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, August 30, 2009

Shadows on the Wall

Brenschluss: the termination of the firing of the rocket engines, whether due to intentional shutdown of the engines or exhaustion of the fuel.*

Definition courtesy of The Free Dictionary

When any show finally comes to an end (be it a feature film, episodic television drama, single-camera comedy or sit-com), a disjointed sense of free-fall inevitably follows. During the show, it really does feel as though you’ve been strapped atop a blazing rocket thrusting hard into space – but when those engines suddenly quit, the artificial gravity they provided is gone, and you’re floating free, no longer really sure which way is up. For months on end, your life has been ruled by the needs of the show: when and where to report to the stage or location, when (and for exactly how long) you’ll break for lunch, and when you can finally wrap up and go home. Weekends are spent recovering amid the detritus of ordinary life – doing laundry, re-stocking the fridge, paying the week’s accumulation of bills, and maybe (if you’re lucky), making a brief stab at a social life – and Monday morning always comes much too early, bringing another week of ceaseless toil. After a few months, this repetitive work-bot routine becomes all you really know anymore, the paper upon which your life is drawn. And then suddenly, it’s over.


Commercials, music videos, and feature film productions are finite ventures right from the start, where the task is to manufacture the “product” – an ad, video, or movie – in a predetermined number of shooting days. Once your role in that process is complete, the job is over. Television is a little different. For a new drama or comedy, the season could last a full twenty-two episodes, or be cancelled after the first broadcast. If a show survives that first crucial season delivering the requisite audience share for the network honchos, it will keep on going, season after season. Since you can never really know how long your job is going to last, you just ride the wave from season to season and hope for the best. Eight to ten years is a pretty good run for any hit show, but eventually “the numbers” begin to slide, and as the star’s demands for money escalate, the descending curve of income meets the rising curve of expenses, and the green-eyeshade boys at the network start getting nervous. At that point, the “final season” is usually announced, which typically brings an uptick of viewers coming down the stretch, often culminating in an extra-long episode to close with a lugubrious flourish.

It happens to the best of them, from “Seinfeld” and "Everybody Loves Raymond" to “West Wing.”

Although most of us never land such long-running shows, I know one juicer who worked the entire run of “Cheers,” then moved on over to a new spin-off show called “Frazier.” In those two shows, he logged something like twenty-one years. For a free-lancer, that's almost unheard of -- and truth be told, I wanted nothing to do with television during my first two decades in Hollywood. Television was too much like having a regular job, the very thing I was so desperate to avoid. It's only now as I belly-crawl towards the finish line that a good long run on a hit sit-com holds any real appeal, but these days it's hard to land any show at all, much less a network show with a chance to run the full 22 episodes. Cable has picked up the sit-com torch in the past couple of years, but even those cable shows that pay full union scale (and many don't...) only shoot ten to twelve episodes per season.

My first sit-com (”Encore! Encore!” starring Nathan Lane and Joan Plowright) was a network show that went twelve-and-out – meaning the show was dead in the water by Christmas. Denied a “back nine” pickup to complete Season One, there would be no Season Two. After working for nearly five months on the show, becoming acclimatized to this strange new world of multi-camera sit-coms (and getting to know everyone involved), seeing this group effort die a slow death over those last few weeks was painful. I always liked to watch the show-night filming from up in the green beds above the sets (green beds are rarely used anymore, unfortunately), where I could adjust a lamp or run a plate dimmer whenever needed for a given shot. (We used DC rather than AC power). As the final show wound down, I leaned against the rail looking out at our last audience, and saw my shadow against the wall, thrown by the front fill lights – and it hit me that this was an apt metaphor to sum up the situation. All of us, the crew, cast, the sets and all that equipment, were nothing but shadows on the wall, destined to disappear as soon as the lights went out.

I suppose that was a rather melodramatic take on things, but I was tired, sad, and very sorry to see this vibrant creature we’d all created together – my first sit-com -- die at the hands of an uncaring network. Losing my job just before Christmas (with no new shows gearing up) didn’t exactly thrill me either. Back then, pilot season didn’t start until March, so if your show got cancelled at Christmas, it was like being on a sinking ship in the middle of the ocean, leaving the crew with a long cold swim all the way through January and February before catching sight of land.

Staring at the bleak prospect of two empty months is not a comfortable way to start off the New Year.

But this was the only one of many lessons about the sit-com world that show taught me, the second being that it’s not such a great idea to drink so much at an impromptu wrap party. After that final show, the entire cast and crew converged on a little Italian place on Melrose – at midnight, no less – where we abused the hopelessly undermanned staff for a couple of hours, eating, drinking, and making fools of ourselves. I later heard that the check totaled something over $4,000 on our star’s credit card. Never one to turn down such generous hospitality, I indulged, then had to report back to work at Paramount early the next morning with a sledgehammer pounding inside my head, facing the first of three 12 hour days wrapping all our lamps and cable from Stage 32 (the old “Star Trek” TV stage). Wrapping a show is always a dispiriting endeavor, and being December, the stage was cold, dirty, and dreary. Those three dismal days were among the longest and most depressing of my career.

It’s been more than a decade now, and I’ve had many shows shot out from under me in the meantime. You never quite get used to it, but with time and experience, the experience is no longer quite so raw. It’s the nature of the biz – to paraphrase the seminal quote from the classic film Grand Hotel: Shows come and shows go, but nothing ever changes.

