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, January 31, 2010

Radio Silence

What DID Happen to the Anonymous Production Assistant?


(Photo courtesy of this generous person.)

Like many of you, I’ve been reading “The Anonymous Production Assistant’s Blog” ever since his first post (Why Would Anyone Want to be a PA?) began with these words:

"The hours are lousy, the pay is worse. No one respects you. If anything goes wrong, it’s always your fault. And everyone tells you you’re lucky just to be here."

I liked his caustic, pithy writing style right off the bat, along with the no-bullshit manner in which he described the view from the very bottom rung of the show biz ladder. Having been a PA myself way back when, I learned the hard way what all PA's know -- that in such a lowly position, you find yourself looking up at a lot of assholes. But this post of November 13, 2009, was the last we’ve heard of him. For a blogger who occasionally posted several times a week, two and a half months of silence is an eternity.

So where did he go?*

Good question. The first thing that leaps to mind is his cover at work was blown -- and being revealed as the infamously snarky APA could certainly have cost him his job. Non-disclosure agreements are part of the start-up paperwork we're all required to sign when taking a job nowadays, and even though the APA's posts are careful to avoid naming names in relation to embarrassing incidents, no production wants to see unauthorized tidbits about their show leak onto the internet. Relatively minor breaches of this written (and unwritten) code of silence wouldn't necessarily damage one's career prospects in the long run -- unless you really screw the pooch in telling tales out of school, of course -- but for those who lack a bank account full of money (which includes everyone I know), the short run is all that really matters in Hollywood. This is a town where today, tomorrow and next week light up the radar screens like a Christmas tree, but anything beyond remains a silvery illusion dancing in the heat waves on the far horizon. In an Industry where nearly all employment is temporary by definition -– once a given project is completed, your job vanishes into the ether -- the important thing is to handle your day-to-day business in a thoroughly professional manner. If you take care of the short run, the long run will take care of itself. In the event the APA was outed to (or by) his employer, and that boss has a sense of humor (not always a given in the self-important world of Television), he may have had to ceased posting as the price of hanging on to the job – a job which would then be dangling by the thinnest of threads.

But if he did get outed and fired, wouldn't that make a great blog post? Sure, but word gets around Hollywood pretty fast, and being known as the Anonymous Production Assistant would make landing the next job much harder. In that case, his PA career could be on hiatus for a long while. The silver lining in this otherwise dark cloud? Being a PA is in no way a “career” -- it’s a temp-job purgatory where dues are to be paid (and paid, and paid, and paid...) until you finally generate enough momentum to get over the wall and start a real Industry career. In that case, being booted off a show for blogging could provide the motivation crucial to getting his writing career in gear – and it’ll make a great story to tell when he’s being interviewed in the future by Charlie Rose, Tavis Smiley, or Terry Gross.

It's also possible the APA simply got tired of doing the blog. Being the Answer Man for film school wannabes from all over the world yearning to lead a life of glamorous poverty as a Production Assistant in Big Bad Hollywood could easily morph into a full-time (and highly-unpaid) job. Then again, a recent stab at snarky humor seemed to backfire when at least one reader took umbrage and accused the APA of being an “elitist prick,” among other things. Personally, I find it hard to believe such minor sticks-and-stones hounding would be enough to convince the APA that his blog was no longer worth the aggro -- unless, of course, he'd already had enough and was looking for an excuse to quit. All of us who blog about the Industry do so for our own reasons, and I don't know that anybody plans to continue posting indefinitely. Everything comes to an end (logical or otherwise), especially here in LA, where anything fresh and different and good seems to fade back into the smog after a year or two. Life changes, priorities shift, people move on. Quitting the blog cold-turkey, with no explanation or goodbyes, could be the APA's way of leaving nothing but ripples on the water -- an enigma to be puzzled over by the rest of us.

A glass-half-full explanation for the APA’s disappearance would have some sharp-eyed producer spotting his talent and offering him a writing job, thus liberating him from the purgatory of PA-dom and eliminating the raison d’etra for the blog. That’s the one I’m hoping for. The glass-half-empty version ranges from cloudy-bright to very dark indeed. The nature of the blog-o-net imposes a certain distance between all of us – those who write and those who read the blogs. There’s a freedom in all that empty space, but it’s also something of a vacuum -- and as we all learned from the movie ”Alien”, in space, no one can hear you scream.

If I managed to do something irredeemably stupid on a job – say, taking a fatal fall from a high ladder, or getting myself electrocuted – very few of you would ever hear the news. In time, Peggy Archer over at Totally Unauthorized might hear the news through the grapevine, or maybe “D” from Dollygrippery -- although the three of us don't know each other personally, we swim in the same Hollywood waters -- but that’s about it. Unless one of them chose to pass on the rumors/news of my untimely demise in their own blogs, nobody beyond my immediate family and co-workers would know what happened. Readers of this blog might wonder where the hell I went, and why I wasn’t posting anymore, but eventually they'd get tired of finding the same old stale crap under these worn-out gloves, and stop coming by.

“Blood, Sweat, and Tedium” would fade to black, and me along with it.

The dark possibility that Something Bad might have happened to the APA can’t be ignored. Shit does indeed happen in life – more than four hundred thousand Americans have died in automobile accidents alone in the time since George W. Bush first sat down in the Oval Office – and sometimes it happens to people we know. Or sort of know, like a blogger. I really hope something like this is not the case. The APA is smart and funny, with real writing talent -- and a family, too. His professional and human potential is enormous. I’d hate to see all that wasted in the twisted metal, deflated air bags, and shattered glass of a car wreck. There are countless ridiculous ways to die in this world, but getting killed in traffic because some idiot couldn't resist yakking on a cell phone or texting behind the wheel is one of the most meaningless ways imaginable to exit stage left.

Given the APA’s air-tight seal of anonymity, there’s not much chance any of us will know what happened unless he chooses to break radio silence. Until then, the possibilities – good or bad – are endless, and speculation futile. All we really know is that for the time being, the APA either won't or can't post on his blog.

