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, May 31, 2009

New Reality in TV Land

Resistance is futile...

The long siege of pilot season feels like an endless treadmill of work-sleep-eat-work, under a steadily accumulating burden of fatigue. Recovery comes on weekends, but every Saturday morning brings another pile of laundry to be washed, dirty dishes stacked high in the sink, and the usual grocery shopping to replenish the larder. LA is an exceedingly crowded place on the weekends, when trying to get anything done means swimming upstream against a very stiff current. A little of that goes a long way, and when the last “weekend” respite morphed into a single day off instead of the usual two -- one lousy day to get all my domestic chores done and prepare for a six day work week -- I was more than ready to get the hell out of Dodge.

Such is the life of the free-lancer in Hollywood, where there’s usually no choice but to put your head down and keep pushing forward until the work finally stops, or you can no longer crawl out of bed -- whichever comes first. But sooner or later the work always stops, which is both the blessing and the curse of this often ridiculous business.

And so when the punishment finally stopped, I made the long drive north towards the rolling green hills, blue sky, and cool morning fog of the home planet, there to stare into a wood fire and forget all about cable, lights, and the relentless demands of the sound stage. Every morning brought a pale blue mist of Forget Me Nots glistening with dew, along with chores of a different sort: dead trees to cut up, firewood to stack, several months worth of fallen leaves to sweep, and an ocean of tall weeds swaying in the golden afternoon sun, just waiting to be whacked. At night there was that lovely crackling fire, a glass of something strong, and the gentle music of baseball on the radio.

A week isn’t so much time under such circumstances. On the last day, my final task done, I carried the tools back down the slope towards the basement, wishing as always for a few more days – and there in a lush green meadow at the edge of the forest stood a doe and her two tiny spotted fawns. Barely thirty feet away, the three of them looked like statues carved from soft brown stone, not even breathing, staring hard at me as though I’d just beamed down from an alien spaceship. I stopped dead in my tracks and stared back, trying to meet the fixed intensity of six jet-black eyes.

It was no contest -- after barely half a minute of eyeball-to-eyeball stasis, I blinked first. The mother doe flicked her ears, then very deliberately stamped a sharp hoof hard into the ground, and in an instant they were gone, three sleek phantoms of the forest bounding effortlessly through the dense green woods. I stared into the trees for a long time after they'd vanished, then put the tools away, locked the door, and packed up the car.

Drawn like a moth to the flame of an economic imperative that never relents -- another job, another paycheck -- I drove south towards the Doomed City of the Future, where dreams fade to black in the hot smoggy air, but hope never dies.

Back to LA...


For the Hollywood work-bot, the landscape of television has changed a lot in recent times. Until a couple of years ago, we’d work from late July until sometime in March, then stagger through the rugby-scrum of pilot season into early May, followed by a solid eight to ten unpaid weeks off until the new season geared up in late summer. The pattern was established long ago when networks ruled the television world, and persisted through the years as small cable outfits emerged on the fringes, surviving on crumbs. But the meteor has come at last, upending the established order, and as the network dinosaurs sink ever deeper into the economic tar pits, bellowing in their pain and confusion, cable is on the rise.

This is mostly a good thing for the viewing audience. With a few exceptions, the major network offerings have been tepid-to-lame the past few years – an assembly line of gory police/forensics procedurals interspersed with doctor/nurse/hospital dramas that are little more than weepy high-gloss soap operas. If those don’t hold your interest, there are a couple of popular sit-coms, a few mildly subversive animated shows, and the fetid, stinking garbage scow of “reality” television, lead by the likes of “American Idol.”

Meanwhile, cable has been busy creating all the really good stuff. Although HBO seems to have stumbled into creative quicksand lately, they made television history and set a very high bar indeed with shows like “The Sopranos” and “The Wire,” among others. FX came on strong with “The Shield,” and more recently “Sons of Anarchy,” while AMC -- once the chinless little sister of cable – caught everybody by surprise with “Mad Men,” then knocked the ball out of the park with the astonishing "Breaking Bad." As far as I'm concerned, this is the best show on television. No broadcast network will ever have the creative balls to make, let alone air, a show as bold and smart as "Breaking Bad." But this is the new reality: when it comes to sheer imagination, creativity, and quality, cable has been eating the network’s lunch for the past decade. Network shows still have the numbers by a wide margin (and they will for a while), but what cable has achieved is extremely impressive.