My latest show came to an end on a recent Friday night, after shooting the last of nine scheduled episodes. Being that the stage and sets were a “fold and hold” -- the show remaining atop the precarious cosmic bubble right down to the bitter end – it was a walk-away for us, with only the most minimal wrap required. The company threw a small wrap party for the cast, crew, and a few spouses afterwards, where we all had one last chance to have a drink or three and say our sloppy goodbyes. For me, this represented the end of a long hard journey that began back in March with three weeks of rigging to get “The Bill Engvall Show” (TBS) up and running, followed by two grueling pilots that ran back-to-back, after which we pushed the rock uphill one more time on this show, then settled in for the nine episode run. That isn’t much compared to working a tough episodic or feature film, but it doesn’t take much to kick my ass these days -- and six straight months of rigging, lighting, and wrapping was quite enough to do that, thankyouverymuch...

For me, wrap parties are always bittersweet. The relief when a show is done -- this sudden release from the grueling routine – is palpable, but it also means I probably won’t be seeing this particular group of people again. When you work with the same people over several months, bonds are formed as a web of relationships take root in an unacknowledged but very real mutual support group. Work – especially this kind of all-inclusive work -- can be something of a refuge at times, and in this case, some on the crew who'd been total strangers at the start became good “show friends” by the end -- people I was really glad to see every working day. Given the transient nature of our business, it’s possible I’ll never see any them again. Several key personnel left before the last episode to take jobs on new or returning shows for the Fall television season now getting underway, and most who remained made it clear they’d be seeking “real jobs” paying full union scale rather than settle for the universally-reviled “cable rate.” So even if this show does come back, there will be many empty positions to be filled. That will bring the chance to meet new people and make new friends, of course, but it won’t be quite the same. It never is.

The grips and fellow juicers I’ll certainly see again – like all pack animals, we travel in the same circles following the beat of a distant drum – but the prop department and half the set dressers may be gone for good. They’re great people, and I hate the thought that I may never see them again. The older I get, the more I come to value such friendships, transient though they may be. But that’s the way it is in Hollywood, and in life, I suppose.

Here today, gone tomorrow -- shadows on the wall.

Then there’s the little matter of no longer having a job. If the show is destined to return, I can relax for a little while -- but if not, then it’ll be back to the same old rugby scrum around the ever-shrinking pool of work. Right now, everything's up the air.

Uncertainty is the side dish to every meal in Hollywood, where I’ve had the good fortune to meet and work with so many terrific people. So on this, my first taste of real freedom in a long while, I raise a glass of something strong to “Fish,” Terry, Brenda, Abby, and Little Eva, all of whom helped turn a situation that could have been a real pain in the ass into an experience that was a lot of fun for us all. That takes a special kind of magic.

And so once again we turn the page.


* I first encountered this word while dutifully plowing through Thomas Pynchon’s dense, voluminous tome “”Gravity’s Rainbow.” I managed to finish the book (it took a while...), but all I really remember are “brenschluss,” a few particularly lurid scenes, and the oft-repeated phrase “Ficht nicht mit der Racketmensch!” – which translates to “Don’t fuck with the Rocketman.”

And what does that mean? I have no idea. Ask Thomas Pynchon...

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Bulletin Board

Photo courtesy of The Hollywood Temp

Every now and then a comment one of you leaves here sends me on a long and winding road to a blog I’d otherwise never have found. There’s a lot out there in cyber space -- not all of it particularly wonderful -- but when I stumble across something I like, I figure you might like it too.

One of those roads brought me to The Hollywood Temp Diaries, a snarky, funny look at our often-absurd-and-unfair business through the eyes of a temp worker. This blog has been up long enough to accumulate a rich treasure trove of archives to wander through.

It’s just the thing for a long, empty (unemployed) afternoon.

Next up is Dog Bless Us One and All, a blog that discusses the industry and politics from the perspective of a sound man. Dog Bless leans to the left, so be warned -- if you’re a fan of Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin, believe that the Obama health plan is a socialist plot to enslave us all (complete with “death panels”), or agree with the “birthers” who claim our duly elected 44th President of the United States was actually born in Kenya, and should thus surrender the White House to John McCain -- then you probably won’t enjoy your visit to Dog Bless nearly as much as I did. This is a smart, well-written blog, if you like that sort of thing.

I do.

I’ve been reading “Seriocity” ever since my own blog drifted into cyber-orbit. Kay Reindl is a working writer who throws high heat with an educated spin – she knows the biz from a insider’s perspective, and doesn’t hesitate to call bullshit when and where she steps in it. And let’s face it, bullshit is one thing Hollywood produces in extreme abundance, creating a target-rich environment for Kay’s lethal pen. In this recent post, she discusses everything from Michael Bay to the downside of the digital revolution and the TV biz. Kay sometimes talks over my head in referring to shows I’ve never seen, but she’s always worth reading – and if you happen to be into horse racing, you’ll appreciate her occasional digressions from Hollywood to the track.

Hey, everybody needs a hobby.

Anton recently launched Craft Disservice, featuring stories and photos of particularly anemic (read: cheap-ass) craft service spreads. He’s looking for input, so if you’ve had a particularly disgusting/disheartening/indigestsive experience at a bad craft service table, send it along. Maybe you can help shame the bastards into coughing up for a decent spread next time.

