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)

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Good with the Bad

And a very pleasant surprise...

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

From Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That's very good news indeed.

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

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

Those are words to remember.

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

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Only Constant is Change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Halloween Show

It's Wardrobe Hell...

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

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

Then there's the Wardrobe Department.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Under our lighting, of course...

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

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Actors and Crew

As of today, some of the posts that were first published here will begin to appear on a website called Actors and Crew. The first few will be culled from the archives to help a new crop of readers come up to speed, but if all goes to plan, current posts will eventually show up on Actors and Crew shortly after publication here.

I mention this only to let you know what's going on should you happen to stumble across some of my older posts over there. We were going to do this last year, but life got a bit crowded for a while, and in the crush, those plans fell through the cracks -- until now.

Don't worry, I haven't sold out just yet, given that this is a strictly non-monetary deal. It's really just an attempt to expose the blog to a wider audience, and like all such experiments, may or may not succeed. At any rate, my first loyalties will always lie right here at Blood, Sweat, and Tedium -- and with you, the readers who have helped shape this blog.

And for those who have urged me to write a book based on these posts, perhaps this represents the first step down that road. The jury's still out on that decision, but we shall see...

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Green Beds

            The good old days, when green beds were standard on every soundstage set...
                             (Mary Poppins, 1964, Stage 4 at Disney Studios)

A recent post mentioned green beds as my own favored platform for rigging lamps above sets on stage, which brought a question from one reader who has only worked off pipe grids, and thus wasn't sure what green beds are all about. Once standard equipment on every serious Hollywood sound stage -- for features and television -- green beds have been replaced by pipe grids on lower budget productions. From what I've seen, big features and major network episodics still use green beds, but in my little world of pilots and sit-coms, the odious pipe grid now rules supreme. I briefly addressed the subject a while back in a post that opened like this:*

"The widespread use of pipe grids for lighting on sound stages is a relatively recent phenomenon in Hollywood. Studio sound stages were built to facilitate the use of “green beds” – rectangular wooden platforms hung from the overhead perms on chains, then securely fastened together and braced to form a stable work platform over each set. A properly constructed system of green beds provides a safe, user-friendly environment for juicers and grips to work, with plenty of room to deploy most of the lighting equipment required for any production. Green beds allow quick and easy changes or adjustments to the lighting without disturbing the sets down below, or impacting the other departments at all.

That's how it was when I started in the biz, but times have changed in that regard, and not for the better – and for the usual reason: money. Instead of paying for a crew to hang green beds over the sets, the Money Men now insist on using a pipe grid. Although this might make economic sense for a pilot or other short-duration production, pipe grids are increasingly common on long running shows as well. This represents a false economy at best, and a dangerous one at worst. For the producer to save a few bucks at the start, the crew and production end up paying dearly in many ways on down the line. When working with a pipe grid, juicers and grips must rely on small man-lifts and scissor lifts to hang the lamps, which creates a whole new set of problems for everyone involved. But we live and work in the world that is, rather than the world we'd like to see -- and as always, must bend to reality, make the best of a bad situation, and do whatever it takes to get the job done."

The rest of that post goes on to describe the difficulties in getting a pilot off the ground -- a task made all the harder by that pipe grid. If we'd had green beds over those sets, the job would have been so much easier.

While working on the studio's set lighting rigging crew a few months ago, I took some photos of freshly-hung green beds over sets still under construction, including this view of the green beds from inside a set on the stage floor.

Here's a wider view of the same sets from the pinrail, a wooden catwalk half way up the stage walls that runs around the entire interior perimeter.

And here's a view of a much higher row of green beds secured with high-braces nailed into the perms above. Why they were hung so high, I don't know, but below are set walls waiting to be assembled by the construction crew. As you can see -- and sometimes a photo really is worth a thousand words -- green beds really are green (thus the name), and form a wide, stable catwalk above the sets where the grips and juicers can work.

This last shot is a bit confusing. Taken from the cable portal of another stage's dimmer room (where a big-bucks episodic had just begun rigging lights), you can barely make out what appears to be a 2K and a 5K, along with several 1K Babies and Source Four lamps mounted from the green beds, aimed down at the set below. There's also one or two chicken coops in the distance, hanging from up high. Sorry for such a crappy photo, but this was as close as I could get that day,

Although there are certain satisfactions in working from a man-lift (essential when dealing with pipe grids), I much prefer the old-fashioned, user-friendly method of working off green beds. Over the long run, the time savings alone would probably pay for the extra expense of hanging green beds -- but then I'm not some number-crunching, budget-obsessed UPM being whipped and beaten on a daily basis by a merciless producer wearing a black hat, ass-less chaps, and freshly sharpened spurs -- I'm just a juicer trying to do my job the best I can, and in the process, make it through one more day...

