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)

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Got Time?

Yep, it's the greenest lawn in LA -- not due to the drought-breaking rains this past winter, but because it's made of plastic. There's no water required (or gardener, for that matter) with this, the very latest in high-tech Astroturf...

If (like me) you are now unemployed until the phone decides to ring again, then you might have a little time on your hands. This is not all bad, because I've stumbled across some excellent ways to fritter away those idle hours.

This week's podcast of "The Business" on KCRW is terrific, featuring a lively, candid interview with Kevin Reilly (head of programming at Fox), discussing the perilous process of navigating pilot season from script approval all the way through the upfronts. Reilly reveals much about life in the executive suites where the shots are called, and explains what factors can influence the seemingly fickle decisions to green light or cancel a show -- or put an actor back on Extra Strength Prozac by jerking him/her off a pilot in favor of another pretty face. Opportunities to hear such stories straight from the executive horse's mouth are rare -- and this is a good one. As a bonus, the podcast offers a well-done, very funny Utube spoof of Reilly made for the 2005 upfronts. It might be the best three minutes of your day -- but stick around to listen to Mr. Reilly.* You just might learn something -- I did.

Kurt Sutter (“Sons of Anarchy” showrunner, whose blog covers a wide variety of subjects) recently wrote about the ongoing death spiral of small budget features and broadcast television as creative mediums, and the rise of cable to fill the resulting void. His insider perspective gives this post some serious throw-weight. It's an interesting, thoughtful read for anyone concerned with our industry and the medium.

I'm a big fan of Rob Long’s "Martini Shot" commentaries on KCRW, but a recent offering -- a wry look at the casting process for television titled "What's that Smell?" – is a highly entertaining clinic on timing and the construction of a short piece of humorous writing, among other things. There is, however, an unintentional cautionary coda -- read the comments after listening and you’ll see what I mean.

It's not easy to be funny these days without offending somebody out there.

For those who view becoming a director as the Holy Grail of Hollywood, there are many routes to achieve this goal. Countless writers have leveraged their screenwriting talent into the director's chair, but I’ve also seen PA’s, gaffers, and cameramen work their way up to direct television and feature films. On “The Treatment” (KCRW again), Elvis Mitchell recently conducted two fascinating interviews with up-and-coming directors – Nash Edgerton, a successful stunt man who made the leap to directing with The Square, and Mathew Vaughn (Stardust, Kick Ass), who left his usual producing duties to direct an excellent, very stylish first feature called Layer Cake.

These are terrific interviews, each half an hour long. If becoming a director is your goal – or if you’re just interested in how things sometimes work out for the best in this crazy business -- you should tune in. It can be useful to realize just how many routes there are to get where you want to go.

Granted, these two were already established Industry professionals, but that's pretty much how it works -- the chances that an unknown kid will wander out of a corn field clutching a script so good that Hollywood will allow him/her to direct the movie are on the far side of slim and none. Nobody gets to direct in his first week in the biz, but what these interviews demonstrate is that if you pay your dues, learn all you can, and acquire some serious Industry skills, good things can happen.

Which means, inshallah, they can happen to you.

* Reilly, it turns out, is the unnamed exec who played a key role in this post a while back...

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Bad Moon Rising

"I see the bad moon rising, I see trouble on the way."

Creedence Clearwater Revival

The frenzied rugby-scrum of pilot season is now winding down, with only a few remaining to be shot. If you’re not currently on a pilot or scheduled to start in the next few days, it’s over. By mid-May, the “up-fronts” will take place in New York, where each network will trot out its new fall lineup for the advertisers like a whorehouse madam presenting her “girls” to a room of horny, half-drunk customers. Along with the returning shows will be those pilots that survived the harsh winnowing process -- the golden kernels of wheat left after the chaff (pilots that didn’t get picked up) has been shoveled into the garbage and hauled away with yesterday’s trash.

