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, December 19, 2010

'Tis the Season

Bring it on, Santa...

By the time this goes to post I should be splashing my way up Interstate 5 through the deluge towards a Christmas break on the Home Planet. My brain is in a fog at the keyboard on this dank Saturday morning, thanks to a grueling work week that ended late last night. Script re-writes delivered an extra (and very large) set to our stage Monday morning -- this in addition to the two we were prepared to light, resulting in longer, harder days to get everything properly lit in time for Friday night's show. There were something like 40 extras in this episode -- and for the on-set crew, that was not good news. Having to wade through a herd that size always makes it a lot harder to get the job done.

But such is life in the Hollywood circus, where a stretch of quick-and-easy days usually makes me feel decidedly uneasy. "Easy" means calm, and given that a period of calm invariably precedes a storm, "easy" is what happens as you sink into the quicksand of complacency -- and the wake-up call from that is always rude. When things get easy on set for too many days in a row, you know damned well a bruising bitch-slap is coming soon.

But with light at the end of the 2010 tunnel, they really couldn't hurt us this week no matter how hard they tried. The blocking/pre-shoot day was the usual tedious, draining, needles-in-my-eyes ordeal, and if the shoot night itself wasn't much better, the prospect of a Christmas party to be thrown by the production company after the show helped leaven our day.

Hey, there's nothing quite like the prospect of dropping the tool belt and heading for the chocolate fountain buffet and a glass of decent red wine to take the sting out of a long work day. Toss in the traditional bag of Xmas goodies -- modest gifts to each crew member from the producers and cast -- and the night ended on a high note.

So that's it for this year. The show is down for two weeks, then we return early in January to crank out yet more television on into April. I'm wrapping things up here at BST for 2010 as well. If some random inspiration hits -- and hits hard -- I might post something between now and 2011, but the odds of that lie somewhere on the far side of "slim" and the near side of "none."

Which is to say not impossible, but highly unlikely.

And that's just fine. Christmas is a good time to think about anything and everything but the business of Hollywood. There will be endless opportunity to delve into all that during the New Year to come.

So to all of you who stop by here on a regular basis, or just from time to time -- thanks for tuning in, paying attention, and for your occasional questions and comments. I wish you all the very best this season can offer.

Merry Christmas...

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Back to the Hammer

Because it feels so good to stop...

After six weeks off – during which I limped my way through a long week doing the cable transplant, caught a few more days of rigging work, then made a brief escape to the Home Planet – I'm back in harness on the show. It was good to be away and now it’s good to be back, for all the usual reasons. Still, if everyone seems happy to be gathering once again for the shared purpose of making the next fifteen episodes, all is not sweetness and light. A few faces on the crew are missing, some gone to other (non-cable rate) shows, but at least one who was given the boot, a victim of some mysterious intra-departmental strife. You never really know what’s going on within other departments, but an Industry built upon a foundation of enormous and extremely sensitive egos inevitably seems to require a periodic human sacrifice. The lack of active volcanoes or equally inactive virgins here in Hollywood rules out more traditional means of appeasing an angry deity, leaving only the brutal-but-effective ritual of throwing another hapless innocent -- the sacrificial lamb, so to speak -- under an onrushing bus. But in the zero-sum game that is Hollywood, one person’s loss is always someone else’s gain, which is why the new faces on set were all nervously smiling,

They know just how lucky they are.

Shit happens, as the bumper sticker says, and with some frequency here in Tinsel Town. I’ve worked on more than one movie that started out all smiles, then rapidly devolved into a virtual slaughterhouse -- wholesale firings of entire departments from one week to the next for no glaringly obvious reasons. Clearly somebody was unhappy about something (usually a director or producer, although at least once the culprit was a churlish, two-faced DP), but each of those shows ended up wrapping with a very different crew than started out. Most of the time I survived the pogroms, but not always. Our DP got fired one long, ugly week into a highly forgettable low-budget biker film, and since the DP hired the gaffer who then hired the crew, we were all thrown overboard while the survivors (and our replacements) sailed on to complete the show.*

Having been on both sides of that grim equation, I can tell you it sucks. I hate to see good people get “disappeared” unless there’s an extremely serious problem -- and that’s the thing: it’s rarely a serious problem, but more often a matter of perception. Some Very Self-Important Person takes offense at a perceived slight or sees something he/she doesn’t like, and bingo, the slaughter commences. One sit-com I did years ago started out great -– we re-shot the pilot and three new episodes, then went on our first one-week hiatus. We returned to find an entirely new camera crew: four new operators, focus pullers, and dolly grips. The starting twelve hadn’t done anything wrong -– the shows looked fine -- but the executive producers decided they'd feel "more comfortable" with their regular crew from a previous show. What made this such a cruel twist was that the new television season was by then well underway, with all the other new shows fully crewed up, leaving those unlucky twelve people high and dry while desperately seeking day-playing gigs to survive the duration.

The producers who pulled the trigger paid for their sins in the form of some well-deserved bad karma. When that show didn't get picked up for the back nine (to complete a full season of twenty-two episodes), it was dead by Christmas, after which it took them five long years to steer another pilot through the white water of pilot season all the way to the upfronts and a series pickup. Five years of repeated failure is an eternity in the world of television.

Another sit-com I worked on signed a well-known and very experienced director to do the first thirteen episodes. That meant the producers were contractually obligated to pay him for every one of those shows, even when they fired him after the first three. I never learned why he was canned, but heard through the grapevine that he then made a conscious decision to refuse any other work that came his way during the next four months just to make sure those producers had to pay him every penny of the $300,000 or so he was due.**

Nothing so dramatic happened on my current show, where just one innocent ended up having his heart ripped from his chest on the bloody sacrificial altar. He'll certainly be missed, but other than that, it felt really good to get back to work that first day. I was a bit rusty at first -– it’s amazing how quickly the skills, rhythm, and discipline essential to doing this job properly can slip away -– but the old programming returned soon enough. Once again I was reminded how much I’d missed the sheer physicality of the job: the climbing, straining, and occasional heavy lifting required to hang and power so many lamps. There’s an undeniable satisfaction in such basic, real-world work that's hard to find anywhere else.

After three days of lighting, though, came the blocking and pre-shoot day -– and that’s when I remembered just how tedious making a sit-com can be. Working with a new director, the cast and crew were unusually subdued, and the resulting slow pace made the minutes pass like hours. The entire (seemingly endless) blocking day felt like having my teeth pulled out one by one sans anesthetic, but we finally got through it and a similarly deliberate audience shoot the following night to put a merciful end our first week back.

As I walked out the big stage doors into the late night chill -- and towards the weekend -- I remembered the call-and-response answer to the eternal (if apocryphal) question, “Why do you keep hitting yourself in the head with a hammer?”

“Because it feels so good when I stop.”

That’s it in a nutshell: Work is a fine and necessary endeavor, but the one thing you can count on through the ups and downs of every work week is that it always feels so good when it stops...

* Sometimes it's all for the best. That movie starred a fresh-from-rehab and thus extremely tense Gary Busey, which made for one uptight, uncomfortable set. Getting canned was a blow to the DP, but personally, I was happy to be off that god-damned show.

** As I understand it, had he been hired by another show during that time, our producers would have been off the hook for his salary.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

In the Shadows

Here comes the bride...

(photo courtesy of E Online)

I’ve long been a fan of Mary McNamara, a wonderful writer who first came to my attention in the LA Times with “Drive Time,” her series of smart, insightful columns examining the cultural mores surrounding cars, driving, and life here in Southern California. Back in those heady days, newspapers still made enough money to maintain a full staff of talented writers musing on all kinds of subjects -- but things have changed in that regard, and not for the better. Still, McNamara survived the plague of management shuffles and cost-cutting purges over the past few years to emerge as one of the Time's best television critics, wielding a merciless and delightfully snarky pen.

