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)

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Another Wednesday Photo

And links, lots of links...

Every now and then I’ll sift through Google Analytics to learn how new readers of this blog found their way here, a quest that often leads me to another interesting blog. Chasing down one such thread last week brought me to “Art DepartMENTAL” – an absolutely wonderful name for a blog detailing what actually goes on deep in the bowels of the Art Department.

A film crew works more-or-less together, so most of us at least have some idea what the other departments do – and the closer we work, the more we understand. Grip and electric are engaged in making the visuals of every shot as seamlessly perfect as possible, and thus know a lot about what the other department goes through. We don't know much about hair and make-up (who work hand in hand), while camera, sound, wardrobe, and production seem to exist in their own little worlds.

Meanwhile, Art Department takes care of the sets. Headed by a Production Designer, the Art Department designs, builds, paints the sets on stage or on location, among other things. A couple of people make the decisions, while an army of carpenters, painters, and floor people (carpets, phony hardwood, linoleum, and tile veneer) do the work. Other than a stand-by painter on hand for any last-minute painting or aging of the set, the Art Department is usually gone by the time the actors, director, and the rest of the first unit crew arrive to shoot the scenes.*

Art DepartMENTAL takes you into that world. One recent post contains a short video showing how the Art Department of “House” built a complex set of a mental hospital for the show. Running less than five minutes, it does a nice job showing exactly how the difficult process of duplicating a location set on stage – and making it shooting crew-friendly -- unfolds. An artfully designed set can look great on film while making life a lot easier for the first unit crew – and conversely, a badly-designed set soon becomes a complete pain in the ass for everybody involved. When the sets are right, they’re usually easier to light and look great on camera. It’s a good video well worth your time.

I recently stumbled across another blog called When the Ship Comes In. It's not a production blog, but one specializing in detailed, thoughtful analysis of whatever films catch the sharp eye of Yossi Gur. I’m not much at film analysis, but Yossi’s review of “”Deep Water”” – a gripping documentary about one man’s doomed quest to win a solo yacht race around the world – really captured the essence of the film, which I saw (and loved) last year. This makes me want to go back to see what he has to say about all those other films I haven’t yet seen.**

Last but not least: through a friend-of-a-friend, I'll soon have a chance to view a pre-release DVD of “Strongman,” a gritty new documentary out of New York. I love good documentaries, and having seen the trailer, I’m looking forward to seeing the film. When that happens, I’ll report it in a future post.

* For a deeper (and darkly humorous) understanding of what this really means, read ”Below the Line”, by J.R. Helton, and check out The Standby Painter

** Despite the title of his blog, Yossi writes about all sorts of movies ("Bruno" is among other recent reviews), not just films with nautical themes...

Sunday, October 25, 2009

What's Up With Those Tubs?

“What a drag it is getting old...”

from ”Mother’s Little Helper,” by the Rolling Stones

We’ve all seen them, those coy-and-cuddly commercials hawking various get-it-up-and-get-it-ON! medications formulated to lift the scourge of “Erectile Dysfunction” from the, uh – shoulders, I guess -- of men mired in the La Brea Tar Pits of late middle-age. Treading on culturally delicate ground, these ads run the full spectrum from cloyingly silly to annoyingly absurd. One early effort a few years back concluded with a studly (if no longer remotely young) man tossing a football in a tight spiral through a tire swing hanging from the old oak tree in the back yard, his weathered face creased with a knowing grin.

Not exactly subtle, but that’s advertising for you.

In time, these ads trended away from such yee-haw, good-old-boy, wink-and-a-nod symbolism towards the more upscale, yuppified billing-and-cooing of middle-aged couples. But seriously, folks -- just because middle-aged people really do have sex in this world doesn’t mean I want to see gray-haired men nuzzling their equally mature wives like love-struck teenagers preparing for the Big Event. Not only does this come under the heading of Too Much Information, but it’s a bit like watching your parents getting ready to Do It.

Does anybody (other than the actual participants) really want to see that?

Then there’s the rather baffling tub motif: two narrow, one-person only bathtubs side-by-side on a cliff or beach overlooking the sea. By the end of the spot, one tub is occupied by an apparently naked man, the other by a nude woman -- seen from behind -- reaching out to hold hands from the cold solitude of their very own claw-foot porcelain prisons.

Let me get this straight (so to speak): after years of disappointing his long-suffering wife in the sack, the guy finally wised up and took Cialis, Viagra, or some other up-and-at-‘em pill, and now that he's a "man" again, his idea of a great time and place to employ his store-bought woody is broad daylight on a windy cliff in two cast iron bathtubs that aren’t even comfortable for one person, much less two?

Something tells me the Don Draper-type who okayed this campaign has never actually tried to have sex with another person in a bathtub built for one.