Dead ahead lies the off-season, when the studios will have very little going on. Back when broadcast networks ruled the earth, this fallow period stretched from May until mid-July, at which point sound stages would again echo with the shriek of power tools rending wood as the sets went up. To a certain extent, the Great Wheel still rolls with these ancient rhythms, but the rise of cable has altered the equation. Cable networks came up with the 12 episode season rather than the network standard of 22, and over the years evolved a multi-season schedule to keep a steady stream of fresh material in the pipeline all year around. As one show winds up its run, another prepares to debut, always bringing something new to their viewers. With the more imaginative cable outfits (FX and AMC) eating the broadcast network’s creative lunch the past few years, this appears to be a winning strategy.*

For those of us who do the heavy lifting, this is a good news/bad news situation. As the broadcast networks falter and cut back production, cable grinds out lots of new shows that keep people working. That’s good. The bad part is that cable shows can pay their crews at the have-we-got-a-deal-for-you "cable rate" -- roughly five bucks (or more) per hour under union scale. Worse, cable doesn't have to pay double-time until the crew has worked 14 full hours in a day, excluding the lunch break. (Standard scale -- paid on broadcast network shows -- pays double-time after 12 hours worked.) Absent the threat of having to pay double-time, many producers will work a crew right into the ground, which is just what happens on many cable shows. If you start the week with a 6:00 a.m. call on Monday, your day probably won’t end until 9:00 p.m. – and the next four days will be just as bad. By Friday, you’ll be in the very special hell of “Fraterday” – wrapping up sometime Saturday morning.

Not all cable shows are so abusive – I’m told the “Dexter” crew works 65 hour weeks with 13 hour days, and are now paid last year’s scale, or one dollar/hour under full scale – but for those less fortunate (the hapless crew of "Greek," for example), working harder and longer for less money is an ugly way to live.

Should the networks continue to stumble, the cable model may eventually become the new normal for Television. One factor driving this are the escalating requirements for staying covered by the health plan under the most recent IA contract. By the summer of 2011, each union member will have to log 400 worked every six months to retain coverage -- up from the current 300 hours. This won't pose a problem for those on the core crew of a show, but day-players will face a much harder time accruing those 800 hours per year. It only takes a couple of rough years to run through your bank of hours and end up out in the cold. If you're not working enough to maintain the health plan, you probably won't be able to afford the high cost of COBRA coverage either. Caught between this rock and a hard place –- the Scylla and Charybdis of modern Hollywood -- many people will have no choice but to work cable shows just to get enough hours for the health plan.

To say "that sucks" is a gross understatement.

But this could be just the beginning of a black tide about to engulf Hollywood. A harbinger might be what ABC/Disney -- a once-proud broadcast network now in bed with The Evil Empire of the Rat -- pulled with "Greek," first airing the show on their cable affiliates before the broadcast network debut. This allowed them to pay the crew the odious cable rate even though the show also runs on the big network. Leave it to the tools of Satan at Disney to come up with such a devious scheme.

Bad as that is, consider this: what if the next step is debuting pilots or first episodes as webisodes on the Internet? Not only would this further entrench the habit of web-based television viewing, but it might allow soulless fiends like Disney to pay the crew under the "New Media" provisions of the contract -- and that would be a disaster for everybody working in television below-the-line. The New Media provisions enforce no minimum hourly or daily scale. Workers accrue hours toward their health and pension plans, but could end up toiling for State or Federal minimum wage.

Who would take such low paying jobs? I’ve already heard of several union juicers desperate for health plan hours who worked on New Media productions paying ten dollars an hour. Working at Home Depot pays a better wage than that, and they don't make you work a fourteen hour shift.

You do have to wear that orange apron, though.

Although it’s too soon to tell what will come of all this, the signs aren’t encouraging. With dark clouds looming over Hollywood, "Will work for health care" might sound like a bad joke, but it could become reality.

I see trouble on the way.

