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 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."

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