And I hope that changes soon.

* for the purposes of this post, I’m assuming APA is male, although “his” occasional references to having a wife could certainly be the handiwork of a female PA shape-shifting to cover her tracks in an effort to remain truly anonymous.


Crop circles on Mars? Nope -- just the setting sun raking across the concrete swirls of the studio parking structure.

(Ahem -- this post can now be ignored, since the problem it addressed has been resolved thanks to a very helpful reader -- check the "comments" if you want the boring details...)

Okay, I screwed up: today's post (Radio Silence) can be found by scrolling down past last week's post -- the one with the picture of the cowboy hat.

"Say what?" you might ask. "How could such a breach of the time/space continuum possibly happen -- the present seemingly occurring (and dated) in the past?"

Excellent question, and however much I'd love to point the stinky finger of blame at Blogger -- and indeed, this host site does have some odd protocols -- I'm familiar with these oddities, and know very well how to maneuver in, over, around and through them.

I spaced out, is all. Mea Culpa.

See, if you write the first draft of a post on Blogger today, then modify and edit throughout the week before clicking the "publish" icon next Sunday, it will post with today's date rather than the day it actually hits the Internet -- and be filed on the blog accordingly. Thus this week's blog appears to have been written and published last Monday, when it actually was finished and posted today, January 31.

This has been an irritant ever since I started the blog -- and really, I don't understand why Blogger can't come up with what would seem to be a minor software remedy -- but hey, the whole thing's free, so who am I to complain? I generally avoid such problems by doing most of the writing in a MS Word document, then cut-and-paste into Blogger on the appropriate day for the final edit and publishing. The other option to correct the date (which I've learned the hard way...) is to cut-and-paste the HTML code of the draft to an MS Word file, delete the draft from Blogger, then paste it back to Blogger on the chosen day to publish.

But that's just too stupid for words. Sorry for the confusion.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Story Behind the Myth

Do the gaffer a favor and leave the hat at home...

I caught an excellent show Monday night on “American Experience,” the long-running PBS documentary series. “A.E.” documentaries are usually interesting and informative, and this one – about legendary lawman Wyatt Earp – was no exception, shining a hard light on the dusty half-truths, myths, and typical Hollywood distortions surrounding this icon of the Old West. I never knew there were actual photographs of Earp, his brothers, and their equally legendary nemesis Ike Clanton – but although photography was still in its infancy, a few surprisingly crisp images of these people were recorded on film. For a kid who grew up watching black-and-white western movies and TV shows, this was a fascinating program.

I’m not sure the current generation -- brought up on “Star Wars,” “Survivor,” and “Jerry Springer” -- would share my interest. By the time my family finally got a TV (when I was 8 years old...), it seemed there was a western on every night of the week -- shows like “Have Gun, Will Travel,” “Gunsmoke,” “Sugarfoot,” “The Rifleman,” “The Rebel,” “Maverick,” “Rawhide,” “Wagon Train,” “Tombstone Territory”, and “Bonanza.” There were cop shows, war shows, doctor shows, comedies, and variety shows too, but on television and movie screens, the western was the primal stage upon which the classic American themes of individuality, self-reliance, and personal honor (laced with lots of gunfire) played out.

Two of those movies were “Gunfight at the OK Corral” (starring Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, among many others), and “My Darling Clementine” (Henry Fonda, Victor Mature, and a spectacularly vile Walter Brennan), both of which spun their own Hollywood myths around the lethal showdown between the Earp brothers, Doc Holiday, and the Clantons.

Having grown up steeped in these myths, I assumed they were essentially true -- but myths have a way of leaving out any inconvenient or messy facts that might smudge the nice clean Hollywood version. Personally, I find it oddly reassuring to learn that people in the Old West were much like they are today. Technology evolves with stunning speed, but we humans are very slow to change in all the ways that really matter. Now as then, we’re the same haunted, deeply conflicted, utterly flawed and occasionally magnificent creatures as always.

So even if you didn't grow up on a steady diet of westerns, check this show out when you have a chance. It never hurts to learn a little of our shared history, and the story is a good one.

Just one thing irked me about the show. There were lots of wonderful old photos woven into the narrative and inter-cut with talking-head interviews featuring several Western Historians, all of whom seemed to know and revere their subject. At least two of them, however, wore cowboy hats during their interviews. Perhaps they thought this would somehow add to their authenticity, but to me it was ludicrous on a couple of levels. It’s one thing for a cowboy poet to wear a hat while performing, since spoken word poetry (regardless of how silly it might be*) is still theater, and costumes are the norm in the course of a theatrical performance. But an interview for a serious historical documentary? I don’t think so. It just made these guys look silly.

No wonder “Western Historians” aren’t taken seriously – if Doris Kearns Goodwin strapped on a stovepipe hat and phony black beard every time she sat down to discuss the life and times of Abe Lincoln on camera, nobody would take her seriously either.

The other historians in this show – those with the good sense to leave their cowboy hats outside with their horses and six guns, I suppose – came across as serious people telling a serious story.

The DP and gaffer on this show deserve a little sympathy and respect. Depending on the nature of the project, there are lots of ways to light a talking head, but a subject who insists on wearing a broad-brimmed cowboy hat (typically pulled low over the forehead) presents a major problem. The eyes are crucial in a talking-head shot – they have to shine to connect with the audience – and when the subject wears a cowboy hat, the key and fill lights must physically drop much lower than normal to dig in under the brim and illuminate those eyes. In addition to making it impossible to acheive the classic Rembrandt Triangle** portrait look, such low lighting often creates problems with nose shadows. These can be solved by adding an obie light or bumping up the fill enough to minimize the shadow, but that can result in a relatively flat, boring look – and if the subject wears glasses (as one of these Western Historians did), then all these low lights can cause reflection problems.

So many problems, and all because the "talent" just had to wear a stupid hat...