Only in the last year or so did I notice another excellent writer among the Time's slate of critics. Robert Lloyd is no less thoughtful than Mary McNamara, if a tad less savage. His perceptive, beautifully crafted reviews of television shows and performers are a pleasure to read. Two typical examples of his work graced the paper recently, a warm and deeply nuanced dissection of Jimmy Fallon’s late night show, and a gentle-but-thorough evisceration of E! channel’s latest unreality show featuring insecure brides enduring pre-marital plastic surgeries in their ceaseless quest to sculpt themselves into something closer to society’s officially sanctioned template of the Feminine Ideal -- tattoos and all.

And since no amount of manufactured "drama" is ever enough to fill the black hole at the heart of such a show, the geniuses at E! upped the ante by creating a competition among these desperate brides-to-be to win a "Dream Celebrity-Style Wedding."

No wonder the Taliban hates us...

I’ve never seen Jimmy Fallon, but Lloyd’s review makes a persuasive case that the overall tone and approach of his show offers at least some hope for humanity (albeit of a low-key variety), while E!’s latest reeks of the usual manipulative voyeuristic garbage festering at the rotten core of most “reality television.” Shows of this ilk make me wonder if we really are living in a latter-day Rome, a society and culture crumbling from within while stumbling towards collapse -- but then I remind myself that it's only TV, and thus nothing much to worry about.

All this reminded me of an e-mail I received from a young lady in E!'s development department a couple of years ago. She'd come across this blog, where one particular post caught her hungry eye, leading to the following proposition:


I work at E! in development, I came across your blog this week and I thought you or someone you know may be good for a show we are currently developing. We are working on a half hour special about outrageous jobs in the entertainment industry. Everyone loved your story about being a Juicer and having to work in downtown with the urine and feces soaked streets. Are you currently working on a show? What we are looking to do is send the host of the show to your job so he can learn about it and try his hand at the work himself. It's a fun light special that will take a behind the scenes type of look at some of the jobs that make the entertainment industry possible. Let me know what you are working on and if there’s a time that we can talk over the phone.


I'd just started a sit-com pilot out at Sony, but bringing an E! camera crew on stage to follow me around with their shucking-and-jiving host would have turned the proceedings into a circus, and in the process, almost certainly have gotten me fired. Besides, although there's no shortage of BS to wade through on a typical Hollywood sound stage, there's not much in the way of “urine and feces soaked streets” for the cameras of E! to lovingly linger upon. For that, they'll have to venture onto the mean and filthy streets of downtown LA.

I sent back a very polite e-mail declining E!'s offer, thus blowing my big chance to step from the shadows into the bright lights. That's fine with me. I've made a living working behind the lights for thirty-some years now, and in those shadows is where I belong -- and where I'll stay.

For a biting take on the latest sorry example of the “Housewives....” unreality genre, check out this highly entertaining post from Ken Levine’s blog...

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Yes, it's another Hiatus Week...

On my current show's front porch set, doing what I do best...

After a busy week back on the show, I've got nothing for you today. There's lots of stuff in the works, but nothing remotely ready to post -- and to paraphrase the immortal words of the great Orson Welles during the last sad act of his storied career, "I shall publish no post before its time."

What I will do -- just so you don't go home empty-handed -- is re-post a link to this short video that was included at the very end of a recent post.* Being so far down the page, there's a chance you didn't notice it, or take the time to check it out -- and after putting it up, it occurred to me that I probably should have saved it for another post. So here it is again, a short clip from an IMAX film (only three minutes long) that you really have to see to believe -- even after watching it three times, I still can't quite wrap my brain around what those guys do for a living. That's some serious juicing, folks.

Watch it and wonder if you've got what it takes to do that job. I sure as hell don't -- I'll stick to my ladders and man-lifts, thankyouverymuch...

To steal a line from my state's outgoing governator, "I'll be back."

* And thanks to my good friend D.J. Bummerpants for alerting me to this clip...

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Here it Comes...

Yes, nothing says "Christmas spirit" here in LA quite like Larry Flynt's Hustler Casino...

With Thanksgiving and Black Friday shrinking in our collective cultural rear-view mirrors, the Christmas shopping season is now roaring full throttle towards the checkered flag of Dec. 25th. Much as I dislike the overtly commercial nature of this holiday, I'm no more immune from the pressures than anyone else -- and so I too joined the fray, using the last couple of weeks to cross a few names off my own gift list with some obscure CDs Amazon was unable to supply. Instead, I was directed to a company called CD Baby.

I realize that the current generation looks upon CDs much as my own peers viewed the quill pen and sun dial. Given that I grew up in the era of the 45 single and 33 rpm LP (which is what we called records before they acquired the hip/retro status of "vinyl"), I still view CDs as a relatively new technology, but kids today dismiss the shiny silver discs as dusty relics dating back to the Dead Sea Scrolls. Although CDs are indeed digital, they still have an actual physical presence -- you have to remove each disc from the jewel case and insert it into a player before the good times can roll. In an era of the invisible and utterly weightless MP3, this is apparently considered to be unspeakably crude.

It’s not like I'm a complete Luddite -- I’ve got an Ipod and a nice new radio with a dock to play all those ephemeral MP3 tunes – but that sound system also has a CD player. Having amassed several hundred CDs since they first hit the marketplace back in the early 80’s, I’m not about to toss them all in favor of their MP3 successors.

Let’s just say I have a hard time trusting anything I can’t hold in my hands, a stance that is decidedly behind the times – just like me.

Anyway... a few days after ordering those two CDs, I received the following e-mail:

“Your CDs have been gently taken from our CD Baby shelves with sterilized contamination-free gloves and placed onto a satin pillow. A team of 50 employees inspected your CDs and polished them to make sure they were in the best possible condition before mailing. Our packing specialist from Japan lit a candle and a hush fell over the crowd as he put your CDs into the finest gold-lined box that money can buy. We all had a wonderful celebration afterwards and the whole party marched down the street to the post office where the entire town of Portland waved "Bon Voyage!" to your package, on its way to you, in our private CD Baby jet on this day, November 18, 2010.

We hope you had a wonderful time shopping at CD Baby. In commemoration, we have placed your picture on our wall as "Customer of the Year." We're all exhausted but can't wait for you to come back to CDBABY.COM!!

Thank you, thank you, thank you!


We miss you already. We'll be right here at, patiently awaiting your return.”

I don’t know if it was a particularly slow day up there in Oregon -- or if maybe the employees decided to take the edge off a dreary gray afternoon by indulging in some of Portland's famous microbrews or smoking a little something special up on the roof -- but they certainly seemed to be having a good time. Their “order shipped” message was infinitely more creative and fun than anything I’ve ever received from Amazon – or anywhere else, for that matter. In an era when slickness in marketing and the bottom line seems to be everything, such a playful approach to the business of selling is refreshing.

Really, when's the last time an e-mail from any company made you smile?

Hey, I’m just glad somebody out there in the Retail Jungle is having a little fun in the grim crush of this Christmas season...

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Breaking the Rules

Ape and Essence*

Oops, that's a no-no...**

A recent post discussed the use of green beds on sound stages, which I much prefer to the infinitely less user-friendly (but cheaper, if only in the short run) alternative of pipe grids as a platform for rigging lamps. Still, we live and work in the world that is rather than the land of ought-to-be, and the near-universal embrace of pipe grids in my little cloister of multi-camera sit-coms requires us to make extensive use of ladders and electric man-lifts to hang, power, and adjust the hundreds of lamps every sit-com employs. I’ve spent more hours than I care to recall atop ten and twelve step ladders, and on many occasions have worked an entire shift up in a man lift, swaying to and fro while rigging lamps for eight to ten hours. After such a stint, I invariably come back to earth feeling much like a sailor freshly returned to solid ground after a long ocean voyage, with "sea legs" fully adapted to a world of random movement beneath my feet. That phantom sensation of constant motion often stays with me all the way into bed that night.