Okay, so this is supposed to be symbolic, with those two tubs representing the cruel realities of life in late middle-age. Although their spirits remain willing, an unbridgeable gap keeps these graying lovers apart due to ravages of age on flesh -- but through the magic of Daddy’s Little Helper, all this can be temporarily overcome, the gap bridged, and the thrill of physical union once again fully enjoyed. At the end of the commercial, we’re apparently meant to envision these two flabby, crepuscular lovers rising from their tubs, then diving hand-in-hand off the cliff into the sea, there to become One with each other and the Great All. I suppose we should be thankful that the ad geniuses who came up with these spots have thus far chosen to leave that particular image to our collective imaginations.*

I don't mean to minimize the debilitating stresses that come with aging, or suggest that there aren't lots of people who haven't had their lives enriched with the help of ED drugs. I just wish the ads could be a bit more creative and a lot less sappy.

And really, Cialis, it's time for those tubs to go.

*And before the Politically Correct Police come to drag me away in the handcuffs of humorless self-righteousness, this isn’t “ageism” on my part – I’m probably as old (or older) than most of the actors in those spots...

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

And Now For Something Completely Different

This is a mid-week post, free to wander off the Hollywood reservation...

It's been decades since I cared much about cars. Having become addicted to motorcycles in my youth, I continue to ride, and still admire the seductive aesthetics of two wheeled vehicles, but for the most part -- and I realize how profoundly un-American this sounds -- new cars just don't interest me.

It wasn't always thus. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I was very much into cars, drooling over any car magazine featuring photos of the latest Shelby Cobra, Ferrari, or Lamborghini. If it went fast and cost an utterly unaffordable fortune, I wanted it bad. What I really wanted, of course, was an automotive magic carpet to carry me away from the hormonally-induced insanity of adolescence: something -- anything -- more exotic than my family's white Ford station wagon.

But time and reality have a way of leaving such childish dreams in the dust. Although vintage autos are still fun to look at, a new car has to get at least 50 mpg to turn my head. At this point, I’ve become one of those tiresome eco-nags who believes that putting the pedal to the metal of a big V-8 or V-12 is a socially, morally, and environmentally irresponsible act. Looking towards the not-too-distant future, I see today’s gas-guzzling go-fast cars as dinosaurs doomed to extinction, and can only hope the human race will somehow find a way to avoid spiraling down after them into the bottomless abyss.

So when the LA Times hired a new guy to headline their automobile section a few years ago, I paid no attention. Then came a long series of Industry Safety Classes all IA film workers in LA were required to take, and while sitting in my car waiting for one of those hopelessly-boring, please-tell-me-something-I-don’t-already-know, four-hour long classes to start, I plowed through the paper until nothing was left but the automobile section. With no other choice but to stare out the windshield at the bleak wasteland of the San Gabriel Mountains, I grudgingly looked at the new guy's car review.

Two paragraphs in, my jaw dropped as it dawned on me that I was in the presence of a master.

"Jesus F*****g" Christ," I thought, "this guy can really write!”

Indeed he can. A few months after my happy discovery, Mr. Dan Neil won a Pulitzer Prize -- for writing a car column. These are words I never expected to read in the same paragraph, much less the same sentence. The Pulitzer Committee doesn't trot around handing out their prizes like those feel-good, everybody-gets-one, self-esteem ribbons so many parents and youth leagues insist on awarding each and every one of their precious children these days. The Pulitzer generally goes to those who write deadly serious literature or muck-raking journalism that serves greater good of humanity by shedding light under rocks where only darkness has long reigned. As I understand it, the award is based on both form and function -- quality and substance -- so imagine how spectacular a writer's prose must be to win a Pulitzer for something as inherently silly as a frickin' car column?

Dan Neil fills the bill with plenty to spare, his electric prose the stylistic love-child of some unholy tequila-fueled threesome between Hunter S. Thompson, David Foster Wallace, and the old Car and Driver magazine of the 60’s and early 70’s -- an enthusiastically innocent time when reading (and dreaming) about cars was a lot more fun.

This Brave New Millennium's digital revolution has been brutal on newspapers, and the LA Times is now a gaunt shadow of its former fat and sassy self. But it’s still with us, and for the time being so is Dan Neil. The auto section is long gone, leaving Neil to live in a cardboard box under the bridge of the Business Section – a small cryptic headline next to a drawing of a late-thirty-something man sporting an early-twenty-something grin, accompanied by a tiny color photo of whatever car is under review. There's nothing downsized about Neil’s writing, though. Laced with a lethal wit, boundless energy, and some of the most brilliantly out-of-left-field-but-spot-on metaphors you’ll ever hope to read, his prose still burns with the white-hot intensity of a magnesium flare.

The guy is good. Absurdly good.