The lighting crew did a good job solving all the problems in these interviews – I doubt any civilians watching this show noticed what was going on in those talking head shots -- but their job was made a lot harder by these knucklehead historians couldn't resist playing cowboy for the camera.

So the next time you get called in to do an on-camera interview, leave the cowboy hat at home. Believe me, the gaffer and DP will thank you.

* I realize some people love the stuff, but you’d have to pay me good money -- and lots of it -- to sit through an evening of “cowboy poetry”...

** For another example of the Rembrandt Triangle in action, click here.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Six is the New Twelve

“If six turned out to be nine, I don’t mind...”

“If 6 Was 9,” by Jimi Hendrix

The pilot I did in the final weeks of 2009 was nothing to shout about. I’ve done worse, but I’ve sure as hell done better, even if most of those – several of which looked to be very promising shows -- didn’t get picked up. Like so many decent pilots, they were victims of bad timing above-the-line, doomed by a lack of network vision/imagination/support, or else ended up buried by the tsunami of shit known as “Reality Television,” never to see the flickering light of the Cathode Ray Gun. It's always disappointing when a good pilot sinks without a trace, never having a chance to get shot to pieces in the crossfire of snarky reviews by platoons of cranky, trigger-happy television critics.

Especially when it's a pilot I happened to work on...

That’s the nature of the beast – a ruthless winnowing process in which very few make the cut. In theory, forcing pilots to run such a harsh gantlet should result in only the best shows reaching the airwaves, but our modern corporate aversion to risk (defined as any outcome the bean-counters can't predict) often leads to formulaic, paint-by-the-numbers choices dictated by fear rather than trusting the gut instincts of veteran story-tellers. In trying to play it safe by minimizing this volatile human element, the stiff-necked, ass-covering network suits continually slam up against a brick wall of failure. Meanwhile, cable outfits roll the dice on writers and producers passionately committed to stories based on very edgy material (“Breaking Bad” being the prime example among shows currently in production), and often hit the critical bull’s eye. Cable still doesn’t draw like a major broadcast hit – the best weekly numbers from “Mad Men,” “Sons of Anarchy,” and “Breaking Bad” combined won’t come close to a monster like “American Idol” -- but much as the nimble little mammals darted between the legs of doomed, lumbering dinosaurs 65 million years ago, cable grows stronger and more sure-footed every year. If (when?) Hollywood suffers a metaphorical equivalent of the Chicxulub catastrophe powerful enough to fatally wound the broadcast networks, cable will be well-positioned to exploit the ensuing chaos and rule our post-broadcast television landscape.

Not that I’d be very happy about that, mind you -- for a number of reasons -- but such is life.

Still, the grim future is down the road a ways, and there's no telling how things will shake out. Meanwhile, I’m just trying to get something going in the increasingly problematic present -- and here, this most recent pilot may hold a slender reed of hope. Although the production department took a hard line, cheap-ass stance right from the start, they did spring for an opulent Green Room on shoot night to fete the network honchos in attendance. The usual quick-and-dirty procedure is to create a Green Room with four 10-by-20 foot blacks tied to aluminum speed rail hung from the perms, then sparsely furnish the interior with a few big monitors, chairs, and a cheesy bar. This time, they built a real set, lay down carpet, and brought in nice furniture. The bar was well-stocked, and the hot and cold hors d’oeuvres looked very tasty indeed. I was surprised to see such expense and effort go into the Green Room after production had used every nickel-and-dime tactic they could think of to grind us down while we were actually putting the show together.

A fancy Green Room won't make the live studio audience laugh any harder, but the audience response to a pilot doesn't seem to mean all that much anymore. When it comes to getting a series pick-up, maybe it's now considered more important to make those nervous network execs feel good -- to wine and dine and make them smile -- than to produce a really good show.

It might even work. The wrap last month was spiced by rumors that the show could go to series sometime in late Spring. If true, this would represent the usual bouillabaisse of good and bad news. The good, of course, is that a job is a job is a job -- even at cable rate. The bad news is that “going to series” doesn’t mean what it used to. Once upon a golden time, twelve episodes was the standard minimum order for most new sit-coms, and if the show did reasonably well on the air, it would usually get picked up for the “back nine” to complete a full season. With a successful first season under its belt, any freshman show had a decent shot at coming back for Season Two - and from such tiny acorns do mighty oaks grow, in the form of hit shows. Every long-running sit-com (from “All in the Family” right up through "Cheers," "Frazier," "Seinfeld," and“Two and a Half Men”) started out as a pilot, all damp and wobbly-legged fresh from the sound stage womb.*

Things are a different now. Although multi-camera sit-coms (my work environment of choice as I belly-crawl towards the finish line) are making something of a comeback from the black hole of three or four years ago, these ever-leaner and meaner times have forced the four camera/live audience format to adapt to newer, uglier circumstances – and in this brave new world, six has become the new twelve. If the rumors are to be believed, this cheap-ass little cable pilot might get the green light for six episodes.

What’s wrong with that, you ask? Nothing, really -- including the rig and wrap, six episodes represents eight or nine solid weeks of paying work, which is nothing to sneeze at anymore. But this “new normal” means that after barely two months, the entire crew will be out beating the bushes for another job at a time when all the other shows are fully crewed up, creating fierce competition for the occasional day-playing gigs that come along from time to time. This is huge step back from the not-so-distant good old days, when a full 22 episode season spanned nine months to provide steady work/income from August through March. With a pilot or two in the Spring, that pretty much filled up a crew’s dance card for the year.** Being a guy who works to live rather than lives to work, I was a big fan of that annual eight-to-ten week spring-into-summer hiatus between the end of pilot season and the start of the new fall season. Guys with big families, costly hobbies, ruinous mortgages, and/or wives with expensive tastes weren’t happy about spending two+ months unemployed every year, but I liked it just fine. Back on the home planet, I could forget all about the insanity of Hollywood and pretend I was living a somewhat normal life.

