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)

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Day of the Locust, Part 12

I’d planned to take this week off – another in my periodic hiatus weeks – but the death of Michael Jackson and surrounding furor seemed to demand comment. Not that anyone has been (or should be) breathlessly awaiting my thoughts on the matter, but just to have my say. That’s what a blog is for…

It was early afternoon when rumors of Michael Jackson’s heart attack rippled through the set, and suddenly everybody on the crew (except me*) was staring into the blue glow of their cell phones. Being Thursday (our block and pre-shoot day), the entire crew was present -- grip/electric, camera, sound, set dressing, props, hair/makeup, and production -- and the stage was packed. Many people seemed stunned at the news, but I didn’t feel much of anything then or later when the confirmation of his death finally came. To me, Michael Jackson was freakish in every way right from the start – a prodigiously freakish talent that shot into the pop cultural heavens in the early 80’s, then, like Icarus (another young over-achiever) flew too close to the terrible heat of the celebrity sun, and plunged back to earth with a thud. There, he retreated like some warped hermit into his own bizarrely freakish Xanadu in the Santa Ynez Valley, replete with chimpanzees, amusement park rides, and young boys in the bed. My own brief encounter with The Gloved One was enough to convince me that this was no ordinary human, but rather someone so deep in the Golden Bubble of mega-success – and so consumed by the intolerable pressures inside that Black Hole -- that any hopes of having something resembling a normal life had long since been crushed.

Such limitless success opens the gilded door for her evil twin, boundless excess, which has a way of leading those so gifted (and afflicted) to an early death.

I still don’t feel much over the demise of Michael Jackson. His death is certainly a personal tragedy for his family, whatever friends still remained (a select group apparently including Elizabeth Taylor and Lisa Minelli, if no one else), and his worldwide legions of fans, but although the news came as a surprise, it was hardly a shock. The man had been in free-fall since the infamous Neverland trial a few years back, and even the planned fifty concert tour -– all fifty dates sold out, apparently -- seemed unlikely to restore him to fiscal or mental health. Fifty concerts is a lot to ask from such a seemingly frail man twenty-five years removed from his best days. With all he'd been through, you really have to wonder just how much he had left to give.

In that light, veteran LA Times music critic Robert Hilburn's perspective is worth reading. Then again, another piece in the Times reported that Jackson had been thoroughly energized by the ongoing rehearsals for his London concerts, preparing to once again take the pop world by storm and reclaim his self-anointed title as the King of Pop. If true, then perhaps he went to sleep at the end of his last day of life a happy man, filled with hope for the future.

Maybe that's the best any of us can hope for.

I have no axe to grind against Michael Jackson. Although I didn’t care for the Jackson Five’s music, when his solo career finally hit its stride, he created some of the most propulsive, dynamic songs in pop music history. In that brief window of undeniable brilliance, his presence on stage truly was magic. Yes, working on the video for “Billie Jean” was an extremely strange experience, but the song itself, like so many of his efforts from that era, was terrific. His best work deserves to be the legacy we remember him by, rather than the long dark path he subsequently descended. Michael Jackson had his share of problems, many of which he created for himself, but the same is true of the rest of us here on planet earth. To me, Clint Eastwood's character said it best in “Unforgiven," when he muttered “We all got it coming, kid.”

Indeed we do, and if Michael Jackson died too young, then so have millions of other young people all over the world in the past bloody decade –- and in case anybody missed it in the tsunami of All-Michael-All-the-Time media coverage, Farrah Fawcett got a pretty raw deal herself this week.

It was the sudden tectonic insanity of the media frenzy that bothered me more than anything else, as the News Machine did what it does best -- instantly commodifying a celebrity death to create yet another twisted scene right out of “Day of the Locust.” The now familiar sight of sobbing fan-mobs dominated the Toob, and once again I felt embarrassed to be a member of the human race. I don’t mean to be critical of those who were weeping in the streets when the media horde descended upon them like a pack of hungry wolves -- a powerful emotional response will bring the strongest of us to our knees -- but I will say this: if I'm ever overwhelmed by such all-consuming grief in public, and some media asshole sticks a camera in my face, I just hope I’ll have the presence of mind to turn away and force the bastard to get his/her sound bite somewhere else.

*Not that I wasn’t curious, mind you, but I seem to be the last person in Hollywood who doesn’t carry a cell phone…

(An attentive reader brought to my attention the lack of footnotes in last Wednesday's post. There were asterisks in the text, but nothing down below -- promises made and not kept. For anyone who cares, I've since added those missing (if rather inconsequential) footnotes to the post...