Yeah, I know – I’m dreaming.

Last up are two interesting bits from the LA Times that any of you outside the LA area (or who consider newspapers to be old, dead media, and thus no longer relevant) might have missed. In this piece, the always-wonderful Mary McNamara discusses the mutating roles of television versus movies in our society these days, while here, Mark Olsen talks with indie feature directors who choose to shoot their projects in actual film – not digital.

Sometimes my head spins at how fast things are changing here in Hollywood and beyond, but it’s nice to know there are a few kids out there who still appreciate the look and feel of flim.

Ah well, tempus fugit...

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Just Another Day in Paradise

“You can’t push the river...”

A few weeks back, I got off work and drove out through the studio gates just after 6:00 p.m. – a terrible time to navigate anywhere in LA -- facing three ugly options:

1) A slow motion creep up-over-and-down the steep, narrow, and tortuously serpentine two-lane blacktop cutting through Laurel Canyon.

2) A Road Warrior battle of will and fenders out on the Hollywood Freeway.

3) Crawling back home through the Cahuenga Pass, a grim succession of concrete-and-asphalt sluice gates designed to channel a large volume of traffic down Highland Boulevard and into Hollywood.

There was no right choice here, just three variations on the same miserable theme: gridlock cubed.

The nightmare of LA traffic is beyond cliché. Along with smog and Hollywood, the horrendous traffic that must be endured by everyone who lives here forms the third leg of the perceptual triad supporting Southern California’s reputation as a hedonistic Lotus Land where outlandish behavior is the norm. As perceived from afar, LA is the Land of Illusion in many ways larger than life – but here inside the tinsel bubble, the view is more of a doomed entropical paradise gradually crumbling under the fierce desert sun.

But the brutal traffic is no illusion, and only gets worse with the passage of time. The cut-and-thrust on the streets and highways has been nothing short of vicious lately. I’ve no idea what the big fucking rush is, but everybody seems to be in a HUGE hurry these days, frantic to be first in line at the next red light. Turn signals are a joke – a vestigial appendage of a bygone era ignored by drivers of all ages – and with so many behind the wheel fully occupied yakking on their goddamned cell phones, it’s a wonder the roadway carnage hasn’t yet reached biblical proportions. Thus far, three dollar+/gallon gas has done nothing to lighten the lead feet of those piloting oversized, overpowered SUV’s – the Ranger Rovers, Escalades, and Lincoln Navigators favored by so many Angelenos with more bucks than brains. With money to burn, these fools are happy to pump another hundred dollars worth of high-test into their urban battle tanks, then hit the throttle and go.

But there’s one great leveler before which even the most expensive of exotic automobiles must bow (along with the great masses of their more humble four-wheeled relatives) -- the molasses-like gridlock of rush hour. Nothing happens fast during rush hour, as the sheer number of cars clogging every inch of pavement forces a snail’s pace on amped-up throttle jockeys and timid grandmothers alike.

There's nothing to like about gridlock, but when in the grip of such elemental forces, your choice is to go with the flow or go postal.

I flipped the mental coin and took the Cahuenga Pass – forgetting that with the Hollywood Bowl season in full swing, that route would be further clogged by a huge influx of people, cars, and buses arriving early for the concert. By the time I realized my mistake, it was too late to turn around, which is how I found myself at the crest of the last hill leading down into Hollywood, mired in bumper-to-bumper traffic. With everyone else, I’d sit there for several minutes in the red glow of brake lights, going nowhere until another wave of automotive peristalsis surged through to carry me another hundred feet down the road. With nothing else to do, I listened to the usual litany of bad news from the radio – suicide bombings in Iraq, gas prices heading back up, and the Midwest drowning under the second “hundred year flood” in the past fifteen years. Not quite halfway home, I was locked into my drive-time stupor, just another Citizen Consumer amid the huge mindless herd slowly migrating from Here to There.

That’s when I noticed the guy on the bicycle in my rear view mirror. He was well back but coming fast on a mountain bike, splitting the lanes of paralyzed autos like a mongoose streaking through a bruising mass of elephants. As he drew closer, I saw a crooked grin on his face, and assumed he must be high on something – maybe a quasi-speedball blend of Ecstasy and Red Bull, if not something stronger -- but the closer he got, the more that bent grin seemed to come from someplace deep inside. He looked to be in his mid-thirties or so, with wild black hair jutting out from beneath his battered bike helmet, and was clearly reveling in this sweet, fleeting victory -- gridlock having turned the tables in allowing him and his bike complete freedom of the road while sailing past hundreds of people trapped inside their cars.

My first reaction was a sour, harrumphing snort of bourgeois indignation. What kind of fool would try to thread the needle of such lethal traffic on a bicycle? Was he chemically insane, or just another free-range wing-nut with a death wish -- some Don Quixote-like kook determined to prove a point about eco-safe pedal power vs. the smog machine? I do my share of bike-riding running errands around the neighborhood, where sidewalks are always available for refuge should the crush of cars threaten my own fragile sense of well-being, but this guy was flying down a no-man’s land with nowhere to hide and very little margin for error. The notion of making such a suicide-run through the Cahuenga Pass on a bicycle -- where one little bobble or hostile swerve of a car could easily put a rider on the pavement and under all those angry wheels – would never cross my mind.