Here are two recent examples of Dan Neil’s car columns, both concerning vehicles I wouldn’t drive even if the respective companies gave me the damned things – but the writing is so much fun to read that who cares? I know just enough about cars to appreciate what he reports, but going along for the ride with Neil at the wheel is what makes it all worthwhile.

But wait, there’s more: due to the ongoing economic black-hole contractions at the Times, Neil has been assigned to cover the world of advertising as well. I’m no fan of advertising in general, but having spent a couple of decades working on countless television commercials, still keep one lazy eye on that end of the biz*. If somebody else was covering this beat, I wouldn't bother, but Dan Neil is always worth reading.

In this piece, Neil dissects the mysterious appeal IKEA stores hold on modern media culture, be it movies or new web-based productions who employ guerrilla tactics in using IKEA store showrooms as film sets without permission -- and for the most part, they've been getting away with it.

You've gotta love that.

Here, he covers the ongoing and brutally one-sided ad battle between Apple and Microsoft. It’s no secret that Apple has been kicking Microsoft’s butt all the way around the block in the ad wars, but even with a new operating system that might (finally) not be a complete steaming pile, The Empire seems afraid to strike back on a straight up, you-show-me-yours-I'll-show-you-mine basis. Instead, Microsoft has gone all soft and fuzzy, and the cloying result brings Neil to the point of gagging.

Finally, he analyzes a truly bizarre, quasi-hallucinatory web-only ad campaign for milk -- yes, milk –- that really must be read/seen to be believed. I won't even try to describe it. Just click the link and let him muse about this being the possible future of advertising.

I'm not so sure about that, but can attest to what a pleasure it is to read Dan Neil’s work, whatever he happens to be writing about. And given what's going on with newspapers these days, you'd better check him out while you still can...

* Yeah, that would be the ass-end...

Saturday, October 17, 2009

A Day at the Beach

And a "double-up day" at that... 

 Monday morning, Zuma Beach. It’s ten minutes before sunrise and the crows (ravens?) are out in force, dozens of the big black birds patrolling this empty ribbon of sand where the southwestern continental United States finally surrenders to the sea. Crows (ravens?) seem to be all over California these days, filling the umber skies over Hollywood, the Valley, and downtown LA, spreading throughout the vast Central Valley, and in the past few years, occupying more and more airspace back on my home planet as well. Their indignant “caws” and eerily hollow castanet-like clacking are becoming an integral part of background music of life all along the West Coast. In a movie, such a growing population of large black birds overhead would be an ominous sign of some horrific disaster in the next couple of hours. Real life unfolds at a more leisurely pace, but who knows what's going on here? Perhaps the Big One really is coming soon, and these feathered angels of death are gathering to feast upon the rotting flesh of several thousand dead Angelenos once the shaking stops. Not a cheerful thought. Either way, I suspect these crows (ravens?) will still be here -- along with countless rats, wild dogs, feral cats, and billions upon billions of cockroaches -- long after we humans have poisoned ourselves into oblivion. 

Arising at an ungodly hour always puts me in an existentially apocalyptic frame of mind. The alarm went off in the pitch-darkness of 4:00 a.m. so I could make a 7:00 call day-playing on a 2nd Unit crew shooting a beach scene for an episodic most of you have heard of – a re-make of a soapy/sexy twenty-something drama very popular back in the 90’s. That it was a crappy show back then and is a crappy show now doesn't matter in the least. With my little cable sit-com dead and gone to multi-camera heaven (or is that Disney Hell?), I’m back out in the real world taking whatever I can get from whoever will have me. Beggars can't be choosers, and I'm grateful for the work. 

Here I must briefly digress to eat a little crow (not those birds – the other kind) after some of my recent snide remarks concerning Facebook. Through very little effort on my part, this mysterious social networking site put me in touch with a gaffer I’d last worked with on the first season “CSI-NY” Insert Unit several years ago. A subsequent exchange of e-mails led to a one-day job that (as often happens) morphed into three days of work -- and now a halfway decent check is in the mail, all thanks to Facebook. Granted, there are many creepy/cloying/annoying aspects to the Facebook experience, but I’m having to re-boot my perspective. Maybe there’s something to all this digital madness after all...

Zuma Beach is a study in gray under the soft pre-dawn sky, with a dense marine layer (ocean fog, for you inlanders) hovering low over the slate-gray sea. At high tide now, the ocean feels very close as a nice set of breakers comes rolling in from China, each wave collapsing on itself with a visceral crunch, then steaming up the wet sand in a loud hiss. I find this sound immensely soothing, whether due to our shared mammalian ancestry going all the way back to the primordial seas, or simply as a welcome relief from the urban cacophony of traffic, car alarms, sirens, and the ever-present police helicopters buzzing overhead. It feels good to be way out here by the ocean, thirty miles from the ugly chaos of downtown LA. 

