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 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.


John the Scientist said...

I was wondering about your second footnote - how the hell will she know her lines? Not only should she have read the script, she should have memorized her lines, and if she did that, wouldn't she notice that some of the stuff she memorized wasn't used? Or does the talent only look at the next day's piece of the script?

Anonymous said...

Great post as always.

Michael Taylor said...

John -- Truly professional actors learn the script inside and out. If the story I heard is accurate, this actress's behavior was extremely unprofessional. She's probably very young, very pretty, and very inexperienced, and can only hope that this unfortunate episode taught her a useful lesson for the future.

That said, this particular show is famous for "winging it" -- improvising on a core theme rather than the usual word-for-word following of a script. Still, that's no excuse -- for her own self-interest, the actress should have confirmed her next-day status with the First A.D.

In this business (as in life), it's the assumptions that kill you everytime.

Chris -- I appreciate the good vibes. Thanks for tuning in.

Nathan said...

First thought: Twenty plus years in and now you tell me. :D

Second thought: You don't mention that the UPM also signs off on the call sheet -- just one more dropped ball in a system set up to avoid them. And while the Producer doesn't sign the call sheet, I've never been on a show where s/he didn't study and approve it before it was flown.

Lots of folks F'd up on this one. The A.D. should get a pass unless some other heads roll too.

Michael Taylor said...

Nathan -- I asked the 2nd AD on my show about call sheet sign-off procedures, and went by his version. It makes sense that the UPM should have the final say under normal circumstances, but a juicer works on the far side of production, so I don't know all the details.

I agree on whose heads should roll, but you know how it works: the closer you are to the top of the totem pole, the further you are from any blame. As usual, it's the foot soldiers who pay the price while the generals hit the links for another round of golf.

odocoileus said...

Another great post. I really could have used this advice early on.

Your blog should be required reading at every film school.

It's true, the UPM signs off on every call sheet, or should, to prevent these kinds of cluster f's.

The call sheet is just the last in a chain of documents which include the shooting schedule for the episode, and the day out of days.

Between the shooting schedule, the day out of days, and the call sheet, the cast working that day would be listed 3 times. If a name is on one, but not on another, there's a problem.

The primary error lies with the 2nd AD who made the call sheet, of course, not to mention the other AD's.

Hair, makeup, and/or wardrobe should definitely have asked questions. By this point in the episode, they've certainly read the script, marked it up, and figured out which looks for which scene. Women can take much longer in the chair, so whether an actress is working that day makes a big difference for planning purposes.

Even Teamsters will want to know whose trailer they have to get ready/bring to location versus those they can wrap out for the season.

Multiple system failure.

With so many experienced people out of work these days, it's likely you get dropped when you make a major mistake. Somebody's good friend, significant other, daughter, or sibling needs the work. They're sitting by the phone waiting for the call.

Michael Taylor said...

Odocoileus -- thanks for the kind words and detailed rundown of production procedures. That this was the very last day/night of the final episode for the season is the one thing that could save this AD crew. With nothing left to do but wrap the show, they might be allowed to finish up and come back next year. For their sake, I hope so -- we all need and deserve a mulligan every now and then.

oliverandom said...

There is just so much to learn from the Industry, but I think I'll be engraving the lesson taught in this post to my heart and brain. Thanks for an excellent read.

Michael Taylor said...

Silverlain -- we're all still learning, even those of us who have been working our way through the Industry for a long, long time. From time to time, this blog tries to pass on some of the lessons I learned the hard way, and -- with any luck -- help young people just starting their industry careers avoid some of the pitfalls I encountered.

Glad you liked the post. Thanks for tuning in.