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, November 29, 2009

Good Jobs, Bad Jobs

Sometimes you just have to draw the line.

The Good Life on a network show: two crew members of an extremely popular police drama take a quick break from the set...

One of A.J.’s recent posts over at The Hills are Burning dealt with the subject of bad jobs, offering a useful primer on the proper procedure for reading the chicken’s entrails to deduce just how bad an upcoming job might be. A comment left by an anonymous gaffer struck a resonant chord.

“I got the heebe-jeebies reading that latest post. As soon as I started turning down those types of jobs my life got better.”

The Anonymous Gaffer hit the nail on the head. On our climb up the shit-stained ladder of Hollywood suck-cess, we all come to certain crucial turning points after which everything changes -- hopefully for the better. A few years into my own halting ascent, I’d finally learned enough to establish myself as a reliable cog in the non-union, low-budget machine, toiling on cheap-ass features, cheap-ass commercials, and any other cheap-ass production that would have me. The then-standard rate for such labor was a hundred bucks a day, generally on a “flat” – meaning no overtime pay no matter how long the day went.*

I was happy just to be working. Having left my former highly-underpaid life as a P.A. far behind, I'd managed to carve out a niche in the low-budget film community that provided me enough income to make a a living, albeit a bare-bones existence. All was well and good for a while, but as with every warm fire, the rosy glow of accomplishment – any accomplishment, really – only lasts so long before it starts to cool. As time passed, the novelty of being able to calculate my weekly paycheck using the fingers and thumb of one hand began to wear thin. Bit by bit, calls for better jobs trickled in, jobs that paid more money – and sometimes offered the Holy Grail of overtime – for those long, hard days and nights. In time, the prospect of continuing to accept the crappy, cheap-ass jobs that had been my bread and butter came to represent a depressing drag on my Hollywood life. It was increasingly clear that I'd never get anywhere, career-wise, sticking to that level of work.

Something had to give, but I was afraid of violating the cardinal rule of Industry life: never turn down work. The struggle to reach a point where the phone would actually ring with job offers had left a lot of interior scar tissue. It doesn’t take much to anger the Gods of Hollywood, who seemingly have the power to send you spiraling right back down into the pit from whence you crawled. The fear that your phone will stop ringing never really goes away.

Still, the time finally came for me to shit or get off the pot, so when a call came one day with another cheap-ass hundred-dollar-flat job, I summoned the courage to say “no.” There was a long scary silence from the other end of the phone – the quiet whisper of a bridge going up in flames. After I hung up, I knew that for better or worse, I’d crossed a Rubicon of sorts: either things would gradually get better, or rapidly get a lot worse. The next day – when I could have been earning that hundred dollars – it dawned on me that I might have a huge mistake. Looking up, the sky was thick with smog. I couldn’t tell if dark clouds were building overhead, thunder ready to roll, with a bolt of lightning prepared to flash down from the sky and strike my nascent career dead in its tracks.

Apparently not. Instead, the work calls that did continue to come were for better jobs – and the more I did, the more the phone rang. As it turned out, getting paid more to do easier work (with decent equipment, more help, and much better craft service) made me a lot happier. My work life got better in every way.

The situation stabilized once I made it to the union world. At the time, union work paid scale or slightly above, depending on the budget and nature of the production. A lot has changed since then, mostly for the worse. Runaway production – offshore and to other states – combined with the ongoing siege of the digital revolution, has eroded the economic base of the Industry and Hollywood's below-the-line community. It's no longer a given that wages will continue to rise, or that our once-fat benefits package will survive the years ahead.

That's the way it is in today’s Bah-Humbug Hollywood of Ebenezer “Disney” Scrooge, where the clarion cry “do it cheaper” reverberates through sound stages and location shoots from call time 'til wrap. Thanks to the Balkanization of our contract structure, working union jobs for wages well-under scale (and longer hours) has become increasingly common below decks, where the justly-reviled “cable rate” is routinely shoved down our throats on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.

We swallow hard and take it. The way things are these days, nobody I know can afford the luxury of turning down such a job in the increasingly faint hopes that a full-scale job might materialize from the ether. When the choice comes down to a scrawny bird in the hand vs two that might be somewhere in the bush, you take what you can get.

There’s still a big difference between those jobs and the good ones, though. The last sit-com I had was a cheap-ass cable-rate special, but I was seriously bummed when it unexpectedly got the axe. A job’s a job, even at a 20% pay cut -- and at least we were getting our union benefit and pension hours. After we wrapped the stage and walked away, I landed three days on a much bigger-budget sit-com for a major network, being produced and directed by an Industry legend. Walking on stage, it felt like I’d left the bilge of a ratty tramp steamer for a first class cabin on a luxury cruise ship. The craft service room alone was four times the size of ours on the cable show, not including the huge (and sumptuous) spread crafty set up outside her room every afternoon. Everything about that show was so much more lush and relaxed than our frantic little cable job.

I’d love to draw the line again and take only those good jobs, but the union world is a very different now -- a lot harder than it was — and at this late stage of my own career, I’m not exactly in high demand anymore. No longer being close to the low-budget, non-union world, I don't know how things are down there these days. Whether the grips, juicers, and camera people can still draw that line to improve their working lives is unclear. Shit has a way of rolling downhill, though, so I assume the same tectonic pressures rattling the doors and windows of the union world are doing the same among the non-union ranks.

I hope not. Having been there, I know how tough it is on the dark side of that shiny gold coin. It’s hard enough getting started and making progress in the low-budget world without having the deck stacked so impossibly high against you. And so as Autumn slides into Winter, and the calendar turns to the Christmas holidays, I wish the best of luck to all of us working below-the-line, union and non-union alike.

We're gonna need it.