* I've done a little editing on these paragraphs for this post.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Lord and Master of the Sit-Com

The last seven weeks have been unusually busy here in my little corner of sit-com land. The four episode pick up – and subsequent company move from one sound stage to another – torpedoed the normal three-weeks-on/one-week-off schedule that makes the multi-camera world so appealing to me.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: if I wanted a real job to clamp my nose firmly to the grindstone 50 weeks a year, I’d never have come to Hollywood in the first place. I don’t live to work, I work to live – and I do like my time off.

Lately though, these oases of off-time have been limited to the much-too-short weekends, most of which are consumed by the usual litany of laundry/shopping/banking chores, thus leaving me little chance to plow through each week’s stack of the LA Times. That stack had gotten rather large as of this weekend, so I finally sat down to sift through the chaff and ferret out what kernels of wheat lay within.

And that’s why it took me two full weeks to finally come across this interesting and illuminating article on the Lord and Master of the multi-camera world, Jim Burrows.

I have a couple of minor quibbles with the piece – I’m not so sure Burrows “played a key role in developing a four-camera setup,” and he certainly didn’t pioneer “brightly lighted (sic) sound stages”* -- but overall, Scott Collins paints an accurate picture of the sit-com world’s King Midas. As one of the regular day-players on set over the last two seasons of “Will and Grace,” I had ample opportunity to watch the man work, and saw just how good he really is.
Such a well-deserved reputation can be a double-edged sword, of course (as I learned the hard way a couple of years ago), but having Burrows at the helm is a huge plus for any producer of a new sit-com. Put it this way: if anybody can make “Mike and Molly” a success (and more than a few people in the biz are convinced it will flop), it’s Burrows. His presence alone will induce the network to allow the show enough time to find its legs and a hopefully a sizable audience. If the show works, it will be all because of Burrows – if not, people will chalk the failure up to a fatally flawed concept: building a weekly show around a cast of fat people. The viewing public may or may not be ready to embrace such a show, but if anybody can pull this off, it’s Jim Burrows.

* If you want to see some brightly lit sets, take a look at “I Love Lucy” – the original multi-camera show (albeit with only three cameras) that ruled the airwaves long before Burrows ever started directing. And please, use the term “lit” instead of “lighted” -- it’s much less awkward and more accurate. “Lighted” may have been good enough for Hemingway, but he’s been dead for a long time now...

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Big Move

Getting picked up for an additional four episodes on our little cable-rate sit-com was very welcome news for the cast, production office, and on-set crew. But good news rarely comes to the dance alone, and this time she walked in holding hands with Something Ugly: upon finishing our originally scheduled ten episodes, we would immediately proceed to move everything across the studio lot to another sound stage to shoot the final four. One of last spring’s surprise cable hits had already booked our stage for their twenty episode pick-up under the assumption we’d be long gone by now, so the studio found us another stage to use for the next five weeks.

Moving an entire show already under production is no small thing. Even with an extra juicer helping, it took us a full week of ten hour days to tear down the 200+ lamps, cable, and rigging equipment, then move it all to the new stage for another solid week of hanging, powering, and adjusting those very same lamps over the newly reconstituted sets.

It was like doing the pilot all over again -- and pilots are hard.

I’ve never been on a show that had to make a move like this. In some ways it felt like being a slave back in ancient Egypt, ordered to dismantle the huge pyramid we’d just built, then haul every last chunk of finely-cut stone across the Nile and put the whole thing back together again on a fresh patch of sand more to the Pharaoh’s liking.

After two long weeks of very physical toil, I figured it would be a relief to get back to making shows. Over the course of those first ten episodes, we'd managed to ease into a smooth working rhythm that rolled right over the rough spots that inevitably pop up during the process of making any television show. It just felt so easy coming down the stretch, so there was no logical reason to assume we wouldn’t fall right back into that comfortable groove after making the move.