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Angel of Death Returns

The Angel of Death has been making his grim rounds in Hollywood again, stopping at the doors of two Industry icons. I’m not sure you could come up with two people as different as Ed McMahon and David Carradine, but each managed to carve out his own unique niche in our shared cultural landscape. I worked with each of them back in my low budget feature years, and although our encounters were brief, both men made an impression that lingers to this day.

Given the currently fractured state of late night television (an audience split between Leno, O’brien, Letterman, and Craig Fergusson), it’s not easy to grasp just how big The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson* really was, and Ed McMahon played a major part of that success. Johnny Carson was light years ahead of all his competitors (and his successors, IMHO), with big Ed right by his side every step of the way. Ed McMahon was the first real Hollywood celebrity I met in my nascent career.

Ed appeared in movies from time to time, including Full Moon High (1981), a hopelessly cheesy low budget werewolf comedy starring a very young Adam Arkin, with cameos by Pat Morita and Adam’s real-life dad, Alan. Ed McMahon played Adam’s father, and was with us on and off for maybe two weeks of filming altogether. Two of those days were spent two shooting in an underground bomb shelter beneath the back yard of a sprawling ranch-style house in Ladera Heights. To reach the set, we had to enter a big closet, pull up a well-hidden door under the carpet, then climb down a long row of metal stairs to a concrete chamber secured by a steel submarine door. Inside the shelter were bunk bed cots and shelves for supplies to wait out the nuclear attack so many Americans viewed as inevitable during the 1960’s. But by 1980, much of that paranoia had evaporated, to the point where the family who owned this home was willing to rent out their bomb shelter as a movie set.

The bare concrete walls of that cramped bomb shelter made for a very noisy location that must have driven the sound guys crazy – I can still hear Ed’s big booming laugh echoing up that stairway. Although the script was terminally ludicrous (writer/director Larry Cohen apparently fancied himself as the next Woody Allen -- but in that was sadly mistaken), Ed took the job seriously, arriving on set having learned his lines, then hitting his marks every time. A solid professional, he never complained about the long hours or crappy working conditions. More important (from my perspective), he was unfailingly gracious to the entire crew – not always the case with Hollywood celebrities – who never played the pompous Hollywood big shot. Ed McMahon was a very likable guy.

The last I heard, he was doing rap videos and commercials in an attempt to extricate himself from an avalanche of financial disasters. Whether he succeeded or not is unclear, but I don’t suppose any of that matters now. His earthly troubles are over.

I pulled out my VHS copy of “Full Moon High” the other night, and there was Ed, hale and hearty in his late 50’s. It’s a truly awful movie – an incomprehensible mash-mash of lame clich├ęs and over-the-top acting – but amid the chaos, Ed McMahon and Adam Arkin keep swimming against the tide, trying to make the movie work in spite of itself. Unfortunately, the script kills Ed off in the first half hour, abandoning the viewer to another sixty-five minutes of misguidedly manic confusion masquerading as comedy. This is not the cinematic monument Ed McMahon (or any actor) would have hoped for. Still, it was good to see him in his vigorous prime – and that’s how I’ll remember him, with his jovial, bigger-than-life presence of set, that famously big laugh, and of course, his thirty years with Johnny Carson. Sure, his career was mostly playing second banana, but that’s not as easy as it looks – and Ed McMahon made it look very easy indeed.

My experience with David Carradine was very brief – a single day shooting pickups for yet another Larry Cohen epic, Q, a horror movie about a giant winged serpent terrorizing New York City. Like most of Larry Cohen’s films, this one ended up filming pick-ups at his sprawling home up in Benedict Canyon, which is where we spent a long day shooting scenes with Carradine and two police detectives (one played by Ron Cey, the LA Dodgers third basemen on the DL with a broken wrist). While we worked inside, a production assistant was busy rolling several coats of blue paint on a twelve-by-twelve sheet of white canvas in the back yard. Near the end of the day – the paint finally dry – we hung this home-made blue screen up between two stands, lit it, then filmed David Carradine blasting away with a machine gun at the phantom flying reptile.

On stage, shooting a scene this would be no big deal -- but we were outdoors in a very tony section of Beverly Hills, an area not accustomed to long bursts of machine gun fire echoing through the canyons.** This didn’t faze Larry Cohen in the least, who ordered take after noisy take until he got what he wanted. That was our final scene with David, after which he and a lovely young woman – apparently one of his companions at the time – quietly left. We kept working late into the night, cranking out lots of simple shots required to properly edit the film, and by the time we were done, Larry Cohen had disappeared. The cameraman made out our checks from Larry’s checkbook. After he handed me mine ($125 for the day, as I recall), he took a look through the checkbook, then looked up with a smile.