This guy wasn’t being remotely humble about it, either – he didn’t huddle over on the right side of the road seeking sanctuary, but rode right out there in the middle of two endless lanes of cars, staking his claim as King of the Road.

Seriously, who was this guy?

Pumping the pedals hard, he closed in fast. Just as he passed my open window -- still with that loopy grin – he jerked back the handlebars with a triumphant yell, lofting his front tire high in the air and sailing down through the narrow chute of sheet metal and glass in a full bore, balls-out wheelie. Pedaling hard, he stayed up on that back wheel all the way down around the gentle curve leading to the Hollywood Bowl, laughing all the way. I watched him disappear between the twin lines of cars ahead, then realized that my jaw was wide open.

I laughed out loud, hard, and without thinking about it, started applauding.

Maybe that guy really was nuts – you might have to be to pull such a stunt -- but with this bold, brilliantly executed act, he’d made the rest of us look like fools – trapped in our expensive, heavy cars going nowhere fast while he sailed down through the Cahuenga Pass on one wheel aboard a bike that might have weighed twenty pounds.

You don’t experience too many magic moments while stuck in rush hour gridlock, but this was a stroke of pure genius. A minute before I’d felt lousy – tired and depressed, just wanting all this to end so I could be home – but suddenly I felt great, despite the traffic. I flicked off the news in favor of a music station, and there was Carlos Santana ripping through a soaring guitar solo. I listened with big grin plastered on my face.

Somewhere up ahead a light turned green, and the traffic began to move.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Hell-o Broooooomfield....

Uh, Sarah – is that you?

According to my Google Analytics tracking software, Colorado recently came out of nowhere to take over second place as the state contributing the most visitors to this blog. In the past month, a hundred and sixty-two hits came from the Centennial State. This seems rather odd. Film and television production has been going on in Colorado for a long time (including a series of Perry Mason TV movies back in the 80’s), but I'm not aware of any recent surge in production that might account for a heightened interest in Industry blogs, nor had I noticed more than a handful of (very) occasional hits from Colorado up until now. Very early on in this blog, New York supplanted Texas in supplying the most readers (after my native state), but Colorado has suddenly driven New York into a distant third.

As for Texas, maybe my tales of Hollywood life just weren’t tall enough for the hardy denizens of the Lone Star State. Truth may occasionally turn out stranger than fiction, but it’s not always so entertaining.

This being but a flyspeck on the dark side of a distant moon circling a small planet lost in the far reaches of a minor star cluster amid the vast enormity of cyberspace, we’re not talking big numbers. The three-to-five hits/day I started out with back in 2007 has since grown tenfold, but many (most, I suspect) are semi-regulars who keep coming back for more. In absolute terms, I doubt more than a hundred or so people stop by every month, with the occasional newbie balancing out those who’ve grown bored with my constant bleating about the sorry state of the Industry in general, and Hollywood in particular.

Sorry about that folks, but Tinsel Town isn’t all sunshine and rainbows these days.

Puzzled by Colorado’s sudden prominence on the chart, I took a closer look at the Google numbers. Five hits came from Denver, but those people skipped away like flat stones hurled upon calm water, spending exactly zero seconds checking it out. Littleton was next with four visits at an average of forty seconds viewing time. Then came Ft. Collins, also with four visits – but these averaged a full four minutes and thirty-four seconds/visit.

My first thought? Ft. Collins – dudes, you rock!

Then came Parker and Golden (home of Coors beer, according to all those endlessly glowing slo-mo commercials on TV), who combined for another four visits. But they hated it too (zero seconds logged), instantly jumping back through the wormhole of cyber-space to greener Internet pastures.

The mother lode turned out to be Broomfield, a suburb of Denver boasting 45,116 upstanding citizens (as of 2006, according to Wikipedia) -- a hundred and forty-five of whom danced upon this blog in the past month, where they viewed 1.02 pages during visits that averaged ten seconds.

Ten seconds per visit – what the hell did THAT mean? What happened in Broomfield to bring this about – did a kitten wander across a computer keyboard out there? Were bored ADD-afflicted kids careening through cyberspace on a desperate quest for something – anything – different, or had some slave-bot malware galvanized computers in Broomfield to march in lock-step across the wide open spaces of the Internet on a quest for.... what?

Damned if I know. Baffled by these numbers, I checked the “bounce rate” – meaning the percentage of viewers who immediately bounced away rather than stay on the blog for any length of time. Here, the mystery deepened. Denver, Parker and Golden came up with a 100% bounce rate – all of those viewers were just passing through, windows rolled up, eyes fixed on the road ahead, and the cyber-pedal firmly planted to the metal. Littleton came through with a 75% bounce rate, which means three of those four viewers hit-and-ran, leaving one who stayed long enough to spend 40 seconds looking at 1.25 pages.

Ft. Collins – my erstwhile heroes – came up with the same bounce rate (and the same conclusion), except that one actual reader – God bless him/her -- spent four and a half minutes reading those same 1.25 pages.

Broomfield, however, came up with a 97.93% bounce rate. If my math is correct, that boils down to three readers of the original one-forty-five – three people who stayed for ten whole seconds...

Assuming my analysis is correct (dubious, that...), what first appeared to be a veritable tsunami of new readers turned out to be five individuals scattered through the great state of Colorado, who spent a grand total of five and a half minutes on the blog.

Then again, I flunked statistics way back when, and have no fondness for any form of numbers-based accounting. There's a reason economics (largely a study of numbers) is called “the dismal science.”