The sets are usually still under construction by the time we start rigging a stage. There are carpenters, painters, and all their equipment to maneuver around, but at least the furniture – desks, tables, chairs, couches, ottomans, rugs, end tables, bookshelves, refrigerators, stoves, sinks, and cabinets – isn't yet in our way. The pipe grid itself is wide open and easy to work on in those early days, but as the week progresses, both the sets and the grid grow increasingly crowded. Once we’ve got enough lamps rigged and powered to rough-in the lighting for one set, we move on to the next so the grips can go in and hang all their equipment from the pipes – an aerial forest of meat axes, flags, and long teasers to cut and control the light. By the time we come back to continue the lighting (it’s never really “complete” – we’re always tweaking and adding “specials” to meet the unique needs of each new episode), that pipe grid becomes ever more difficult to access. At a certain point, it's literally impossible to reach certain portions of those pipes while following the approved rules for working in a man-lift -- upward progress is completely blocked by the lamps and grip equipment already in place. Where possible, we'll use ten and twelve step ladders to do the work, but as the sets become increasingly jammed with heavy, bulky set dressing, those big ladders can't always be opened out all the way. Climbing a ladder in such circumstances is not only dangerous, but very much against the safety regulations.

That’s when we start bending -- and breaking -- the rules.

Just as each studio has its own list of on-set safety regulations, so too does the Industry at large through the so-called “Safety Passport” system.*** The rules pertaining to the use of aerial lifts on stage are straightforward – we’re only allowed to work in a scissor lift or single-man lift while inside the caged work platform. We’re not to climb up on the side or top rails of the lift, and are absolutely forbidden from exiting the lift while it’s up high. Some studios require the use of a safety harness while using any type of lift – even a single-man lift, which is so far beyond stupid that I can’t even wrap my brain around the notion – but we’ve entered an era where the common sense and long experience of people who know exactly what they’re doing is routinely shoved aside by the obessessively liability-averse “wisdom” of corporate legal departments.

Once a set has been lit, there’s often no way to reach the pipe grid (and thus adjust a lamp or add a new one) without either standing on the very top of a 10 step ladder -– which is verboten – or climbing up on the high hand rail of a lift that can go no higher without disturbing the previously deployed grip and lighting equipment. If done properly, this isn't particularly dangerous – it’s not like walking a high wire with the Flying Wallendas. So long as you keep both feet on the rails and one hand on a pipe, you’re not going to fall. Even when (as is often the case) both hands are required to do the work, you can usually brace yourself against the grid or a stirrup hanger for that crucial third-point of support -- and when there’s nothing to lean on, you just plant your feet carefully and proceed slowly, with deliberate caution.

It's no big deal -- every sit-com grip and juicer I know does this on a regular basis. It's just the nature of the job.****

But sometimes even the top rail won’t get you where you need to be to get the job done. That’s when the rule book goes up in flames, because you just might have to do an EVA (as in Extra Vehicular Activity) -- leave the safety of the man-lift while up high and venture out atop the pipe grid hanging onto the chains for balance. I've had to do this very rarely, and never in a casual manner, but sometimes there’s simply no other choice. Before doing so, I take a long look at where I have to go and exactly what needs to be done to make dead certain it’s safely doable. Only when I have complete confidence do I open the gate and venture out onto those pipes. No safety harness, no net, no nothing – just sixteen to eighteen feet of empty space (and lots of furniture) underneath those pipes.

Stepping out there is always a very strange moment, and something of a gut-check. The first time I had to do an EVA, I felt an odd, almost giddy sense of freedom leaving the lift behind. That came as a real surprise, since my biggest concern had been that I might pucker up and freeze once the lift was out of reach -- which could be a real problem –- but instead, I felt great. I suddenly recalled a day back on the home planet many years ago, when I’d climbed a good sixty feet up a huge Bishop Pine tree, trimming limbs with a hand saw as I went. Once I’d cut away the dead and overgrown branches, I found a secure branch to sit for a while and just looked out at the view -- thousands of trees all the way down the ridge to the shimmering water below. It was a wonderfully serene and peaceful experience, the big tree swaying with the wind, in tune with rhythms that took root and evolved millions of years before the advent of man. Eventually the sun sank low on the horizon and I had to come down, but I’ve never forgotten the experience.

Our ancient ancestors once lived in the trees, fearful (for good reason) of what awaited them down on that very dangerous ground below. Eventually they descended for good, but I think there’s still a part of our primordial brain that remains in tune with life in the trees – ancient circuits that helped us deal with and respond to the tug of gravity up there, and the intense focus required to maintain proper balance. The blood of those ancestors still courses though all our veins, and up on those pipes, I feel a tangible connection reaching all the way back to our collective primate past. There's nothing remotely modern or abstract about it -- you hang on tight, get the work done, then beat a careful retreat back to the lift. It's best to do this when no one is watching, of course (especially your best boy or gaffer, who tend to get nervous seeing one of their crew quite literally go ape), but once back in the lift, the mission accomplished, I always feel a very satisfying glow from within. Whether this is due to adrenaline, endorphins, or the simple physical reaffirmation of my ability to work in the three dimensional world, I really don't know.

What I do know is that occasionally connecting with the ancestral ape inside always leaves me feeling much less like a mindless work-bot, and a lot more like a living, breathing human being.

And rules or not, that's a good thing.

* With apologies to Aldous Huxley...

** Not that I recommend standing on the top of a ladder, mind you, but sometimes there's no other choice.

*** The Safety Passport Program is widely considered to be a joke among the rank-and-file in the trenches. A few of the mandatory classes provide some useful information, but the program overall stinks of something created to erect a legal shield from liability for producers and the studios rather than any serious concern for worker safety.

From what I hear, Warner Brothers is one of the worst offenders amongst the major studios at strict enforcement of absurdly unworkable restrictions on people working in lifts. I'm not sure what crawled up their ass over there on Barham Boulevard, but somebody up in the executive suites is in desperate need of an enema administered with a fire-hose...

**** It certainly isn't anything like what this juicer does every day...

Thursday, November 25, 2010


I wish I was a good enough writer to come up with one of those deep, soul-searching Thanksgiving posts expressing what this holiday really is -- or should be -- all about. But I'm not. Anything I put up here today would come across as preachy, maudlin, or soaked in a sepia-tinted nostalgia for a past that certainly wasn't as good as my memory seems to think.

So I'll stick to posts about cable, lights, and the occasional moments of grace that flash like distant lightning across the parched brown hills overlooking Hollywood. Today, I leave the heavy lifting to one of my own favorite writers, Jon Carroll, a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. He's been writing those columns for a long time now (somewhere between twenty and thirty years, I think), and has a way with words I can only dream of. Jon wrote a great column in today's Chron on the real meaning of Thanksgiving -- just eight hundred words or so, but well worth your time. Seriously.

You know what they say on TV -- read it with someone you love.

And have a wonderful Thanksgiving...

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Last Tycoon

Dino De Laurentiis receiving the Thalberg Award in 2001.

(Photo by Mike Blake, of Reuters)

Dino DeLaurentiis died last week. Although he hadn’t done much lately – hardly surprising, given his age – he was a major presence in Hollywood and beyond for a very long time. As the first line of his obituary in the NY Times testifies, his body of work spanned an astonishingly wide spectrum:

“Dino De Laurentiis, the high-flying Italian film producer and entrepreneur whose movies ranged from some of Federico Fellini’s earliest works to “Serpico,” “Death Wish” and the 1976 remake of “King Kong,” died on Wednesday at his home in Beverly Hills, Calif. He was 91.”

