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...


The Grip Works said...

Thats great news Michael !!
I'm really pleased to hear that you have a solid stretch ahead of you. No more dayplaying for a while :-)
Its a good lesson, that you often have to keep at it before something good comes along. In these times more than ever before.

A.J. said...

Congrats on another fifteen episodes and the new tribe! And yay for work until April. Knowing you'll have work these next few months must be awesome. :)

Michael Taylor said...

Sanjay -- Thanks for the good vibes. You're right, of course, but sometimes it seems I just keep learning the same lessons over and over again...

AJ --

It's definitely a relief not having to hunt-and-peck for a while. That's one reason I concentrate on television these days -- once you land a show with legs, life gets a lot easier.

Until the show ends, of course. But hey, everything in this life is temporary (including life itself), so I won't be looking this gift horse in the mouth.

And thanks...