“You know how much David Carradine made today? Four thousand dollars.”

That was my first lesson in the economics of Hollywood -- in a single day, he'd made a quarter of what I would earn for working the entire year. But hey, he was David Carradine, Mr. Kung Fu himself, and wthout him, the movie would probably never get made, which means I woudn’t have had day of work shooting pickups. That’s just the way Hollywood works. If that's going to get your knickers in a knot, you may as well complain about the ocean being wet.

You can read the details of his life, career, and death somewhere else: suffice it to say that even at 72, David Carradine was too young to die. In person, he was a very impressive guy, possessing a powerful presence that went way beyond mere confidence. Whatever it was, this mysteriously serene strength served him well through his long career. That’s how I’ll remember him – squinting into the wild blue-screen yonder while blasting away with a machine gun in defense of civilization against cinematic predators of all kinds. In his own way, David Carradine was something special.

*I never had the chance to meet Johnny Carson, but saw him once (at Schatzi on Main, Arnold Swartzenegger’s restaurant out in Venice), while on a lunch break from filming digital effects for “The Fifth Element.” There, in a secluded corner of the restaurant, was the man himself, having a quiet lunch with a friend. I’m not sure what I’d have said to him anyway -- nothing he hadn’t heard a thousand times before -- but a burly plainclothes security man stood guard (CIA-style earphone in place), discouraging anyone with a notion to approach. What the hell -– after living such a hugely public life, Johnny Carson deserved to have lunch in peace.

** Maybe the neighbors (and local authorities) were used to such outlandish goings on in Larry Cohen’s back yard -- the swarm of cop cars I expected to descend upon us never appeared

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Feed the Beast

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard…”

JFK speech, September 12, 1962

If it seems this space spends a fair amount of time complaining about the nature of working below-the-line, you’re not imagining things. Bitching about the frustrations, tedium, and the occasionally infuriating idiocy endemic to working below-the-line is as much a part of Industry life as anything else. Mostly I'm just venting to expel the evil spirits, an offshoot of the reflexive bonding indulged in by workers in most vocations: a sharing of mutual pain that lays down another thin coat of psychic armor to deflect the slings and arrows raining down upon us every working day.

Writing about the bad side of the job helps exorcise those demons for a short while, at least -- and every little bit helps, because tomorrow will likely bring another example of ego-driven uber-absurdity to make the job that much harder.

Sometimes I wonder what this kind of work would be like if everything went smoothly: if all the decisions from on high were based on calmly reasoned logic, if all directors and cameramen were sane, if the budgets were fat and the egos thin, if every script sparkled with incandescent brilliance, if every actor could manage to learn his/her lines before the cameras roll, and if none of our days went long...

Would this be Hollywood Heaven?

It’ll never happen, of course, so there’s no real danger we’ll ever find out -- but even if we could live this Hollywood fantasy, all might not be sweetness and light. In coming down out of the trees and surviving for so many millennia without benefit of sharp claws, dagger-like fangs, or anything like the extraordinary strength our primate cousins have long possessed, humanity has had to contend with serious physical challenges on a daily basis. Trouble of one sort or another pretty much defines the human condition, and we evolved to handle it, which suggests that we might not be wired for a fat and happy life in the land of milk and honey. For all our trappings of civilization, we‘re just overgrown monkeys who traded our fur and prehensile tails for opposable thumbs and a more nimble brain. Given our shared ancestral heritage, it’s not unreasonable to assume we require a certain amount of tumult and chaos in our daily life -- mental roughage, if you will – just to stay sharp and feel alive.

One way or another, we’ve all got to feed the beast lurking deep inside.

Being human, of course, there’s no end to the trouble we manage to create for ourselves and everyone else. Sometimes I think the many absurdities of modern life serve as a means of providing us with an endless series of challenges to feed our inner beast – and at that, the film/television industry excels. A film set is a simmering stew pot of problems where things rarely go as planned, but the job gets done in spite of it all. In the end, dealing with those constant challenges – solving the problems as they come and making it work – is what makes the job so satisfying.