That his portfolio included such cultural landmarks as “Barbarella, “Blue Velvet,” and “Mandingo” – each notable for very different reasons – only serves to underline the protean nature of his drive and talents.

I did a feature in North Carolina during the heyday of his low budget studio operation in Wilmington. Our production wasn’t affiliated with him or his studio, but over the course of the shoot I got to know some of the local grips, juicers, and camera people who had learned their craft thanks to Dino De Laurentiis. Largely because of him, Wilmington morphed from a sleepy little coastal city into a very happening place in the feature world for a while, and planting the seed for the runaway production that would later hit Hollywood so hard.

The good times down there didn’t last, of course, but such is the nature of life: at first it’s all sunshine and smiles, later comes the weeping in the dark...

I only saw the man once, while doing a week of pick-ups for the Kurt Russell drama Breakdown.* We were filming on some god-forsaken location in the hinterlands north of LA when he paid a visit to the set, pulling up in a limo accompanied by one of his production lackeys.** I was surprised at how small he really was, but with that great big smile, he projected a presence that far overshadowed his physical size. He seemed genial and friendly, a man utterly at home in -- and in charge of -- this world of cinematic make-believe. Nothing much happened, really. He just sat in a high director's chair and watched us work for an hour or so, but he's the only thing I still remember about that day. In a world that even then was increasingly ruled by faceless corporate executives who know nothing but the bottom line, here was a man who ran with his instincts and made things happen.

De Laurentiss was behind so many movies that never would have happened without his involvement, and if they weren’t all great, at least they got made. That's nothing to sneeze at -- after all, they call it "Show Business," not "Art Business," and he got the business done. There’s nobody quite like him these days, when so many movies are either monster-budget comic books/blown-up video games produced by soulless corporate droids, or micro-budget horror films made by one or two truly obsessed individuals. Whatever you think of him or his movies, it will be a long time (if ever) before we see another Dino De Laurentiis. In all the ways that matter, he really was the last tycoon.

* There’s a great story I wish I could tell you about Russell on that shoot – but to spill the beans would violate the code of this blog...

** As it turned out, I'd worked with this guy many years before, when he was still pretending to be a juicer. Actually, he was the Best Boy of the low budget piece of junk we were filming, a role that required acting talent far beyond his level of skill or knowledge. Example: On our very first day of production, he asked me -- the juicer working under him -- which end of the cable went towards the generator and which went to the set. I couldn't believe my ears. He wasn’t a bad fellow, just a guy in way over his head.

Good thing he went into production...

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Cable Transplant

This is a 96 piece 4/0 run for the film "Deep Impact." I had nothing to do with the rig (thank God), but a friend who did sent me the photographic proof. No wonder his back still hurts all these years later...*

For a juicer, it always comes back to cable. It’s ugly stuff: black, dirty, and invariably heavy. On a new location, each work day begins with running cable from the generator to the set -- pulling those heavy coils off the truck or cart, loosening the ropes, tying the proper code knots, then stringing it out. Twelve to sixteen hours later (after the director, actors, producers, hair and makeup, camera and sound departments, set dressers, props, craft service, and all but one or two hapless PAs are long gone), all that cable has to be wrapped back into tight coils, tied up snugly, then loaded back on the truck.

The sheer dead weight of it -– particularly 4/0, the foundation of set lighting and bane of every juicer’s existence -– is almost shocking. When properly wrapped, a hundred feet of 4/0 forms a thick coil about the size of a car tire. At anywhere from 85 to 96 pounds (depending on the manufacturer and thickness of insulation), this is right at the limit of what the average juicer can heft and carry on his/her shoulder. Big studs can carry two pieces of 4/0 at once, but such muscular bravado is a fool’s game that eventually wreaks havoc on the back, knees, ankles, and feet. I weighed in around a hundred and fifty pounds when I first started juicing, and just couldn’t believe how absurdly heavy 4/0 really was. Now -- older, fatter, and three surgeries later -- I can still get a coil of 4/0 up to my shoulder and carry it when necessary, but my back always hates me for it the next morning.

Sometimes I wonder if we might be better off if it was even heavier. If 4/0 weighted 200 pounds per roll, nobody would expect us to lift and carry the stuff. OSHA regulations would mandate the design and use of mechanical lifts to do the heavy lifting, and powered carts to transport the cable. Then again, there’s always somewhere the power needs to go that such mechanical devices couldn’t – up a church steeple or an impossibly precipitous hillside, for instance. One way or another, we’d have to get the cable up there, so I guess it’s just as well 4/0 doesn’t weigh 200 pounds.


Episodic television productions generally employ a rigging crew to lay the cable in before first unit shows up, then pick it up after they show boys are done filming.** Sit-coms – especially low budget cable shows – rarely go on location, so once the stage rig is in, most of the cable wrangling is over until the season wraps. Indeed, it took a veteran of the multi-camera wars to help me understand the advantages of working for cable rate. Yes, the money is 20% under union scale, he noted, but the strict budget ceiling of many cheapo cable shows means they never go on location or work excessive overtime –- both of which cost extra money.

If such cable shows won’t pay much, at least they don’t beat us up too often. Since I’ve pretty much given up on ever making any real money again in this business, I can settle for less back-breaking, blood-letting toil. Hey, everything in life is a compromise -- at a certain point you just take what you can get and make the best of things.

So with the new stage rigged and ready for the fifteen more episodes, we should be cruising, right?

Wrong -- the God of Hollywood always finds a way to make us pay. The wrinkle here was that at the time we made the big move from one stage to another, the studio was so busy that the lamp dock had run out of equipment, so they had to sub-rent all the cable and dimmer packs for our new stage. When we got picked up (with a few week’s hiatus before coming back to shoot the next fifteen episodes), upper management had the bright idea to send all the sub-rented equipment back to the vendors and replace it with brand new gear. Yes, that meant laying out major dollars to buy all that new equipment, but the rentals over the next five months would pay for most of it, if not the whole bundle. From the perspective of those shirt-and-tie warriors who stare at computer screens all morning while struggling with the weighty dilemma of where-oh-where to have lunch today, this was a win/win scenario.

For us it was yet another not-so-subtle blend of the good and the bad. Yes, we’d get five more days work out of the deal (and since work = money = life, that’s always a good thing), but that meant unhooking and dropping the cable we just put up high four weeks ago – all 180 pieces, 14,500 feet, and 10,000 pounds of it – then replacing it with brand new cable. This had to be done very carefully, marking each of the fifty drops from up high to the pipe grid so that the 300 individual lamps (each on their own dimmable channel) would remain in the proper order once the new cable was installed. By the time it was over, we'd removed and replaced nearly six miles and ten tons of cable just to get back to where we’d started.

Talk about the labors of Sisyphus...

This was a full cable transplant, the first I’ve ever had occasion to do on an up-and-running show, which made for a busy, sweaty, and bruising week. The studio rigging crew pulled out the big dimmer packs, each roughly the size and weight of a refrigerator jam-packed with beer, while another show took our high-tech dimmer board as a back-up for their live shoots. Essentially, this whole operation was like doing a complete heart, brain, and blood vessel transplant for our show. At this point, the new blood vessels are in -– all that cable -- but the dimmers have yet to arrive or be installed, and we’ll still need a new dimmer board.

Our last act before locking up the stage was to test each of those 300 circuits to make sure they worked, using hot, non-dimmed power –- and after replacing one bad piece of cable, all were good. Now we just have to plug in the new dimmer packs and board to be made whole once again.

This should all work fine, in theory -– but the God of Hollywood is a fickle mistress with a cruel sense of humor and no mercy whatsoever. I’ve got a feeling she's not quite done with us yet.

* Thanks, Danny...

** Riggers get no relief whatsoever. For them it’s all cable, all the time...

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Lost in the Aisles

Into the Labyrinth

Stop fucking with my amygdala, you bastards...

