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, September 29, 2010

Wednesday Potpourri

At the studio commissary for lunch recently, I noticed two tall, elegant Indian women walk in, look around, then get in line. Both wore their native garb of ankle-length brightly colored saris. More followed, and before long, there were at least thirty waiting to order their lunch, including several men dressed in what appeared to be police or military uniforms. For a moment I thought they must be a group of Indian film executives taking a tour of the studio – but then I remembered my day on the rigging crew installing dimmers on a sound stage where the new television comedy “Outsourced” was scheduled to be shot.

There’s been some controversy in the press concerning “Outsourced” – accusations of cultural insensitivity, borderline racism, and taking a point-and-laugh stance towards anybody not born here in America. There’s also been speculation that a comedy riding the premise of American jobs going overseas might not find a receptive home audience in such economically stressed times. There may be some meat on the bones of both arguments, but not having seen the show (nor do I work on it – installing those dimmers was a one-day job), I can’t address the first objection. As to whether an American audience will tune in: if a show is genuinely funny, people will watch. If not, they won’t. Time will tell on both counts.

My first thought upon walking on that stage was that the network is spending a ton of money on the show, which features huge and elaborate sets lit from a vast network of green beds hung overhead. Green beds! I haven’t seen that many green beds in a couple of years. God, would I love to work on a show smart enough to use green beds rather than relying on the clumsy pipe grid system my own show uses. Green beds cost more to install, but they save time and money in the long run, making the job of lighting a show so much easier and faster.

My second thought – upon seeing all those Indians in the commissary – was that this show could be a serious economic bonanza for a lot of Indian actors here in LA who otherwise might be scrambling to find work.

"It's an ill wind," they say, "that blows no good."

I heard a fascinating interview on KCRW’s “The Business” with Ken Kwapis, showrunner of “Outsourced” and a man with a lot of experience directing pilots. I’d never really thought about the difference between directing a pilot vs. an episode of an already established show, but Ken talks about that and other things (including what he learned while directing the pilot of "The Office") in this very interesting half hour.

The interview also has a link to a clip from the pilot of “Outsourced,” which portrays the show in a much better light than I’d expected after reading of the various controversies swirling around. If I had no life at all and nothing to do but stare wide-eyed, slack-jawed, and drooling at the Toob while drinking myself to sleep every night, I might even tune in.


The LA Times ran an interesting piece in the Sunday paper on the genesis, evolution, and eventual success of “Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” FX’s little show that could. Starting with a pilot shot and edited for a hundred bucks – according to the LA Times, at least – the show is now cruising into it’s sixth season with a per-episode budget of $1.5 million. How such an unlikely turn of events came about is a fascinating story well told by the Time’s Meg James, and should be an inspiration for anybody trying to get their own little show off the launch pad. While I’m not so sure that “Sunny” charts a path others can follow (or that, in the words of FX general manager John Landgraf, “We’ve actually kind of invented... a new business model”), it does point to the value of trying new approaches rather than butting one’s head bloody against the brick walls of the Hollywood’s status quo. There is no one way to get things done anymore – it’s all up for grabs. Anybody who doubts that really should read the article.


On a completely different note, here’s an interesting video of the late, great Johnny Cash singing the Nine Inch Nails song “Hurt.” Johnny Cash and Trent Reznor wouldn’t seem to be a workable combination, but I like this one a lot.

I found the link on a “Fresh Air” interview with Mark Romanek, director of the features “Never Let Me Go,” and “One Hour Photo,” and veteran music video director who made the “Hurt” video with Johnny Cash. The interview offers yet another interesting perspective for any young wannabe directors out there.

Check it out.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Oye Como Va

Friday morning, show day. With a 10 a.m. call, I get to march to my own drummer starting off this work day. Rather than stumbling bleary-eyed from the warm bed at 5 a.m., I arise at a civilized hour, enjoy a leisurely breakfast, and take my own sweet time heading for the car. By the time I hit the road, cube farms all over LA are already humming with over-caffeinated suit-and-tie lemmings running hard and fast in their little rolling cages under the harsh glow of fluorescent lights. The morning rush hour is over, leaving Laurel Canyon wide open going my way, allowing for a relaxing drive under dappled sunlight filtering through the trees. The frenetic morning jabber from the radio is quieter now –- less talk, more music -- and the tunes are great this morning. Halfway up to Mulholland Drive, a wonderful old Santana song pours from the speakers like warm honey, stirring dusty memories from my young and hungry adolescence.