A few years ago, I spent two long weeks helping rig a sit-com at the start of its second season. It was a tough job, putting in full ten hour days starting at 6 a.m. and ending at 5 p.m. It was all work, all the time, and although the gaffer at first seemed pleasant enough, it soon became apparent that he was afflicted with a terminal case of indecision. As a result, the whole crew did lots of double and triple work, hanging the lamps here, moving them there, and occasionally re-hanging them back where they’d started in the first place. By the tenth day, I was whipped – and in the final twenty minutes of that day, the gaffer decided to add one last light. With several dozen lamps hung all over the set (each festooned with bulky grip equipment to cut and shape the light), there was no room to maneuver a man-lift up to the pipe grid. Other than climbing the set walls – strictly forbidden by Industry and studio safety rules – the only other option would be to take down several of those lamps just to clear out a space for me to work.

And there's no way that was going to happen.

But the lamp still had to go up, so I leaned a ten step ladder against the set walls, climbed to the top, then carefully picked my way towards a spot where I could hang the lamp on the pipe grid, sixteen feet off the stage floor. Hanging on to the grid with one hand and the lamp with the other, I was finally able to set, power, and adjust the lamp to the gaffer’s satisfaction – but after doing so much physical work for ten days, it took everything I had to get the job done. In so doing, I’d torn up every applicable safety rule to the extent that one of the grips (an experienced guy who knew his stuff) took a long look, then shook his head.

“I wouldn’t stay there too long,” he warned. “That joint you’re standing on isn’t gonna hold.”

Naturally, that was where I had to be to hang the lamp, but as soon as the gaffer was happy, I scrambled back down to safety the way I’d come.

I had good reason to be pissed at that gaffer for putting me in such a position. For one thing, all of “his” guys – the core crew who would remain with the show after the rig was finished (a group that did not include me) -– were off at the other end of the stage wrapping stingers and yakking about their plans for the weekend while I did their dirty work. That didn’t bother me as much as it might have, since this show was a steaming pile run by a collection of fools I had no desire to work for -- but what irked me was that the gaffer had lit the same set a year before during season one, which meant he knew damned well that lamp should have been one of the first to go up rather than the last. It was his dithering indecision that forced me into such a dangerously vulnerable position. A fall from the top of that set could easily have been a career-ender -- and since it would have happened because I'd willfully violated all those safety rules, I’d be on my own. The production company and studio would remain safely shielded from any legal liability.

On paper, this was a lose/lose situation for me, but work happens in the real world, not on paper, and at a certain point it hit me that as much as having to climb those set walls pissed me off, I actually enjoyed hanging that lamp precisely because it was so hard to do. The process of figuring out how to go about it, then doing the climbing and getting it done (factoring in the risk with every step) was enormously satisfying on a primal level. Successfully accomplishing something that at first appears prohibitively difficult -- especially when it involves such intense physicality -- feels really good.

It feeds my inner beast.

I put that JFK quote at the top not to compare sending three astronauts to the moon with hanging one stupid lamp for a thoroughly forgettable TV show -– the latter infinitesimally minor task utterly lost in the immense shadow of the former -– but the governing principle is the same. On a personal level, accomplishing difficult tasks helps you grow in all the right ways while delivering a delicious endorphin kick, which is what turned this apparent lose/lose situation into a win.

It’s not that I come to work jonesing for a maximum-effort, do-or-die task each and every day (I’d be lucky to last another year at that pace), but once a week seems to supply the requisite artery-clearing blast of adrenaline to keep me from getting too fat, bored, and lazy on the job. These little tests let me know I’ve still got it -- that I can still do every aspect of my job -- and that’s important.

Working below-the-line offers ample opportunity for this sort of thing, but I really wonder how above-the-liners manage to sate their inner beast. Quenching that hunger requires a degree of physicality way beyond anything that can happen while sitting at a keyboard or negotiating on the phone, no matter how big the deal or stressful the situation. Many people consider working above-the-line to be Nirvana in Hollywood, but although the money’s vastly better up there (by several orders of magnitude), I landed where I belong. Driving a desk or being glued to a cell phone holds no appeal for me. Instead, I show up on set when I’m supposed to, then do the best I can in dealing with whatever problems come my way. Besides, I’ve never been able to figure out exactly what so many above-the-liners actually do in the first place, much less how they do it. Juicing, I understand, and if that makes me a lesser form of human primate than those who lift nothing heavier than a cell phone all day long, so be it. In that case, I just wish my simian ancestors hadn’t been in such a hurry to discard their prehensile tails -- a tail like that would make it lot easier to climb those set walls and hang on to the pipe grid.

Then again, it’s the difficulty of the task that makes pushing through those tough challenges so much fun... so maybe I really don’t miss that fancy tail after all.