Not anymore. With a few notable exceptions, network broadcast television seems to be sinking into the slough of commercial and creative despond. While the networks flounder, cable continues to thrive running on a ten-to-thirteen episode season. Given our current dismal economic climate, compounded by the tectonic reverberations of the digital revolution still rattling the Industry’s foundations, many of us consider ourselves lucky to get even a crappy six episode deal – and if such an offer comes, I’ll accept with a big phony Hollywood smile, then bust my ass to make that show look as good as possible.

Beggars can’t be choosers, and as the wheel grinds on in Hollywood these days, that’s exactly what many of us who work below-the-line have become. If this show does go to series for six episodes -- and the powers-that-be end up pleased with the results – there’s always the possibility of additional episodes being ordered. I’ve been the beneficiary of cable seasons that expanded in precisely that manner before, and can only hope it happens again.

If we do go for six – and six does indeed turn out to be nine -- I won’t mind at all.

* It’s equally true that every crappy three-episodes-and-out bomb also began its doomed life as a pilot, but let’s not dwell on the negative...

** That’s for the basic stage crew: Director of Photography, grip, electric, set dressing, props, wardrobe, and production. Like hair and makeup, the camera operators and assistants on a multi-camera show work only two days per episode (with one episode shot each week) -- the blocking and shoot days. Before digital shoved film into the shadows, camera crews (including the dolly grips) were hired on a “three for two” basis, meaning they got paid for three days while working just two. This allowed them to get by making a (barely) livable income while working one show. A good -- and lucky -- camera crew could land two shows each season when the respective schedules permitted (a Monday/Tuesday show and a Wed/Thursday show), and thus get paid for six days while working only four. With a twelve hour guarantee, those lucky few could gross close to three grand a week -- very nice work, when they could get it.

But they can’t anymore. With film replaced by tape and hard drives (and peds taking over for dollies), those fat and happy days are gone with the digital wind.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Rainy Daze

Yes Virginia, it really does rain in LA. But not for long...

I’m not what you’d call a basketball fan. Although I’ve got nothing against the game itself -- which is doubtless a fine way to burn calories, improve one’s hand-eye coordination, and get an excellent cardio workout all at once – for some reason it has never held my interest. As a kid, of course, I couldn’t sink a basket while standing three feet from the net – that might have something to do with this strange aversion of mine, or maybe it’s just one of those things.

You say puh-tay-toe, I say pah-tah-toe, let's call the whole thing off.

But given that I have no interest in playing basketball, imagine how little I care about watching others play it, especially on TV. I can watch a few minutes of a college or pro game, but that’s about it. Before long my attention has wandered, and I find myself seized with a sudden urge to wash the dishes, pay the bills, or deliver a swift kick to the midsection of my landlord’s eternally barking dog.

Not that I’ve ever actually kicked that dog, mind you. Only in my mind...

I fully understand that in our sports-crazed society, failing to embrace the All American game of basketball is tantamount to being a card-carrying Communist. The only thing worse would be to disparage the Great Game of Football – and truth be told, I’m not exactly wild about that, either -- but at least I can watch a football game on TV. This season, for instance, I saw both Green Bay/Vikings games, then thoroughly enjoyed the Viking’s scorched-earth thrashing of the Dallas Cowboys last weekend.

Maybe there is a God, after all -- and I'm not even a Vikings fan. I'm just pulling for the old guy playing quarterback. If that isn't proof that I am not now -- nor have I ever been -- a member of the Communist Party, then I don't know what is. I just don’t much care for basketball, that's all.

I bring this up only so you’ll understand just how impressive this short clip really is – a minute and change of a man throwing a basketball. I’ve watched it twice now, and just might watch it again. It’s pretty cool.

Almost cool enough to change my mind about watching basketball on TV, except they really don’t make shots like this in any NBA game.

When you’re done, you might enjoy wandering through more of the rather amazing J-Walk Blog, where I stumbled across this clip. If it’s raining cats and dogs outside, and you’re currently unemployed with lots of time to kill, you can spend quite a while there and still not hate yourself afterwards.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

One Ugly Week

Yes, it was an exciting week for fans of late night television: Conan vs. Leno vs. the snarky Jimmy Fallon, with Letterman rubbing his hands and cackling in the wings while everyone else in the peanut gallery threw rotten tomatoes at the inept giant, NBC. Given that I don't watch any of those shows, none of this matters much to me -- who's right, who's wrong, who got dissed, or who "wins" in the end. All I want from this clusterfuck is to have those five soon-to-be-empty hours on NBC each week fill up with new scripted comedies and dramas. Well, that and see Jeff Zucker walk the NBC/Comcast plank, then plunge back into the obscurity from which he came...

But considering the real-world events of the past few days, I've got nothing to say about TV, the movies, or the Industry this week. Today, I wander way off the Hollywood reservation.


In the long run, the meek may indeed inherit the earth, but until then it seems they’ll just keep getting crushed -- literally.

Last Monday night, the PBS Newshour ran a ten minute segment on Haiti. After suffering through decades of violently abusive dictatorships and natural disasters, the people of this island nation were finally beginning – just beginning – to emerge from their long, dark tunnel of pain. After a terribly destructive hurricane killed 800+ people in 2008, UN peacekeepers from Brazil (troops experienced in dealing with vicious urban violence endemic to the favelas of their native country) helped quell the rampant street gang activity and stabilize the political situation. New economic policies had attracted foreign investment, reopening long-shuttered factories and creating jobs for thousands of desperate Haitians, among them a young woman featured in the piece. In those ten minutes Monday evening, she became the symbol for the rebirth of Haiti; twenty years old, pretty, with a shy smile full of life and hope. Working at her sewing machine in a garment factory, she – like her country -- seemed headed for a future brighter than had ever seemed possible.

