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, 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.


egee said...

Great insight! We may whine and complain about difficult tasks but ultimately we're thrilled to have them and solve them. At least every once and a while. I've had the same experience in my job (which is infinitely less physical). I have experienced the satisfying pleasure that results from overcoming a major barrier even if that barrier appears due to the poor decisions of others. Whatever our occupation, on some levels we're all the same.

Mike Jones said...

Many years ago I read a comment by a contributor, regarding military life, to Reader’s Digest that I recognized as a bulls-eye: “It’s surprising the things you can do when someone orders you to do it.”

Michael Taylor said...

Mike --

There's something to that. A constant in my career has been a moment of doubt when sizing up a particularly challenging task I've been told to do -- at first, I see no way to get it done... but then I notice a possible route, and the more I think about it, the better it looks. Next thing I know, it works and I'm doing it. Very satisfying, that.

Thanks for tuning in...