Monday, June 15, 2009

This Week on "The Business"

This week’s broadcast of “The Business” (a weekly half hour radio show about the film/television industry on KCRW 89.9 FM) featured three guests with a wealth of experience working below-the-line: a veteran film and television gaffer, a director of photography, and an agent who represents those elite below-the-liners who actually require such services.*

A half hour – actually twenty-five minutes or so, once the preliminaries were out of the way – is not nearly long enough to fully articulate the many woes afflicting Hollywood’s below-the-line community these days, but those three guests did a nice job sketching out the basics. Much of this has been covered here in some detail – runaway production due to tax subsidies luring work from Hollywood to other states and countries, the steady erosion of “union scale” work thanks to the profusion of sidebar deals with the Devil... er, cable, and the constant struggle of free lancers to find work as the pool of available jobs continues to shrink -- but in the little time he had, Kevin Brennan (the gaffer) explained how this new reality has impacted his own working life, and not for the better. Like a big overcoat, the basic outlines of his story could probably fit most of us.

The cameraman had some interesting things to say as well, but it was the agent (why am I not surprised...) who cast a dark pall of gloom over the whole show with her prediction of Armageddon coming in two short years. Hers was a good news/bad news scenario: 18 months of balls-to-the-wall production as the studios and producers stockpile "product" in anticipation of the Mother of all Strikes. Yes, SAG finally signed their new contract, but in that deal lie the seeds of a potentially disastrous confrontation with the producers when that contract expires in two years, along with the contracts of the WGA and DGA. Winning this two year deal (rather than the usual three year contract) was a major coup for the actors, who will finally have the opportunity to unite with the rest of above-the-line Hollywood in demanding more from the producers -- probably a lot more -- in the arena of New Media and the Internet.

I’m guessing the producers won’t want to give any of them more, and if they can’t cut a satisfactory deal beforehand, we could well face a complete industry shutdown by the summer of 2011. That cuts both ways, of course: the mere threat of such a Hollywood Armageddon might scare the producers into offering enough concessions to make a deal and avert disaster -- but it could just as easily lead to another pig-headed game of chicken in which those of us who work below-the-line end up the real losers.


This is hardly a cheery half hour, but whether you’re a veteran of the biz or just a young wide-eyed wannabe, it’s worth your time -- and you can listen to it right here.

*Needless to say, this category does not include juicers. If you make a minimum of four to five thousand dollars a week (like a DP), then you might need an agent. That's one thing gaffers, best boys, and juicers don’t have to worry about...

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Working for Idiots

Welcome to Fringe-Co...

Every Industry work-bot will have the unpleasant experience of working for idiots at one time or another in his/her career. This typically happens early, before the scales have fallen from one's wide and dewy eyes, but since you really can't know until you know, it’s often only years later that the full extent of the idiocy permeating those early jobs comes into clear focus. Idiocy is a bit like lightning, of course -- it can strike at any moment -- but once you hit your professional stride, it’s easier to spot and dodge such troublesome clouds on the road ahead. When times are good, and you have a choice of jobs, it’s a no-brainer to take the good ones and leave the crappy work for someone else.

But times are not always fat in Hollywood, and one of the disheartening aspects of any seriously slow patch is the quality of jobs that are available. During last year’s WGA strike, some of my peers were able to use contacts nurtured over the years to slide into the world of television commercials (which were unaffected by the strike) or sign on to feature films scripted well before picket lines went up in front of studio gates. These were plum jobs, where the usual hard work was compensated by decent treatment and healthy paychecks.

Then there were those of us at the other end of the equation, forced to work for some of the many fringe companies -- “Fringe-Co” outfits, I call them – non-union production houses clinging to a tenuous existence on the rocky cliffs at the far edges of the biz, light-years from the Industry mainstream. Fringe-Co shoots tend to unfold in a chaotic, this-is-how-we-did-it-in-film-school manner, where the usual Industry standards and protocols fly out the window in favor of a more free-wheeling (read: cheaper) approach to getting the job done.