"Oye como va, mi ritmo
Bueno pa' gozar, mulata..."

Windows down to inhale the crisp morning air, I nod to the familiar pulsating beat as Carlos Santana works his magic on the guitar. I look around at the trees passing by, the tawny dry grass on the hillsides above, and from the houses in between, an occasional splash of bougainvillea spilling a brilliant crimson, pink, or purple across a red tile roof, down white stucco walls. With a hint of Fall in the air, this is a gorgeous morning here in LA, and one of those special moments when everything just feels right. It's a good day to be alive.

Hear how my rhythm goes,
It’s good to enjoy, mulata...*

On a morning like this, I'm glad I came to Hollywood so long ago to work in this crazy, wonderful, and occasionally infuriating business. I hit green lights all the way up the canyon – including the traffic light at Mulholland, which is always red -- then glide down into the San Fernando Valley under a big blue sky. Inside the studio gates, I unlock my bicycle and pedal across the lot. Red lights flash outside many of the stages, a universal signal throughout the Industry that filming is underway. The elephant door is open on my show's stage, where some of the early-arriving crew are already dishing up breakfast from the waiting steam tables. The atmosphere is relaxed all around. We pre-shot enough scenes the day before that with any luck at all, we’ll finish the live audience show early tonight. Due to a unique set of circumstances this week – nothing to wrap for a change – we’ll be able to walk away shortly after the audience files out. Ten minutes of cleaning up and making everything safe will be a welcome respite from the usual two hours of hard, sweaty post-show labor.

As an added bonus, we have a great director this week, a man who knows what he’s doing and how to have a good time along the way. There's no yelling or tension on set with this man at the helm. A director like that makes all the difference in the world, and we’re lucky to have him.

With that Santana song still echoing in my head, I move to its smooth, undulating rhythm all day long. The rehearsals go well as we fine-tune each scene on into the afternoon. We break for lunch early, almost two hours before the show. No muss, no fuss, no stress. Once we start filming, the show goes well, the audience laughing hard, the actors having fun.

There’s a reason for the good vibes all around. Closing in on our last of the ten scheduled episodes, the network picked us up for an additional four. Our numbers started out good for a cable show, and have held up thus far. Given that we all faced imminent unemployment at a very awkward time (with all the new season shows fully crewed up and well underway), this is a welcome reprieve. Rather than being left high and dry in the metaphorical desert by a “next gas 200 miles” sign – watching all the other caravans leaving dust trails in the far distance – we’ll get at least another solid month of work on this one. It won’t take us all the way to Christmas, but everybody on the crew is happy at the promise of another month’s worth of paychecks before we all sign up for unemployment checks.

And if we keep getting good numbers, who knows what might happen? Anything's possible in this crazy business. As difficult as the freelance life in Hollywood can be, sometimes you fall into a nice easy groove and get on a roll. It's important to open your eyes and appreciate the moment when that happens, because there's only one thing anybody can really be sure of -- it's not gonna last.

Oye como va...

* For several less literal (and earthier) variations on this translation, click here

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Mission Accomplished

Thanks... but no thanks.
(photo by Johnny Magnusson)

During my early 20’s, while visiting the home front in my pre-Hollywood days, my father confronted me with a withering glare and a rather pointed question.

“Don’t you have any goals in life?”

His accusatory tone made it clear he'd already concluded that I did not, in fact, have any worthwhile goals, thus nailing my hide firmly to the cross of his own expectations.

As far as I was concerned, life was for living -- floating down the river to see what was around the next bend, not paddling furiously upstream towards some officially sanctioned, duty-bound, have-no-fun-in-the-process “goal.” I figured the nebulous mists of The Future would clear up in time, one way or another. Goals were fine for people already possessed by some burning desire, but striving to come up with one simply for its own sake seemed to me an exercise in absurd abstraction. Lacking the essential fire of desire, I saw no reason to trade the lovely day at hand for some vague promise of another, better day far off in the distant future –- a day that might never arrive. Long term thinking just wasn't part of the deal back then, a carefree time when life was all about today, tonight, and maybe tomorrow. There were pretty girls to meet, motorcycles to ride, and beer to drink. Next month could take care of itself. Next year? I'd drive off that bridge when I came to it.

Goals? I don’t got no stinking goals...