This wasn’t some puff-piece claiming all was hunky-dory in Haiti. The report delineated many serious problems still afflicting the Haitian society and economy, problems that even several thousand garment industry jobs couldn’t possibly solve. As the premier of Haiti told the camera: “We just want to get out of misery to get into poverty.” That’s how bad it’s been for so long in Haiti. But at least now things were looking up – and at long last, the nightly television news had something good to report amid the steady drumbeat of blood, death, and destruction.

In my home, turning on the Toob for the six o’clock news signals the lighting of the drinking lamp, at which point a healthy shot of whiskey slides into the bottom of a glass, followed by a little water. This moment marks the end of the productive portion of my day – as the sun splashes into the Pacific, it’s time to put the down the pick-and-shovel and relax. Given the grim nature of the news these days, it’s easier to take with the pleasant glow of alcohol, but this -– some good news, for a change -- was like a double-shot of whiskey, lulling me into believing that our world just might be turning away from the abyss.

Maybe there really was reason for hope, after all.

They say there's no fool like an old fool. I forgot the one lesson modern life beats into us with the repetitive insistence of a jackhammer -- good news rarely arrives without another big shoe dropping shortly thereafter, often with the flat, deadly thud of a mortar round slamming home. Less than 24 hours after watching this nice little piece on Haiti, a monster rose up from the bowels of the earth to stomp the living shit out of this hapless island, crushing countless thousands of people who were just trying to get through another hard day in the Third World.

So much for hope.

Earthquakes are a part of life here in California. Small temblors rattle our windows with regularity, pointed reminders that Something’s Brewing down below, adding a cold shiver of reality to the sepia-tinted stories of The Great Quake and subsequent fires that leveled San Francisco in 1906, then destroyed much of Long Beach less than thirty years later. In a more recent five year span, both San Francisco and LA were bitch-slapped by lethal quakes that did horrendous damage. By now, everybody out here over the age of 20 has had to face what it really means to live under a tectonic Sword of Damocles. At any moment – ten years from now, tomorrow morning, or before I finish typing this sentence – The Big One will hit with no warning whatsoever, shaking our world to pieces, turning everything we know upside-down, and bringing an immediate halt to life as we know it. We live with the knowledge, buried under deep layers of denial, that what happened last Tuesday in Haiti will happen here, sooner or later, and that it will be very ugly indeed. But denial is a powerful thing, a natural anesthetic against the inevitable horrors of our shared reality, allowing us to go about our days pretending that everything’s fine.

We evolved in a dangerous world where dealing with the here and now – that lion right over there – had a greater survival value than worrying about tomorrow. Although we’ve advanced a bit since coming down out of the trees, with a system of social safety nets (tattered and straining though they may be at the moment), it’s still our basic nature to live day by day. That’s what those Haitians were doing down in the sunny Caribbean, trying to turn their blighted lives around one day at a time, slowly nursing a dysfunctional society back to some semblance of stability and health. But now – and for a long time to come -- that’s all over. Another biblical plague has descended upon them, the full fury of which none of us who aren't actually there can fully grasp. It’s back to basics, now. First they have to survive the blunt force of this massive trauma, and save as many lives as possible before the ugly task of rebuilding can begin. They have a long road to travel before reaching the state of misery everybody considered “normal” before Tuesday’s quake.

I don’t know what these desperately poor people ever did to deserve such a brutally stiff backhand from whatever passes for “God” in this world. Not that I’m much of a believer, mind you – but if I was before this quake, I sure as hell wouldn’t be now. What kind of “God” could look down on that beaming young woman at her sewing machine -– and all her fellow Haitians -- then decide that what they really needed was a good Old Testament smiting?*

As the week dragged on, the unfolding horror in Haiti screamed out from the television every night. Amid this tsunami of tragedy, I kept thinking about that young woman I'd seen on the Newshour segment Monday evening. You sent money, I sent money, we all sent money -- and that money will certainly help in the days and weeks to come -- but right now I just can't shake her image from my head. She was so happy then, so full of hope. So alive.

I wonder where she is now.

* Nor do I think for one second that America’s favorite religious pinhead, Pat Robertson, has a fucking clue...

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Bits and Pieces

If it's "For Lease," then why is there no vacancy?

If there's "No Vacancy," then why is it for lease?

And if -- oh never mind...

After driving south across 420 miles of cold, hard, wintry asphalt -- leaving a quiet and bucolic-if-chilly rural semi-paradise to return to the Big Ugly City -- I hurtled down the chute of Highland Boulevard to find traffic packed up like an old junkie on a six week heroin bender. The horrendous tie-up seemed to stem from the sight of a military-style helicopter repeatedly talking off and landing on the roof of the Hollywood Radisson Hotel (attached like a Siamese Twin to the Kodak Theater -- home of the annual exercise in bloated, onanistic narcissism known as the Oscars), while a smaller chopper hovered nearby, apparently filming the spectacle.

Doubtless a movie or TV shoot. Hey, it’s Hollywood.

After three weeks of forty-something degree weather marked by rain and drizzle held at bay by the awesome power of burning firewood, it feels very odd indeed to once again be sweltering in the urban desert of Southern California. Here, the parched air and hot sun have turned winter into a memory. But if the weather is one thing (sweating in January?), getting re-acclimated to the fierce intensity of LA traffic is another beast altogether. Once behind the wheel, these people are clinically insane. Twenty miles-an-hour over the posted speed limit while yakking on a cell phone is standard operating procedure on the freeways, streets, and alleys of Los Angeles. Supposedly there’s a law against using a hand-held phone while driving in California, but I see no evidence of this in LA, where everyone from newly-licensed tweeners to gray-haired grannies can’t seem to drive around the block without dialing up a friend or relative in another city/state/nation.

My back-woods solution? Boost the penalty for the first offense to $500, then keep doubling the fine with each subsequent violation. If they don't pay, jerk their license and impound the car. That’ll learn ‘em – and meanwhile, the money from all those fines will help fill the yawning abyss of our once-Golden State’s budget deficit, while those who don't/can't/won't pay will have to do their cell-phone talking on the bus.

