understandable though not excusable. And it's not unique. I used to have a boss who was the owner of the small company I worked for. He was highly intelligence, charismatic, and good at what he did. He was also definitely the "star" of his own show and from time to time would indulge in profanity-laced temper tantrums. Did I (or anyone else) call him on that? Or punch him out? Of course not. You wait for it to blow over and get on with the job. In this crowded world, we occasionally bump up against difficult people. And sometimes we're the difficult person.

Michael Taylor said...

"And sometimes we're the difficult person" -- very nicely put, Egee. When you look past the bright lights, phony glamour, and empty smiles, Hollywood isn't all that different from any other industry. In the workplace (and everywhere else), people are people -- we're good, we're bad, and we're ugly, sometimes all in the same day.

The Grip Works said...

We all engage in bad behavior from time to time.

This is true, but the scale of bad behaviour is important. Also whoit comes from. When an actor scathingly abuses the Cinematographer so publicly, it is devastating to morale on set. The crew will never be the same on that show again.
An actor has responsibilities that come with the weight of his importance on set. It is important for the crew to respect the actors, and I dont know how many who were on that set respected Mr. Bale for what he did.
I admit that people, especially actors can be temperamental. But in this case the response was beyond anything one could deem as excusable.

odocoileus said...

Best commentary so far on the Bale-Hurlburt fiasco. Bravo.

Hugo Fuchs said...

Note: This was obviously a non-issue by the end of the film. Unfortunately, the audio was sent to the insurance company in case of a lawsuit. They leaked it causing all the ruckus (which reminds me to find out which company it was so as never to use them, as this is a bad case of breaking client confidentiality). Most everyone does, or at least thinks of doing, a Bale once in a while. Yes, he went overboard; but even actors have bad days where tempers get short.

Unknown said...

It's so true that it's usually the veteran actors (i.e. the "real" actors) are the sane and gracious ones. For instance, being a former (recovering) actor, I can understand not wanting people to get in your eyeline, but honestly, if you're an actor worth your salt at all, it really shouldn't make a difference. The best actors (and the best performances, usually) come from the stage, and imagine how many distractions there are in a theater! Of course, the bright lights wash out most of it, but there's always that coughing guy, someone moving around in the wings, maybe one of your fellow actors does something wrong, etc. Can you just stop the play and rail at them? Hell no! One of the very first lessons of acting is "concentration" (mentioned by both Boleslavsky and, of course, Strasburg), i.e. learning to shut out the real world, but Bale, not having an extensive background in theater, isn't adequately trained in this. So really, this was his own fault.