But there he stood, staring down at me like Mount Rushmore, his stony silence demanding a reply. I took the usual son vs. father umbrage at this challenge, and being something of a smart-ass at the time, came back with a typically snotty retort.

“Sure,” I nodded. “My goal is to never wear a suit and tie to work.”

My dad was not impressed, and -- since he had on a suit and tie at the moment -- doubtless somewhat insulted. But this was only the latest in a long barrage of testy exchanges over the years, and if he didn't like it, he certainly wasn't surprised by my back-of-the-hand reply. Besides, I’d given him a blunt but honest answer. With a resigned shrug of his shoulders, he dropped the subject.

Looking back now over the dusty remains of a woefully undistinguished career, I can finally declare “Mission Accomplished.” My stated goal has been achieved -- not once in nearly four decades of toiling for money have I worn a suit and/or tie to work. At this point, it's hard to imagine the circumstances that could arise to besmirch my spotless record.

This isn't much, as life accomplishments go, but it's all I've got. Although a juicer’s life inevitably leads to the galaxy of aches and pains that come with plundering one's body in exchange for money, at least there’s no requirement to wear the businessman’s monkey suit to work. Shorts and a T shirt are standard when working on stage or location sets -- and as my union newsletter constantly pleads of the rank and file, preferably a shirt without rude/crude obscenities printed on the front or back.*

It’s that kind of job.

A film set is a construction site, not a fashion show, so we dress for comfort and practicality first, in accord with the conditions we're likely to face over the course of what can be a very long day. Sooner or later, juicing involves the dirty task of running cable through some truly disgusting conditions, so for those who do the heavy lifting, there’s simply no reason to wear "nice" clothes to work. Long pants are good for cooler weather, night shoots, and in very rough country (or where there's a likelihood of snakes), but otherwise, most of the on-set crew (grip, electric, sound, camera, and art department) come to work in shorts and T shirts. Those who think ahead also bring a few layers in reserve to accommodate changing conditions -- sweatshirts and jackets at least, if not long pants.

It all boils down to those two words: comfort and practicality.

Oddly enough, it was coming to Hollywood that finally caused me to shed my casual, live-for-today grasshopper ways in favor of the diligent, nose-to-the-grindstone approach of Aesop's ant. Unless you happen to be plugged in by birth to the solid-gold connections of an Industry family, adopting a casual approach to the business of getting started in this town will result in six months on unemployment followed by a long drive back to wherever you call home. For most outsiders (above or below the line), it takes a very serious and sustained effort to gain a toehold in Hollywood, and once you manage that, your work has just begun. In the process, even a lazy, clueless smart-ass like I was can learn the kind of work ethic essential to building a good reputation -- and such a reputation is the real ticket to every level of success in this town.

My dad would be happy to know that I now have another goal: to grind through the next few years and cross the finish line with enough hours to bolster my anemic Industry pension and secure the post-retirement health plan. I may not make it, but that's the goal.** And since the purpose of a goal is to have a target to shoot for, if I achieve this one, I'll then have to come up with another goal further on down the road.

But that'll be then, and this is now. I'm taking it one goal at a time.

* I’ve never understood why anyone over the age of 14 would want to wear a shirt plastered with printed obscenities, but the list of things I don’t understand about modern life grows longer every day...

** Believe me, I understand how sadly pathetic this must sound to anybody just starting out in the biz. When you're young, with a world of promise and adventure ahead, such a "goal" holds only the stench of decay, dissolution, and death. Truth be told, I feel the same way, but life unfolds along a constantly evolving curve where the surprises -- good and bad -- keep coming whether you like it or not. One's perspective inevitably changes as the years pile on. Long about 2045, you'll know exactly what I'm talking about.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Dollar Day Redux

The rich really do get richer...

In a post about "Dollar Day" a couple of weeks back, I mentioned that none of the shows I've worked on over the past five years had bothered to exhume the tradition. You can imagine my surprise, then, when the set PA on my current show brought out a big plastic jug for "$5 Dollar Day" on our last shoot night. A very select group of people on the crew even know about this blog, few of whom actually read it, so I don't think that post had anything to do with it.

Still, this is a welcome change. Maybe it was just time.