True, I have a cousin living somewhere up there in Colorado’s suburban high country, but she’s known about this blog for a long time, and never seemed particularly intrigued -- nor should she, being that she doesn’t toil in any aspect of the Industry. There’s no reason I can think of why she would start clicking my blog URL like a spastic on meth.

I suppose this will remain my own very minor mystery unless and until one of you three Broomfieldians out there chooses to enlighten me. So please, do tell.

Meanwhile, a big shout-out to Ft. Collins, for that one reader in the great state of Colorado who’s actually paying attention...

Sunday, August 16, 2009

A Bird in the Hand

The one that got away...

The rumors started early. Before we’d even fully rigged the stage for the first of nine scheduled episodes, Certain People were nodding their heads in a knowing way while talking in hushed tones about the “back twelve.” I didn’t understand how they could be so sure with the first broadcast (and any meaningful statistical feedback on viewership) several weeks away, but Hollywood does work in mysterious ways. A similar golden aura of sure-thing certainty surrounded “Project Gary,” a pilot I worked on in the spring of 2008 that eventually morphed into “Gary Unmarried” – a show I was promised, then lost due to circumstances beyond my control. As a network show, “Gary Unmarried” pays the crew full union scale rather than the cheap-ass cable rate, and did well enough in their first season to earn a full 22 episode pick-up for Season Two.

The one that got away always hurts the most...

Still, after pushing the rock uphill over the course of five pilots in the last year (and getting stiff-armed four times), I was glad to have any show -- even a cable-rate show -- rather than go back to playing telephone-roulette looking for work, or breaking rocks in the hot sun on the studio rigging crew. That said, I wasn’t enthusiastic in the beginning over the prospect of having an additional twelve episodes added to the scheduled nine. After thirty-plus years of putting my shoulder to the wheel, taking that 20% pay cut was a bitter pill to swallow – as far as I was concerned, nine episodes was quite enough. Following that schedule, I’d still have a chance to jump to a full-scale network show when the regular season geared up in late summer, while a back-end pickup of twelve additional episodes would keep me mired in cable-rate hell until the Christmas holidays, after which I’d be staring at the bleak winter landscape of a New Year with no job at all. Meanwhile, all those crews on network shows would be working on into March.

Let’s just say I wasn’t one of those keeping my fingers crossed for that “back twelve” pickup.

But just as the ocean can work a jagged piece of broken glass into a wonderfully smooth piece of semi-natural art, time has a way of sanding the rough edges off just about anything – and as it turned out, we’ve had a really good crew on this show. Top to bottom, every department is strong, with a wide spectrum of lively personalities that make for a very interesting mix. Despite the lousy money – and not one of us is happy about that – we’ve all had a pretty good time doing this show. That doesn’t always happen.

And oh-by-the-way, my one solid shot at landing a network show (the one I was counting on to rescue me from cable-rate Hell) vanished into the smog a few weeks ago, after which the idea of additional episodes on this show began to sound pretty good after all. It’s funny how one’s perspective can swing a full hundred and eighty degrees (especially when prompted by the prospect of imminent unemployment), but life takes place on the shifting sands of reality, and there are very few absolutes involved when grading on such a curve. So now that I’ve changed my mind completely and am actively pulling for the back twelve, what’s the deal? The show aired a few weeks ago with good numbers – numbers that went up the following week and held their own in week three. Surely all those rumors we’ve been hearing since late May should have finally morphed into something more tangible than the hot smoggy breeze of an August afternoon?

Not yet, they haven’t. The good news is we’ve been told to “fold and hold” the stage after the final episode, meaning we’ll leave all the sets and lights right where they are, then lock the doors and walk away. This is a lot better than wrapping the stage, which would be the end of the show for a long time (maybe forever), but it’s not quite what I was hoping for. “Fold and hold” means the Powers That Be are still walking the razor’s edge of indecision – they like what they see, but need something more to commit to any additional episodes. At this point, they could go either way, so I’m trying not to get my hopes up. I’ve done “fold and holds” in the past that ended a week later with a phone call to wrap the stage, and none of those shows ever came back.

Like it or not (and I don’t), “that’s the way it is,” to quote the late, great Walter Cronkite. So it goes here in Hollywood, where hopes and plans are written on the hard wet sands of low tide -- and the water is always rising.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Hills are Burning

Not really – not yet, anyway – but “The Hills are Burning” is the title of an excellent new blog I discovered over the weekend. Written by a young grip-trician fighting her way up through the ranks of low budget indie productions, “The Hills are Burning” launched late last year as a personal blog detailing her struggles adapting to life here in LA. The issues she dealt with are those so many transplants to Hollywood have experienced – following an inner voice away from home, family, and friends on a path that made sense to none but her. It’s not an easy road to take, and reading those brief early posts reminded me of my own solo journey south to Smogtown so many years ago.

I had my fill of the low budget feature scene back then (well before the term “indie” came into common use), but know very little of the realities faced by the new generation today. When I came to Hollywood, grips, juicers, and the camera department were almost exclusively male institutions. Women worked in the production office and accounting, and on set worked doing hair, makeup, script, craft service, and occasionally in the art department. The vast majority of producers, UPMs, and AD’s were men, and although a few female PA’s were around, most of these entry-level positions went to young men as well.

Film was a man’s world.