 Slinging my tool bag over one shoulder, I join the crew standing around the parking lot. Several white passenger vans are lined up, teamsters at the wheel, waiting for the signal to roll. I don’t recognize anybody, but the rest of the crew seems to know each other. Meeting a new (and considerably younger) crew has become the new normal these days, but it’s been a while since I didn't recognize anybody at all. Since we have a pre-call (lots of cable to run this morning), the gaffer will arrive later, so it’s up to me to force the introductions. Looking around, I pick out the juicers from the grips (not hard to do) then join my tribe-for-the-day, shaking hands all around. We make small talk until the signal comes, then pile into the vans and are on our way down to Westward Beach, a familiar location for television and film productions. I've been here countless times during the past thirty years, and the place never seems to change a bit. A fleet of 40 footers awaits us – grip, lighting, wardrobe, hair and makeup, props, set dressing, caterer, and the honeywagon. With six hundred feet of 4/0 to run (single phase, for a welcome change, saving us at six hundred pounds of cable), we get to work immediately -- no coffee, no doughnuts, just heavy lifting and lots of it. We lay down two hundred feet of cable to the end of the pavement, where the real work begins – running the remaining four hundred feet (nearly 1600 pounds) through deep, dry sand. Even with the right equipment (a fleet of small 4WD vehicles called “Gators”), working in sand is a bitch. They say you don’t miss your water ‘til the well runs dry, and the same is true of traction, because doing any kind of work on dry sand is infinitely harder than performing the same task on solid ground. The Gators can get the cable to the various drop-off points, but we still have to run it out, make the connections, then bury it in the sand. 

 Once the cabling is all but done, we leave two juicers to hook up all the distro (100 amp Bates extensions, lunch boxes, and stingers to distribute all that hot juice) while the rest of us break off to build the lamps – two LTM 18K’s, a monster ArriMax 18K that weighs close to 145 pounds, and a 12K HMI Par – each of which we mount atop a Road Runner stand clamped onto a three-wheeled desert sled. With the ballasts and head feeders strapped aboard, each 18K rigs weighs about the same as a full-sized camera dolly, and although the big wheels roll easily on pavement, maneuvering through all that sand is something else. The Gators are able to tow the lamp rigs to the base of a sheer cliff where an outcrop of rocks rises out of the sea, but from that point on it will take sheer muscle power and lots of hands to move and place each lamp for every shot. By 8:30, we’re good to go – lamps standing by and power flowing from the genny all the way out to the set -- so three of us break off to hit the caterer. 

Once we’ve wolfed down the obligatory gut-buster breakfast burritos, we trudge back through the sand so the other juicers can take their turn at the feeding trough. It turns out this is a “double-up” day, with the 1st Unit crew working back on stage in the Valley, while we in effect form another temporary 1st Unit crew shooting a full scene the regular crew wasn’t able to get to the previous week. Even though we’re technically 2nd unit, we’ve got the first unit DP and best boy electric. Although this “double-up” tactic is new to me (the result of spending the last few years on sound stages doing sit-coms), it’s become common practice in episodics these days. Most of the 2nd Unit work I've done in the past involved short sequences and shots the 1st Unit didn't have time to shoot at a given location, but 2nd Unit has now become another branch of 1st Unit, doing principal photography. I suspect this evolved in part to make UPMs look better on paper, since appearances still count above and below-the-line. Example: UPMs hate to see meal penalties on the daily production report (having an officially-recorded meal penalty apparently makes the UPM look bad to the producers), to the point where they'll often give the crew an additional half hour of overtime just to keep that meal penalty off the books. It’s just another iteration of the ancient “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” method of mutual self-help that keeps everybody winking and nodding up and down the line. I suspect a similar thing is going on with the “double-up day” phenomenon.* Episodics typically schedule each show to come in over the course of eight or nine shooting days, but holding the attention of today’s increasingly sophisticated viewing audience demands an ever-escalating degree of creative and logistical complexity – and that takes more time and money. Given the relentless corporate bean-counting pressure to hold costs down, some episodics have been told to bring the show in over seven days, which puts the UPM between a proverbial rock and the hard place. Rather than push the 1st Unit crew into ridiculously excessive overtime or "forced call" situations to get the job done (which also looks bad on the production report) these UPMs could be exercising a little budgetary sleight of hand to sweep the additional expenses under the 2nd Unit rug. The same amount of money gets spent in the end, but with the expenses allocated on paper in a way that keeps the UPM looking good to his bosses, the producers. 