There’s nothing like three weeks in the quiet green countryside to turn a mild-mannered juicer into a proto-fascist ready to kill ‘em all and let God sort ‘em out...

Later that night I flicked on the Toob -- and there on our local PBS outlet was the surreal sight of James Brown and Luciano Pavarotti (backed by a full orchestra) standing together on a stage bathed in blue light singing “It’s a Man’s World.” A duet for the ages? Not exactly. As always, James Brown sounded great, but Pavarotti looked old, confused, and utterly out of his element – which he was. The brain trust responsible for this big-dollar fiasco was probably the same gang of philistines who had Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, and Jose Carreras – the original Three Tenors – close their memorable first concert belting out slop like “Oh Solo Mio.”

At least this more recent televised travesty didn’t ask the Godfather of Soul to sing Nessun Dorma. For that, we can be grateful.

There’s just no pleasing me in this bright new year, which means it must be time to get back to work. Wrangling heavy cable and hot lights will burn off all this holiday-induced rage at my fellow errant and demented humanoids -- but first the phone must ring. As of yet, it sits on my kitchen table as mute and full of mystery as a tiny black Sphinx. So while we all wait for our phones to ring, here’s a few links and/or samples from three writers I like a lot.

Sutter Speaks

You too have doubtless already heard/read entirely too much about the sudden – if not unexpected -- lineup changes at NBC, but even if you’re beyond the saturation point on this subject, you owe it to yourself to read just one more. Kurt Sutter, the wonderfully outspoken showrunner of “Sons of Anarchy,” wrote a brilliant post on the Leno/Conan/NBC debacle, a situation that stewed and festered until the network finally puked it out all over the nice clean shirt of Jeff Zucker. I can’t think of a more deserving fellow, who – having created the mess in the first place through his own massive incompetence – promptly turned around and ordered someone else to clean it up. Klass act, Jeff.

Sutter’s post is definitely worth reading.


Who the hell is Chuck Klosterman?

I’d never heard of Chuck Klosterman before last weekend. It turns out he’s been writing with style and verve about sports, life, society, and other relevant subjects for a while now. How I missed him, I don’t know, but coming late to the party won’t stop me from saluting a guy who can write lines like: “The Super Bowl represents different things to different people. To some, it is akin to a secular holiday -- a drunken, three-hour Christmas for those who hate Jesus.”

That’s it – I’m hooked. A few Klosterman gems I stumbled across:

Everybody Knows This is Somewhere

Dying a Super Death

Taking Aim at the Final Four

Sports, politics, and the hateful nature of change

(Sample: “Frank Deford and Jim Rome both lean hard left on almost all social issues, but they openly loathe the proliferation of soccer. And that position is important: For all practical purposes, soccer is the sports equivalent of abortion; in America, hating (or embracing) soccer is the core litmus test for where you exist on the jocko-political continuum.”

I don't know about you, but I love a writer who can come up with a phrase like “the jocko-political continuum” in a context where it makes perfect sense.


Mick LaSalle

Here’s a snippet from Mick LaSalle, senior film reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle, pulled from his Sunday ”Ask Mick Q&A column.

"Dear Mick: Why do we heap awards of every kind upon movie stars for doing their job well, for which they receive absurd gobs of money and immense fame and attendant perks? Why not give a gold trophy to a plumber for unclogging your drain?

Gerald Nachman, San Francisco

Dear Jerry: It's supply and demand. Having a good plumber or a good accountant is essential, but we can usually find one if we look. But people who can do what, say, Marion Cotillard or George Clooney can do are rare. Remember "Broadcast News," and the rivalry between Albert Brooks, the news writer, and William Hurt, the newscaster? We might appreciate the Brooks character's sensitivity and intellect over the Hurt character's blankness, but the truth is, guys who can write good news copy are a lot more common than guys who can keep their cool while live on camera, and if you have to have both, you're going to have to pay the on-camera talent about 10 times more.

For a similar reason, the absolute worst-paying jobs are usually the most difficult, because anybody can do them, even if nobody wants to. So that's the economic argument. The emotional argument is that actors touch us in ways plumbers don't. An unclogged drain is a necessity, but we want more than necessities. We want "magic," as Blanche DuBois said - and we're grateful to the people who give it to us."

I can’t argue with that. May we all experience a little magic, and soon...

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Pilots are a Bitch

"Work, work, work, work,
Work ‘til holes are filled..."

“Cool Water,” by the Talking Heads

Street parking in LA can be hard to find at 11:30 on a soggy Friday night. After shooting the pilot in front of a live studio audience -- a 13 hour work day from start to finish -- I drove home, then spent fifteen minutes searching for a non-ticketable parking spot. The rain came down hard. I finally found a spot four long blocks from my warm, dry apartment, and on the wet walk home, passed a big ugly cinder-block apartment building with the sprinklers going full blast out front, turning an already water-logged lawn into a soupy swamp.

That's LA for you -- not enough of anything when you really need it, and way too much when you don't.

After three weeks of seemingly endless toil, sweat, and frustration*, another pilot is in the can. This one was a cheap-ass production right from the start, hitting a new low by paying the odious cable rate -- meaning an up-front 20%+ pay cut, among other things. Until now, every pilot I've ever done paid the previous year's scale, meaning roughly a buck-an-hour under whatever the current union scale happened to be. But this is the era of the New Raw Deal for workers everywhere, and Hollywood is no exception. With the notable exceptions of elite professional athletes and ridiculously overpaid Wall Street scumbag/banker-maggots, everyone is taking it on the chin and in the wallet these days. Most of us feel lucky to be working at all.