This is all good for the viewing audience (viewers with cable, anyway), but not so much for those of us who get down and dirty working in the bowels of the Dream Factory, because toiling on a cable episodic is a lot harder and considerably less lucrative than working a network drama. Thus far, I've been lucky -- other than a season day-playing on HBO’s “Tell Me You Love Me," and a single day filming pick-up scenes on “The Sopranos” final season, I’ve managed to avoid working for those low cable rates. With the welcome influx of multi-camera sit-com pilots this season (leading to optimism that the buffalo really have returned), there was reason to hope that my artful dodging of the low-budget swamp would continue.

You can’t pay the rent on hope, though, and for all our strenuous efforts, this pilot season proved to be an exhausting bust for my crew. Both pilots we made died in their cribs -- but in what qualifies as a minor miracle, one of those two pilots we did last fall finally got picked up. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it’s not a true network pick-up, but instead will air on one of the Big Four's numerous cable affiliates, which means a nine or ten episode demi-season rather than the usual twelve or thirteen for starters. Unlike a network show, we'll have no shot at a full twenty-two episode season –- but that might turn out to be a blessing in disguise, since we’ll be getting paid according to the terms of that odious cable “sidebar” deal, nailing us to the cross with a full 20% pay cut from basic union scale.

For every five days we work, we’ll get paid for four. Put another way, it means that come Friday each week, our entire crew will be working for free.

I absolutely hate this, but such is the new reality of Hollywood, where every year those who do the heavy lifting are squeezed a little bit tighter, then forced to bend over just a little bit more. Granted, this is going on in the real world to an even greater degree –- and that’s for those lucky enough to even have a job these days -– but if this grim fact is supposed to make me feel better, it doesn’t. Still, even a lousy job will keep the rent paid while feeding hours into the health and pension plans. Sometimes that’s the best you can get, in which case you take the bad with the good and hope for something better down the road.

I could have said “no thanks” to such a crappy job, of course, but turning down work these days is a realistic option only for the exceedingly fortunate few. And those lucky souls? Maybe they can afford one of these to while away their gainfully unemployed hours.

Watching cable, no doubt.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Full Burn

Anyone who’s been reading this blog since the beginning (all three of you), or has gone through the “best of” posts (another half-dozen people) knows how I feel about stunts. They’re fascinating, scary, and always dangerous, even when performed by the best in the business. Pretty much everything else done in Hollywood is fake – we put short actors up on apple boxes to make them look taller, shoot night exterior scenes on stage in the daytime, utilize green and blue screen technology to put actors where they never were, and “cheat” with camera angles and temporary walls to make a flimsy three wall set built of 1 X 3 pine and luan appear to be a solid suburban home.

The essence of every Hollywood craft is to do whatever it takes to sell the shot, which means we cheat every chance we get.

The only thing stunt people cheat is death. Yes, they utilize some of the most modern, cutting-edge technology to pull off the amazing stunts demanded by action films these days, but when the cameras roll, those are real people out there pushing the absolute limits of Newtonian Physics and human endurance in doing scarifyingly realistic, truly death-defying stunts. They drive (and crash) cars and motorcycles in a manner that would get most of us killed, do high falls I wouldn’t attempt for any amount of money, and willingly allow themselves to be set on fire, then jerked thirty feet in the air on cables powered by high-speed winches – stunts that could seriously injure or kill them were anything to go wrong. Stunt people live in a world where shrugging off injury, pain, and the daily possibility of death on the job is all in a day’s work.

I knew a lot of this already. You can’t spend more than three decades working on thousands of film sets without learning something about stunts and the people who do them – and as I found out, not all of these experiences are pleasant. I’ve met some really nice stunt people, as well as the occasional buffoon who takes himself (and his mega-macho image) far too seriously.*

As it turns out, I didn’t know the half of it. Much of the rest I learned while reading “Full Burn,” by Kevin Conley, which skims over the history of stunt work in Hollywood while concentrating on the present state of the art in its many incarnations. Conley explains in riveting detail how stunts and the people who do them evolved over the years, then reveals how stunt-people are constantly pushing the envelope of real-world technology in fighting to stay relevant (read: employed) in the modern era of CGI special effects. Published in 2008, the book is packed with first-person interviews with those who pulled off the spectacular stunts in movies like “The Matrix Reloaded” and “The Bourne Ultimatum,” among others. Yes, he does talk about the legendary Yakima Canutt and “the most dangerous stunt ever filmed,” but this is largely the story of modern stuntmen – and stunt women -- not some dry and dusty history tome. Conley is a pro at the keyboard, with a crisp, urgent writing style that does a nice job conveying the casual-but-serious approach to personal risk that makes stunt people a breed apart.