 Whatever the justification, this felt like any other location day on 1st Unit, with lots of cable and lamps, while the grips have a Super Techno-Crane on a sand buggy to play with, and an 80 foot condor "flyswatter" -- a huge silk on a frame suspended over the set to take the curse off hard sunlight. Once the "talent" arrives on set, we start grinding out the coverage, hustling to move the lights as required for each setup, then sitting back to watch the waves roll in as the director attempts to coax a satisfactory performance from his actresses. Meanwhile, a cloud of paparazzi hovers on the cliffs above like a swarm of flies, their long-lenses ready and waiting to catch a glimpse of tabloid celebrity. The scene itself was the usual TV crap – a ludicrous emotional cat-fight over nothing at all between three highly-strung women – but I guess that’s the sort of thing the target demographic wants. No longer a member of that coveted age group, who am I to judge? I’m just here to do the work as best I can and earn a paycheck. 

 The fog began to lift around noon, turning the ocean from gunmetal-gray to a stunning blue. By now, the crows were long gone, replaced by squadrons of pelicans** cruising in tight formation inches above the waves, occasionally rising high to circle briefly, identify a target, then make a neck-breaking plunge into the water. Sea gulls joined in the feeding frenzy while pods of dolphins kept rolling by a few yards offshore. It was a beautiful day at the beach. 

 As any Industry veteran will tell you -- having learned the hard way -- this is the rarest of exceptions. On my first movie working as a grip (having just graduated from PA status), the schedule kicked off with a day shooting exteriors at Paradise Cove, near Malibu. I was thrilled – not only did I finally have a real job on a real movie, but we’d be at the beach all day, right where “The Rockford Files” was made! So what if I was only getting fifty bucks a day – I was just burning to do something – anything – other than work as a PA. Paradise Cove is gorgeous place, but with only two grips (one-and-a-half, really, since I didn’t know shit at the time) and no motorized vehicles to haul all that heavy film equipment from the parking lot across several hundred feet of sand (including a Stint dolly weighing nearly four hundred pounds), I had no clue what an extraordinarily grueling day lay ahead. Sixteen hours later, my opinion of working at the beach had spun a full 180 degrees -- after busting my ignorant ass in all that sand under the full heat of the July sun (wearing no sunscreen, which either hadn’t been invented yet or was too expensive for our cheap-ass production to supply) – I crawled back to my car whipped, beaten, and broiled to a cooked-lobster shade of red. This is not the way you want to start a punishing twenty-one day schedule.

Naturally, this baptism of fire came on a very low budget, non-union production – the kind where there’s just enough money to do everything wrong. A union production would have had a small army of grips and vehicles to get the job done. Lacking any such budgetary/logistical support, we got fried to a crisp lugging all that heavy metal back and forth across the burning sand. I remained permanently scarred from that day on -- never again would I be so naive as to look forward to working a day on the beach. Even in the best of circumstances, working at the beach is never easy, but with the right equipment, plenty of hands, and smart planning (a good best boy is crucial), this "double-up day" wasn’t bad at all. Truth be told, the only easier beach day I ever had was back when I was a gaffer, and didn’t have to do much of the heavy lifting. Those days are over and done, but it just goes to show you're never too old to learn something new -- and this time I learned that a day at the beach doesn't have to be a bitch. Just don't count on it. 

  * This is just a theory. I don’t really know what’s going on here, but if any of you can enlighten me, please do. ** Take a good look at a pelican in flight sometime, and see how much that big bird resembles a pre-historic pterodactyl -- sans teeth, claws, and leathery skin of course...

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Ugly, the Bad, and the Good

Chock full ‘o Links

In my ceaseless quest to share the wealth and pass on items of interest, I offer another Wednesday compendium of bits and pieces.

First, the Ugly – at least for those of us who live and work here in California. You in the Great Beyond, blessed with fat taxpayer-funded subsidies luring Hollywood productions to your fair states, should take some comfort in the California's bumbling inability to stanch the flow as our once-thriving film and television industry bleeds away to the north and east.

Feel free to point and laugh.

In a democracy, it’s been said, we all get the government we deserve, so I guess we in the Not-So-Golden-State brought this on ourselves. That doesn’t mean I have to like it, but there we are – and here you go.

Although the article describes a few feeble efforts to encourage local production, the overall message -- bolstered by statistics on just how much work we've lost in the past few years -- is grim and grimmer.

Next, the Bad -- two recent articles from the LA Times detailing the ongoing contractions in the film industry. Given that Hollywood’s corporate overlords know quite a bit about selling the widgets that made them rich, but very little about making movies not based on comic books (or board games, believe it or not), it comes as no surprise that the studio’s reaction to the current economic downturn is one of raw panic. Indeed, it seems these studio samurai are pulling up the drawbridges and hiding under their beds.

Oh, and they're firing people. Lots of people.

Something tells me the bloodletting has only just begun...

Finally, the Good -- if you’re into baseball (hey, it’s October, with the playoffs in full swing!), you’ll enjoy reading the web diary of a minor league pitcher in the San Francisco Giant’s farm system. Garrett Broshuis has been through good times and bad in his quest to make the big leagues, but at 27, is now taking a hard look at his future. For him, this is Very Big Deal – it’s his life, after all – but for the readers, his blog is a real treat. Garrett writes with a depth and sensitivity that might surprise you, painting a vivid picture of chasing a dream through the minor leagues.