But if landing a pilot is always good news (never more so than now), once the giddy rush of actually getting the job passes, the harsh reality of doing the work sets in -- and a pilot is all work, all the time, pushing the big rock up the steep hill every minute of every work day right up through shoot night. That's ten solid days of unrelenting labor, after which we either do a "fold and hold" -- leave everything as is pending a thumbs-up/thumbs-down decision from the network -- or tear the whole thing down into its component parts over the next three or four days, leaving nothing but dust floating in the air of a suddenly very quiet, very empty sound stage.

Meanwhile, as every one of the suddenly unemployed crew members does their own personal Rain Dance looking for work, the production company cuts the pilot together and prays that the network (be it broadcast or cable) will greenlight the show to go to series. No matter how well the show played in front of that live audience, there's no guarantee anything good will come from all this intense work. Trying to get a show on the air is always a high-risk roll of the dice from start to finish, with success held hostage by forces far beyond our control.

In a way, all this is more like some ancient religious rite -- burning incense and making animal sacrifices to please the Gods in the hopes they might smile upon our efforts -- than a modern logic-based business model. But that's the way things are done in Hollywood, even in the withering shit-rain of today's economic climate.

This show was done on the cheap right from the get-go, with Production fighting us over just how many hours we'd work (and get paid for) each day. It turned out that the nucleus of this particular production department had never done a multi-camera sit-com before, and were thus unfamiliar with the protocols of what is a unique beast in the television industry. Coming out of the single-camera world, these people seemed to assume that drawing a hard line on hours and battling the crew every inch of the way was Standard Operating Procedure. They didn't understand how a sit-com works or the give-and-take trade offs a crew makes with production in working a multi-camera show.

They just didn't know the deal.

Why any Executive Producer would entrust his/her precious pilot -- possibly their one and only shot at landing a series and thus moving way up the ladder of Hollywood success -- to such a woefully inexperienced production team remains a mystery to me. Then again, the list of things I don't understand these days would circle the block a couple of times, and then some.

In the end, they finally caught on (or gave up), and seemed to understand that an experienced multi-camera crew really does know what they're doing. They still rode us with ass-less chaps and freshly sharpened spurs when it came to expenses, but at least they relaxed enough to let us do our jobs without too much bullshit. A pilot is hard enough without having to leap over idiotic hurdles set up by the very people who are supposed to be clearing a nice smooth road for the crew to work on.

So this one's in the can, and if there was more bruising and bleeding than strictly necessary, I suppose that's par for the course these days, when everything seems to be getting harder. Will it go to series? Who knows. The live audience was rather underwhelmed on shoot night, but that means nothing. If the final edit pleases the right focus groups and network executives, then it'll go. If not, it'll die in its crib like a thousand other pilots in the past. At this point, I've learned the hard way that there's no point in getting excited about any pilot. If it goes (and we're invited back), fine. If not, something else will come along. Thus far, it always has.

And that, friends, is the sound of carefully crossed fingers and a very silent prayer...

* I won't bore you with another long description of what it's like to work on a sit-com pilot. If you missed it, and are interested, click here, then scroll down to "The Making of a Pilot," where you'll find a four post series offering a blow-by-blow account of a pilot I did two years ago...

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The New Golden Age

“It was a great decade for television.”

Thus begins Tim Goodman’s retrospective on television in this first decade of what has otherwise been a stunningly ugly new millennium. In a New Year's Day piece for the San Francisco Chronicle, Goodman (the Chron’s TV critic) makes a case for the ten best shows since 2000, while his blog broadens the discussion to include another fifteen just-missed also-rans. In yet another perceptive piece, he dissects the forces that have shaped television in these increasingly turbulent times.

Mr. Goodman is serious about television.

I’m no fan of lists in general, and usually find year-end lists particularly tedious, but Goodman isn’t your average TV critic -– indeed, he’s one of the very best, backing up his analysis with solid reasoning fueled by a raw passion for the medium that occasionally veers towards the obsessive. But he’s dead right – this really was a great decade to bask in the flickering glow of the Cathode Ray Gun, ushering in a new Golden Age of Television. The world outside our doors and beyond our borders may be plummeting straight to Hell in a flaming, wobbly-wheeled shopping cart, but when it comes to drama on the small screen, things have rarely been better.

Although the kill-your-television crowd would rather belly-crawl naked across fifty yards of broken glass than admit such heresy, it’s true*. As Goodman points out –- and much as it pains me to admit -- most of the best stuff is now produced by cable networks, and has been for a while. The astonishing quality of the premier cable offerings forced some broadcast networks to raise the level of their own game (ie: “Lost”), while others (most notably NBC, which has been spiraling into the abyss ever since Jeff Zucker took the reins) panicked and made some seriously stupid decisions.**

You might quibble with Goodman’s choices, but it’s hard to argue with the overall lineup he’s assembled. With seven of his top ten now over and done, only three shows remain in production, but I’m not worried about a sudden crashing end to this New Golden Age. Cable is only just beginning to come into its own, showing the rest of the Industry how good TV can be when the suits get the hell out of the way and allow the right creative people to take wing.  I think there’s a lot a lot of great cable television in our collective future.

Unfortunately, this decade-long upwelling of excellent cable dramas has been golden for critics and viewers only -- those of us forced by circumstance to work on cable shows get stuck with cable-rate paychecks, which typically means doing 120% of the work for 80% of the money compared to a broadcast network show.  I hate this -- all of us who do the heavy lifting below decks hate this -- but for the moment, it's the new reality.  In this economy, everyone but Wall Street bankers is taking it in the shorts, and Hollywood is no exception.  At this point, many of us feel fortunate to get any work at all, even at the cable rate.

At least when we get home there's a decent chance of finding something worth watching on the Toob...

Will cable eventually over-reach, grow top-heavy, and produce a series of thundering bombs? Probably. Ever since Adam and Eve shared a bite of that apple, screwing up a good thing has been an integral part of the human experience, but I think it’ll take a while for the current flowering of quality-over-quantity to run its course, be co-opted, cheapened, and ultimately turn to shit. Dust to dust, as they say -- what goes up really does come back down eventually -– but for the time being, quality television is alive and well on cable in this New Golden Age. With a little luck, we might even get another ten great years. And who knows, maybe even the broadcast networks will somehow manage to get their shit together and come up with a slate of programs actually worth watching.