Not anymore. There are lots of women in camera these days, and those I’ve worked with are very good indeed. Production departments are often predominantly female, and there are large numbers of women working in every job category other than grip and electric, which for the most part remains a male realm. Around twenty five years ago, small numbers of women finally began to break through this last bastion of resistance, and those that survived the brutally hard work and merciless hazing to become accepted by their male peers are really good – they had to be good and they had to be tough, or else they wouldn’t have made it. I have tremendous respect for the overwhelming majority of female grips and juicers I’ve worked with in the trenches of Hollywood.

As I’ve pointed out before, this has always been a tough business to crack. Pre-1970’s, the union stranglehold was such that getting work without family connections was all but impossible in Hollywood. The development of new lightweight lighting and camera equipment made location filming practical for non-union productions, which created a whole new universe of opportunities in low-budget, non-mainstream Hollywood. Those who had no other choice (ahem...) worked and learned in that non-union world until most of us managed to get that coveted union card. It’s not nearly so hard to earn a union card today, but as the film and television jobs flow out of California, getting enough work to make the expense of a union card worthwhile is a lot tougher. Buffeted by the same economic storm that has roiled the waters of mainstream Hollywood, low budget productions are now leaner and meaner than ever*.

“The Hills are Burning” takes you into this sharp-edged, low-budget indie world. No longer A.J.’s personal site, but a full-fledged Industry blog, THAB paints a vivid picture of indie life here in Hollywood. She’s an excellent writer, and a welcome new voice. Do yourself a favor and check it out.

* According to the LA Times, things are even tougher in the porn industry...

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Directors: Part Two

Uh, what about us?

From baseball to politics, all hot streaks eventually come to an end. After cruising through four consecutive episodes graced with three exceptional directors, our luck ran out when the next director du jour turned out to be yet another refugee from SAG trying to carve out a more sustainable career in the DGA. This guy pretty much grew up over the course of half a dozen seasons starring on a show I never watched, although many of you doubtless did. For obvious reasons, I’m not going to say who he is, but most readers would recognize the name. Given that he came of age working on a television show, with ample opportunity to absorb the Industry basics, I figured he might make a good director.

I figured wrong. Although he was an intense young man, quite vocal, seemingly decisive, and very energetic in darting onto the set to drop pearls of wisdom in the various actor’s ears, it all turned out to be a cruel illusion – much sound and fury, signifying nothing. This became increasingly clear as we plodded our way through the blocking/pre-shoot day in such painfully slow manner that it nearly put the entire crew (and worse, some of the actors) to sleep. Shoot night was more of the same – dulled by constant repetition and endless re-takes, some of our actors lost their well-honed edge, forgetting lines and blowing takes as the night dragged on and on.

And on...

I suppose I shouldn’t complain -- in a business that so often turns into a straight trade of time for money, I ended up with enough unexpected overtime to fatten my usual anemic cable-rate paycheck. And truth be told, it’s not as though we on the crew were sweating under the lash all that time (mostly we just stood around waiting for this kid to finally get it right), but a little of that goes a long way. As the hours slogged on, it began to feel like the drip, drip, drip of Chinese water torture. Hurry up and wait is one thing -- here, we were just waiting, and as Tom Petty once sang, “the waiting is the hardest part.”

Whatever it is that makes a really good director – the snap, the juice, the magic – this kid just doesn’t have it. Still, my first instinct was to give him the benefit of the doubt. Like so many actors-turned-directors, he probably found his commercial appeal fading as he aged from a cute teenager to a not-so-cute adult, and with a wife and two kids to support, the guy had to find some way to earn a decent living. From what I saw, it seemed he hadn’t had the chance to direct much television – which left hope that someday, given sufficient practice, he might rise to the Industry Standard of Acceptable Directorial Mediocrity.

After all, he’s very young – in his early 30’s, considerably younger than most sit-com directors I’ve seen -- which made it reasonable to chalk up his incompetence to inexperience. Hey, everybody has to learn, and it was his extremely good fortune (aided in no small part by his television acting pedigree) to have the opportunity of learning on the job while being paid better than four thousand dollars a day.

Nice work, if you can get it.

Then I booted up the computer at home and checked out his IMDB resume -- and there I learned that he isn’t some wet-behind-the-ears neophyte, but has directed lots of television over the past few years – dozens of episodes on a wide variety of shows. This eye-opener led me to conclude that either this kid is a very slow learner, or else was so horrendously lame in the beginning that reaching his current level of low-grade incompetence represents a considerable achievement in itself.

But the capper – and what finally tipped me to the true nature of this guy – came once the show was finally in the can. After the exhausted actors made their curtain-call, with the music playing and all the suits congratulating each other down on the floor, he walked up to one of the camera operators directly in front of me and pumped the guy’s hand with an effusive “Thanks so much.”

He didn't have a word for me -- not so much as a nod or any sort of eye-to-eye acknowledgment of my existence as a member of the crew.

I suppose it’s possible he knew this camera operator from the old days when he was just a pup starring on his first (and only) hit show, but watching him make the rounds, it seemed clear that he considered the camera operators and production support people (ADs, script, and camera coordinator) to be “the crew.” The rest of us – the juicers who sweated atop 12 step ladders re-hanging heavy lamps on a swing set after the production designer brought in a virtual forest of trees tall enough to block all the lamps we'd already hung (a nasty, dangerous task with very little room for error), and the grips who hung the pipes, set the flags, and moved all those walls – apparently don’t register on his radar. In this kid’s world, the people who lit, dressed, and propped the set don’t really count.