Whatever the cause, the crew got into the Dollar Day spirit, and after the audience filed out, our star drew the winning bill. I lost once again, of course, continuing a personal tradition stretching back to 1969, but I'm not complaining.*

The winner of the $250 pot? Rather than a PA, grip, juicer, prop man, standby painter, or on-set dresser -- any of whom would have been thrilled to win such a fat bonus -- the big jug 'o bills went to our Director of Photography, who probably grosses close to five grand a week. But hey, it's better to have a happy boss than a surly one, and after counting out his haul, at least he gave the set PA fifty bucks off the top.

All in all, a good night. I'm hoping Dollar Day is here to stay on this show -- and that it doesn't fall prey to the pot-salting greed monsters...

* That win was a big one that may well have saved my life...

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Year Four?

The road to Hell is paved with good intentions...

Two pieces of burned-out lighting equipment: a thoroughly charred 20 amp Bates-to-Edison adapter, and one over-the-hill juicer...

In the inaugural post of this blog is a sentence that delivered its title:

“But if you want to hear the truth as I’ve lived it, about the real Hollywood - the blood, sweat, and tedium in the shadows behind all those bright lights – stay tuned.”

That sentence was also something of a manifesto. Throughout the work-in-progress evolution of the blog, I’ve done my best to tell the truth as I see it about life below-the-line. Moving to a more regular schedule (an Industry post every Sunday, with the occasional hiatus week when circumstance dictates) provided a useful discipline, forcing me to come up with something more-or-less readable once a week while allowing enough slack to wander off-topic in mid-week posts. Any regulars here know the deal by now, and at this point -- win, lose, or draw -- it pretty much is what it is.

Back in the depths of winter, I pondered abandoning the weekly format right about now, as the blog stares into Year Four. That line of thinking led me to seriously consider shutting it down altogether: a thousand days, give or take, sounded like a good stopping place. Sooner or later BS&T will run low on steam, and I'd rather follow the show biz maxim to "always leave 'em wanting more" than hang on until you're all yawning and heading for the exits. Although a certain amount of repetition is probably inevitable, I really don’t want to become that drunk down at the end of the bar who keeps telling the same stories and just won’t... shut... up. I’ve no desire to chew those old bones until there’s nothing left but dust my mouth and a buzzing in my ears. What I do want is for the blog to remain fresh and relevant to you, the readers, whether you’re a film student, film biz newbie, or an Industry veteran – and after these thousand-plus days, that’s getting harder.

It’s not the only issue, of course. There’s another writing project I’d like to get back to – one that was started before this blog began and has been gathering dust in the closet ever since. Given the realities of making a living in this town, there isn't enough spare time to keep the blog going strong and breathe life into that long slumbering beast. Whatever you think of these posts, you might be surprised how much time and effort goes into each one. If only I was good enough to sit down on Sunday morning with a cup of coffee and bang out a post in forty-five minutes, then go about my day... but that elusive dream won’t be achieved in this lifetime. Through many false starts and seemingly endless revisions, it can be a long time between the inception of an idea and finally hitting the “publish post” button. The process has gotten easier in some ways over these past three years, but in other ways, seems harder every time. Whether there’s been any noticeable improvement along the way isn’t for me to say. I can’t see this blog through your eyes -– the fresh eyes of a reader -- and thus have no idea whether a given post actually works as I’d hoped. It’s entirely possible that my intentions for any particular post are never fully realized, and that what I think I’m saying comes across as something very different to you.

Still, when a post does manage to resonate with readers, it can ignite a conversation between -- and among -- us all. I like it when that happens.* There can't be many amateurs (and very few professionals) who write for the simple, solitary pleasure of stringing words into sentences. It may start there, but writing is meant to be read, to communicate something interesting, evocative, or helpful to others. If it doesn't, then what's the point? There are other, much easier ways to pass the time than the quiet, sweaty practice of quasi-literary onanism.

Every now and then, though, an e-mail comes flying in like an arrow out of the blue – not in response to any particular post, but simply to connect across the cyber-void – from someone I’ve never met, and in all likelihood will never know. One such missive a few months ago came as a very pleasant surprise.

"Thanks for sharing your wisdom and insight from your decades of lighting experience. I'm going into my second year of juicing in Michigan, so finding a resource like you has been more than beneficial. I just started trolling through the archives from the beginning, and look forward to getting up to date."

"I hope you never discount the impact you have. I also hope you love writing this blog as much as you love the industry, because I would like to be reading it for a long time. I hope to see a book from you soon.”

