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, 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...


odocoileus said...

At one of our training program seminars, the speaker was a guy who worked as a UPM, with some major feature credits, who also worked as an electrician.

He said he tried to keep potential employers for his UPM jobs from knowing about his electrician work. He actually enjoyed working as an electrician, and it was better than sitting around waiting for a UPM gig to open up.

I've done some lighting work at local TV stations, on student films, and in the local theater, but never here in LA. The lights you folks use are so much bigger, and you seem to use a lot more current. A mistake could have some serious consequences.

Anonymous said...

Now that you mention it, I have had a lot more luck as an actor lately than as a juicer. I got a small speaking part in "MacGruber," and I have had three auditions since I was able to get an agent late this summer.

Meanwhile I have not worked Electric since early in the summer. Not sure if that should mean anything to me or if perhaps the gods are trying to tell me something...

Michael Taylor said...

Odocoileus --

We do pump some major juice through those cables and lamps, but this is neither brain science nor rocket surgery. As long as you follow a few basic rules, there's rarely a problem. First you have to know the rules, though.

But dude, you've got to tell me what "odocoileus" means or refers to. Other than your blog, of course...

Chris --

Congratulations on breaking the SAG barrier. Some people spend years trying to get that card. At the moment, I don't know which vocation is more unstable -- acting or juicing. If you're not getting work, it probably means there just isn't much work to be had in New Mexico right now. The new guys usually get hired last, so if-and-when things pick up, your phone should start ringing. Meanwhile, keep going on those auditions -- and good luck.

odocoileus said...

White-tailed deer, odocoileus virginianus. Kind of a totem animal, brings back fond memories of the tidal rivers and woods where I grew up in Maryland.