This isn’t all bad. It’s easy to get fat and lazy on a steady diet of studio work, and being forced off the reservation every now and then offers a chance to meet new people, apply one’s accumulated skills and knowledge to solve lighting problems on the fly in a much less structured work environment, and occasionally learn something new. Making the mental switch from “studio mode” to this bubble-gum-and-bailing-wire approach takes some effort, but once into the rhythm, you can find a kind of freedom rarely enjoyed on a studio production. Good fringe companies (and they do exist) are run by decent people who know how to schedule realistic shoot days, and thus get the most out of the crew without bleeding them dry or busting the budget. Working a good Fringe-Co job can be fun, with lots of banter and laughter as the day grinds on, largely because the work load is shared: juicers help the grips, grips help the juicers, and the PA’s help everybody. The truth is, even the best fringe companies could never succeed without the considerable help of low-paid production assistants. With minimal grip and electric crews (two man departments are typical, often sharing a driver/swing man), there’s no way to get all the work done without the aid of production assistants who –- amidst their other duties -- help schlep heavy cable, lamps, and grip equipment to and from the set. When really pressed, it’s not unusual to see a producer carrying a C stand or a couple of sandbags on a Fringe-Co job, which is virtually unheard of on a big union production.* This group-effort dynamic creates a bond that cuts across all the crafts: a sense that for the duration of the job, we’re all in it together.

Unfortunately, even the best Fringe-Co jobs seldom offer union benefits or protections, and the money is rarely good – but it’s work, and when there’s nothing else out there, you take what you can get.

Bad fringe companies are a much uglier beast, often owned and run by soulless bastards lacking any real conscience or sense of shared humanity. These tight-fisted Scrooges seem to get a perverse pleasure in doing everything in the cheapest, meanest way possible, to the point where their companies resemble Third World dictatorships run on the basis of fear and intimidation. Working a bad Fringe-Co job is a dispiriting, depressing, and thoroughly miserable experience. You bust your ass to get the job done, but they don’t appreciate it -– they just sit in the motor home quietly gloating at having brought it in under budget by flogging their undermanned and overworked crew.

Those jobs are the worst.

Other than a few sadistic shit-heads destined for the 7th flaming circle of Hell once their earthly days are done, most of the Fringe-Co producers I’ve met would be happy to pay the crew better rates if the budget allowed. Some are young and don't yet know how things should be done, while others are veterans who have been dragged by fate and circumstance far from the Hollywood spotlight to toil in the lower minor leagues of the Industry, shooting cheap TV promos and the sort of cheesy commercials that usually run late at night. Even a really good producer can’t get blood from a turnip or sweeten the sour taste of working for an owner infected by the most virulent strains of the money-grubbing pathology. Those owners may be ruthlessly clever, but they're still idiots, and when idiots occupy the top rung of any given ladder, those below usually find themselves morphing into idiots as well, forced to embrace the absurdist framework of logic imposed from above. Like sons who were beaten by their fathers -- and then grow up to beat their sons -- the toxic stain of dysfunctional idiocy spreads on down the line, contaminating all who come in contact.

When working for idiots, I too usually end up feeling like an idiot by the end of the long day.

During the strike, I took a job doing promos for an upcoming movie at the behest of a Fringe-Co outfit that shall remain nameless. At a certain point of the pre-light day, our director (who also owned the company) was expecting two special projectors to be delivered that were to play a role in one of the many scenes planned for the following day’s shoot. When the projectors hadn’t arrived by early afternoon, he panicked. Frantic phone calls ensued. “They’re on their way,” he was told, but that wasn’t enough. With countless other decisions waiting to be made, this man began to obsess about the projectors, ignoring repeated assurances from his production staff that they really were on the way. After ten more minutes of chewing the worry-rag, he started blathering about getting a taxi or renting a limo to transport the projectors –- which were at that moment in the back seat of a production assistant’s car headed for the stage, mired in early rush-hour traffic.

Just exactly how hiring a taxi or limo could possibly speed the arrival of those projectors was unclear to me, or anyone else. The car carrying the projectors would have to pull off the road to transfer them to the taxi/limo – a time consuming task at rush hour – at which point the taxi/limo driver would have to re-enter that same sluggish traffic stream heading in the general direction of the stage. If anything, this cumbersome exchange would only further delay the arrival of those projectors.

Bear in mind that this director had already refused to spring for an extra juicer the gaffer requested to help us get the pre-light day done on schedule, but now he was suddenly willing to flush his wallet down the toilet on an mindless scheme that would actually prove counterproductive to what he hoped to accomplish in the first place.

How could anyone in a position of such responsibity be so stupid?

Because this arrogant, self-entitled man-child wanted his toy and wanted it now -- and because he's a fucking idiot.

The harried producer somehow managed to stall his idiot boss until those projectors showed up forty-five minutes later, without benefit of a taxi or limo. Thanks to the idiot's emotional brain cramp, we went late on the pre-light, then dragged ourselves back early the next morning to slog through a long, exhausting, and utterly dispiriting shoot. But as even the worst days do, this too finally came to an end – and more importantly, when the check arrived in the mail a couple of weeks later, it cleared.