That e-mail blew me away. When this blog began, I never dreamed it would still be around three years later. What started as quick succession of rants to get a few things off my chest eventually turned into something very different from my original intent. I still indulge in the occasional inchoate rant from time to time – hey, this will always be my soapbox above all else - but after a while it seemed important to dial down the whining in favor of trying to pass along some of what I've learned to the coming generation of Industry wannabes and work-bots. It’s seldom clear that such intentions actually succeed to any meaningful degree, so when an e-mail like that materializes unbidden from the ether, it means I must be doing something right.

And that’s good to hear.

Given the uncertain future of the film and television biz, it has occurred to me that I'm doing young people no favors in encouraging them to pursue Industry careers. The paths I followed on my way up are rapidly being washed away by the ongoing Digital Revolution, and I have no clue what the Hollywood landscape will look like once the dust finally settles. But until some environmental, economic, and/or nuclear catastrophe plunges our civilized societies into the New Dark Ages, people will demand their daily dose of on-screen entertainment, whether delivered in movie theaters, giant plasma televisions, or on absurdly small cell phone screens – and who knows what new viewing devices will emerge in the years to come. Modern humans require diversion from their daily grind of not-so-quiet desperation, which means somebody (lots of somebodies, actually) will have to create “content” to fill that need -- movies, television, webisodes, whatever. Twenty years from now I probably won't recognize much of anything about the Industry, but it’ll still be chugging along in one form or another.

Besides, I think we each end up on the road to Hell (or elsewhere) following our own inner muse. I try to avoid sugarcoating any aspects of working below-the-line, highlighting the bad as well as the good that accompanies a Hollywood life. Indeed, I've probably spent more time bad-mouthing the Industry than I should, but it’s hard to ignore bullshit when the stuff is up above your knees.

And as one who spent my formative years in a barn, I know exactly what that smells like.

None of us can see very far into the gray mists of the future, but for the time being I'll keep the lights burning here at Blood, Sweat, and Tedium. Thanks for tuning in, for paying attention, and for your patience when I wander a bit too far off the Hollywood reservation.

Onward -- with the best of intentions -- into Year Four, and toward the gates of Hell...

* What I'll never understand is how one post can strike sparks while another (usually one I've put the most effort into...) lies on the cyber-sidewalk flatter than a stale tortilla. Go figure...

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Something Bitter, Something Sweet

Peggy Archer, the original and still-reigning Queen of the Industry Blogosphere, put up a great post discussing the harsh realities facing all Hollywood work-bots these days. Everybody in this country who actually works for a living -- or is looking for work -- is suffering right now.* With our floundering economy facing a very slow recovery, it will be years before we can get back to anything like the way things used to be, and it’s entirely possible that boat has sailed for good. This time, due to a number of converging economic, geopolitical, and environmental factors, we may be in too deep to ever fully recover. Things will eventually improve, but by then the baseline level of expectations for most of us will be so beaten down that the go-go economic era now growing ever smaller in our collective rear-view mirrors will seem like a fever dream from another long-lost Gilded Age.

The common wisdom has long held that “Hollywood is recession proof,” and as is so often the case, the common wisdom has it wrong. In past downturns, the Industry held up better than most in resisting the worst effects of economic decline, but back then Hollywood had the bulk of the movie business to itself. Needless to say, this is no longer the case. Now they seem to make movies everywhere but Hollywood, even as the real bread and butter of this town – television – has begun to slip away to other states.

The good times -- the truly fat times – are over. We’ll all have to deal with that in our own ways, but it’s not going to be much fun.

On the brighter side, here’s today’s column from SF Chronicle TV critic Tim Goodman, reviewing two of the CW network’s new offerings. CW is an awkward hybrid cobbled together from the ruins of the WB and UPN, neither of which ever figured out how to create a decent show. It used to be said that any new show landing a slot on the WB rotation was good for a five year run simply because the rest of WB’s lineup was so bad. I don’t know if the same is true of CW, but Goodman is always worth reading – and today, he’s especially good.

* And just for the record, I don't think those miserable bastards on Wall Street do actual “work.” As far as I'm concerned, they’re nothing but con artists and criminals in three piece suits...

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Dollar Day

Another lucky winner...

