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, March 28, 2010

Getting Fired

(photo by Michael Ochs)

“Failure is not falling down, but refusing to get up.”

Chinese proverb

Failure... and Success

Hollywood lives on the image of success and all that comes with it – money, power, fancy houses, expensive cars, and the freedom to wallow in every earthly indulgence known to man. The tabloids may quiver with orgasmic joy whenever a celebrity stumbles in public (providing raw, bloody grist for their insatiable mill), but success – particularly the sudden variety -- remains a favorite subject in this town: the previously unknown writer, actor, or director who finally gets his/her shot, nails it, and is promptly whisked from the crowded, fetid stench of steerage below decks to join the rest of the Chosen Ones up in the breezy opulence of first class.

More than the Hollywood Dream, this now seems to be America’s Dream, and the foundation for so many un-Reality shows on TV. Once upon a time, the American Dream was to get a decent job and raise a family in a nice little house behind a white picket fence, but now the collective cultural lust is to ride the Cinderella-story, rags-to-riches rocket from Palookaville to a giant McMansion in a gated community, with a "Great Room" (whatever the hell that is), a 60 inch plasma screen hanging on every wall, and all the useless glittering bling a mountain of money can buy.

Are we really so shallow and stupid, or is that just the way things look on TV?

The flip side of this shiny golden coin doesn’t get quite so much press, and for good reason -- nobody wants to be Dr. Buzzkill bringing dank and gloomy rain clouds to blot out the sun. Still, image and reality usually reside on opposite ends of the spectrum, and reality in Hollywood means coming to terms with failure at some point. For every happy success story, there are a thousand sad tales of ambition gone wrong: the aspiring actress who finally gets her SAG card but can't land any paying gigs, the writer who churns out one spec script after another but never makes a sale, or the would-be director who can’t even get an agent, much less a job.

To quote an Oscar-winning song, “It’s hard out there for a pimp...”

Just as there are many varieties of success (which really is all relative), there are myriad ways to fail, perhaps the most common being the slow death of never quite meeting the inflated expectations created by dream factory of Hollywood itself. But without a doubt, the single most defining and emphatic form of failure is to get fired. I’m not talking about being laid off -- which is as much a part of free-lance life as breathing – but actually getting fired. That's a very different beast. And let's face it, if someone like Michael Ovitz -- in his day, one of the most powerful (read: feared) movers and shakers in Hollywood -- can get fired, then anybody can.

Human nature being what it is, ego, insecurity, and personality conflicts probably trigger most firings, but sometimes a person just isn't suited to perform a given job, or else gets promoted (or falls into) a position he or she hasn't sufficiently prepared for. After catching a break and the opportunity to show their stuff, the result is a failure so dismal that getting fired becomes a form of mercy killing. A trap door opens beneath their feet, and they’re gone.

I’ve dropped through that door into the darkness more than once, each time in a different way and for a different reason -- so I know how much it hurts. Still, my wounds were limited to the financial and psychological arena. I once saw a Key Grip fire his best boy in a much more dramatic and physical manner. When the BB showed up late for work the third day in a row, the Key dragged him out of his pickup truck, beat the holy crap out of him (cracking a couple of the BB's ribs in the process), then shoved him back behind the wheel and told him to get the fuck out of there.

Now that’s a rough way to get fired.

My own journeys through the trap door were more civilized, but (other than leaving my ribs intact) no less bruising inside. Even if you suspect it’s coming, being fired delivers a staggering body blow -- but when you get blindsided, it’s absolutely crushing.

After ten years working as a juicer, then a best boy, I was getting most of my work from one very good gaffer. As his name got around, his career took off, and I went along for the ride. After a certain point, I didn’t even bother to look for work anymore -- the jobs just kept coming, one commercial after another, with an occasional music video for variety. Life was good.