*A hundred dollars per day back then is worth considerably more in inflation-adjusted dollars today than current union scale for a baseline 8 hour work day, excluding the non-paycheck remuneration of health and pension benefits. This isn’t a straight-up comparison, though, since there was no such thing as an 8 hour day in the low-budget, non-union world at the time. 12+ hour days (on a flat) were standard back then, with no benefits whatsoever. Lousy craft service, too.


This is likely my last regular Sunday post for a little while. I start a pilot tomorrow that will kick my ass up and down the block for the next three weeks, after which I'll plunge (with the rest of you) into the twinkling Black Hole of Christmas. I doubt there will be time or energy to come up with decent posts. Should inspiration strike -- and time permit -- I'll put something up, but don't hold your breath. If all goes well, I'll be back sometime after the New Year.

Thanks to you all for tuning in, and for your thoughtful comments in 2009.

See you on the other side.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Father of "Anarchy"

Kurt Sutter

Always on the hunt for new and interesting Industry blogs, I recently stumbled across something special: a loud, clear, decidely no-bullshit voice from above-the-line -- a showrunner, believe it or not -– who isn’t afraid to tell it as he sees it.

And Lordy me to glory be, as grandma used to say, Kurt Sutter is in a position to see a lot.

Fans of FX’s The Shield have long known about Sutter, as does the growing fan base for his own follow-up show Sons of Anarchy, now completing its second broadcast season. Whatever your feelings about “The Shield” or “Sons,” there’s no denying Sutter knows how to put together dynamic character-driven dramas laced with lots of hard-hitting action on and off the mean streets, be they in gritty downtown LA or the bucolic (and highly fictional) town of Charming, somewhere in the green woods of Northern California. The signature mark of both shows -- and a true blessing to casual viewers and hardcore fans -- has been the consistently terrific acting. Sutter & Company really do know how to cast a show.

I’ve been watching “Sons” from the beginning. The show has improved a lot from Season One, with a very strong run down the stretch towards the Season Two finale. I may be occasionally disappointed by some too-convenient happenstance in service of the plot, but the show’s dramatic strengths and truly superb acting carry it safely over these potholes. I had a similar reaction to “Mad Men” at first – the oddly stilted, distanced mannerisms of Matt Weiner’s characters smacked to me of David Lynch Lite – and I have very little tolerance for the work of Mr. Lynch.* But after missing most of the first season and half of the second, I finally got hooked on “Mad Men,” and am similarly in for the long haul on “Sons of Anarchy.”

But this post isn’t about any of Kurt Sutter’s shows – it’s about his blog. With Season Three in the distance, and a movie still in the wings, Sutter has a little time on his hands right now. Enter the blog, where he holds forth on everything from the horde of human locusts who swarm towards the bright lights of every successful show (holding out their greedy little claws and claiming it was their idea in the first place), to what it really means to be a showrunner. Throughout, Sutter is blunt in expressing his unvarnished opinions and assessments of Hollywood and our industry. His blog is a highly entertaining read, and a real education for those of us who will never make it upstairs to the executive suites.

Really, this isn’t a blog so much as a first-person graduate course on the ins-and-outs of navigating the minefield that is above-the-line Hollywood. But most of all, it’s a great read and a real breath of fresh air -- and one you’ll have to read to believe.

* Then again, I have yet to see Blue Velvet, and thus can’t fairly judge the man’s work...

More Sutter stuff:

For a fascinating in-depth podcast interview of Sutter by Tim Goodman (SF Chronicle TV critic), click here. (Warning: the sound is a bit choppy, so bear with it.) If you don’t have a full half hour+ to spare, try this excellent twenty minute interview from KCRW's “The Business.” And finally, for a smart and sassy -- if not entirely favorable -- view of “Sons,” click here.

Agree with her on not, Heather Havrilesky is always worth reading.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Tying In

This has never been a "how to" blog, and isn't about to start now. Although the following post discusses how I learned to perform electrical "tie-ins" -- successful and otherwise -- it is strictly for annectodal rather than instructional purposes. Whatever rules existed covering such tie-ins back then were rarely (if ever) enforced, but things are very different now. The only truly useful piece of advice I have about tying-in can be summed up in three words: Don't do it.


One way or another, artificial lighting requires electricity. On stage (where all light is man-made) power is usually supplied by the facility or studio. If more juice is needed than a stage is equipped to provide, cable can be run from another stage or a generator will be brought in. On location, standard procedure is to bring a generator to provide power, but sometimes circumstances (such as filming at the top of a 75 story building) preclude running cable, and call for “tying-in” to the building’s power. Nowadays, a production must get a permit to do a legal tie-in, which will then be done by a licensed, certified electrician.

Things were very different in the good old/bad old days of low budget, non-union productions where I got my start. We did tie-ins fairly often back then, and it it was the best boy's responsibility to get it done. When a generator was unavailable for whatever reason, tying-in was the only way to keep filming.*

Half the time these cheap-ass productions didn’t even have money for location permits, which meant we were already on the dark side of the law "stealing" the shots. Having a generator parked out on the street belching black diesel smoke and sprouting heavy cables running into the location isn't a great way to keep a low profile -- and in those cases, tying-in was the way to go. I've done more tie-ins than I care to admit over the years, and I hated doing every one of them. The last time was several years ago on a Fringe-Co job doing a low-budget commercial. The DP had scouted the location (the production company being too cheap to pay the gaffer for a scout day), so I didn't find out we'd be expected to tie-in until arriving on location with the rest of the crew at 7:00 in the morning -- and by then there wasn't much choice. I sincerely hope that was the last time I ever have to do a tie-in for the remainder of my rapidly fading career.

Whatever electrical box I faced, the procedure was the same: open it up and identify the hot, neutral, and ground legs with a "wiggy" (voltage tester). Then I'd determine if it was possible to tie in below the fuses, thus providing some measure of safety should things go sideways. With a fuse between the cable and the power, any resulting damage could be limited -- but there wasn't always room for that. Tying in above the fuses was a spooky business. If something went wrong during the hookup, a lot more power would cut loose, with potentially deadly consequences.