* The only decent drama any of the major networks have come up with in the past few years was “Southland,” but Jeff Zucker and NBC were too stupid to understand what they had – which is how the best cop show on TV since “The Wire” ended up on TNT.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Old Posts, New Comments

“Human nature is eternal. Therefore, one who follows his nature keeps his original nature in the end.”

“The Lady from Shangai”, directed by Orson Welles

While chasing down an old link to include in a recent post, I stumbled across a relatively new message in the comments section. Such comments come as a welcome surprise, it being gratifying to find new readers still discovering this blog and exploring the archives* -- and when such a comment is positive, so much the better. Still, it seems slightly odd that new readers would bother to comment on a six month old post. Perhaps this is the digital equivalent of the old “Kilroy was here” scrawled on walls in those innocent times before spray cans and graffiti “artists” emerged from the cultural compost pile to deface buildings and public spaces in every American city**

This particular comment was a mixed bag: positive, but carrying a familiar message of constructive criticism. Still, I’d never heard it put quite this way, with both message and medium melded into one.

“enjoyed your prose,
like it more if it was
short like a haiku.”

That’s right, a haiku, compact and concise by nature, declaring that the post was worth reading, but too long.

Ah yes, that again – tell me something I don’t already know. Yes, I write long. Too long, most of the time, and occasionally (as anybody who tried to wade through several recent posts can attest) waaaaay too long. I can explain – oh could I explain... churning out paragraph after endless fracking paragraph that would put you all deep into REM sleep - but a certain longwindedness at the keyboard seems to be in my nature. Why use ten words when thirty more are sitting there on the bench just itching to get into the game? "Kill your babies" might the first rule of the Writer's Ten Commandments, but I find it hard to be so ruthless. As the estimable Tim Goodman replied after reviewing my one and only paid submission to his newspaper: “You’re one wordy MF, my friend. Just like me."

I took this as high praise at the time, but perhaps that was a mistake.

Pithy, I am not. You'll just have to trust me that I don't actually set out to write such rambling, unwieldy tomes in these posts -- quite the opposite -- but all too often a post gets away from me, leaps the fence, and is gone with the digital wind.

One who follows his nature, keeps his original nature in the end...

Maybe it’s time to give it another try. Like the punch-drunk boxer climbing back off the mat to take another beating -- or the hopelessly addicted smoker trying to quit those infernal cancer-sticks one last time -- I’ll make an honest attempt to tighten up future offerings in this space, and thus follow Strunk and White's timeless advice: “Omit needless words.”

I’d be tempted to try “tweeting” for the iron discipline enforced by that 140 character limit, but being past a certain age, can’t help regarding “Twitter” with the sneering contempt that comes from being old and utterly out of it. I’ll stick to a real keyboard, thankyouverymuch, and leave such bright and shiny digital baubles to a younger generation that seems born to the modern art of thumb-talking.

Write shorter? I’ll try, gentle readers, I’ll try. That’s all I can promise.

* Although it was the unknown person who left those eighteen “comments” after one old post -- which were actually links to some commercial porn site – who drove me to activate the comments verification feature of this blog...

** Clarification: I appreciate the clever, visually complex murals created by the best of these artists, whether their work is legally sanctioned or not, but have no patience for the low-life cretins who simply spray their name and/or gang affiliation on every unguarded wall, window, and street sign. This isn’t a valid form of self-expression IMHO, but behavior akin to that of of dogs marking their local fire hydrants. Dogs have a good excuse -- they're animals running on instinct -- but I expect better from humans. In that, however, I am often disappointed.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Moments of Grace

A small pod of dolphins welcomes Bonnie to their home...