Unfortunately, the operating system of real life doesn’t function on logic alone. Just as a baseball team that’s been on fire heading into the All Star Break so often loses their momentum and their groove once the season resumes, our first week back in production rapidly morphed into a chaotic ordeal. With nothing but problems that proved endlessly difficult to fix, it was clear that we’d well and truly lost our mojo. Our DP – famous for his endless tweaking of the lighting right on through the live show* -- stalked the floor barking orders like a man possessed. We put scrims in, we pulled scrims out. We moved the lamps from one pipe to another, then panned them right and panned them left. We tilted them up and tilted them down. Nothing seemed to satisfy this man, but the DP is the boss, so we followed orders while trying to keep the inevitable eyeball-rolling and grousing down to a low rumble.

Our rough passage extended right on through the blocking and pre-shoots, normally a day that entails a little tweaking here and there, but nothing more. Not this time – we were running hard all day long and into the evening. At times it wasn’t clear whether we were actually solving any problems or simply creating new ones.

Chaos was the rule, order the exception.

At last – mercifully -- we came to the final pre-shoot of the day, an extended dialog scene between one of our principals and this week’s guest star. Everybody behind the lights and cameras was tired, but ready for one more push to finish our day. The rehearsal was way over the top, as the guest star caught us all by surprise with her extremely dynamic performance. After plodding through so much rote blocking since morning, this unexpected burst of comedic energy abruptly reversed the tide of a long, enervating day. The entire crew perked up, on our toes now, wide awake.

The first take wasn’t great -- the principal flubbed a line while the guest star dialed it down a bit too much. The second take was much better, the timing crisp, the line readings spot-on. The third take was pure magic, all the elements blending together in a fusion that sparkled like good champagne. When done right, comedy can be very funny stuff, and even though we’d heard the same jokes three times already, the entire crew was laughing hard – real laughter from the gut, not the polite, white-gloved variety typical of blocking day. The producers and director beamed as the AD called a wrap, and our day was finally done. After being pissed off to one degree or another for the better part of 12 hours, I dropped my tool belt in the set lighting room, grabbed my bike, and pedaled back to the parking structure feeling great.

Sometimes the magic works and sometimes it doesn’t – but when it does, all the hassles and frustrating complications melt away like snow under the hot sun. The pain is suddenly forgotten, replaced by the warm glow that comes when you finally get something just right. Not only did the good vibe carry over into the following day's audience shoot, but it helped send us into the weekend feeling a lot better about everything.

And maybe -- just maybe -- we're a step closer to getting our groove back on.

* This rarely happens on multi-camera shows, where -- as a rule -- producers don’t like to see the crew out there in front of the audience climbing ladders and making adjustments on show night. During the show, the gaffer and dimmer operator are busy (and quietly) making sure the lighting cues are right for each scene, while the juicers stand by in case something critical goes wrong – like a key light burning out a globe. We had just such an emergency when a big studio 5K melted down during a recent shoot night. It was the heaviest and most difficult lamp to reach on the entire stage, naturally, but with the juicers and grips working together like the Marines on Mt. Suribachi, we got the bad head down and a new one up (and burning) in a matter of minutes.

As always, the show must go on...

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Amazing Story of the Week

Sometimes those dreams really do come true -- and then they don't...

Suppose for a moment that you’re a screenwriter with a brand new episodic drama on a major network’s Fall lineup. You’d have every right to feel pretty good, right? And further suppose that you’ve also written (and sold) a screenplay that was subsequently made into a thirty million dollar feature film starring an actor who has been one of the bigger names in Hollywood over the past three decades – and the film is now edited, polished, and ready for release.

With such a lovely pair of Tinsel Town Dreams come true, you’d have to be deliriously happy, right?

But what if that television show was such a horrendous bomb that it was canceled after only two broadcasts? That’d be one serious bummer. And what if the big Hollywood name had, after appearing in your movie, proceeded to torch his reputation beyond all redemption in an extremely public manner -- which is to say, that human supernova happened to be one Melvin "Sugar-Tits" Gibson?

In that case, your life might come to resemble one of those grim, life-is-hopeless Eastern European cartoon so popular across the pond during the Cold War era.*

If that happened to me, I might be drinking heavily while fumbling for the number of one of those suicide prevention lines right about now. But Kyle Killen – who had the Hollywood world by the tail before this ginormous bucket of shit was dumped directly on his head – seems to be okay with it.