Once the decision was made, I would very carefully attach special heavy-duty clamps to the bars – first the ground, followed by the neutral, and then the hot legs. This is relatively easy in a roomy electrical box, but modern industrial boxes were not made with tie-ins or the free-lance juicer in mind. Tying-in to such a tight, narrow box was always a dodgy endeavor. If I made a mistake -- easy to do in such a small box -- the result would be a blinding flash and the terrifying buzz of metal vaporizing in the incredibly fierce heat of an A.C. arc. At best, that brilliant light can inflict retinal burns (there’s a reason arc welders wear those smoked-glass helmets), but anything's possible -- serious burns, electric shock, and if the dice come up all the way wrong, the Big Sleep itself. Although death is unlikely, a bad shock will send the victim to the hospital while the rest of his crew desperately resets the breaker, tries to find a replacement fuse for the blown one -- and thus restore power to the building -- or calls the fire department.

Assuming nothing bad happened during the hook-up, I would isolate the relatively fragile tie-in from any gravitational stresses – or more likely, the snowshoes of some idiot friend of the producer stumbling towards the set while trying to chat up the makeup girl. If one of these fools managed to trip on/over cables attached to the tie-in, the clamps would be jerked loose or cause a dead-short arc in the electrical box that could start a fire. By using a rope to tie the hook-up cables to something solid at the top of the electrical box -- a conduit worked fine -- such trouble could be prevented.

Once all was secure, my practice was to tape the hell out of that now-open electrical box to keep any idle hands out, then put a big “DANGER!” sign in front. Back in the day, we'd just plug in our pin cable and go, but now it's customary (and legally required, I believe) to install a fused bull-switch between the tie-in and the cable running to the set. Either way, once the cable run was safely completed to the appropriate distro box on set, the gaffer could start lighting.

At that point, I'd go wash the sweat off my face.

Under ideal circumstances, the process went fine -- all that worrying made me very careful when tying-in -- but the low-budget world seldom presented "ideal circumstances." Every now and then, shit would happen. While working on a cheap non-union horror film, we made a location move one dark and misty night to shoot a quick scene outside a suburban home in the San Fernando Valley. I was a grip on that show, but since the best boy electric was a good friend (and his one-man juicer crew had very little experience), I went along to help. His idea was to climb on the roof, scrape the insulation from the three wires feeding the house from the power pole – two hots and a neutral -- then clamp on to that newly-bared copper. In theory, this is safe – so long as he didn’t touch any of the other wires (or anything connected to the ground) at the same time, he should be okay. But all that conductive mist in the air gave me a bad feeling, so I suggested a technique I’d used before. We opened the electrical main outside the house to investigate, and although it was a narrow box, found just enough room inside to jam three screwdrivers into the connections of the appropriate bars. Once that was done, we could fasten the tie-in clamps onto the metal shaft of each screwdriver, and be in business.**

My friend looked at the box, nodding slowly. He really didn't want to go up on that roof either, but seemed reluctant to try the screwdriver method. When I offered to do it, he shook his head -- as the best boy electric, he felt (rightly so) that it was his responsibility. While I held a flashlight, he very carefully jammed the first screwdriver (his) in place, then the second (mine), and finally shoved the third, belonging to the juicer. The rig looked solid, but (and there's always a "but" in these stories...) just as he was about to attach the tie-in clamps, he hesitated.

“Lemme check one thing,” he said.

I held the flashlight again as he leaned into that last screwdriver, just to be sure it wouldn't come loose – and this last little bit of force brought it into contact with the back of the metal box.

The world erupted in a brilliant, blinding flash, instantly (if temporarily) rendering us both unable to see a damned thing. We'd gone in above the fuses, and with nothing to stop that white-hot arc, the entire box -- on the side of a wooden house, mind you -- burst into a ball of flame. The key grip came running with a two-by-four and began swinging wildly at the screwdrivers, eventually knocking them out of the box. That stopped the arcing while somebody else emptied a fire extinguisher into that flaming box to douse the flames.

With that, the excitement was over -- but having caused enough trouble at that point, I morphed back into a grip and left the electricians alone. The last thing image I recall from that night was the juicer holding his brand-new-but-now-melted Salvador Dali screwdriver in a gloved hand, slowly shaking his head.

If that was the most spectacular tie-in screw-up I was involved with, it wasn't the most dangerous -- that one came during a driving rainstorm on a run-and-gun location shoot in a little strip mall somewhere south of San Clemente. With very little time to get the scene lit and shot (some immutable deadline loomed over our heads), I had to tie-in to a small box behind the shop that served as our location. Being outside, the box was exposed to the weather, which meant I had to do the tie-in while standing in three inches of water, in a drenching rain, wearing soaking wet gloves. All that water turned me into an excellent conductor of electricity, thus exposing me to intermittent zaps of 120 volt AC the entire time it took to tie-in. I must have gotten bit more than half a dozen times before getting those cables attached.

Thinking back, it's hard to believe I was stupid enough to do such a thing -- but it's all too easy to get caught up in the "show must go on" spirit of the moment, figuring that dumb luck will pull you through one more time. It did -- barely -- but I wouldn't dream of doing something like that now.

I’ve heard stories of much worse tie-in mishaps. One crew of a television comedy no longer in production shorted out a hot leg in power mains of a nice Westside hotel while tying-in, cutting power to the kitchen’s refrigeration units long enough to render all the food unusable -- an awkward and very expensive error at the beginning of three long days of filming. Another guy I spoke to -- a veteran gaffer with more than 40 years and some very impressive credits on his resume -- got knocked off a power pole in Chicago by an unexpected jolt of electricity while tying-in, and lived to tell the tale. He was lucky.