Miracles do sometimes happen.

Now if only those of us who do the heavy lifting could get paid union scale on cable shows instead of getting the cable-rate shaft -- that would truly be a miracle worth praying for...

* I’ve no problem with anyone who refuses to watch TV, so long as they don’t wear this vow of Toobal abstinence as a badge of personal virtue. If it makes you happy to strap on the cultural hair-shirt, fine -- just don't let the subsequent itching lure you into the Valley of Smugness and Moral Superiority. Those who sneer at TV because they think it's all crap quite literally don't know what they're talking about -- since they won't watch, how would they know?  I won't argue that most of what's on television isn't a steaming pile -- it is, and our modern 500 channel world remains a carnival of crass vulgarity -- but quality shows of all kinds are there for anyone willing to seek them out. Those who won't make that effort, yet persist in turning their noses up at the medium as a whole, reveal themselves to be as lazy as they are ignorant.

**  Exhibit A: the new Jay Leno show...

Sunday, January 3, 2010


"The stuff that dreams are made of." ”The Maltese Falcon”, 1941 I’ll forgo my usual carping about the trials, tribulations, and occasional indignities of Industry life in favor of a brief meditation on light. To me, it’s beyond ironic that below-the-line work (the foundation of the business) involves so much heavy lifting to create a finished product that weighs less than air. Movies and television are nothing more than images dancing across a screen – light, color, shadow (and sound...) carefully shaped into the world's most popular form of modern entertainment. But when everything falls into place –- a smart script, good director, talented cast, and an experienced, hard-working crew -- the results can be magical. Like all true magic, what the appreciative audience never sees (the seven-eighths of the iceberg below the waterline) is just as important as what appears on the screen. But in the end, it's all just light, as ghostly, ephemeral, and mysterious as a dream... 

 The Oscars finally got around to honoring Gordon Willis, albeit thirty years late. Willis was his usual dyspeptic self: like all true New Yorkers, he seems to consider Los Angeles a moral, intellectual, and aesthetic wasteland, and isn’t the least bit reticent about sharing his crusty opinions. I got a sneak-preview of sorts while listening to NPR’s rebroadcast of an all-too-brief 2002 interview with Willis, during which he attributed his failure to win the Little Gold Man to a dislike for the game of golf and his steadfast refusal to wear white shoes. Willis, it seems, felt that anybody who was anybody in LA back then spent every non-working hour playing golf while wearing white shoes – and for all I know, maybe he was right. If the interview isn't particularly long or in-depth, it’s still worth a listen. At one point, Willis talks about how much he loves the light in New York City – the myriad ways the hard East Coast sunlight is reflected and refracted between all those enormous towers of stone, concrete, and glass, creating fleeting images of stunning urban beauty. Having wandered around Manhattan a few times, I've seen enough to know he's right. 

 “Light means a lot to me in life,” he said, “and the light is terrible in LA, except in the Fall.” Right again, Mr. Willis. 

Everywhere I’ve been in this world, the light is always better in the Fall and Winter months, but nowhere is the difference more dramatic than in Southern California. From Spring until late Summer, the thermonuclear fusion engine that is our sun blasts the holy crap out of LA like some monstrous Death Ray from space. The flat, blinding light floods everything with a bleached-out ugliness relieved only in the brief hours immediately after sunrise and just before sunset, when the sun hangs low in the sky like a big ripe orange. One reason the film industry moved from New York to LA in the first place was for the light, but this was a matter of quantity over quality. In the early days, the crude technology of artificial lighting left most filmmakers at the mercy of the sun. Given the sheer abundance of solar illumination in this desert-by-the-sea -- where real weather (clouds, rain, sleet, ice, and snow) rarely intrudes -- LA provided a perfect location for the industry to flourish. Back then, simply getting a reasonably crisp image on film was enough of a challenge -- it didn't really matter that hard overhead sunlight was ugly as sin. Still, it wasn't long before the basic techniques for controlling and modulating the unflattering natural light were developed -- and although our modern equipment is much lighter, stronger, and easier to use than what was available in the really old days, the same basic methods are still used to cut, soften, reflect, and otherwise modulate harsh sunlight to serve the needs of cinematography. 

The sun tracks ever lower across the sky as summer fades into fall. With those rays beaming through a much thicker atmosphere, the color of sunlight makes a subtle shift towards the warm end of the spectrum, offering a stark contrast to the crisp blue sky. This warm, low light banks off palm trees with a metallic sheen and skids across rough stucco walls to bring out textures that remain invisible during the harsh summer months. Everywhere you look – the natural world of landscapes or the urban cacophony of man-made structures – seems to glow in the rich buttery light, accented by shadows that grow longer, sharper, and more intense every day. It's a truly gorgeous time of the year, as the lush Autumnal light turns the whole world into a painting.  

Working in set lighting introduced me to the infinite variety and qualities of light, on set and out in the real world. Eventually I learned to appreciate the light all around us – its directionality, tones, and ever-varying textures. Although the actual work of set lighting begins and ends with wrangling very heavy cable (and in between, requires setting and adjusting equally heavy lamps that are often extremely hot), the end result of all that sweating, grunting labor is the creation of something shimmering and bright up on screen. Although I’ve only met a couple of DP’s who were big enough assholes to proclaim “I paint with light” (and one of those was a spray-painter, at best), when you get down to it, that’s exactly what a gifted cinematographer does. 

 The natural light-show all around us isn't there simply to please cameramen and film crews, but for everybody to enjoy. As the seasons unfold, I urge you to get out into the world, turn off your cell phone, and take a really good look at what's all around you. Once you learn to see it, there's a lot more magic in the real world than you'll ever find up on the silver screen. And all you have to do is open your eyes.