(Wherein your faithful -- if increasingly cranky -- correspondent wanders far off the Hollywood reservation to foam at the mouth about one of the many indignities that plague modern life.)

Other than a few choice walking neighborhoods crowded with restaurants and retail outlets – or out at the beach -- you don’t see too many people ambulating on two legs here in LA. Yes, there's the occasional power-walking babe grimly marching towards the cultural/media-mandated ideal of the Perfect Feminine Form to the beat of her Ipod, along with the usual solitary dog-walkers, most of whom hold the leash in one hand and a brand new Smart Phone in the other. The dog -- along with the rest of the living, breathing world -- is utterly ignored in favor that shiny little electronic bauble. Although I see something like this every day, it never ceases to astonish me. LA might be enjoying the most gorgeous day in creation, with so much to see all around, but these too-hip young zombies remain hypnotized by that little glowing screen.

Other than these Walking Dead, the cliche pretty much holds true:, “Nobody walks in LA”

What you do see are lots (and LOTS) of cars on the roads. Granted, each vehicle is piloted by an individual person, but once strapped in behind the wheel, he/she ceases being human and morphs into a kind of automotive cyborg -- a bio-mechanical interface between the human amygdala and the gas pedal.

You've heard of the amygdala: buried in the deepest recesses of the brain, this nasty, paranoid little gland is a fight-or-flight remnant from the very early days of evolution, when the most terrifying primordial monsters imaginable ruled our blood-soaked earth. To quote the WiseGeek:

“The amygdala is most commonly associated with the emotions of fear and anxiety... It is also associated with the emotion of pleasure, though mainly in a negative sense, i.e., the pleasure sometimes inherent in aggression.”

That explains why otherwise pleasant, normal people become bloodthirsty psychopaths behind the wheel -- they actually get off on it -- but this information comes as no real surprise to anybody who has braved the wild and woolly streets of LA aboard a motorcycle or bicycle. As one with extensive experience on two wheels here in Smogtown (and who recently emerged the bloodied, limping loser in a bicycle vs. car conflict), I know firsthand what it's like to be a butterfly among the herd of rampaging buffaloes. Accordingly, I've learned the importance of using those brief lulls in the automotive shit-storm -- traffic windows, I call them -- when there are fewer cars on the road. The best of these windows opens during the two hours between 10 a.m. and noon, after the morning crush and before the lunch hour stampede. Another window opens briefly in the early afternoon, but that one is considerably dodgier than the morning hours. After 3 p.m.? Forget it. I'd rather stick to the relative safety of walking than tempt fate by riding a bicycle on the street as rush hour ramps up towards a full adrenal frenzy.*

With late morning the only reasonably safe time slot to hit the streets around here, I wheeled out towards the local drug store a few weeks back. The sudden onslaught of a strange malady required certain pharmaceuticals not normally found in my medicine cabinet. Given that I felt so lousy, I had no choice but to try the nearest drugstore, an outpost of the bland-but-odious chain known on the West Coast as "Rite Aid."

I've never liked Rite Aid, which swallowed up the old Thrifty Drugstores of my youth. Thrifty was hardly a Paradise on Earth, but at least they carried a number of products that actually worked as advertised. Rite Aid seems to take a more modern approach, cramming the shelves with ostensibly cheaper crap that doesn't work as well.

This seems to be the definition of "progress" in today's America, where everything gets worse for all the little people while some corporate sociopath who lives in a gated community several thousand miles away grows fatter and richer by the day.

The original Rite Aid was bad enough -- really, it was just a re-branded Thrifty with poorer consumer choices -- but a recent major remodeling created a "new and improved" store that in reality was immeasurably worse. The first time I went in, I ended up wandering around like a dazed puppy trying (and failing) to find the various items on my list. After a while, I realized I was lost.

Yes, I got lost in a fucking Rite Aid -- for a few minutes there, I could not find the checkout counters to escape. And as I later realized, that was no accident.

Rather than give these Servants of Satan my money, I avoided Rite Aid from that day on, going the extra mile or three to another bland-but-not-quite-so-odious chain drugstore that didn't piss me off quite so much. But that was under normal circumstances. My recent situation was most definitely abnormal, so I swallowed my pride, girded my mental loins, and ventured forth to Rite Aid.

Walking through the doors under the big blue and white sign, I stopped to take a good look at the layout of the aisles. That's when it hit me: the store had been designed along the lines of a Native American fish trap -- easy to enter, but hard to get out. The older stores were laid out in a traditional grid pattern of hard 90 degree angles, so that a customer always knew where he/she was in relation to the front doors and checkout counters. But in a modern Rite Aid, the customer is immediately confronted by a dizzying array of aisles going off at soft diagonals to the left and right. It's oh-so-easy easy to wander down one of these aisles, where all those diagonals tend to keep you moving ever forward, down one aisle, then the next, and the next. The extra-tall aisles are impossible to see over, inducing a certain dazed confusion. A confused customer is an anxious human being -- and once we become anxious, we're right where the modern corporate retail Goliath wants us. Americans have been trained from birth to buy consumer goods as a means of easing ease our existential anxiety. When knocked off-kilter, we often feel a need to buy something -- anything -- to fill the suddenly yawning void inside and temporarily restore a sense of order to our universe. If we can't find what we want, we end up wanting what we find. Lost and anxious in the diabolically clever labyrinth of Rite Aid, it's all too easy to grab items you never intended to buy on the way in. A short shopping list for Aspirin, toothpaste, and bar soap can easily morph into a half-full shopping cart by the time the hapless customer finally stumbles upon the distant checkout counters -- counters that are so hard to find because Rite Aid wants it that way.

They're fucking with the customer's amygdala, hacking into our ancient evolutionary circuitry to goad us into buying more Rite Aid crap.

I've got no problem with a business making a decent profit -- without profit, we'd all be living in mud huts chewing Taro root and cactus for dinner, then choking down fried cockroaches for dessert -- but I really hate being manipulated in such a basic, subconscious manner.

That's why I've come to despise Rite Aid -- their entire business plan has been painstakingly calculated to poke a sharp stick into my reptilian brain, and thus herd me off the cliff of mass consumerism with all the other confused, anxious lemmings.

Finally aware of their dirty little tricks, I got out of that bright and shiny dump as soon as possible with exactly what I went in for. Well, that and one other item -- a "designer" toilet brush, whatever that is. Clearly a human being was involved in designing the brush at some point in the manufacturing process, but to then market something meant to scrub shit off the porcelain walls of a toilet bowl as a designer brush?

Sounds like a stretch to me. So why did I buy it? The damned thing was the only toilet brush left on the shelves, and the one at home had been broken for months, and even though it wasn't on my shopping list, there it was calling to me as I wandered in a fog of existential confusion down that extra-tall aisle...

Damn. Rite Aid got me again.

* I violated this rule the afternoon of the wreck. That'll teach me...

Sunday, November 14, 2010

New Best Friends

Whatever happened to the rest of this crew...

The Anonymous Production Assistant (TAPA) put up a post recently on the difficulties of keeping friends once you’ve managed to climb aboard the Hollywood merry-go-round. TAPA likened working on a show to going to summer camp -- a relatively short, intense period during which you meet lots of new people who then vanish from your life once camp is over.

That’s a great analogy to describe the social aspect of the movie-making experience, but since I was raised in the boonies (otherwise known as “out in the country”) rather than growing up in an urban or suburban environment, I never enjoyed -- or suffered -- the slings and arrows of going away to camp.*

Working on my first feature film (after escaping the lowly -- if essential -- rank of Production Assistant) reminded me of a highly compressed version of my college experience. The movie took four weeks rather than four years, but other than being paid for my work, the overall experience was very similar, if much more intense. Thrown together with a large group of people I didn’t know, we were engaged in a common goal, working shoulder-to-shoulder while suffering the same trials and tribulations until the filming was complete.