These days, there's really no percentage in doing a non-permitted, illegal tie-in yourself. I don't know the exact letter of the law, but juicers currently working in the low budget, non-union world tell me nobody does such tie-ins anymore -- instead, the gaffer tells the producer to get a permit and hire a licensed electrician to do the job. That wasn't an option back in the day, when a refusal to do a tie-in would have had a serious negative impact on my own employment future, but it's a different world today.

Anyone who attempts an illegal tie-in these days is asking for trouble. The process is simple enough in theory, and if done carefully, will probably work out just fine -- until it doesn't. If that person is you, at that point you'll be in a very bad place with nowhere to hide. When a producer pleads that there isn't money for a generator, then tell him to pony up for the permit and a legal, professional tie-in. Nine times out of ten, that'll convince him he can afford a genny after all. You have to remember that producers always have more money than they let on, but if one insists otherwise and asks you to take the risk, tell them "no." Think about it -- if that producer can't afford a legal tie-in or generator, then he can't afford your hospital bills if something goes wrong. You don't want to work for a clown like that anyway.

When it comes to tying-in, I'll say it again: Just don't do it.

* On a feature in Vermont one cold winter morning, our genny refused to start, so I had to do a quick tie-in at the base of a power pole at an old ball park. It wasn’t a particularly difficult tie-in, and since our producers were honorable people (for a change), they insisted that I note the settings on the power meter before and after filming so the power company could properly bill us for the juice we'd used.

** This was before running a ground leg was common or legally required. We'd just run two hots and a neutral, and be in business.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


Do not attempt this at home...

Back in the late 60’s, a friend of mine’s older brother spent some time in Europe before being shipped over to Vietnam. While traveling through Italy on a train, he shared a cabin one afternoon with a professional strongman and his manager, who were on the road putting on shows. The strongman went by the name of “The Pistor Killer,” a muscular young man sporting a uniquely distinctive uber-Pompadour hairdo resembling the horn of a rhinoceros. Their limited-but-friendly English was enough to start a conversation, during which the manager pulled out a scrapbook full of newspaper clippings documenting the Pistor Killer’s many feats of strength. At the time I heard it, this story sounded like a scene straight out of a Fellini movie. It still does -- but hey, here he is, the Pistor Killer.

I’d forgotten all about it until watching a documentary called “Strongman” the other night. Produced and directed by Zachary Levy, “Strongman” won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary at the 2009 Slamdance Festival. I’m no film critic, so I’ll leave the intellectual heavy lifting of critical analysis to others, but I can't argue with Variety’s John Anderson, who begins his review like this: “ A strange and strangely beautiful movie, “Strongman” concerns a modern-day Samson – Stanley “Stanless Steel” Pleskun – who can lift dump trucks and bend steel, but can’t pull himself out of the rubble of his own dead-end ambitions and expectations.”

Stanley Pleskun’s story is more complicated than that, but it’s also quintessentially American -- an otherwise ordinary man from humble circumstances blessed with one extraordinary talent: the ability to bend steel and lift absurdly heavy objects with his bare hands. “Strongman” takes the viewer deep into a strange carney-like subculture lurking beneath the glossy plasticized surface of modern American life, a world where sheer physical strength is prized above all else. It’s not a bad place, and these are not bad people – like the rest of us, they’re just human beings doing the best they can with what they’ve got.

“Strongman” put me through the wringer. I couldn’t help pulling for this essentially decent, likable man to achieve the success he so badly wants and feels he deserves -- but time and again the detritus of his life and the sheer gravity of his own over-amped expectations drag him back into a dismal swamp of frustration. Through it all, Stanley Pleskun somehow manages to bounce back thanks to his deep well of indefatigable optimism. Despite his otherworldly strength, Stanley's struggle to achieve remains a very human story, and something most of us can relate to on many levels.

Levy’s omnipresent camera records it all as it comes – the good, the bad, and the ugly -- steadfastly refusing to turn away from or sugar-coat the messy life of this American Dreamer, a deeply flawed man who in the end just might find it within himself to see what really matters in the march we all make from birth to death. “Strongman” is a gritty, compelling film. Some of it can be tough to watch -- the darker passages had me squirming in my seat -- but I could not look away.

I have no idea whatever happened to the Pistor Killer (a google search came up blank), or what will become of Stanley Pleskun’s dreams, but thanks to Zach Levy, this modern day strongman will at least have his day in the cinematic sun.
And that's a good thing.

"Strongman" premiers in Los Angeles at the Downtown Independent Theater, where it will screen from Nov. 27 until Dec. 3, 2009.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

No Subtitles Necessary

As part of its “Independent Lens” series, PBS will run what promises to be a fascinating documentary about Vilmos Zsigmond and Lazlo Kovacs, two Hungarian cinematographers who took Hollywood by storm back in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Both had ascended to legendary status by the time I got into the biz, and I never had the chance to do a movie with either man – but I did work one day as an arc operator on a commercial shot by Lazlo back in the early 80's. I can't remember the product we were hawking, but at the end of the day, I was wrapping cable out on the sidewalk as the man himself – nattily dressed and carrying a briefcase – left the set heading for his car. Sensing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I pulled off my gloves and introduced myself as someone who had long been an admirer of his work, and particularly his black-and-white cinematography for the feature Paper Moon. He smiled, put down his briefcase to shake my hand, then stood there for a good ten minutes talking about the fine art of shooting film.

I wish I could tell you I remember what he said. What impressed me -- dazzled me, actually -- was that this living legend was willing to stop and chat with a young juicer who clearly didn’t yet know shit from Shinola, as the saying goes. Although Lazlo Kovacs truly was Hollywood royalty, he didn’t act like it. A wizard behind the lens, he was also a genuinely gracious man. I just wish I’d had the chance to work a few more days on his crew.

The film “No Subtitles Necessary” will air at 9 pm Thursday night (Nov 19) on KCET here in LA. When it will broadcast in other areas or on other stations, I don’t know, nor am I sure of the running time -- so check your local listings, as they say.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Lizard Queen Speaks


"Meet the new boss, same as the old boss..."