The pilot is finally over, after three punishing weeks of unrelenting labor. This wasn't a particularly tough one, but every pilot is a steep, all-work-all-the-time climb up a very long and rocky slope -- a grueling trek that leaves the everyone staggering with fatigue by the end. For the set lighting crew, the process of making a multi-camera pilot (sit-com with a laugh track) passes through four distinct phases: a week of roughing in the lighting on each set, another four or five days tweaking and re-lighting to accommodate the inevitable script and blocking changes, a day for blocking and pre-shoots followed by the shoot in front of a studio audience, and finally the wrap. Each phase has its own unique rhythms and plus/minus equation -- a blend of good and bad aspects that eventually become almost ritualistic in their familiarity.*

Thanks to the stack of non-disclosure agreements every crew member must sign before any pilot or show these days, I can't tell you much about this one -- but that really doesn't matter. It was a typical multi-camera sit-com pilot, with the difficult task of introducing seven main characters while weaving and resolving two plot lines beginning with a "cold open" and ending with a rimshot tag for one last laugh. If you think that's an easy thing to do in 22 short minutes, you've never tried it. A good sit-com script is a work of artful craft similar in some respects to a haiku -- lean and punchy with absolutely no excess fat.

I'd never heard of any of our actors and you probably haven't either. Suffice it to say they were all good, including one who was simply spectacular -- and that actress is going places, whether this pilot gets picked up or not. Someday, we'll all know her name.

Right now I'm so tired I can hardly remember mine -- and as usual, I'll need a week to recover from this pilot. But one of the good things about every pilot is getting to meet more interesting, engaging new people, and this one held true to form. The photo above features our set decorator, a former extreme skier (and mother of three) from Montana who now surfs the Southern California coast on her time off. This photo represents a true moment of grace captured by an English tourist who was in the right place at the right time to snap the shot, then was nice enough to share it with her via e-mail. In this brief encounter, the dolphins suddenly appeared, surfed the wave, then veered off to the right and vanished into the wide open Pacific.

What's this got to do with making a pilot or the film/television business? Nothing, really. It's just a gentle reminder that those who do the hard work required to make television have lives and interests far beyond the bright, tunnel-vision confines of a film set. But I'll remember this photo -- and the smile on Bonnie's face as she told me her story -- long after I've forgotten all about the pilot we worked on together.

* If you're interested in a more detailed look at the process of making a pilot from the inside, start here at the first of four posts describing one I did a couple of years ago.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

A Grain of Salt

Production Assistants having actual fun on a movie set...

A comment left on one of The Anonymous Production Assistant’s recent posts got me to thinking.

“... if you work long enough as a PA, you will hate life. please please please take this blog with a grain of salt.”

Given that most blogs offer a highly subjective outlook based on each blogger’s individual experiences, biases, and personality, it’s good advice to take every blog with a grain of salt -- but the commenter (who calls him/herself "rather pathetic") seemed to have a more specific complaint: that what he/she perceived as a negative, snarky tone in the APA’s posts does not accurately represent the reality of Industry life.

Like everything else in life, this business offers a roller-coaster ride of good and bad that varies from day to day, job to job, year to year. A good day on set with an experienced crew and a competent production team (and for decent money...) can be fun -– you work hard and share a few laughs while getting the job done, then wrap it all up and go home. If the hours are longer than in most types of work, that's just part of the deal.*

But a really bad day on set well and truly sucks. I hate working all night or in the rain (or both, compounding the misery), or for the Big Ego screamers who either don't know what they're doing or never learned to communicate in a civilized manner. Slaving for cheap-ass production companies unwilling to hire enough help or pony up for good equipment -- or worse, pay on a flat rate, all-the-shit-you-can-eat basis -- can be a physically and emotionally debilitating experience. Toiling all day in the blinding heat of the desert isn't much fun, nor is enduring the suffocating humidity and swarms of insects that accompany summertime locations almost everywhere east of New Mexico. It's no picnic to shoot in the freezing cold of ice and snow, either, or work long hours on a hot sweaty sound stage filled with the oil-based smoke many DP's use to add "atmosphere" to the visuals -- an exercise in sustained misery that remains my personal bete noir.

There are many harder jobs out there -- personally, I can't imagine working as a coal miner, sand-hog, or a roofer -- but on a bad day, this is a tough business.