The story is not simply about baseball, but a young man's struggle to balance his love for the game (and the harsh realities of minor league life) against the primal desire to build a viable future together with his wife: in a way, it's America's Pastime vs. the American Dream. Unlike so many sports-insider chronicles, this one doesn't resort to cliche or retreat behind a wall of stoic platitudes. In his posts, Garrett is refreshingly candid about the pressures of his dilemma.

You can find his blog here, and when you do, be sure to read this, this, and this – then follow the link to the ”Suitcase Chronicles” he writes for “Baseball America.”

Right now, Garrett Broshuis stands at the crossroads, looking both ways and testing the wind. I'm sure he'll make a good decision in the end, but whether he decides to stay in baseball or chart a new course for his family, we should all hope he keeps on writing.

He's good, and will only get better. Check it out.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Kids Are Alright

"Young men think old men are fools; but old men know young men are fools."

Truman Capote

Having your show canceled – in effect, your horse shot out from under you -- is part of the deal here in Hollywood. Shit happens in this and every other industry town, and there’s nothing you can do about it. If you happen to be so well connected that a phone call or two can result in a slot on another show (and such people do exist), then you’re one of the lucky few. If not (that would be me), its back to the hunter-gatherer life of the freelance juicer.

And that means day-playing.

Thanks to the miracle of Facebook, I was recently able to land gigs day-playing on three different episodics over the course of four days work -- a cable show in its second season, and two network dramas. Every member of these lighting crews was considerably younger than me (most by more than twenty years), which set up an unfamiliar and decidedly awkward dynamic. As the odd man out – a total stranger suddenly in their midst – it was me, the old guy, who had to prove himself rather than the other way around.

That’s not so easy when you walk on a stage for the first time. A sound stage is a cavernous enclosure crammed full to the point of absurdity with sets, set dressing, and all sorts of film equipment. There’s rarely enough room for a central storage area to keep the "floor package" (lamps on stands used to light each individual shot in a scene), or all the other ready-to-use lighting equipment, which means it gets temporarily stored in various spots all over the stage. Since the core crew is there day-to-day, they have a good idea where things are at any given moment, but a day-player comes in blind. In that situation, I take a slow walk all around the stage to locate the power drops, distro boxes, and equipment carts. This helps, but only to a certain degree. Many gaffers these days bring their own special lighting equipment to each job –- non-standard (often home-built) lamps they rent to the production company -- which makes it all the harder for the day-playing new/old guy to come up to speed on set.

The beginning of such a day is always humbling: while the rest of the crew darts around the stage setting up and adjusting lamps in a flash, the old guy stumbles around in the dark getting in the way and desperately trying to be useful. This isn't much fun, especially when you don’t know anybody on the crew, but if you pay attention and keep plugging away, it all begins to fall into place – and only then (once you’ve shown you’re not a complete waste of food), will the rest of the crew finally accept your presence.

The dues-paying in this business – proving yourself – is a continual process that morphs over time, but never ceases from the start of any career all the way to the finish line. The only factor that changes is which side of the equation you happen to be on at any given point.

Like most people of a certain age, I’ve done my share of head-shaking and tongue-clucking while eyeing the younger generation – their addictive worship of cell phones and all things digital, their blasé attitude towards using turn signals while driving, and of course, their music. Although I do hear the occasional Rap or Hip-Hop tune that gets my toes tapping, the appeal of these musical genres eludes me for the most part. There’s still good new music being made out there, but it’s getting harder for me to find.

That’s all as it should be: this is their generation’s music, not mine.

Older generations have always tended to dismiss those coming up on their heels as insubstantial lightweights unable to distinguish the wheat from the chaff. This happens in life (my dad made sure I was continually reminded of my own many shortcomings) and on the job, where the old guys invariably hold a skeptical view of the newbies.

“Hell, I had to walk twelve miles through the snow everyday to school – and it was uphill both ways! Kids today don’t know how easy they've got it.”

Most of you have heard something along those lines, and know exactly what I’m talking about...

Kids do things their own way, often ignoring the disciplines that shaped their elders while responding to the realities and culture of their own time. This irritates the old folks, who then find endless ways to piss off the kids by insisting on the Old Ways without bothering to explain why. "Just shut up and do it" isn't something anybody wants to hear. To a certain extent, this is the time-honored, high-friction process of the old grudgingly giving way to the new, with both sides right and wrong in roughly equal measures. The kids really do need to learn the rules of any craft so they'll know which of those rules they can ignore if necessary to solve a particularly tricky problem on set -- and learning the rules is extremely important for anyone whose job requires handling large quantities of electricity on a daily basis. But the older guys need to realize that changing times and the tsunami of new technology really have made this a New Day in the Industry. The kids are riding the crest of this digital revolution, and know how to make the new technology work in ways undreamed of ten years ago.