This book tells their story very well indeed. It’s a terrific read for anyone fascinated by movies or interested in how stunts are done. It won't bury your budget, either -- if you don't feel like shelling out sixteen dollars for a new book, used copies are available from Amazon for eight to nine bucks.

* I once had the pleasure of witnessing one such clown – a stuntman dressed in a big white cowboy hat, cowboy boots, tight Levis, mirrored shades, and big silver belt buckle – get his karmic comeuppance on a low budget shoot one afternoon. As three of us unloaded the equipment truck in the hot sun, the stunt man stood off to the side telling stories about his many dangerous deeds, at one point boasting that he’d recently skydived from 12,000 feet. I’m not sure why that was supposed to impress us, since falling from a hundred feet will kill you just as dead as dropping from two miles up, but this guy made a big deal of it. Once he’d finished bragging, the grip truck driver – who’d been quietly working the lift gate while the stunt man prattled on -- mentioned that he’d made eight jumps from 36,000 feet.

I turned to look at him, this very ordinarly, going-on-middle-aged guy. Although I didn't know much about skydiving, I knew that airliners routinely fly at 36,000 feet. I knew that an unprotected human will quickly die from cold and lack of oxygen at 36,000 feet. And I damned well knew that nobody just hops in a plane, flies to 36,000 feet, then straps on a parachute and jumps out.

That takes some very special training.

It turned out our truck driver had been a Navy Seal specializing in HALO jumps, where his unit would leap from a plane at altitude, then “fly” twenty miles to the target before deploying their parachutes at 800 feet. Once they hit the water – or ground – they’d carry out their military mission.

Our so-very-full-of-himself stunt man listened in stunned silence -- and the look on his was face priceless. Thoroughly put in his place by a truck driver (who turned out to be a very nice guy), he didn’t say another word the rest of the day.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Wednesday Photo #2

There are still a lot of apartments for rent in my neighborhood, but this is a first: a two bedroom palm tree.

I guess the squirrels must have moved out.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

A Hollywood Life: Always on the Bubble

Transience: passing quickly into and out of existence...

Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary

A set from a just-completed TV pilot, disassembled and ready for storage.

The film and television Industry is a study in transience. When a project -- be it a feature film, television show, commercial, or music video – is given the green light, a crew coalesces from the greater Hollywood diaspora like vultures gathering to feast on fresh road kill. That crew might consist of thirteen people or three hundred, many of whom have never met, coming together to form a unit able to manufacture a finished, screenable product out of thin air. Once their work is done, the crew will vanish back into the smoggy ether to await another phone call, and the next job.

There are no guarantees, no security, no nothing. Every job can be your last – and after a production wraps, the possibility remains that your phone might never ring again. For the first few years, that fear looms large, but it tends to fade with experience and the passage of time. After a while you find that something always seems to come along when you really need it. Maybe it won’t be the job you really wanted, but just as you’re starting to feel the cold fangs of panic sink deep into your chest, the phone will ring, and all is suddenly right with the world again.

Until it doesn’t, of course. Sooner or later it’ll happen to all of us, and at that point you’d better be prepared to find another career. If you can’t -- or won’t -- then you’re already on the slippery slope of retirement, like it or not.

That the fear never really goes away altogether is a healthy thing. An absence of fear breeds complacency, which in turn leads to getting fat and lazy, which is always the real danger. Word spreads fast in a big little town like Hollywood, and once the notion settles in that you’re not quite as hungry and sharp as you used to be, those with the power to hire will start calling other people.

Right now, at the end of pilot season, is always a nervous time. Nobody knows which pilots will get picked up, or what shows will return. There are a few cable shows already underway or gearing up, but network dramas and comedies are done for the next couple of months, and since there are always several shows “on the bubble” at the end of every season, this is a period of endless nervous speculation.

The LA Times recently ran an excellent article by Maria Elena Fernandez detailing exactly how the crew members of a show (“The Unit”) on that bubble deal with all this. If you missed it, you can read it here.