On a bad Fringe-Co shoot, that’s the best you can hope for.

Fringe-Co jobs are always something of an ordeal, but beggars can’t be choosers, and the WGA strike made beggars of us all. If there was a silver lining to this otherwise dank and gloomy cloud of bottom-line, zero-sum, existential angst, it’s this: working for fringe companies offers a sobering reality check to re-boot one’s perspective on work. After a few Fringe-Co jobs, the idea of returning to the comfortable bosom of studio work (with all its low-key tedium and frustrations -- and full union benefits) suddenly looked awfully good again.

Turns out there really is no place like home.

* For good reason. It’s easy to get hurt handling film equipment, so people who aren’t accustomed to the work are better off leaving it alone. In the spirit of safety (and, of course, job protection), union rules discourage this sort of thing.

** This is one way a P.A. can learn enough to eventually land jobs paying a decent rate -- assuming he or she doesn't have his/her heart set on a career above-the-line.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Captain Crunch 1, Idiot Woman 0

A link on my home planet newspaper led me to this, which has nothing to do with the Industry or life in Hollywood (above or below the line), but offers another example of the increasingly brain-dead, over-litigious nature of our modern society.

Makes you wonder what goes through the head of judge when such an idiotic lawsuit is argued in his/her court.

It must be something in the water...

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Finishing Strong

Perception is reality...

Years ago, nearing the end of a two week commercial job, I noticed that one of our three production assistants – a young kid who’d been a ball of fire during the first half of the shoot – had slowed down considerably over the final few days. Where he’d been crisply efficient and eager to help before, he now lay back and took it easy. He still came to work with a smile, but it was obvious to everyone that he’d gone to cruise-mode. This would not have gone unnoticed even on a big shoot with a dozen PA’s, but on such a small crew, there was nowhere to hide.

This really didn’t affect me or my department. As the gaffer, it was none of my business how the individual PA’s did their jobs -- but if I’d noticed his slowdown, then the UPM, coordinator, and AD crew certainly had too, and those were the people with the power to hire on their next job. So why did I care? It was just a person-to-person thing: this kid impressed me with his hustle and attitude all during that first week, and I’m sure the rest of the production staff took note as well, but in taking the job for granted and slacking off down the home stretch, he was pissing away all those positive impressions and good will.

If he’d been a jerk (and I’ve run into a few PA’s who seemed to think they really were God’s gift to the Industry), I wouldn’t have said a word. Let him learn the hard way, or not at all, in which case he’d find himself looking for another line of work soon enough. But he was a nice kid, smart, friendly, and helpful, so I took him aside to explain the basic facts of Industry life: that the work is always hard, the hours long, and that no matter how good you are at the beginning of any job, you’ll be remembered for your work at the end. In the hyper-pressurized mosh pit of Hollywood, people notice who pulls their own weight and who doesn’t. Those who continually start strong but finish weak will find themselves getting fewer work calls as time goes on, and the jobs they do get will tend to be desperation calls for the really crappy gigs nobody else wants.

This is a one-way street leading right out of the business.

I finished my little "tough love" lecture telling him the truth -- that with his energy, intelligence, and personality, he had everything it takes to really go places in the biz, but unless he wised up and learned to finish strong, he was going nowhere fast. I half expected him to blow me off, but he took it surprisingly well, which was a very good sign. As we talked about it, he nodded and said he’d noticed people acting a little differently towards him near the end of his past few jobs, but hadn’t figured out why. By the time I walked away, I had the feeling that he had indeed seen the light. I hope so, because being a PA is a hard job that nobody should want to do any longer than is strictly necessary. It’s a great entry-level position offering newbies an up-close and personal look at the entire production process and the opportunity to make lots of contacts -- but being a PA is just a beginning, not a destination.

In a way, this is true for everyone in the biz. We’re all under the microscope every day at work, and in some ways, we really are only as good as our last job. The film and television industry has always been a harsh Darwinian world where those who can’t keep up with the herd inevitably fall by the wayside. While it’s not the African veldt – hungry lions aren’t watching from the tall grass, waiting to pick off the stragglers -- when your phone stops ringing, you’re in real trouble. Every industry veteran knows the importance of finishing strong, or else they wouldn’t have survived in the biz long enough to become veterans in the first place. But it doesn't stop there, because no matter how much experience you have or what department you work in, we all have to finish strong every time. When you’re young and just finding your way, you need to show the world that you really can do this job all the way to the bitter end. When you’re older (and despite all your experience), you have to keep proving that you still belong -- that you’ve still got what it takes. At a certain point in everyone’s career, each new job offers the opportunity to keep marching forward, or take that first fatal step onto the slippery slope to oblivion.