The Who, from “Won’t Get Fooled Again”

ABC’s new sci-fi drama “V” opens with the sudden appearance of alien spaceships floating in the sky over all the major cities of our fair planet. A frightened humanity is soon confronted by a vision of preternaturally beautiful humanoid aliens who smile, bat their eyelashes, and speak in soothing tones. They’ve just stopped by to load up on provisions for a while, then they’ll be moving along. No reason to be alarmed – “Peace, always.” But as anyone who saw the original miniseries back in 1983 knows, beneath those lovely humanoid exteriors are cold-blooded reptilian killers whose arrival bodes ill for all Mankind.

This theme kept echoing through my brain while reading the LA Times interview last week with Carol Lombardini, new president and chief negotiator of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers*. When questioned about past and future negotiations with film industry labor representatives, she was careful to make nice, speak softly, and – with one glaring exception -- strike an eminently reasonable tone. Lombardini professed to be a “good listener,” adding that that she favors “getting out in front of negotiations” and “having regular communication with the guilds and unions so that we can share perceptions.”

So far, so good: getting all the interested parties talking to each other well before the current contract expires could be our best hope of avoiding the Mother of All Strikes in 2011. This line of thinking is encouraging, and a marked change from the my-way-or-the-highway stance of her mentor and predecessor, former AMPTP ramrod Nick Counter. I do not wish to speak ill of the dead, and since Mr. Counter only recently shuffled off this mortal coil, let’s just say I'd be surprised if he’s not already hard at work in the Great Beyond. Anyone who toiled so long and tirelessly against the guilds and unions in service of the Producers Alliance is supremely well qualified for a high ranking position on the Devil’s staff in Hell.

On the surface, Ms. Lombardini seems an affable middle-aged woman with a genial smile, which comes as a welcome relief from her hard-line former boss. Remember, though, the AMPTP remains as ruthlessly focused on the bottom-line as any cold-hearted banker, Wall Street crook, or Mafia Don. They’d never allow anyone lacking the requisite spine of steel and iron fist to step into Nick Counter’s blood-stained boots.

This interview wasn't an in-depth grilling of Ms. Lombardini, but merely her initial presentation to the public -- an opportunity to lob softball nostrums about “increased dialogue” and a guarded optimism that “people will... find a way to get this done.” Asked about the potential Doomsday Scenario of a combined SAG/WGA/DGA strike when the current contracts run out, she replied “I hope not. Everybody endured some battle scars from the last round.”

Uh, no shit, Carol – especially those of us who work below-the-line, and had nothing whatsoever to do with causing that strike, yet ended up as road-kill smeared on the shiny, ArmorAll-polished tires of the Escalades and Mercedes driven by the respective combatants in the last strike.

Not that I’m bitter, or anything.

It was only towards the end that this interview took a darker turn, as Ms. Lombardini’s genial mask slipped just enough to allow a glimpse below the smiling surface. When the new face of the AMPTP was asked whether she intended to ask for “rollbacks from talent” she replied: “I don’t necessarily mean wages will be cut, but maybe there are more efficient ways to produce. We have to look at whether on crews, for instance, we can assign work to a smaller group of people.”

Excuse me? The question was about wage reductions for above-the-line “talent”, but her reply was a bullet aimed directly at below-the-line crew. Carol Lombardini’s idea of cutting a deal to save the industry from a crippling strike apparently involves slashing the crew size so that those of us who do the heavy lifting in Hollywood will get the crap beaten out of us even more than we do now.

It’s not enough that the producers have already forced so many of us into a 20% pay cut while working longer hours on the odious cable rate, or that come August of 2011, hanging on to our health care will be infinitely more difficult for all but those lucky souls who have steady feature work or crew on long-running hit television shows – now it seems the bastards want to cut down on the actual numbers of people on the crews, thus putting even more of us out of work and into the gutter.

This is the kind of delusional, penny-wise-and-pound-foolish “thinking” that drives the rank and file crazy. In a job where time is money, a proper size crew is essential to getting the work done in a safe and efficient manner. Modern film-making is not some cookie-cutter, assembly-line process, but a labor-intensive business doing specialized custom work that requires truckloads of heavy, bulky, complicated equipment. If the crew size is reduced, fewer trained hands on set means everything will take longer to happen, the shooting days will lengthen, and more people will get hurt. This will have the perverse effect of driving the producer’s expenses up, not down.

A couple of weeks ago I spent the better part of a week day-playing on a network sit-com that has yet to air. Perusing the crew list, I counted no less than ten producers: four “Executive producers,” four “Co-Executive” producers, and two “Consulting Producers.” Granted, this is television, where producers spring up like mushrooms** after a rain -- but seriously, what the hell are ten producers doing on a twenty-two minute sit-com? I can understand why a $200 million feature involving many far-flung locations and hundreds of CGI shots might need to spread the producing duties around, but a simple sit-com? The entire time I was there (working my ass off, BTW), most of those clowns just sat on their well-paid asses (in their own personal directors chairs, naturally) staring blankly at the quad-split monitors while the rest of us brought their show to life.

I don't mean to denigrate the job of a producer. Every show needs a good Executive Producer as the money-man/head of production, and a smart, savvy Line Producer to kick butt, take names, and make sure the machine keeps rolling forward. I suppose there might even be a reason for a “Co-Producer” to help pick up the slack – although what he/she would do that the UPM doesn't remains a mystery to me -- but anything more than that stinks of above-the-line featherbedding. So if Ms. Lombardini is really serious in her desire to lower production costs and thus help Hollywood and the AMPTP stay competitive in this dog-eat-digital-dog world, I suggest she start by cutting some of that very expensive above-the-line fat rather than saw the legs off the Industry by slashing crew size.

I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for that happy day.