I’ve got nothing against the camera department – a genial group of guys who did a good job -- but on a sit-com, they show up for two days at the end of the week after all the heavy lifting has already been done. Without a lot of hard work by the juicers, grips, set dressing, and prop departments, the sets would remain as empty and dark as Dick Cheney's heart. As the saying goes, “without us, television is radio.”

But did this young director think to acknowledge any of the Morlocks who did all that hard, dirty work? Did he even bother to thank the gaffer or key grip as representatives of the lower orders on set? Nope. All he could see were the camera operators who breeze in to make their thousand bucks for a couple of days labor, then sail on out into the night without working up so much as a bead of sweat.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but fuck this jerk. It’s bad enough he’s such a crappy director, but failing to give even a crumb of credit to a hard working, seriously underpaid crew is pouring salt on the open wound. I sincerely hope we never see this little prick again.

Ah, but next week (our final episode in this run) we get one of the Good Ones back, a wonderful director who has already done two of our shows this season – and a man who makes a point of thanking the crew after the show.

It's the little things that mean a lot. If you're going to fuck us, as they say -- and working on the cable-rate certainly qualifies as getting fucked -- then at least give us a kiss.

That's not so much to ask.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Wednesday Photo

Customized crossing signal control on Melrose Ave...

This kind of thing might be considered defacing the public infrastructure in the uber-civilized societies of Germany or Japan (and certainly in Singapore, where chewing gum is a crime), but when tastefully and cleverly done, I like it. I'm no anarchist, but it seems to me that we all need to expand our collective sense of humor these days. As the shit continues to hit the cosmic fan (and we ain't seen nothing yet, folks), the ability to laugh at a world going to hell might be the difference between hanging onto one's sanity and slipping into the darkness of The Other Side -- even if you're just waiting for a green light on Melrose.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Golden Carrot

It seemed like a good idea at the time...

(photo courtesy of Woodhow Farms)

In a brilliant (but sadly, no longer available) post, the Film Industry Blogger’s “Hollywood Development Executive” opened up with a basic fact of life in the biz:

“Our whole industry is based on a Bugs Bunny Cartoon. That silly wabbit was constantly being led around by a carrot on a stick placed strategically just out of grasp, though it seemed so close. This is the very essence of Hollywood and why thousands of people – from the homecoming queens to the techie geeks – swarm towards Los Angeles every year.”

HDE was right – many of those lured to LA by the prospect of an Industry career arrive with big dreams that great things will come their way down the road. Most play it coy at first: reluctant to hex their ambitious career goals by angering the Gods of Hollywood (sometimes pride really does goeth before a fall), they avoid trumpeting such big plans to the world, but the vast majority of wannabe writers, directors, producers, and actors have already envisioned their names in lights. Some below-the-liners harbor their own lofty ambitions, which a very few actually do manage to achieve, lifting themselves out of the oily Swamp of Toil in which the rest of us shall labor until retirement finally drags us back onto dry land.

If we live that long, at least -- an image of all those saber-toothed-tigers and mammoths sinking to their doom in the La Brea Tar Pits suddenly comes to mind, but this is not a comforting thought...

There’s nothing wrong with ambition. Dreaming big is often the first essential step towards achieving truly big things, and those with the fire burning inside are destined* to walk that path, win, lose, or draw. But there’s nothing inherently wrong with thinking small, either, although people in this town tend to give a double-take of disapproval to anyone who openly admits a lack of personal ambition. Our culture pays lip service to the “whatever makes you happy” philosophy of life, but most people who take that road-less-traveled don't come to Hollywood. Those who do choose to walk these smoggy streets without Big Plans in their back pockets are often viewed with a puzzled suspicion.

If you don’t want to BE somebody and DO big things, then why the hell are you here?

That's a good question, but it's useful to remember that nothing comes free in life. Big ambitions come with a very high price, and that assumes you've got what it takes to succeed. But if for whatever reason you aren't able to fulfill those career dreams, does that make you a failure? Can you live with achieving – in the immortal words of then-President Jimmy Carter – such an “incomplete success”? And even if you do hit that highest of notes, what then? Where do you go once you've finally caught and eaten that indigestible golden carrot? How do you fill the suddenly yawning void within?

Strange mystical/crackpot religions?

The wild-eyed, dead-end hedonism of all the sex, drugs, and booze money/fame can buy?

Yet another trophy wife or boy-toy, depending on your personal predilections?

Serial adoption of foreign babies?


All of the above, I suppose, if the behavior of so many past and current Hollywood A listers is any guide. Not that a mere juicer would know anything about such outlandish success, mind you, but I can tell you from personal experience that although the carrot-on-a-stick works well as metaphor, it doesn't always translate to the real world.

Like any kid, I watched a lot of cartoons during a mis-spent youth. Sure, they were in black and white (color TV was unobtainium for all but the rich back in the Pleistocene), but the message came through loud and clear – and to my ten year old eyes, that carrot-on-a-stick thing seemed an irresistibly brilliant idea. When I discovered a rusty old wheelchair down in the basement one fine summer day, a light bulb clicked on over my head. Being that my family lived out in the sticks with a barn full of animals, I had the ingredients to bring this cinematic fantasy to life, with one slight deviation from the cartoon blueprint: rather than use a carrot as the lure, I tied a fat handful of green alfalfa to a string at the end of a long pole. The propulsion system for my experiment was to be one of our wonderfully docile milk goats, and although goats will eat pretty much anything from work gloves to poison oak, this particular animal had a serious jones for sweet alfalfa.