We have just as much to learn from them as they do from us.

By the end of those four days, I’d worked with something like 20 juicers who were new to me -- young men and women from all over the country (Boston, New York, North Carolina, Florida, and Colorado, among other far-flung locales), along with a few native Angelenos. All in all, I was tremendously impressed. These kids knew their stuff, were very hard workers, and had a great sense of humor. We might not agree on every choice of music or political stance, but on the job, these young people were just terrific.

I have no idea what’s going to happen with the Industry in the years to come. The existing economic models that grew and sustained the film and television business for generations are crumbling under our feet, and nobody seems quite sure just what will take their place. In that sense, the future remains decidedly murky, but with such great young people coming up through the ranks, I have no doubt that whatever happens, the backbone of this Industry -- the people who do the heavy lifting -- remains strong.

With their hustle, enthusiasm, and good humor, these kids were a blast to work with. By the end of each day, I felt honored to have been a member of their crew, however briefly. Say what you will about the younger generation, but as far as I’m concerned, the kids are alright.*

* Truman Capote’s quote holds true in a general philosophical sense, but ignores the fact that from birth 'til death, life makes fools of us all, time and again.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Wednesday Potpourri

Potpourri -- that’s quite a word. Hearing it (pronounced po-per-ee) has always conjured up the image of a little bird’s nest full of baby popes, eeping and cheeping with their mouths wide open, hungry for food – the holy wafer, maybe (remember: swallow, don’t chew!) -- but that’s just so wrong on so many levels, I really don’t know where to start...

So let’s try the dictionary: securely tucked between “pot pie” and “pot roast” in my twenty-five year old Websters (hey, it was new when I bought it), "potpourri" apparently comes a French term meaning “rotten pot.” At least that’s what it meant in 1749, according to Mr. Webster, whose modern English definition comes as “a mixture of flowers, herbs, and spices that is usually kept in a jar and used for scent.”

I’m not quite sure how “rotten pot” morphed into the ubiquitous bag of dried weeds with the cloying fragrance none of us can escape during the commercial horror of Christmas season (which will soon descend upon us like a tinsel-and-flocked Black Plague), but there are many mysteries in life, and this one falls way down the list. For the purposes of a mid-week post, let’s settle on definition Number Two: “a miscellaneous collection,” because that’s exactly what this is – a few things you might want to see, listen to, and read.

First up is a trailer for a brand new indy documentary called “Official Rejection,” directed by Paul Osborne with help from Scott Storm, who has directed two indy features of his own, including Ten til Noon.

In Paul’s own words: “OFFICIAL REJECTION is a comedic documentary about the harrowing and hilarious challenges independent filmmakers face getting into, and surviving, film festivals. Featuring interviews with such luminaries as Kevin Smith, Jenna Fischer, Andy Dick, Chris Gore, and Bryan Singer, the award winning OFFICIAL REJECTION has been praised by critics, called ‘one of the funniest and best films of the year’ (Edward Havens, Filmjerk).”

I’ve met neither of these gentlemen nor seen their films (yet), but the trailer for “Official Rejection” is a blast to watch. It’s snappy, funny, and very energetic -- and from where I sit, it reverberates with the truth. If the film lives up to this trailer, it’ll be something everybody who has ever dreamed of being an indy film maker should see.


This week’s offering on KCRW’s “The Business” (FM 88.9 on Mondays at 2:30 pm PST) was particularly interesting, leading off with a brief discussion of the impact Irving Thalberg had on Hollywood and the studio system before raising the curtain for the main event: a fascinating interview with producer Jason Blum, who stumbled across the extremely low budget ($15,000) horror feature “Paranormal Activity,” fell in love with it, then took the film under his wing on a roller-coaster ride through the labyrinth of Hollywood to eventual (and current) release. Seriously, you’ve got to listen to this to believe the hoops Blum had to leap through just to complete a seeming simple task -- bring to market a film he really, truly believed in. Even this veteran producer had no idea just how hard it can be to take a non-mainstream “product” from the hinterlands of Obsuristan to a Hollywood release. But here in Tinsel Town, where the one-eyed man is king, nothing is ever simple.

It’s Chinatown, Jake...

The connection here with Official Rejection is that although thrusting your indy labor-of-love into the public eye and up onto the screen may be brutally difficult, it can be done.


The legendary sports writer Red Smith once said “Writing is easy. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open up a vein.” Truth be told, he probably said it more than once, and if I don’t agree with everything this old school hard-ass came up with (notably his low opinion of the great boxer Muhammad Ali), he got this one right.