It may be just another day at work, but the stakes are always high.

I witnessed a prime example of this while working late one night on a pilot a few weeks ago. One of the grips from another show wandered in to our stage and sat down, looking miserable. When I asked him what was wrong, he shook his head in disgust. They were shooting their final episode of the year, and this was the very last day of filming. Being a cable show, the crew had been working 16 hour days for short money all season long, but due to the circumstances, they had reason to believe this final day would be a short one. The guest star for this episode was a Very Big Name in television -- believe me, you’d recognize the name in a heartbeat, but if I told you who, it would be easy enough to identify the show, and no good can come of that.* Besides, the name doesn’t matter -- for the purposes of this story, all that matters is that the Very Big Name had plans to attend a party that night at 7:30, which meant the crew could pretty much count on the director shooting him out by 7:00. Although there might be a few more shots to do that didn’t require the Very Big Name, it was looking good for a relatively short day – which meant working only 11 or 12 hours instead of 16. At the very least, they wouldn’t have to work until midnight again. Production can move very quickly when they want to, and to accommodate such a Very Big Name, they wanted to very badly.

There was a certain poetic justice in this long-suffering crew finally catching a break after getting the low-budget/long-hour shaft all season long, but the Gods of Hollywood are cruel indeed, and when a certain actress scheduled to complete her scenes with the Very Big Name didn’t show up on set, the whole thing went off the rails. A few frantic phone calls revealed that she was in Palm Springs, far from the San Fernando Valley. And how had this come about? It turned out her name wasn’t on the call sheet at the end of the previous night’s work. Assuming her work was done, she dashed off to Palm Springs to wash down her sushi dinner with chocolate martinis, or whatever it is young people like to do in that sun-scorched desert wasteland.

As it was explained to me, the second Assistant Director is responsible for making out the call sheet, which is then reviewed and okayed by the First A.D. At the end of a draining season, these two screwed up – they failed to finish strong – and thus the entire crew, including the Very Big Name, was still twiddling their thumbs waiting for the actress to arrive via a hastily chartered helicopter from Palm Springs at 9:00 p.m. as I headed for the parking structure and home. Because of their mistake, the Very Big Name was late to his party, and the crew had to work one last stupidly long day after all. Add in the expense of the chartered chopper, and that little omission on the part of the A.D. crew cost the production dearly. Thus an entire season of good work by these two was tainted by a horrendous mistake right at the finish line.

Will they be back on the crew next season? It all depends on the producer/star of the show. If he’s got any sense of humor at all, he’ll bring them back – hey, we’re all human, and humans make mistakes -- and after working four straight months doing sixteen hour days, five days a week, everybody’s brain begins to fade. An A.D. crew with a good track record has earned a mulligan, but you can bet they’ll both take a magnifying glass to every single call sheet they type up for the rest of their careers. And even if they do keep their jobs, they’ll be on an unofficial probation for a while. Another such fuck-up would almost certainly be their last on this show.**

There’s a useful lesson here in that all of us -- newbies and veterans alike -- are in the same boat, albeit at different ends. Those who learn to finish strong are in effect strapping on a life jacket: they’ll get wet if the boat sinks, but at least they’ll live to work another day. Those who don’t learn to finish strong?

They won’t be around long enough to ever become Industry veterans, above or below the line.

* This is an Industry with big ears, and as one who writes an Industry blog with my name on the masthead, I have to be careful what I say.

** All I know is what I heard that night, but it seems at least some portion of the blame belongs at the feet of the actress. Any actress worth her salt should have read the entire script, and thus realized that her role in the show wasn’t complete – and upon being handed a call sheet that failed to list her name, she should have gone straight to the First A.D. to double check. Maybe she did, and the A.D. crew compounded their slip-up with another, even worse error, but it’s my experience that such colossal blunders generally come about from a confluence of unfortunate circumstances. In Hollywood, though, the “talent” is rarely held responsible for anything, and in this case, the A.D’s left themselves wide open by screwing up so royally. They’ll just have to grin and wear it.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Wednesday Photo #3

I'm not sure if this qualifies as one of those "only in LA" things -- is it a "Volks-Stang" or "Must-Wagon?" -- but you have to admire the whimsical ambition and elegant execution in such a fine example of conceptual automotive fusion.