There are only three positive things I can say about such a miserable day: it will end (eventually), you will get paid for your suffering (if not enough), and the experience will make a good story somewhere much further on down the line. And since the worst experiences usually make the best stories, it's natural that many Industry blogs lean towards a darker vision of life in the shadow of the big white Hollywood sign.

I can't speak for other Industry bloggers, but the goal here has always been to peel back the curtain on my end of the business -- set lighting -- and give anyone interested (fellow work-bots, young people just entering the biz, or curious civilians) some idea what it's like to live and work in Hollywood, along with a greater understanding (and hopefully, appreciation) for what it takes to get a location or sound stage set lit and ready for the actors. Given that mounting any sort of production is a complex endeavor requiring so many very different crafts to work together (often, it seems, at cross-purposes...), delays and frustration are inevitable.** On any shoot, as the hours mount and end seems nowhere in sight, we all tend to get a bit cranky, and some of that inevitably bleeds into the blogs.

A secondary rationale for this blog was to dispel the notion held by so many of my civilian friends and acquaintances that working in Hollywood is somehow a glamorous activity. To that end, many of my own posts have focused on the less savory aspects of a work day on set.

Still, "rather pathetic" might ask him/herself just what he/she really wants to read in an Industry blog. Imagine such a blog that was nothing but sweetness and light -- praising the intelligence, understanding, and compassion raining down from above-the-line, speaking of friendly, competent directors, producers and AD's, and relating warm-and-fuzzy stories about actors who learn their lines and hit their marks like true professionals. Should such a blog exist -- laden with anecdotes about shoots that glide smoothly through short, happy days, the crew basking in warm sunshine while enjoying delectable craft service, sumptuous catering, and big fat paychecks -- would it make for an interesting read? Do any of us work in a filmic paradise where the lion lies down with the lamb, love is in the air, and everything really is beautiful in its own way?

Maybe –- I suppose anything’s possible -- but most of the time the answer to all of the above would be a resounding “no.” Yes, some shoots are dream jobs -- and here I'm thinking of the lighting crew on one Oscar-winning movie a few years back that filmed in the rugged mountains of Montana. The first two weeks of production were spent shooting day exteriors on a river, which required no artificial lighting. While the gaffer played meter-maid by the camera (and the grips got a workout wrangling big silks and bounces in and around the water), most of the juicers spent those two idyllic weeks upstream fishing for trout -- at full union scale.

Nice work, if you can get it.

Although that remains an the exception (especially nowadays), we all occasionally enjoy a brief moment of grace: a little positive karmic payback for all those miserable times in the past. And truth be told, not even production assistants run an endless gauntlet of torrential abuse. Although my own experiences as a PA (blessedly brief) were no joyride, I managed to have a little fun along the way while learning a lot -- mostly how badly I wanted to move past working as a PA, but still...

Those three kids in the photo above were production assistants on a low budget feature filmed in Vermont during the late 80’s. The two on the outside were locals, while the one in the middle was a fast-talking kid from New York, who -- as that brand new tool belt indicates -- we’d already drafted to help with our undermanned grip/electric crews. These kids worked for peanuts suffering right alongside the rest of us for eight long six-day weeks in the ice and snow, but they still managed to have a little fun.***

Working as a production assistant is not a goal, but a means to an end – a springboard position from which to get a close-up look at the Industry before deciding which direction to proceed. The truth is, if you work long enough at anything -– grip, juicer, prop man, boom operator, wardrobe, set-dresser, makeup, or camera assistant – some part of you will end up hating life, but each of those jobs will pay you a lot more money while inflicting considerably less soul-crushing degradation than working as a PA.

So by all means, keep a salt shaker handy as you read this and every Industry blog. Understand that for each miserable hard-slogging day we describe, a good day comes along sooner or later -- sometimes several good days. But unless those turn out to be spectacularly wonderful days, you might not read about it in a blog, because a run-of-the-mill day on set just isn't a particularly compelling story.