I did my very first sit-com on Stage 32 at Paramount, a haunted stage, rumor has it, due to the cemetery right next door where so many of Hollywood's most famous celebrities are buried. I really couldn't have asked for a better initiation to the world of multi-camera shows. The two executive producers (both multiple Emmy winners) and the gaffer were old friends from my long-distant college days, and I'd known the DP since my very first unpaid job as a production assistant in Hollywood. On top of that, our cast was loaded with some serious talent, giving us ample reason to believe the show might enjoy a long and profitable run. But in Hollywood, as elsewhere, what looks great on paper doesn't always translate to the real world, and NBC pulled the plug as we worked the kinks out of the twelfth episode shortly before a cold and gloomy Christmas. Instead of the "back nine" and the promise of a season two, all we got in our collective stockings was a lump of coal.

Maybe those ghosts did us in after all.*

But that was at the bitter end -- five months earlier, we'd started the show full of hope and enthusiasm in the blazing heat of August. Three weeks of rigging, lighting, rehearsals, re-writes, re-lighting, and blocking finally brought us to our first show night before an audience of 250 people. Early in the day, our set PA came around carrying a big plastic jar with a slot cut in the top and a felt pen attached to a string. The idea was to write your name on a one dollar bill, drop it in, and at the end of the show, one of our actors would draw the lucky winner's bill. The pot that night totaled somewhere between fifty and sixty dollars.

Thus was my introduction to “Dollar Day.”

It was a cheap thrill at the end of a long week’s work, and a little harmless fun that helped build crew morale. Everybody wanted to win, of course – hey, fifty bucks is fifty bucks – but if my bill didn’t get drawn (and in that, I’ve been remarkably consistent over the years), maybe another member of the set lighting crew would win. Failing that, I pulled for a winner who made even less money than we did – one of the PA’s, maybe, or a writer’s assistant. For a juicer or grip, fifty to sixty bucks is a nice little kiss at the end of the week, but to a pitifully-paid production assistant, it's like winning a weekend in Las Vegas.

The worst outcome was for one of the writers to win. Although their work is absolutely vital to any show (without good scripts to shoot, the rest of us are sitting home waiting for the next unemployment check), they’re not part of the below-the-line crew. While the rest of us sweat and grunt and suffer on set to realize their vision, they do their work – and very hard work it is – in their own private air-conditioned cloister. While the writers can invade our space on stage anytime they want, we would never be allowed in a working Writer’s Room, so whenever a writer won the pot, it felt like a carpetbagger had swooped in to grab that fistful of dollars.**

Beyond such not-so-subtle class distinctions, my real objection to a writer winning Dollar Day is that they don’t need the money. Granted, it’s extremely difficult to land a writer’s gig on any TV show, and even very talented writers can go years between shows, but when they do land a chair in the Writer's Room, they are very well paid. A sit-com writer can make more -- often considerably more -- in one week than a grip or juicer will earn in a solid month of working on the same show.

I have no problem with such an income disparity. We all do what we do, and reap the commensurate rewards. Besides, competent juicers and grips are available by the dozen, while good writers aren’t -- but when it comes to Dollar Day, I just hate seeing the rich get richer.

The next few sit-coms I did continued the tradition of Dollar Day, but on one of my later shows, the easy-going dynamic evolved into something very different. Around episode eight, we noticed that the first A.D. had already won three Dollar Days – and all things being equal, the odds against such a winning streak are astronomical. Either he was the Luckiest Man on Earth, or else things weren’t quite so equal after all. When I mentioned this to our 2nd A.D. one day, she laughed.

“Of course he wins -- he salts the pot.”

“Salts the pot?”

“He puts in five or six bills every time,” she explained. “It’s no wonder he wins.”

“Ah,” I replied, the scales falling from my dew-encrusted eyes.

To me – a kid who grew up milking goats on the farm and was raised to believe in the white picket fence, chicken-in-every-pot, one-man-one-vote America where merit trumps pedigree and we always do what’s right just because it’s right (read: a hopeless rube) -- this was a clear violation of the spirit of Dollar Day, and yet another example of the self-serving greed that sours so many human endeavors. As it turns out, such practices tend to be the rule rather than the exception. I heard of one camera crew on another show that combined forces with the same strategy. The dolly grip, camera operator, and focus-puller would each put several bills into the jar, then split their winnings after the drawing. As they began winning week after week, the rest of the crew lost interest in playing, and the “Dollar Day” tradition died on that show.

It seems like there’s always one guy – or group – whose greed ruins it for everybody else. Once you peel back the thin veneer of civilization, human nature can be an ugly beast indeed.