Hard to believe? Yeah, I know, but don’t take my word for it – do yourself a favor and tune in to the KCRW podcast of Kim Master’s illuminating interview with Kyle Killen on this week’s “The Business.”

Would that we could all be so sanguine and enjoy such a balanced sense of perspective in the face of disaster as young Mr. Killen. Something tells me he'll do very well in life.

* Very few of you are likely to have any idea what I'm talking about here, but trust me, those "cartoons" were depressing as hell...

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Writing, Writers, and No Respect

“Screenwriters? Schmucks with Underwoods.”
Jack Warner

While listening to NPR a couple of weeks ago, I heard an interview with several veteran novelists who – due to the vicissitudes of their own complicated lives -- got a late start on the craft that would eventually define them as writers. It was an interesting discussion which finally turned to the basic nuts-and-bolts question every successful writer is asked: How do you get started every day? Each had their own solution to the problem of firing up the creative engine on a daily basis. Two such tactics resonated with me -- leave a sentence or passage unfinished at the end of a writing session to provide some momentum-building traction when sitting down at the keyboard the following day, and my favorite: “Write the truth for a while, then start lying.”

That pretty much sums up the process for me.

Not that I do any lying here, of course – such mendacity is reserved for my occasional (and remarkably ineffectual) stabs at fiction – but this space can’t tell all the truth, all the time. When I refer to something that happened “last week on my show,” that might be the literal truth, or it could be an event that took place more than a month ago. Such time-shifting is occasionally necessary to cover my tracks in case one of the show’s producers should happen to stumble across this blog. I don’t delude myself as to the size of BST’s audience – it’s only a small (although I prefer the term “select”) handful – but if the Wrong Person were to read the Wrong Thing and reach the Wrong Conclusion, what’s left of my tattered, wheezing career could spiral right down the toilet.

With my name on the masthead, I do have to be careful.

As Jack Warner’s famous quote demonstrates, writers have never been accorded much respect in Hollywood. Occasionally a certain writer rises above the herd for a while to become a sought-after “name” – a Joe Eszterhas, Shane Black, or Charlie Kaufman – but for the most part, Hollywood writers (along with most novelists beneath the money-making stature of Steven King, John Grisham, Scott Turow – and lately, Cormack McCarthy) are doomed to labor in relative obscurity.

One of Rob Long’s recent (and decidedly wry) “Martini Shot” commentaries dealt with the process of writing for television – it’s definitely worth your three and a half minutes of attention -- while the Anonymous Production Assistant periodically tackles the subject of the writer’s lowly status in the Industry. (Like here, and here)

It’s bad enough to be held in such low regard by the powers that be above-the-line, but the cruelest blow came from a lowly paparazzo in an LA Times piece describing a recent feeding frenzy of celebrity photographers at LAX. And just to be clear where I stand on this – paparazzi are people too, and just trying to make a living, but I consider them as close to the dregs of humanity as you can get without being a serial murderer, charter member of NAMBLA, or a bought-and-paid-for political scumbag like James Inhofe. It’s impossible to respect those who hound celebrities to fuel the empty, soul-dead fantasies of Tabloid America.* Yes, they’re only filling a “need” – but so are those who make and sell crystal meth, snuff films, and kiddie porn. Just because paparazzi are a reality of modern life doesn’t mean I have to like them or accept what they do.**

So imagine how it would feel to be a struggling screenwriter in Hollywood who picks up the morning paper and reads the following passage describing the disappointment of a veteran LAX paparazzo when his sweaty hunt for a photo-worthy celebrity came up empty:

"Out stepped a portly bald man with glasses. Vera's shoulders slumped. 'That's nobody. Maybe a writer or something. Nobody,' he said, crestfallen."

Wow. It's one thing to be dissed by Jack Warner, but to receive such dismissive contempt from a lowly paparazzo -- a human parasite feeding on the emanations of our society's collective cultural sphincter -- now that's rough...

* Paparazzi remind me of Oscar Wild's famous quote about the English sport of fox hunting: "The uspeakable in pursuit of the inedible."

** While doing a day on "Melrose Place" last year, we fired up a big 18,000 watt lamp and aimed it directly down the beach at a group of paparazzi who'd been hovering around all day like a cloud of sand-flies. The idea was to flare their long lenses, and thus ruin their attempts to photograph our actors.

That felt really good...