There’s always another side to every story, though, and when it comes to describing how pilot season feels from above-the-line, Rob Long has no peer. In this, one of Rob's recent “Martini Shot” commentaries on KCRW, he talks about the ephemeral nature of every pilot, and the difficulty of knowing exactly when – or if -- a given pilot is actually dead. As with most things having to do with the Industry, it’s not as simple as you might think.

At only four minutes, it’s well worth your time.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Could Film Crews Run the World?

After working eleven of the past twelve days (and thus being fried to a mental and physical crisp), I had nothing to say today -- this was going to be another “hiatus” week for me. But while taking a Sunday morning stroll through the various Industry blogs I keep an eye on, one of them got me to thinking. The Script Goddess – riffing on a commercial currently running on television -- posted the spot followed by her suggestion that the world might be a better place if film crews were running things. This is a well-made commercial wherein the various members of a film crew use their individual skills to deftly guide a wedding party through several potential show-stopping, last-minute disasters to a successful conclusion. It's a cute spot that also makes a good point: when it comes to solving problems on the fly in time-sensitive, temporary situations, film industry professionals really do have the skills to make things happen.

But the key word here is "temporary," since much of what we do in Hollywood on a daily basis is meant to last only a few hours, days, weeks -- or at most, a few months. A hit episodic drama or sit-com will generally use the same core sets for the duration of the show, but such hits are few and far between. The vast majority of shows aren’t hits – and like those of us who work on them, they come and go with the seasonal tide. When a show is cancelled or not picked up, the sets are trashed (or in some cases, recycled), the cameras, lamps, cable, and grip equipment all goes back to storage, and the crew scatters to the four winds.

In Holllywood, everything is temporary.

On the job, all our efforts are directed towards solving whatever problems stand in the way of filming the desired shot. Once those problems have been solved, and the shot completed, we tear it all down and move on to the next shot, and another set of problems. In a way, we’re more like firemen or Emergency Medical Technicians than industrial workers* -- we do whatever it takes to solve the problem at hand quickly -- but the film and TV biz really is a manufacturing industry. We who work here create dreamscapes in the form of moving pictures, an ephemeral composition of light, shadow, and sound. Although the final product is essentially weightless, there’s nothing dreamy at all about the heavy lifting required to make a movie or television show, and some of those real-world skills do have applications beyond a Hollywood film set.

But once the fire is out, the tent city put up, the stoves hot and the lamps burning, we’d all be looking at our watches wondering just when this show is gonna wrap. We’re in this for the quick hit -- to get in, do the job, then move on -- not to hang in there over the long haul. A really big movie might take the better part of a year from the first day of filming on set to its theatrical premiere, while a hit TV show can last eight to ten seasons (unless it’s “Gunsmoke” or “Law and Order” – the exceptions that prove the rule). But during that time, many of crew people will come and go, moving on to other projects. Some of that is just the nature of the biz, but I think it also has something to do with the type of people who are attracted to a life in the Industry.

I came to Hollywood for several reasons -- some of which don’t add up to much in the withering glare of 20:20 hindsight -- but I liked the notion of working on a wide variety of interesting projects. To me, the idea of being chained to a desk for 40 years of shuffling papers while waiting for the retirement bell seemed like the worst sort of living death. Hollywood didn’t offer much in the way of security or stability, but I wasn’t preoccupied with such concerns at the time. Like most of my young peers back then, I came to Hollywood to work on movies, go on location, learn the craft, and have fun – to get out and do things -- and that’s just what most of us did.

We certainly didn’t come here to run the world, and although many of our skills might be useful in emergency situations, I don’t think the many seemingly intractable problems facing our planet are solvable by film crews (or anybody else, for that matter). And if we were somehow put in a position to “run the world,” I imagine most of us would get bored in a hurry – we’re just not wired for that kind of long-term, sustained-effort problem solving.

Personally, I’m not sure there really are any lasting solutions to the worst of our problems. Looking around at the world today, I think we crossed that Rubicon a while back, and that it’s now just a matter of time before the shit hits the fan in a Very Big Way. Duck-and-cover all you want, but one way or another, we’re all going to get splattered this time around.

But hey, I’ve been wrong before – and I really hope I’m wrong on this one...

* I don’t mean to stretch this analogy too far. Firemen and EMT’s save other people’s lives everyday, often at great risk to their own -- all we do is make movies and television. Beyond the fact that all of us employ our skills to solve temporary problems, then move on, there’s really no comparison at all...