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 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.


D said...

Dude, welcome to my world. I can't tell you how many times as a dolly grip I've pulled off a five point dance floor move with three booms in it and come to a sliding halt only to have the "director" come up and slap the operator on the back and say, "Great job." When the camera operator says something like, "thank D, he did the hard part," they look momentarily confused and mutter quietly ,"nice work," and scoot away as quickly as possible. Over years of seeing this strange reaction, I've realized that at least part of it may be that they don't know how to deal with people who actually do physical labor with their hands. They aren't sure exactly what we do and know that they aren't in the "just one of the guys" club. ....Or they're just a--holes.

Michael Taylor said...

D -- I think you're right about that. So many directors aren't "hands on" people comfortable in the physical world. Those few that are -- or who are so at ease with themselves that they're able to relate to everyone on set -- are a real treat to work for. A few years ago, I did ten episodes of a sit-com with a director who had started out as a teamster, then worked his way up through the camera dept, and eventually became a director. He was one of the good ones.

Nathan said...

The phenomenon isn't limited to the sit-com world. I worked on a movie with a 2nd-time director who had one credit to his name. It had been a fairly high profile movie, but really more of a documentary than a scripted movie. And all of a sudden, this 20-something kid was directing a $25 million dollar movie (real money in the 80's) with a cast of big names and soon-to-be big names.

If it had been me, I'd have been like a kid in a candy shop, just thrilled every day that someone was paying me to play in my chosen playground. This guy dissed everyone he possibly could and generally acted like nobody but him knew how to do their jobs (except the cast). (At least he was an equal opportunity abuser - not limiting his abuse to the grunts.)

My favorite moment was when he wasn't satisfied with how an effect was coming off and loudly chastised the effects supervisor in front of the rest of the crew. He reeled off a list of specific scenes in movies as examples of the quality of work he was looking for. The effects guy had done all but one of the movies he mentioned.


BTW, I have no idea who you're talking about, but I really hope it's none of the first names that come to mind. I hate it when my illusions are burst.

Carol Elaine said...

I think I know who you're writing about, Michael (shares a last name with a conservative radio talk host?). If it is him, I can't say I'm surprised. But little surprises me anyway.

I didn't do much in the industry back in the day (and very little of it on-set), but, though I miss it sometimes, I'm glad I'm not in it any longer.

Also: Hi Nathan! Funny to see you here when I followed Michael to his blog from a comment he made on a That 70s Show photo of mine.

(Yes, Michael, I did just see the eight month old comment. I'm not on that gallery very often, it would seem.)

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