My mind’s eye saw something right out of “Tom Sawyer,” with me seated in the wheelchair being drawn along a country road at a brisk pace by the goat as she followed the tantalizing scent of that eternally unattainable alfalfa. My plan -- as far as I'd thought it out -- called for me to make the goat aware of the aromatic green hay, at which point I would climb into the wheelchair and we’d be off. When I finally got bored trotting around the roads of our rural neighborhood, I’d let the goat eat the alfalfa as a reward for her service. In this gauzy Norman Rockwell vision, I saw a win/win scenario in which both the goat and I would get what we wanted.

What could possibly go wrong?

Unimpressed by the dazzling genius of my cartoon-inspired plan, the goat waited patiently as I tied the rope around her neck, then to the wheelchair. Ready for launch, I grabbed the long pole and swung the alfalfa bait out in front of her nose, certain that my triumph would soon be complete.

But as with so many of life’s more meaningful experiences, the fun stopped at the exact moment all my anticipatory preparation ended -- which is to say, the instant reality took charge. Much to my surprise, the goat’s ears flew up in sudden alarm, then she bolted down the road dragging the wheelchair behind, leaving me standing there holding a suddenly useless pole. I watched for what felt like a very long time as the tragic flaw in my plan became immediately apparent: rather than observe a delicious meal floating gently towards her waiting mouth, the goat perceived an unknown object hurtling through the sky directly at her head. Interpreting this as a potentially lethal threat, her golf-ball sized brain triggered an instant flight response -- and that goat was gone.

So was the wheelchair, now bouncing on its side across the rough pavement with a tremendous racket, the sudden drag jerking the rope tight around the goat's neck. Feeling something clawing at her throat and hearing all that noise behind her, the goat ran faster, desperately trying to escape whatever was chasing her – but the faster she ran, the louder the noise grew, and the more violent the squeezing of her throat.

It was then that I first encountered an entirely new concept: the positive feedback loop. Such feedback loops result when a cycle of events are set in motion such that each acts to reinforce and increase the magnitude of the others. Compound interest is beneficial form of positive feedback loop that can, over many years, generate great wealth for those smart enough to start saving early and often. But in the physical world, positive feedback loops often have extremely negative consequences -- absent some outside force of control, many real-world feedback loops end in disaster. Nuclear fission** is created through a positive feedback loop of unleashed neutrons in a rapidly accelerating crescendo culminating in the near-instantaneous release of energy we know as an atomic explosion: the mushroom cloud of death.

I ran after the terrified goat, who by now must have thought the hounds of Hell were hot on her heels. Thirty yards down the road, she veered off the road into the brush trying to escape her pursuer. She didn’t get far – the wheelchair caught in that dense brush like a boat anchor, and by the time I got there, she was down on her side, eyes wide, tongue out, bleating frantically in stark terror.

I felt awful. My brilliant plan – spawned by those cartoons – had nearly broken this poor goat’s neck, and came close to scaring her to death. I managed to calm her down, then freed her from wheelchair bondage and led her back to the barn for all the nice green alfalfa she could eat. The goat didn’t seem to suffer any discernible aftereffects from her not-so-excellent adventure, and being of a particularly social breed, didn’t hold a grudge against me.

In that, she was more forgiving than I’d have been, but all things considered, goats have better manners than most people anyway. She taught me a valuable lesson that day: that the world of cartoons is not to be mistaken for reality. A few years later, I started building home-made rockets down in the basement, and if I hadn’t already learned the difference between cinematic and physical reality, it's entirely possible that I'd have ended up strapping on a pair of rocket-powered roller skates like those from the Acme Corporation.

I’m sure that would have ended well... but I avoided the fate of Wile E. Coyote because I’d already learned my lesson the hard way: even though life may indeed resemble a cartoon at times, it isn’t.

Not even in Hollywood.

                               Maybe I should have tried this...

*Or doomed, depending how you look at it.

** The fission reaction in a nuclear power plant is controlled by cadmium rods that absorb those rampaging neutrons. To speed the reaction up and increase power, the rods are pulled out. To slow it down, they’re pushed back in.

On a darker note, some of the world’s more gloomy environmental scientists consider global warming to be an ongoing example of a positive feedback loop. As the warming oceans continue to melt the polar ice caps, huge areas of white ice (which reflects the sun’s rays) morph into dark water, which absorbs the sun’s energy. Less ice = more water = increased warming -- and eventually, no more ice caps. Those ice caps are the world’s cooling system, and once gone, the pace of warming will accelerate. Organic material long trapped in the frozen permafrost will decay as things warm up, releasing even more methane and carbon dioxide, two potent greenhouse gasses. Adding fuel to the fire, we humans will burn ever more fossil fuels in generating electricity to keep us cool in our warming world, thus releasing yet more of the heat-retaining gasses that started the problem in the first place.

It's not hard to see where this is headed -- and it's not a good place to be. If those scientists are right, we’re well and truly fucked. Even the mighty Iphone won’t have an app cool enough to save our sorry asses...