It was then that one of "our" director/cameramen decided to stop shooting and bump my gaffer up to DP.  This was good news, but moving up through the Industry ranks can be tricky. In the world of commercials, it's hard to be a gaffer-DP for long without losing a certain credibility -- at some point you've got to make a leap of faith, and when that time comes, you'd better stick the landing. I'd done very little gaffing up 'til then, and had no particular ambition to move up, but when my gaffer made his leap, my choice was to go with him as his gaffer, or else fall back into the pond with the rest of the day-playing free-lance fish. There are some perks with moving up to gaffer – getting a scout day on many jobs (more money), a new level of respect (however undeserved), and less physical work on set (having a best boy and juicers to wrangle the 4/0) -- but in truth, I wasn’t quite ready to be a gaffer. While working as a best boy all those years, my concern had been running the crew, powering the set, making sure the gaffer had the equipment he needed, and doing the paperwork. I was too busy to study the lighting, and by then my Hollywood ambitions had pretty much plateaued.  This was my job now – something that paid the bills and engaged my brain on a practical, mechanical level, but that's all.

The choice I faced left me no good option, so I took a deep breath and made the leap.

As a brand new gaffer, things were fine so long as I worked for that DP, who knew exactly what lights he needed for each shot and where to put them, allowing me to fake it as I learned how to read a light meter without holding the damned thing upside-down. But as hot as he’d been as a gaffer, he was still a newbie cameraman with only one real client, and when that director wasn’t working, neither were we. Fortunately, the cameraman for our other account -- the big one -- was willing to take me on as his new gaffer, allowing me to keep earning a decent living. But the world of commercials is a high-stress arena without much leeway for learning on the job, and I was expected to come up to speed fairly quickly. Unfortunately, I wasn't a quick study at lighting, which left me feeling very insecure in a position I'd essentially inherited. Things went okay under the circumstances – we got the shots lit to the director's satisfaction, and the jobs went reasonably well – but truth be told, the cameraman was shouldering most of the load. Before every shot, he'd tell me where to put the lights, then I'd turn to my best boy and repeat his orders.

I was a gaffer in name only.

Eventually a scheduling conflict arose, forcing me to choose between jobs for these two cameramen. The tribal loyalty that forms the glue of below-the-line Hollywood demanded that I go with my ex-gaffer, but the other cameraman (my real money-maker) told me not to worry – he’d do this one with another gaffer, then I’d be back for the next job.

A couple of weeks later, my phone rang on a hot, smoggy, hungover Saturday morning in early July. It was the DP from my big account. The tone of his voice told me this wasn't good news.

“I lied,” he said. “The new guy and I got along really well, so I’m going with him. I’m sorry...”

I mumbled something, then hung up, reeling. I’d just lost the best and most lucrative gig I’d ever had -- and with it, the economic wind beneath my wings.

I'd been fired.*

Losing the gig was bad enough, but what made it worse was that I really liked and respected this DP. He was a terrific cameraman and a great guy, fun to work with and possessed of a wonderful sense of humor. In some ways, he was a bit like the big brother I never had, teaching me things about lighting (and life) as we went from job to job. If getting fired was rough, being fired by him -- someone for whom I had so much personal regard -- was brutal.

In my more lucid moments, though, I had to admit he wasn’t wrong. The production company we worked for was paying top dollar for a crew, and in my case, they really weren’t getting their money’s worth. I knew it, he knew it, and they knew it, so in a strange way, I was almost relieved -- at least I wouldn’t have to fake it on their set anymore. But I still had to pay the bills, and that account had been my bread and butter. The other cameraman – my ex-gaffer – was still struggling to establish himself as a DP, turning down gaffing jobs and working maybe once a month. Given that a DP makes so much more than a gaffer, he could afford that (if barely), but with a mortgage back on the home planet and rent due here in LA, I needed more work.

I got on the phone and put the word out, and bit by bit, jobs trickled in -- first as a juicer for whoever would hire me, later as a gaffer for the crappy Fringe-Co outfits I thought I’d left behind. It was hard, but this time I immersed myself in the craft of lighting with a focus and intensity born of desperation -- and slowly, job by job, I learned the ropes of being a commercial gaffer. In time, my remaining cameraman landed more solid accounts, and I was again able to leave the Fringe-Co purgatory and resume doing commercials with decent budgets.

With the 20:20 clarity of hindsight, I could see that getting fired had actually been a blessing (albeit a rough one), forcing me back in the trenches to learn the hard way – perhaps the only way – new skills that would serve me well over the next ten years. Failure hurts, but it can be a compelling motivator. Years later, I ended up gaffing several commercials with the cameraman who’d fired me, and by then was able to pull my full weight. He appreciated that almost as much as I did, and it was a great reunion for both of us. Although we don’t work together anymore (he left the business to teach, then my gaffing career went up in Canadian smoke), we’re still good friends.

