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 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.


Unknown said...

The only jobs I have ever worked on would be classified as "fringe-co".

Sadly they kind of discouraged me from the whole industry.

Michael Taylor said...

Desterado --

I worked nothing but Fringe-Co jobs my first three years in the biz. When you don't know a lot, you have to settle for whatever jobs you can get, and at least those cheapie outfits gave me a chance to work. It wasn't until later that I realized just how pathetically lame those jobs really were -- but it's all part of the learning curve.

Given my outsider status -- having no serious industry connections -- I was lucky to get out from under fairly quickly. Depending on what it is you want to do, it can take a lot longer than three years to shake the Fringe-Co fleas from your hair. I was never interested in above-the-line work, which -- again, for an outsider -- looks to be a much steeper ladder to climb.

The real bitch is getting stuck on bad Fringe-Co jobs after you've spent a decade or two (or three...) paying your dues -- when you really do know how lame such jobs are.

Man, that hurts...

Nathan said...

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.

My experience is that not only are the non-union crew "discouraged" from handling equipment, they're castigated mercilessly if they try. (That certainly eases off with a crew who knows you well).

I once heard a grip tell a UPM, "Put down the damned sandbag. If you wanted it to happen quick, you could have hired the extra guy we asked for. Now, you'll just have to wait until we can get it done with the four of us". (There was an extra guy each in Grip and Electric the following day.)

Michael Taylor said...

Nathan -- on a union job, you're right. People stick to their department unless some kind of dire emergency arises. But Fringe-Co jobs are by definition non-union and always undercrewed, so you take all the help you can get.

I've never worked in New York, but from what I hear, the whole union/non-union thing is taken a bit more seriously on the east coast. For better or worse, things seem a bit looser out here.

Nathan said...

Actually, things have loosened up a little since I got started. I was in heaven the first time a Set Dresser told me I wasn't allowed to touch a broom! (Now if I could only get some department to take jurisdiction over heavy leaking garbage bags.)