If our initial day on set was like the first day of school, the final day of filming felt like graduation day.

A few days later, our wrap party had the bittersweet tinge of a Grad Night blow-out. Everyone was happy that the intense ordeal of principal photography was over, but sad that the tight bonds holding us together had already begun to loosen. It was our bonding through shared suffering that turned a group of strangers into a band of brothers and sisters -- an on-set family in the form of a film crew.

At the time, I figured I'd be friends with most of that crew forever. Some of us did stay in touch for a while, but then came another movie, with a fresh batch of strangers who soon became my new best friends. The same thing happened on the next movie, and the one after that, each new project introducing me to more and more people. Eventually I left the low budget movie world to do commercials and music videos, which brought me into a brand new crew circle. After a certain point, the only people I could remember were the ones I’d just worked with – my latest new best friends. Occasionally I’d meet someone who would work through several jobs, and it was some of those friendships that survived the constantly shifting social terrain. When I began working with the same group of people from one project to the next over the course of a year or two, we formed a new and much more stable bond.

I’d finally become a full-fledged member of a new and thriving tribe.

But the surging tides of life and work in Hollywood can stretch the tightest of bonds to the breaking point. When I first started doing commercials, I juiced for a best boy who later became a gaffer. I worked as his best-boy until he began shooting, at which point I became his gaffer for the next ten or twelve years. By the time it was over, we’d worked together – making commercials, music videos, and low budget features – for close to twenty years. Then came the great northern migration in the late 90’s, which blew our entire crew to smithereens. The DP managed to get a few days shooting 2nd unit for episodics, I went into sit-coms, my Best Boy eventually quit the business altogether, while our Number One juicer went on to become a Rigging Gaffer. Every now I’ll run into one of these guys at a studio, on a job, or a social gathering, and while it’s always great to see them, we work on different crews now, with a new circle of work friends. We’ve all become members of different tribes.

That’s just the way of the Industry life, always meeting new people, always making new friends. It can get dizzying after a while.

Romantic relationships suffer from the same stresses – a subject I covered in an earlier post. The pressures induced by long, unpredictable work hours and distant locations can make it hard to stay together with anybody, Industry or civilian. It’s not impossible – I know many Industry marriages still going strong after two or three decades – but it’s certainly not easy.

This is an undeniably strange life. I’m careful to warn the young hopefuls who occasionally e-mail me for advice that it’s not for everybody. Indeed, if there’s anything else you’re good at or might enjoy doing as a profession, you should do it. Most people are better off leaving their Hollywood dreams in Fantasy Land. But -- just as I did a long time ago -- young people are going to do what they want to do whatever anybody else says, so after issuing the usual cautions and disclaimers, I try to be as helpful as possible.

Hollywood is often portrayed as a cess-pit of mendacity, double-dealing, and back-stabbing – a “me-first” Darwinian jungle where only the most diabolically amoral ego monsters can succeed. Such behavior certainly occurs above-the-line, and although not unknown below decks where I work, is less common among those who do the hands-on labor essential to moving a project from page to screen. As it turns out, having the opportunity to meet and work with so many interesting people is one of the truly good things about this crazy business. But the nomadic nature of free-lance work means that as quickly as these new people come into your life, so do they go, often forever.

Making lots of new friends in Hollywood is easy. The hard part is keeping them.

* In a way, I lived at “camp,” only without all the other campers, happy or otherwise. I grew up milking the goats, feeding the cows and pigs, and helping care for the little baby goats that were invariably born very late on the coldest of February nights. If left in the big unheated barn, a few would invariably die of exposure, so as soon as they could stand up on those wobbly little legs, we’d bring them down to the house and put them in a big cardboard box in the warm kitchen. There we’d keep them clean and dry, and feed them warm milk for a few weeks, until they were big enough to survive the cold winter nights on their own.

Most of us have a soft spot for baby animals – the vast majority of urban/suburban kids get to raise a cat or dog at some point -- but believe me, a baby goat can steal your heart as fast as any puppy or kitten.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Is She or Isn't She?

Just another citizen/workbot of Hollywood, doing my civic duty...

Every trip back home from a visit to the chiropractor (a healing ritual observed by many of us who toil in the salt mines of Hollywood) brings me to a red light at the intersection pictured above, where Barham Boulevard meets Cahuenga. While sitting at this red light, Warner Brothers and Universal Studios are directly behind me, CBS Radford is two miles to the right, Paramount lies a couple of miles to the left (not far from the other CBS studio facility), while Fox and Sony are roughly straight ahead another eight to ten miles as the crow flies.

You'd have to be a crow to do that, of course, since Barham dead-ends into this faux-Tudor piece of architectural garbage apparently being rented by "Valhalla Motion Pictures," but you get the point -- a case can be made that this intersection represents the geographical nexus of the Hollywood studio system as it exists today.*

Maybe that's why there's always one or two enormous billboards hawking new television shows staring me in the face as I wait for red to turn green.

I've been intermittently staring at this particular billboard for nearly three months now, and something about it strikes me as a little odd. From what I understand (never having seen the show), "Nikita" is about the adventures of a sexy female assassin -- but in this billboard, "she" looks a lot more like a "he" wearing a little red dress. Seriously, look at that horse-like face and rectangular head (sorry for the lousy through-the-windshield photo): the rest of the package is fine -- curves in all the right places -- but the face on that billboard looks more like Zenyatta than any female actress I've ever seen.**

I'm not exactly sure what the CW is trying to tell us here.

Not that it really matters. As a native Californian raised within the sphere of influence cast by the infamous Summer of Love in San Francisco, I'm a tolerant guy. Live and let live, I say, and if CW's Nikita is actually just a guy in a dress lugging around a really big gun, then more power to him/her.

Hey, you go, girl!

Still, it's hard to believe CW would broadcast, much less heavily promote, a show featuring a cross-dressing and/or trans-gendered assassin. FX, maybe, or Showtime, but CW? I don't think so, which means this is probably just a supremely crappy billboard -- and in that case, whoever's responsible really ought to know.

The thing is, I've seen print and television ads for this show in which it was abundantly clear that the actress playing Nikita is in fact a very attractive woman. And that means CW's advertising department -- especially those clowns in charge of billboards -- have done her no favors at all.

If I was her agent, I'd be on the phone yelling at somebody right now...

* Granted, there's not much point in making such a case, but hey, it's a rainy Wednesday on the Home Planet, where I'm doing my best to put up a mid-week post...

** No offense to this truly great race horse...

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Hiatus Week

Some weeks are harder than others...

This was a tough week, not so much for the work -- which I'll get into later -- but because last weekend I had an adventure involving a car, a bicycle, and Newtonian Physics. The car was the clear winner by a first-round knockout, leaving the bike a battered loser that took two days and $175 worth of parts and labor to fix.

Having been aboard that bike, I ended up as collateral damage of the soft-tissue variety, still under repair after four hours in my friendly HMO, an arm full of shots, a bottle of antibiotics, fistfuls of Vicodin, and lots of nasty scrapes and bruises. It's been a long time since I had any kind of potentiallly serious accident, allowing me to forget just how vulnerable the human body (particularly an aging one) really is to the combined effects of momentum, inertia, friction, and gravity.

Now I remember just how hard that pavement really is...

The good news -- other than some serious road rash, nothing was broken. All bones remain intact. The bad news -- everything hurt -- and after spending a Sunday hobbling around on a cane feeling 140 years old, I still had to go to work on Monday morning. The details will come later, but for now, let's just say it was a long and painful week. Still, I got through it, and as this missive goes to post, I should be cruising north up Interstate 5 through California's Central Valley for a brief visit to the Home Planet.

Which also happens to be the in the home turf of my team, the newly-crowned World Series Champion San Francisco Giants.