Call that what you will, but I call it a success.

Getting fired is a stinging failure in the short term -- a serious bitch-slap -- but it can provide a useful opportunity to re-examine your approach to your job/career. Until you realize something's wrong, you don't know it needs to be fixed. That might mean deciding to crack down and put your heart and soul into the job, or maybe you need to go in an entirely new direction. Either way, the experience -- painful though it is -- can help you grow and succeed over the long run. If nothing else, it just might change your own personal definition of the term "success."

* There's more to this story -- an almost surreal double-whammy of personal complications that made the situation infinitely worse -- but that'll have to wait for the book.  This wasn't my last taste of failure, though, nor the last time I'd be fired. It was all part of the bruising process of learning the ropes in Hollywood.


A.J. said...

Another excellent post. I know a lot of people who could use a good "bitch-slap firing," but unfortunately, it's usually those who don't deserve it who get it.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting. My experience in "being in over head", was being brought on as Gaffer in the final 8 days of an indie feature where the entire electric department had walked. May I should have known better, but I needed the cash. No history of the production or crew, didn't know the DP or his lighting style, never got a script, lights and other gear in sorry shape (either worn out to begin with or previous crew's abuse), lots of shocks on that shoot. Best Boy and only electric also new to the shoot, no time to access what equipment we had and no time for repairs. Day 3, the DP asks, "What light would you use here? I want it soft.", 10x10' interior space. Kino's would work....wrong answer, he wanted a nine light brute through muslin. That was end of my association with that production.

Michael Taylor said...

AJ --

Thanks, but I deserved it. Maybe the experience built me some character...

Anonymous --

You've described yet another "perfect storm" of nightmare circumstances. I hate trick questions from the DP -- if you already know what you want, just tell me and we'll find a way to make it work. Sometimes there's only one right answer to such questions -- hit the eject button and bail on out of there.

Thanks for tuning in.

Devon Ellington said...

Yeah, one of the challenges of working in wardrobe is that you're at the mercy of the supervisor, unless an actor puts you in the contract. The supervisor hires the favorites from show to show. If you fall out of favor or don't toe the line or turn down a gig because an actor on another show put you in the contract, it can get dicey.

Eventually, as long as you work hard and you're good at what you do, it works out, but the process is often a bitch -- in every sense of the word.

Pamela Jaye Smith - MYTHWORKS said...

Excellent perspective, Mike. On the other side of it, as a Producer and Line Producer I've had to fire people a couple of times. Not a pleasant experience. T

he first time it was on a music video and it was the Assistant Director who wasn't measuring up to what the director wanted. Conveying someone else's concerns was easier than when I had to fire a Props person off another shoot where it was me who didn't find his work up to speed.

Ideally, as you note, firings in the best cases are about what's best for the whole.

And how cool is it that you'll never be fired again.

Thanks for writing about your experiences; I always enjoy reading your articles.

Michael Taylor said...

Pam --

I'm sure it's not easy to fire someone -- I'd hate to have to do that. I was pretty careful in who I hired when I worked as a Best Boy and Gaffer, and (fortunately) never had to fire anybody, but my personnel choices didn't always work out. My way was to get through the job, whatever it took, and if I was unhappy with the performance or attitude of one of my crew, I just didn't hire him/her again. My core crew was fine -- they knew what was expected and did the job -- but sometimes the day players just weren't up to snuff... and that's why they remained day-players.

Thanks for tuning in...

Jay Hergot said...

Reading this I've learned more about you, things I guess I could have known but didn't explore with you or maybe somethings I've just forgotten. The movie industry can provide moments to move up but mine like yours sometimes didn't pan out, just by having to keep that commitment to a prior crew and having to turn someone down for just one day of work and poof, there goes another avenue for work. I only had to let go of one person when our job got extended and I used that moment to get someone better, hard to do when you like the person but the crew was't big enough to keep them on and a switch was needed. That was a job I was key grip on and it was fast paced and grueling test of stamina, 5-6 days a week for 22 weeks total as I recall. Jobs like that make me enjoy my retirement, but one can miss all those great people I loved working with so so much, you of course were one of those. I sure enjoy your writing too, I guess I don't know enough about how you acquired those skills, something to explore when we get together and soon I hope. Keep writing!!!