A while back I recommended you take a good look at the new kid here in Industry Blogville. I’ve been closely following “The Hills Are Burning” ever since, and A.J. has yet to disappoint. In her most recent post, she took a chance – a leap of faith, if you will -- departing from her usual lean and punchy description of the absurdities, inequities, and indignities endemic to this silly business to write something very different indeed. She didn’t just open up a vein this time – she sewed her heart on her sleeve, then sliced open an artery and bled all over the keyboard.

This is something you should read. Anyone already in the biz will understand and resonate with her words, while those of you planning to break into the Industry will get a glimpse of what lies ahead. In the early days of this blog, I offered my own take on the subject, but A.J. tells her story from a woman’s POV, and it’s really good.

If you haven’t already, do yourself a favor and check it out.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Hidden Talent

Don't Judge a Book by its Cover

Pen and ink painting by Jason Gunn

After so many years toiling in the trenches of Hollywood, I’m no longer really surprised at the wealth of talent hiding among the ranks below-the-line. Occasionally such talent is fueled by enough drive to propel the former grip, juicer, or prop person up through the bullet-proof glass that normally keeps US down here and THEM up there, into the rarefied air of an above-the-line career. This doesn't happen very often, but at least one juicer who came from the same low-budget, non-union jungle where so many of us got started managed to make the quantum leap to become a feature director. Much of our first season of “Good Morning, Miami” was ably directed by a man who came up through the ranks after starting as a teamster, and the Industry is peppered with other examples of below-the-line frogs who morphed into above-the-line princes with or without the kiss of a princess.*

As the exception-that-proves-the-rule: I know of at least one successful screenwriter (she wrote a movie most of you have heard of, if not seen) who eventually grew weary of the boom-and-bust insanity in constantly trying to land another writing gig, and became a juicer. I’m told she likes the work and relative stability that can be found below-the-line so long as you maintain a good attitude, are willing to hustle, and can cultivate a few contacts.

There are a few below-the-liners talented enough to write professionally in their off time, while continuing to work day jobs alongside the rest of us. While day-playing on “Tell Me You Love Me” (an HBO episodic) a couple of years ago, I got to talking with one of the first-unit juicers who, it turned out, wrote "Time after Time,” the novel from which a movie (1979) of the same title was later made. He’s written several other books and screenplays, with his most recent book (a sequel to “Time After Time”) due to be published in November.

All that and a juicer too: this is one talented guy.

The producers of “Tell Me You Love Me” had no idea that the slightly graying juicer amid the crew working hard for HBO slave-wages probably had more real-world experience crafting stories than they did.

Then there are those whose talents remain very much hidden from the rest of us. I know a few fellow below-the-liners who used to be touring musicians, (and can still play the guitar, keyboards, or drums like the pros they once were), but found a more stable life working below-the-line. Some still play in bands on the weekends as part-time working musicians who also have a very demanding day job. While getting a flu shot at the studio clinic last year, I was talking to the nurse about one of these juicer/guitarists, when the doctor piped up and admitted that he used to play guitar in Edgar Winter’s band.

Talent seems to be around wherever you look, often in the last place you’d expect to find it.

While working on one of the studio’s lamp docks a couple of years back, I noticed the small painting above (done with special pens used to label equipment) on a scarred metal work bench. I asked around and was told who did it – a lamp dock lifer in his mid- 30’s who used to play in South Bay punk and reggae bands. His tiny painting might not be a Rembrandt or Picasso, but you have to consider the context -- in the midst of a ten hour day working on concrete floors loading and unloading heavy lighting equipment, coming upon such a whimsical little jewel was like being instantly beamed from some dark sweaty prison to a sun-splashed beach at the ocean’s edge. The joy of discovery only takes a moment, but it’s enough to take you a long way away – and that’s a very good thing.

Such is the transcendent power of art.

My guess is these talented people really are all around us, in every walk of life. I run into them in Hollywood because that’s where I happen to work, but I have to believe they’re everywhere – cops, nurses, postal workers, cabbies, bank tellers (hell, maybe even lawyers) – people who work for their daily bread in a job that offers no opportunity to display their hidden skills.

I’ve heard it said that everybody has some kind of talent – that if you keep your eyes open and ask the right questions, you’ll find it. This is probably true, but what I know from personal experience is how great it can be learn that one of your fellow work-bots has a lot more to offer the world than his/her ability to lug around a hundred pound roll of 4/0.

This kind of thing helps shore up my constantly battered faith in humanity. Where there’s hidden, waiting-to-be-recognized talent, there lurks the capacity for us all to be pleasantly surprised – and that means there’s always hope.

And right now, we need all the hope we can get...

* The high-octane career of a least one very successful modern mogul might never have come about but for the help of a Very Powerful Woman. Whatever the circumstances, it’s no simple task to make the leap from hair dresser to big-time producer, but it’s a lot easier when a major Hollywood powerhouse kicks the doors open for you...