Truth be told, I never thought I'd live to see this team win it all. Will miracles never cease? Does the Apocalypse draw near?*

I'll be back soon. Until then, I'm off the painkillers and in recovery.

* Considering the results of last Tuesday's election, maybe so...

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Update: One Red Cent

Penny's new home...

Back in August, I put up a post that included a link to a blog published by a professional stand-in. Since then, Penny has packed up her digital bags and moved from the remote hinterlands of Yahoo to the bright lights/ big city at Blogger – and yes, all you Wordpress sophisticates may commence laughing now.

There’s a link to her new site over on my Industry blogroll under the name One Red Cent, where her new posts have been appearing the last few weeks.

You can find Penny’s previous posts (she’s been blogging since 2005) at her Yahoo archives, which is linked under my “Writing, Media, and Life” blogroll as “One Red Cent Archives.”

As it happens, Penny's post this week is about nursing her sick cat, rather than detailing the trials and tribulations of a professional stand-in on set. But that's the nature of her blog -- a blend of real life and work-life. She writes from a perspective you won't find here or any of the other Industry blogs I've stumbled across.

Check it out...

Monday, November 1, 2010

Election Day

The Long Run

Tomorrow is election day. I won't presume to urge you which way to vote -- that's your business, not mine. There's already way too much political shouting across the radio, TV, and Internet these days, and no reason to add my two cents to the whirling shitstorm. Besides, this blog is concerned with the Industry, not politics.

Still, I like the wry approach this cartoon* (which recently appeared in the LA Times) takes toward the anger so many people are feeling these days. From my own perspective, this anger is fully justified -- I share it, for many of the same reasons -- but anger can be a dangerously volatile emotion. It tends to elbow reason and analytical thought aside in an adrenaline-fueled rush to judgment. Anger makes people want to do something -- anything -- simply to satisfy the primal rage boiling over inside. Like its twin sister Fear, Anger can be stoked and manipulated as a tool to do the bidding of those who seek an advantage in harnessing its power. The organizations pulling these strings usually have their own interests at heart, rather than the interests of the righteously angry mob they've helped create, mobilize, and hope to control.

Voting in anger might feel good as you pull that lever, but it rarely makes things better in the long run -- and right now, the long run is looking rather bleak. Some monumentally huge forces have been set in motion that threaten to bring the kind of elemental changes nobody in their right mind wants to see. There may still be time to turn things around, but maybe not -- nobody really knows.

At least one thing seems abundantly clear: our current state of political paralysis won't help us solve any of these serious long-term problems. A gridlocked freeway is the Road to Nowhere.

It's important for us all to think clearly right now, and not allow ourselves to be blinded by our own impotent, inchoate rage at the unfairness of The Way Things Are. I don't care how you vote -- that's between you and your ballot -- but I do hope you'll leave your heart at home when you head for the polling station. Instead, bring your brain. Don't allow yourself to be used as a tool by anybody. Think long and hard about what's really good for all of us together -- our country and our society. Don't surrender to this deliriously angry emotional moment, but think and vote with an eye towards the future.

For the long run.

* Sorry the image is so small -- I couldn't figure out how to make it larger, and thus more legible. Hope you can read that tiny print. For anyone who doesn't feel like pulling out the magnifying glass, here's how it goes:

Angry White Man: "The government isn't doing enough about the economy! I'm so angry!"

C-Dog: "Here's what you do: go vote and choose the candidate who think government just shouldn't do anything. Best was to get things done is to elect people who don't think anything should get done."

Angry White Man: "What?"

C-Dog: "That'll be $2."

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Good with the Bad

And a very pleasant surprise...

"Mr. Pilgrim, a pleasant way to spend eternity is to ignore the bad times and concentrate on the good.”

From Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut.

Good news rarely arrives alone, but generally accompanied by the other -- and decidedly tarnished -- side of that seemingly shiny coin. This doesn’t make the good news any less special, but serves as a useful reminder that life always demands we take the bad with the good.

There’s no other way – it’s a package deal.

The recent news that my little cable show had been picked up for an additional four episodes was very good news indeed. We had to move, of course, but even that wasn’t all bad, since it provided the set lighting crew with two more weeks of work. It was a hard, physical task, but such is the lot of a juicer. When you make your Hollywood bed, you'd better be prepared to sleep in it.

The bad news came when we checked the schedule and realized that those four new episodes were to be shot in only three weeks. Since the normal schedule for a multi-camera sit-com requires five full days to rehearse, light, block, and shoot a 22 minute show, this unwelcome little tidbit promised to greatly complicate everything.

The first week was fine. We went about our usual routine and got the show in the can with no additional drama, knowing this was the calm before the storm. Everyone was ready for the road to get much rockier cramming the other three shows into the final two weeks of production, but a wild card materialized out of the ether to turn everything upside down: the network producers absolutely hated the Monday afternoon run-through.


In a network run-through, the actors walk from set to set reading the script in show-order, thus giving everyone (including the network producers, who are charged with delivering a quality show to their bosses every week) their first good look at the episode. There are always “network notes” afterward, offering suggestions leading to endless re-writes as the week grinds on, but the network usually signs off on a run-through.

Not this time. When it was over, the network honchos weren't smiling. They huddled for a few minutes, then demanded a “page one re-write.”

The shell-shocked writers fled the stage for the sanctity of their writing room, where they remained chained to their computers for the next three days and nights. With two scripts to polish and another complete re-write, they would be burning midnight oil by the barrel. Life got a lot tougher for the first AD as well. The decision was made to “flip” the shows, thus pushing the re-write to the very end while moving the other two up in the schedule. This re-jiggering meant flipping directors and guest stars, among other things, and it was up to the first AD to orchestrate the juggling act. If I fully understood all the complications this created, I’d pass it on to you – but when asked, she gave me a detailed two minute download that rapidly jammed the memory circuits of my aging brain.

Suffice it to say I’m eternally grateful that I went into set lighting rather than production.*

The ripples of chaos rocked our boats too, of course. The week before, we got ahead of the game (or so it seemed) by roughing in the lighting for two swing sets that suddenly wouldn’t be needed for another two weeks. Caught between the Scylla and Charybdis of a weekly budget ceiling and the suddenly fluctuating schedule, our UPM drew the line at ordering any new equipment from the lamp dock. That meant we had to cannibalize those two sets -– where more than three dozen lamps had already been hung, powered, labeled, and adjusted –- to light the new sets.

It was double work for everyone -- out of the frying pan and into the fire.

The final week was a real bitch, shooting the two last shows in front of different audiences on subsequent nights. People got tense, tempers flared. I had to bite my tongue hard more than once, silently reminding myself how lucky I am to have a job at all in the midst of such hard times. That week stressed everyone, but particularly the cast, who had to learn, block, and perform one script by Thursday, then another on Friday. They did a great job of it, too, allowing us all to get through this trial-by-fire without killing each other.

Having pulled this rabbit from the hat, the entire production company was rewarded with another gift of good news: the network picked the show up for an additional fifteen episodes -- a run that should take us all the way into April of next year, totaling thirty episodes in an eleven month span.

That's very good news indeed.

Those who’ve been reading this blog for a while (and who have extremely good memory) might recall a certain gamble I took two years ago – choosing to do a pilot with a new crew rather than settle into a comfortable chair on an already up-and-running show. It was a calculated risk that didn't seem to work out at first. The pilot was good, but didn't get picked up. We did several more pilots over the next two years, one of which got a limited pick-up, then died on the vine just as it appeared we'd get a dozen more episodes. But this one -- finally -- paid off. I have no idea whether we'll get another season out of this show, but thirty episodes (even at cable rate) is more than I've had seen in the last seven years.

