Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Sunday, November 14, 2010

New Best Friends

Whatever happened to the rest of this crew...

The Anonymous Production Assistant (TAPA) put up a post recently on the difficulties of keeping friends once you’ve managed to climb aboard the Hollywood merry-go-round. TAPA likened working on a show to going to summer camp -- a relatively short, intense period during which you meet lots of new people who then vanish from your life once camp is over.

That’s a great analogy to describe the social aspect of the movie-making experience, but since I was raised in the boonies (otherwise known as “out in the country”) rather than growing up in an urban or suburban environment, I never enjoyed -- or suffered -- the slings and arrows of going away to camp.*

Working on my first feature film (after escaping the lowly -- if essential -- rank of Production Assistant) reminded me of a highly compressed version of my college experience. The movie took four weeks rather than four years, but other than being paid for my work, the overall experience was very similar, if much more intense. Thrown together with a large group of people I didn’t know, we were engaged in a common goal, working shoulder-to-shoulder while suffering the same trials and tribulations until the filming was complete.

If our initial day on set was like the first day of school, the final day of filming felt like graduation day.

A few days later, our wrap party had the bittersweet tinge of a Grad Night blow-out. Everyone was happy that the intense ordeal of principal photography was over, but sad that the tight bonds holding us together had already begun to loosen. It was our bonding through shared suffering that turned a group of strangers into a band of brothers and sisters -- an on-set family in the form of a film crew.

At the time, I figured I'd be friends with most of that crew forever. Some of us did stay in touch for a while, but then came another movie, with a fresh batch of strangers who soon became my new best friends. The same thing happened on the next movie, and the one after that, each new project introducing me to more and more people. Eventually I left the low budget movie world to do commercials and music videos, which brought me into a brand new crew circle. After a certain point, the only people I could remember were the ones I’d just worked with – my latest new best friends. Occasionally I’d meet someone who would work through several jobs, and it was some of those friendships that survived the constantly shifting social terrain. When I began working with the same group of people from one project to the next over the course of a year or two, we formed a new and much more stable bond.

I’d finally become a full-fledged member of a new and thriving tribe.

But the surging tides of life and work in Hollywood can stretch the tightest of bonds to the breaking point. When I first started doing commercials, I juiced for a best boy who later became a gaffer. I worked as his best-boy until he began shooting, at which point I became his gaffer for the next ten or twelve years. By the time it was over, we’d worked together – making commercials, music videos, and low budget features – for close to twenty years. Then came the great northern migration in the late 90’s, which blew our entire crew to smithereens. The DP managed to get a few days shooting 2nd unit for episodics, I went into sit-coms, my Best Boy eventually quit the business altogether, while our Number One juicer went on to become a Rigging Gaffer. Every now I’ll run into one of these guys at a studio, on a job, or a social gathering, and while it’s always great to see them, we work on different crews now, with a new circle of work friends. We’ve all become members of different tribes.

That’s just the way of the Industry life, always meeting new people, always making new friends. It can get dizzying after a while.

Romantic relationships suffer from the same stresses – a subject I covered in an earlier post. The pressures induced by long, unpredictable work hours and distant locations can make it hard to stay together with anybody, Industry or civilian. It’s not impossible – I know many Industry marriages still going strong after two or three decades – but it’s certainly not easy.

This is an undeniably strange life. I’m careful to warn the young hopefuls who occasionally e-mail me for advice that it’s not for everybody. Indeed, if there’s anything else you’re good at or might enjoy doing as a profession, you should do it. Most people are better off leaving their Hollywood dreams in Fantasy Land. But -- just as I did a long time ago -- young people are going to do what they want to do whatever anybody else says, so after issuing the usual cautions and disclaimers, I try to be as helpful as possible.

Hollywood is often portrayed as a cess-pit of mendacity, double-dealing, and back-stabbing – a “me-first” Darwinian jungle where only the most diabolically amoral ego monsters can succeed. Such behavior certainly occurs above-the-line, and although not unknown below decks where I work, is less common among those who do the hands-on labor essential to moving a project from page to screen. As it turns out, having the opportunity to meet and work with so many interesting people is one of the truly good things about this crazy business. But the nomadic nature of free-lance work means that as quickly as these new people come into your life, so do they go, often forever.

Making lots of new friends in Hollywood is easy. The hard part is keeping them.

* In a way, I lived at “camp,” only without all the other campers, happy or otherwise. I grew up milking the goats, feeding the cows and pigs, and helping care for the little baby goats that were invariably born very late on the coldest of February nights. If left in the big unheated barn, a few would invariably die of exposure, so as soon as they could stand up on those wobbly little legs, we’d bring them down to the house and put them in a big cardboard box in the warm kitchen. There we’d keep them clean and dry, and feed them warm milk for a few weeks, until they were big enough to survive the cold winter nights on their own.

Most of us have a soft spot for baby animals – the vast majority of urban/suburban kids get to raise a cat or dog at some point -- but believe me, a baby goat can steal your heart as fast as any puppy or kitten.


Trixie said...

CAMP is where those mass murdering slashers hang out!

Penny said...

Ironic timing Mike...

My Dad asked me tonight about all the friends I worked with on a previous show and why we don't still hang out together.

What can you say, but nature of the beast?

I have managed to maintain ONE solid friendship for two decades, but that's rare in the Biz. And she will always be one of my best friends.

Great post Mike! Thanks for writing about the weirdness of our ' Hollywood families'. :)

Jared Mercier said...

Has Facebook changed this for you at all? I got my current job from someone I would have never kept in touch with if it wasn't for facebook. And i've found that I've maintained friendships that would have floundered if it was for facebook. Just curious to see if you think this new technology might change this aspect of the industry

Michael Taylor said...

Trixie --

Maybe that's why I never went...

Penny --

Yeah, it's hard to stay/keep in touch -- but I suppose the friendships we do manage to maintain were the strong ones to begin with.

Jared --

I've been on FB for a year or so (having joined mostly to notify people when new blog posts go up), and it does help stay in touch with some people who might otherwise have slipped into the "used to know" bin. As luck would have it, one of those people gave me several days of work at a very slow time shortly after we'd reconnected on FB, so I guess I owe that to the new technology.

I think you're right -- FB and other social media will indeed make it easier to stay in touch with crew members long after they've all moved on to new productions. This won't help old dogs like me to find the people we worked with 30 years ago, but certainly will make it much easier for the new generation of Hollywood work-bots to stay in touch as they grind out their careers.