On this later show, the stakes for “Dollar Day” went up when it became “Five Dollar Day,” whereupon the pots came in anywhere from $150 to $250. Although this dramatically heightened interest in the post-show drawing, it did nothing to discourage the pot-salters. Quite the opposite, in fact. Since any real shot at winning required investing fifteen or twenty dollars, pretty much everybody ended up salting the pot. Given that the PA's already had a hard time getting by on their anemic wages, this had the effect of driving them out of the game altogether.

Call me a socialist if it makes you feel better, but I prefer such rituals to be inclusive rather than exclusive. Raising the ante on "Dollar Day" served only to divide the crew, not unite it. To me, that was wrong. If the PA's couldn't even play, then what was the point?

One night the executive producer – fortified by several Red Bulls-and vodka – pulled a wad of twenties from his wallet and stuffed them into the pot as the audience filed out. The lucky winner was one of my fellow juicers, who, who took the jar into our set lighting room and counted out a cool $400 to fuel his weekend.

But this being America, where More is Always Better, it was only a matter of time before “Twenty Dollar Day” rolled around. On that show, it happened on our final episode of the season. The E.P. began celebrating early, and as the drawing drew near, was thoroughly sloshed. He surprised everybody by adding several fifty dollar bills to the jar. And then -- just to make things more interesting -- he announced that he would pay whoever came closest to guessing the exact dollar amount in that fat plastic jar the same figure.

With that, the frenzy was on.

The 2nd AD sat down to organize a list, recording names and their respective guestimates, after which it was decided to split the secondary pot between the two closest guesses. The process took a while, and in that time the atmosphere on stage became highly charged. Suddenly it felt like we were in Las Vegas.

I stood back from the crowd, taking in the scene.

“Why don’t you enter?” one of the boom operators asked. “All you’ve gotta do is write down your guess.”

I smiled and shook my head, then watched him follow his own advice in joining the scrum. I couldn’t really explain then why I didn't join in, nor can I to this day. After all, there was nothing to lose and several hundred dollars to gain. A happy, rich, and very drunk producer was about to shower fistfuls of cash upon his hard working crew. Why not stand in the path of that green tsunami and take a chance at getting some for myself?

Mostly, I just didn’t like what I was seeing. A crew that had worked hard all season, pulling together and enduring the ups and downs that come with being on any show -- and in the process, becoming a unit -- was suddenly splintering as a rapidly metastasizing frenzy of greed grabbed everyone by the throat. There was something crazy and unsettling about this orgy of me-first, get-mine excitement, a turbocharged “Dollar Day” going into hyper-drive. Once again I was reminded of Day of the Locust, only there was nothing remotely theoretical, intellectual, or literary about the mob scene unfolding on that sound stage.

Something about it was profoundly disturbing.

The drawing commenced, with the big pot going to one of the office staff – somebody I didn’t know – after which the long count commenced. Once it crossed the thousand dollar mark, the list was down to a handful of names. As each new bill was counted, shoulders slumped on another disappointed loser, but most of the crew hung around to see who would win the secondary pot. When the last bill was finally smoothed out, counted, and added to the pile, the total came to something over $1300 – considerably more than my take-home pay for that week.

One of the two winners splitting that second pot was the very same boom man who had urged me to join the fray. I shook his hand and congratulated him on his easy six hundred and fifty bucks, but although he was flushed and excited, he didn’t seem particularly happy.

“This is crazy,” he said, shaking his head, genuinely confused by the situation. “I didn’t do anything to deserve this.”

“That doesn't matter” I shrugged. “Just enjoy it.”

He walked off into the night, still shaking his head.

Oddly enough, I haven't seen a "Dollar Day" since that night, not even on my current show. That's too bad, in a way, but perhaps the dynamics of every form of gambling are such that there's no way to keep things reigned in. There always seems to be somebody determined to raise the stakes, and thus turn a group effort at having a little fun into something very different.

Maybe everything we do, from Hollywood to Wall Street, carries within the seeds of its own destruction.

I really don't know, but it makes me wonder.

* Or maybe not. The same "haunted" stage was home to the original "Star Trek" television series, which seemed to do pretty well despite the presence of any wandering spirits.