* This is easy at first, when working on set is an all-new adventure full of interesting experiences, but one's view of long hours changes over time. That, however, is a subject for another post.

** Seriously -- craft service, wardrobe, sound, and set lighting could hardly be more different.

*** After this movie wrapped, the kid in the middle went out to LA and managed to get his IA card five years before I finally got mine. Go figure...

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Pilot Season 2010

Spring training may be over for baseball now -- the major league rosters of both leagues all set for Opening Day – but television’s own version of spring training is just getting into full swing. In late winter and early spring, the broadcast and cable networks put a slate of promising new prospects through their production paces during pilot season to determine which shows have what it takes to make the regular season lineup -- and right now, pilot season is roaring full throttle through Hollywood. The studio I’ve considered my “home lot” since 2003 had nothing but tumbleweeds blowing past empty sound stages until three weeks ago, but it’s now humming with activity. After a long, cold and largely unemployed winter, this is a very welcome change indeed.

Spring didn’t come a day too soon.

The first week of any sit-com pilot is the toughest. I walked onto the sound stage early Monday morning into a fine mist of sawdust belching from a belt sander, the whine of power tools mingling with the strains of classic rock from battered old boom boxes scattered in every corner. The construction crew was still building, prepping, and painting the six main sets this pilot will require – and if (when...) the inevitable script re-writes call for it, they’ll rip out any of those suddenly unnecessary sets and build new ones to take their place -- overnight.

As construction winds down, the work of lighting the sets begins. Two hundred and fifty-odd lamps were lined up along the “rail,”* stacked three-high and ready to be deployed. By Friday afternoon -- just five days later -- all but a handful were hanging from the pipe grid or mounted directly atop the set walls, each powered, marked, and adjusted – the basic lighting roughed in – before we’d seen the first actor walk on set.

Much tweaking remains to be done, with each lamp requiring further adjustment as the rehearsals evolve over the following week leading up to shoot night. As we add more lamps to each set, finding room to work in the crowded airspace above those sets – already jammed with lamps, bulky Cronie Cones, and a complex tapestry of teasers and cutters -- will be the hardest job of all. After a certain point, it’s almost impossible to squeeze in there with a ladder or man lift without disrupting the existing rig. Invariably we end up having to walk the set walls or stand on the top rail of the man lift (both activities representing serious violations of the studio’s safety policy) to accomplish the task. This can be tricky and dangerous – you really do have to be careful up there -- but often there’s just no other way. Besides, juicers (and grips) are paid to get the job done however hard it may be, and there’s a certain pride at stake in doing whatever you have to do.

The best thing about that first week on a pilot is the social aspect, getting back in harness with the crew – in effect, your tribe. An added benefit this past week was running into so many familiar faces in the commissary at breakfast and lunch, a couple of dozen juicers and grips I hadn’t seen in months, all working on other crews doing pilots. It’s always great to see these people, everyone grinning at being employed again, but this doesn’t last long – next week we’ll shift from early morning to mid-afternoon calls as the director and actors begin on-set rehearsals. It’ll be nice to sleep in again (getting up at 5 a.m. is utterly hateful), but coming in later means no more meals in the commissary, as the pilot experience retreats from something of a group experience back to the insularity of each individual show.

Still, last week was fun, if exhausting. The image I’ll hang on to came mid-week after lunch, when several of us – old friends all from many different shows in the past – finished off our lunch hour sitting on the porch of one of the permanent sets on the studio’s “residential street” back lot. A casting session for a show was underway, and on this beautiful spring afternoon, a steady stream of stunning young women kept passing by going to and from, most of them wearing the shortest of short-shorts and halter tops, as if vying for a role in yet another remake of "Dukes of Hazard."

It was one of the perks of Industry life – relaxing on porch with good company, everyone back at work, sharing old stories and a quiet appreciation of the wonders of nature.

Ah, spring...

* Essentially a sturdy metal fence designed to keep the audience in the elevated grandstand close -- but not too close -- as the action unfolds on shoot night...