So there you have it: under Carol Lombardini’s soothingly humanoid exterior beats the cold reptilian heart of a very different beast. The producers plan, it seems, is to mollify the “talent” with minimal cuts to their bloated paychecks while shoveling the serious shit downhill onto the backs of those who do the serious sweating in Hollywood.

Nice, huh?

At least we know where we stand now. The lizard queen has spoken.

* Otherwise known as the Evil Empire...

** Another form of fungus that also thrives on bullshit..

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Humpday Musings

Same as it ever was? I'm not so sure.

Patrick Goldstein (LA Times Film Industry columnist) ran an interesting column last week comparing today’s Industry troubles and panic in the executive suites with those of the past – 1969, to be specific. His focus is on the similarities between then and now: studios losing money hand-over-fist, A-list talent shocked to find their absurdly huge per-film fees going up in smoke, and a sclerotic studio ownership out of touch with the times, unable to grasp the slippery realities of doing business in a rapidly evolving era.

It's a column worth reading. Goldstein makes some valid points, most of which boil down to the need to nourish fresh creative talent and original approaches unhindered by the bean counters and brain-dead, button-down MBA drones currently running things, along with the eternal mantra that we all must do things faster, better, and (drum roll, please...) cheaper.

Man, am I getting tired of hearing that one...

Still, his point is well taken as far as it goes -- things were bad then, as now, but new blood came along with fresh approaches to cinematic story telling that brought a whole new generation of viewers to the theaters. No reason we can't do the same thing now, right?

Not so fast, Pat. I’d be a lot more encouraged by your little pep-talk if you hadn’t ignored the proverbial elephant in the room: the new digital technology that effectively torpedoed the economic models upon which the business has long been based. The Industry's problems in 1969 were largely of its own making, triggered by a cascade of bad investments in bloated, ill-conceived and overly-expensive productions that bombed at the box office. The VCR -- and the supposed threat such new technology represented (an assumption that turned out exactly wrong, BTW) was still a decade in the future. Anyone then who dared to speculate out loud about a future digital world -- or the black plague of internet piracy that would inevitably accompany it -- would have been laughed out of the room as some tinfoil-hat wearing Area 51 lunatic. In cultural and technological terms, 1969 was the Age of the Dinosaurs compared with today.

We face a radically different scenario, our industry undergoing a top-to-bottom technological revolution of the sort not seen since silent films got run into the ditch by “talkies.” In many ways, this is much more profound revolution, since the existing modes of distribution and monetization (gawd, do I hate that word...) continue to crumble with each passing day. Talkies might have killed the careers of many established silent stars, and initially resulted in plodding, static movies as the once-nimble silent cameras were suddenly encased in bulky sound-proof blimps, but they also gave movie-goers one more reason to flock to the theaters. The digital revolution seems to be doing just the opposite, to the point that it’s no longer unthinkable that buying a ticket to watch a film in a sit-down movie theater might one day become a quaintly retro experience, much like going to a drive-in is today.

Goldstein is dead on target in pointing out the damage done by corporate ownership of the biz, however. Seriously, how many fucking "Batman," “Spiderman,” and "Incredible Hulk" movies can we choke down before the audience begins to projectile-vomit all over the silver screen? How many comic books – er, excuse me, “graphic novels” – can be turned into gripping, multi-dimensional feature films that tell stories people actually care about? I recently heard there's a “Green Hornet” and a “Green Lantern” movie slated to go into production soon. From a business perspective, the beauty of comic-book movies is that they come with a pre-sold audience base -- but how many of today’s target audience has any idea who the Green Hornet or Green Lantern are? And if they have no connection with such green-hued superheros, why would they flock en masse to theaters once these movies are released?

I don’t know. Maybe the corporate droids are right -- maybe they really can keep force-feeding such pabulum into the open maw of an increasingly supine, indiscriminate, and illiterate audience, all the while making a handsome profit. As new technology so often does, the evolving digital revolution may well shape our tastes to create movies and shows very different from what we accept as “normal” today. Maybe we can look forward to hyper-realistic 3D features based on "Grand Theft Auto," or those heart-warming "first-person shooter" video games so popular with our youngest generation.

Geeze, I can hardly wait...

All I know is that movie theaters used to be where the really good stuff was found, while TV was merely an occasionally amusing wasteland -- and that's no longer true on either end of the equation.

In that vein, fans of “Mad Men” – now suffering withdrawal and marking their August, 2010 calendars – who didn’t hear last week’s interview with Matt Weiner on KCRW, really should. It’s a dense, revealing half hour that will help you understand just where Weiner is coming from in his approach to writing in general (and this show in particular) without offering any spoilers as to where the next season of “Mad Men” might be heading. If you love the show, you’ll really enjoy this interview.

Tim Goodman (SF Chronicle’s ace TV critic) has been running a weekly de-construction of each “Mad Men” episode throughout the season on “The Bastard Machine,” his Chronicle blog. These de-cons are consistently smart, perceptive, and thoughtful. I didn’t take to “Mad Men” initially – I missed most of Season One, and big chunks of Season Two – but Tim’s de-cons helped me get into the show and appreciate the depth and beauty of Matt Weiner and company’s work. If you’re not familiar with these de-cons, here’s the season finale -- and as usual, it’s a gem.

And on the subject of writers and writing for Hollywood, Rob Long had two wonderfully biting commentaries in the last couple of weeks: Cave, and Part of the Process. At four minutes each, you won’t lose much of your day tuning in, and it will be time well spent.

Last (and just because it’s Wednesday), here’s a little tidbit that has nothing whatsoever to do with the biz -- a video clip of an ex-soviet military jet buzzing the Santa Monica Pier last November. Why the story languished so long, I can’t say, but the LA Times finally posted the clip on its web site this week. The pilot must have had a totally giddy blast pulling this rather outrageous stunt – and in many ways, the surly, fuck-the-world adolescent buried deep inside me would have loved do something like that – but those two minutes of high-octane fun ended up costing him his license.*

* Be forewarned: the LA Times will see that you endure a 20 second commercial before the clip.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Play it Hot

Because shit happens...