** Not that there’s any good reason for a member of the on-set crew to enter the Writer’s Room...

Friday, September 3, 2010

Jumping the Shark

Just about everybody knows the phrase "jumping the shark," but here is the real story of how it came about. Fred Fox Jr. ought to know, since he wrote the infamous episode now enshrined in our cultural mythology.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury turned 90 a couple of weeks ago, still kicking, still writing, and – as you can read in this LA Times article -- still dreaming the big dreams. As a kid, I read many of his stories, which (along with shows like the original “Twilight Zone”) exerted enough gravitational attraction to eventually nudge me into the orbit of Hollywood. Some of his stories were terrific, while others felt a bit awkward in trying to conjoin an uneasy blend of homespun 1950's social and cultural mores with an unfathomably futuristic technology. I recall one story told from the point of view of a young boy whose father worked as a rocket pilot in a future where interplanetary flights were as routine as intercontinental air travel is today. When the father came home from work, he’d mow the lawn, then sit on the front porch smoking a pipe like someone on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. Bradbury was drawn to that kind of Norman-Rockwell-in-the-23rd-century story, which seemed a rather odd juxtaposition to me when I was very young.

But when his stories worked – hitting on all twelve turbocharged cylinders – they were strong enough to blow right past any such quibbles into another realm altogether.

Bradbury is the rarest of all birds here in LA -- a man-about-town who neither owns nor drives a car. He’s long been famous for attending various readings and film events all over the city, then at the end of the night, asking if anyone in the crowd could give him a ride home. Definitely not your everyday literary legend.

I met him once, very early in my Hollywooden career. During one extremely slow July, I spent much of my time out at Venice Beach, body surfing, lounging in the sand, and keeping an eye out for attractive young women. One day I ran into an old friend I’d gone to school with, a would-be director who needed some help shooting an interview for a documentary he’d been trying to finish ever since college. He'd given me one day’s worth of help back in our student days while I was making my own thesis film, so I owed him – and having worked on enough low budget movies to learn a little about lighting, I actually knew enough to be somewhat useful.

We picked up a few essentials at Birns and Sawyer in Hollywood – a 2K zip light, a couple of 1K fresnels, and a few C stands and flags – then headed out to Cheviot Hills, just south of the 20th Century Fox Studios in West LA. Ray Bradbury met us at the door dressed in a casual tennis outfit. Then in his very late fifties, he was in great shape, and a very gracious host. He led us downstairs into his basement study, where thousands of books lined the walls and narrow aisles festooned with all kinds of models and props from various movies and television shows. At one point I spotted a big jar full of liquid, with something ominous floating inside -– it looked like a human head -- and recognized it from an episode of the original “Twilight Zone” series. Moving through that study was like taking a tour inside Ray Bradbury’s head, a place where his imagination could run wild.

We set up the camera facing Ray seated at his desk, then hung the zip light to provide a soft wash of illumination. My friend – not yet much of a “director” -- was exceedingly vague as to what he wanted. He hadn’t prepared any kind of script or notes, but simply asked Ray to say something about what astronomy and the exploration of space had meant to him.

I was taken aback. Having gone to all the trouble of arranging to film an interview with Ray Bradbury (and to this day, I have no idea how he pulled that off), he was now asking the man to wing-it on camera? At best, such a lack of preparation was extremely unprofessional -- at worst, it planted one foot on the spongy soil of cluelessness and the other other in the realm of the rude.

Little did I know who we were dealing with, or that in Ray Bradbury, we had one of the few people in the world who could actually pull this off.

I gently clapped the slate, then tucked back into the shadows as he began to speak. My misgivings faded away as I listened with rapt attention. Doing what he does best, Ray Bradbury spun a story out of thin air, talking for more than ten minutes straight with nary a bobble or misplaced word. The man was smooth as silk, musing about how the stars and planets captured his imagination as a young boy and shaped his path in life, leading him to become one of the seminal figures of science fiction writing. After a long while I glanced at the camera, suddenly worried that the 400 foot magazine (16 mm film) might run out before he finished – and if it did, would my clueless “director” friend then ask him to do it again? But there was no cause for worry. Ray built his story to a climax, then tied it up in a pink bow (figuratively speaking) a good thirty seconds before the mag ran dry.

It was a jaw-dropping performance. I’d just witnessed unrehearsed, one-take perfection the likes of which I would rarely witness again over the next thirty-plus years. To say I was hugely impressed is a vast understatement -- in the slang of the time, he simply blew my mind. It was a magical day I'll never forget.

And so to Ray Bradbury, a literary giant in so many ways, and a wonderfully talented, gracious man, all I can say it this:

Happy birthday.