Every pilot is a ball-busting roll of the dice with no guarantees, but doing it the hard way paid off this time. I managed to hook up with a new tribe, and although not a perfect situation, it's working out. When I have to -- like in these past three weeks -- I try to keep Kurt Vonnegut's wisdom in mind: "Ignore the bad times, and concentrate on the good."

Those are words to remember.

* Very early on, I had an opportunity to change course. A few months after working as a PA, assistant editor, and occasional grip-trician on an extremely low budget feature, the producer offered me a 2nd AD slot on a feature going down to Florida. The pay was $400/week for seven six-day weeks – but being a non-union feature, I knew damned well I’d probably end up working 49 days in a row. By then, I was starting to get work gripping and juicing, and liked it -- so I turned him down and never looked back...

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Only Constant is Change

Now batting for The Hollywood Reporter, Tim Goodman...

Change has come again to our troubled world. Tim Goodman, my own favorite television critic and analyst (and all-around good guy/loyal Giants fan), is leaving his position as the San Francisco Chronicle’s Television Critic for a new gig with the Hollywood Reporter. Although this is a big move for Tim – finally stepping up to bat in the major leagues after so many years honing his skills in the relatively calm media backwaters of the Bay Area– it’s a blow to those of us who have long been addicted to his crisp, snarky writing style and trenchant analysis of our culture’s favorite medium.

Tim's legions of fans will just have to click to another website to continue reading his work, but the possibility remains that this move could bring new pressures to soften his famously tart, take-no-prisoners approach to television criticism. Writing about television for a newspaper comfortably far from Hollywood –- and safely outside The Machine –- is very different than working inside the belly of such a powerful, paranoid, and image-obsessed beast. Working at a distance provided him a very long leash when it came to speaking the blunt truth to those Industry powers, whether they liked it or not. Much of the time, they didn’t, but Tim has never been shy about telling it like it is. That’s one the things I've always loved about his work.

The Hollywood Reporter is a very different institution, with ancient, gnarled roots that go deep into the Industry aquifer. THR grew up with and exists because of Hollywood, and thus will always remain somewhat dependent on and beholden to Industry. Although Tim is understandably excited about getting in on the ground floor of a web-based revolution at THR, we can only hope they’ll give him the same green light to swing for the fences in calling bullshit on Hollywood from the inside. Given Tim's penchant for speaking his mind regardless of the circumstances, it's doubtful he'd have taken this job without an assurance of such freedom, so I remain optimistic on this.

At any rate, he's across the Rubicon now -- there’s no going back.

Still, I ache for the newspaper I grew up on – the paper that first exposed me to (and taught me to appreciate) good writing, and that has nurtured so many wonderful writers over the years. Mark Twain once wrote for the Chronicle, and if that doesn't make for a distinguished pedigree, I don't know what does.

The first media critic I ever paid attention to was the late, great John Wasserman, who wrote for the Chron from 1964 until his untimely and horrific death in 1979. Wasserman was a wonderful writer who left a very big pair of shoes to fill. He died well before the Internet, leaving his work gathering dust in newspaper archives on library shelves, but a selected compilation of his Chronicle columns was finally published in 1993.*

Taking his chair at the Chron was John Carman, whose thoughtful, pithy columns about television pulled no punches over much of the following two decades. But as the Internet eroded the fiscal foundation of newspapers everywhere, the Chron too began to contract. Much to my dismay, they offered early retirement to John Carman, who accepted. Although the bulk of his writing was done prior to the Internet, you can still find a few of his columns in the Chronicle’s on-line archives. Here’s a nice little taste of his style.

Then came the brash new kid, Tim Goodman (I did a post about that transition here), who soon put his own stamp on the field of television criticism. Fully embracing the digital revolution, Goodman immediately started a Chronicle blog, where for the past several years he’s posted brilliant and fascinating post-show analysis of “The Sopranos,” “Deadwood,” “Mad Men,” and “Breaking Bad.” Checking in on Monday or Tuesday to read his de-constructions of the latter two shows over the past few years has been a wonderfully illuminating and satisfying experience.

Now Goodman too is leaving the Chron, and although I’m happy for his professional success, I feel bad for my home-town newspaper, which is now a pale shadow of its former self. I don’t know who they’ll find to fill Goodman’s enormous critical shoes. These days, the serious talent seems to be fleeing newspapers like survivors frantically swimming away from a sinking ship. Maybe some new brash young kid will step up and make his or her mark on the world of television criticism. I hope so.

Still, life is a zero-sum game, and the Chronicle's loss is the Hollywood Reporter's gain. THR was smart to hire Tim Goodman, and are lucky to have such a talented writer on their staff. I wish him the very best in this new venture, and look forward to reading his columns at THR starting on November 3.

* The book is titled "Praise, Vilification & Sexual Innuendo, or How to Be a Critic: The Selected Writings of John L. Wasserman, 1964-1979."

I found a used copy in good condition on the Internet a few years ago.

Anyone not familiar with Goodman and Carman's work -- and too lazy to follow all those links or read the source material -- can click here for several pages of choice quotes posted on a crazy Irishman's blog...

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Halloween Show

It's Wardrobe Hell...

Extras in costume sitting in the audience seating area, waiting for their scenes in the pre-shoots for the Halloween show.

A film crew is a bit like a miniature city, with each department a distinct neighborhood connected to, but apart from the others. Given the collaborative nature of the medium, we all work together as a unit, but some departments work closer than others, sharing more common ground. Grips and juicers work closely together, and are thus very familiar with the obstacles each must face. Props and Set Dressing also share such an affinity, as do Hair and Makeup.

Then there's the Wardrobe Department.

As a juicer, I very rarely have occasion to interact with Wardrobe. Most of my work is done on (and above) the set before filming commences. Wardrobe works both ends of the block, with lots of frantic activity well behind the scenes, and at least one or two wardrobe assistants on set during filming to make last-minute adjustments before and between takes. That said, much of their work -- choosing, buying, or renting the appropriate wardrobe for each character in every scene of each episode -- is done by the time the actors walk in front of the cameras. Occasionally a Wardrobe girl (in my experience, they're mostly female) will knock on our door asking for a new or brighter light bulb to illuminate her work area, but other than saying "hi" at the craft service table, that's about it.

It's probably a safe assumption that Wardrobe pays as much attention to set lighting as we do to them -- which is minimal -- but every now and then a show comes along that leans very heavily on their considerable skills. When that happens, even we who spend our work days running cables and hanging lamps up in the pipe grid can't help but notice Wardrobe's hard work.

The Halloween show is always different, often fun, and occasionally something special. The nature of the occasion -- people letting their Freak Flag fly for one night of festive make-believe -- allows the writers considerable leeway in crafting their usual 22 minute trifecta of the A plot, B plot, and rimshot tag. Actors always appear on set in the costume of their character, but most Halloween episodes require separate -- often very elaborate -- costumes for the entire cast and a raft of extras. The Halloween episode we recently shot included a scene of a rollicking Halloween party featuring two dozen extras, all of whom had to be provided with uniquely distinctive costumes.

This was a nightmare for the Wardrobe Department. Since the actual Halloween party was only one of many scenes in the show, Wardrobe had to shoulder their usual work load along with handling (and dressing) a couple of dozen extras in extremely creative and colorful costumes, some of which were very complicated. They hired extra help to get through this show, of course, but the sheer logistics of their operation was daunting, to say the least.

The only thing I could compare it to was if we'd been asked to light a huge and elaborate music video shoot on a separate stage in addition to lighting the usual show -- and I would absolutely hate that.*

There was no complaining from our Wardrobe Department, though -- they just went about their business in a very focused manner, and the results were impressive. They did a fantastic job. I never got a chance to see the finished episode, but during the filming on set, those costumes looked terrific.

Under our lighting, of course...

* Having squandered too many long, ugly days and nights of my professional life doing music videos back in the day, I have no desire to repeat the experience...