Each of us discovers the incredible power of electricity in our own ways: Ben Franklin dangled a key from a kite in a thunderstorm, Thomas Edison electrocuted live animals in public (cats, dogs, horses, and even an elephant), while Nikola Tesla came up with wireless radio (among other things), and developed electrical theories that formed the basis of a second Industrial Revolution.

My portal of discovery involved a bobby pin my sister had left lying around, and a wall socket -- those two parallel slots so mysterious and inviting. One moment I was sitting there, spreading that bobby pin apart just enough so it would slide into those two slots, and the next instant I was being shaken to pieces at 60 cycles per second, like a rat in the jaws of a terrier. For what seemed like an eternity -- but very likely lasted only a fraction of a second -- I felt as if the Devil himself had turned me into a human jackhammer.

This happened fifty years ago, but the intensity of that moment remains burned into my brain like it was yesterday. I didn’t say anything to my parents, of course – there was no need to be reminded that that I’d once again done Something Stupid, for which the punishment had already been forcefully meted out. And although I went on to do many more Stupid Things during the bruising process of growing up (starting fires, building and blowing up pipe bombs, spinning cars, crashing motorcycles...) I never – ever -- stuck a bobby pin in a wall socket again.

Lesson learned.*

That initial jolt of electricity I experienced there on my parent's living room floor was only the first of many. Back on the farm, we had an electric fence to keep the goats, cows, and our enormous pig (a waddling, grunting garbage disposal) from escaping into the world at large. The fence operated on a high voltage/low amperage scale designed to get a large animal's attention without doing any permanent harm. Small animals weren't so lucky. It wasn't unusual to find a bird hanging dead from that fence, its clawed feet still curled tight around the hot wire. Landing on the wire was fine -- without somewhere to go, electricity is harmless -- but leaning over to peck at something on the metal fence pole (thus completing the circuit between the wire and the ground) was the fatal mistake. That fence knocked me on my ass more than once, reinforcing my fascination and respect for the power of this demonic, invisible force. On windy days, I'd sit there and watch crackling blue sparks burn clean through the tall dry grass where it brushed against the electrified wire.

By then, I'd learned the dangers of completing an electrical circuit the wrong way, but I soon acquired rudimentary arc-welding skills, using an unbelievably fierce electric flame to melt and join steel right before my heavily protected eyes. I got burned from time to time by the sparks and splattering bits of molten metal, but that welder never shocked me – which allowed me to understand that when properly channeled and controlled, electricity could do truly amazing things.

Maybe that’s why I became a juicer...

The term “set lighting” sounds self-explanatory -- the craft of illuminating sets on stage or location, and the actors who perform on them – but as always, the Devil is in the details. Day exteriors can usually be filmed using natural sunlight reflected, diffused, and precisely controlled to meet the needs of each shot. Some degree of artificial light is often required to maintain the proper direction of the light from shot to shot, as well as the crucial balance of key, fill, and back light on the actors in relation to the background. A simple dialog scene involving two or three people outdoors might last only a couple of minutes up on screen, but can easily take from sunup to sundown to shoot -- and sometimes beyond. Using artificial light allows the cinematographer to control the lighting, keeping each individual shot in proper balance with all the others. When properly done, such artificially-aided lighting enables an editor to cut the scene any way he/she desires without worry that a viewing audience will notice the subtle (and not-so subtle) shift of lighting conditions as the day progresses from dawn ‘til dusk. Sometimes, artificial light can save a job from disaster. I’ve worked on many shoots plagued with logistical and/or scheduling problems that forced us to pull every lamp off the truck and "make daylight" long after the sun went down. When properly done (and within certain limits), the audience will never know that some of those cloudy-bright shots were actually filmed in the dark of night.

The job of a set lighting technician (juicer) entails handling live power, and although this is generally safe when the rules are followed, faulty equipment or being in too big a hurry can occasionally release that invisible beast from its cage. Once it’s out, things get ugly fast, which is why we take such care to keep the lethal juice under control. Whenever possible, cable hookups are done cold, with the circuit not energized. Cables are color-coded and/or coded with knots on the tie rope designating each hot leg from the neutral and ground. Only when everything has been hooked up and checked (technically the best boy’s job, but something we all keep an eye on) will the circuit be energized, at which point a voltage reading is taken to make sure there’s been no mistake.

That’s when the warning goes out, shouted across the set and via walkie talkies: “play it hot.”

You do what you can to minimize the danger – wearing gloves when handing cables, never allowing your knees touch the ground while dealing with live power, and always using the back of your hand** (or preferably a meter) to field-test a piece of equipment suspected of being "hot."

Despite our precautions, getting shocked comes with the turf of being a juicer, and sooner or later we all "get bit." At a glancing touch, 120 volts of alternating current will deliver a jolt sufficient to make you a lot more careful next time – but far more serious is “getting hit” from a solid connection or higher voltage shock. Most veteran juicers I know have gotten hit at least once, and it’s experience you don’t forget.

My turn came one morning while filming a commercial at the Park Plaza Hotel just west of downtown LA. Having run the cable, fired up the genny, and tested the voltage, everything seemed fine. Once the lamps were burning inside, I left the set to check on the generator, a 750 amp A.C. plant parked out on the street. While talking with the driver -- and leaning with one hand against a parking meter -- I reached down to pick up a coiled extension cord lying on the genny's fender. The instant the back of my hand grazed the metal, an overpowering blast of electricity shot right through me, coursing from one hand across my chest and out the other hand to the parking meter.

I staggered back, dazed, not comprehending what had just happened. Once my wits returned, I measured the voltage between the genny and that parking meter at 220 volts -- a serious shock indeed. If for some reason I'd grabbed the genny's fender instead of simply brushing the metal, I could easily have gotten hooked-up and been in deep trouble.***

These days, I'd be sent to the medic after receiving such a shock, checked out, and possibly taken to the nearest hospital for observation. Back then, if you were still breathing after getting hit, you just kept working. I wrapped half a roll of rubber matting around that damned parking meter to prevent any more shocks, and we got through the rest of the day without further problems.

Not everything was better in the good old days...

Electricity remains a profound mystery. You can’t see it, smell it or taste it, and by the time you do feel it, things have already gone way bad. It's always there, though, lurking behind the insulation of those big copper cables -- a lethal monster in chains ready to break loose and put a careless/unlucky juicer in the morgue. The only safe way to work with electricity is to follow the rules, and always assume the worst.

Play it hot.

* That Ben Franklin and I both survived our initial brush with electricity was more a testament to good luck than anything else – and in that, we fared a lot better than Edison’s poor doomed elephant. Edison's most egregious sins were committed during his struggle to prevent Nikola Tesla's alternating current from gaining a toehold in the marketplace. It was this competition that led to the public electrocutions of animals, and Edison's role in the development of the electric chair.

** Never use the front of your fingers or open hand to test if something's hot. If you do (and it turns out to be hot) the muscles of your hand will instantly and uncontrollably contract. You will then be "hooked up" -- receiving a continuous shock until someone is able to knock you free or kill the power. By that time you can be very dead.

*** I still haven't figured this one out. Normally, a 220 volt hot leg will register 110 volts when metered to a ground -- you only get a full 220 volt reading between two hot legs. While taking one of the Industry safety classes a few years ago, I told the instructor this story, and it baffled him. The only thing he could think of was that the parking meter must have been hot itself, from another source of power -- possibly due to leaking voltage from underground lines feeding the Park Plaza Hotel.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

It's Beginning to look a lot like Christmas... Hollywood Style

While doing a day of rigging a couple of weeks ago, we had some cable to wrap on the studio's "New York Street" back-lot, where a big crew of rock-and-roll roadies were loading in for a Christmas Special starring one of the many "American Idol" winners. Since I pay no pay attention to Unreality TV, I didn't recognize the name, nor can I recall it now.

Not that it matters. Whoever it was is just another media-manufactured star de jour, a cultural flash-in-the-pan destined to begin the long spiral down into wounded obscurity in a year or three -- yet one more addition to the steaming pile of vox populi celebrity, and ultimately, another name for a future trivia game.

First, a truck-load of phony Christmas trees waiting to be lugged onto the stage...

Next, the enormous snowflakes, giant candy canes, and snow blankets...

And finally, a wide shot of the whole kit and caboodle -- or as much as my lens could take in. Trust me, there was more (a lot more) lighting and sound equipment waiting to be unloaded, hauled into the stage, set up, powered, adjusted, fine-tuned -- then fine-tuned some more -- before being ready for the show.

And as soon as the last shot was in the can, it all had to be disassembled, carefully loaded back into all those rolling cases and onto the trucks, then driven the next painful gig.

Working on television and features can be tough, but having seen (many times) what these roadies go through every working day, I'm not sure you could pay me enough to do their job.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Hiatus Week #523

I pretty much got my ass kicked day-playing on a new show last week (I really should re-name this blog “Confessions of the Standby Juicer”), so I’m taking the day off to let others do the heavy lifting on this fine and glorious Sunday. In place of my usual lathered-up views on life in the biz, I offer a few items Discriminating Readers of Good Taste might find amusing. First up, something that may (or may not) become an occasional feature here, highlighting some shiny bit of flotsam that happens to wash up on my own little stretch of Hollywood beach. I’m calling it the...

Random Quote of the Week

“In situations like this, the Cursing Mommy recommends that you take three deep breaths, concentrate inwardly on some attractive and relaxing vacation scene, and scream “Fuck!” at the top of your lungs. There – I feel better. Don’t you?”

Excerpt from “Easy Cocktails from the Cursing Mommy,” by Ian Frazier -- New Yorker Magazine Sept. 14, 2009

Next, a nice little interview with Rob Long on “LAist,” in which he recounts how he came to be a successful writer/producer in the television business. His story will probably make every writer now trying to land that crucial first professional gig in Hollywood want to run out and beat his/her head against the nearest brick wall, but the world was a very different place back when Rob was a young sprout looking to make his mark on the biz. Those fat and happy times are gone, probably for good, in this bleak pre-apocalyptic era. But it’s a revealing interview, and after you read it, you really should click the “Martini Shot” link on my Industry blogroll (on the right side of the page) and listen to the last two or three of Rob’s weekly four minute meditations of life in the biz. They’re smart, funny, and very much on point – and right now, we could all use good laugh.

If you’re new to the biz, still trying to catch your first Industry break, or simply unemployed and in need of some interesting Industry-related reading, try Nat Bocking’s thorough examination of the reality of shooting on distant locations. In “Lights, camera, trouble,” Nat offers an A-to-Z assessment of everything from the economic impact a production can have on the location community (and the effect those runaway-production subsidies have had on some states) to keeping the peace between the film crew and locals – and you can read it here.

Last, a recent column from a long-time fave of mine, Jon Carroll of my home planet newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle. He's been writing a more-or-less daily column for something like three decades now, covering an astonishingly wide spectrum of subjects that all seem to relate back to the frustrations, joys, and horrors of our shared Human Condition in this modern world. Here, Jon dissects a full page ad for a new drug called “Humira” that appeared in his paper – and like much of his writing, is a little bit scary and a whole lot of funny packed into 800 words.

It might take you two or three minutes to read, and is well worth your time.*

With any luck – and less of a work beat-down in the week to come – I’ll have a real post here next Sunday.

*The odd little passage in italics at the end is something he does at the end of every column, some quirky bit that may or may not have anything to do with the subject at hand.