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, December 19, 2010

'Tis the Season

Bring it on, Santa...

By the time this goes to post I should be splashing my way up Interstate 5 through the deluge towards a Christmas break on the Home Planet. My brain is in a fog at the keyboard on this dank Saturday morning, thanks to a grueling work week that ended late last night. Script re-writes delivered an extra (and very large) set to our stage Monday morning -- this in addition to the two we were prepared to light, resulting in longer, harder days to get everything properly lit in time for Friday night's show. There were something like 40 extras in this episode -- and for the on-set crew, that was not good news. Having to wade through a herd that size always makes it a lot harder to get the job done.

But such is life in the Hollywood circus, where a stretch of quick-and-easy days usually makes me feel decidedly uneasy. "Easy" means calm, and given that a period of calm invariably precedes a storm, "easy" is what happens as you sink into the quicksand of complacency -- and the wake-up call from that is always rude. When things get easy on set for too many days in a row, you know damned well a bruising bitch-slap is coming soon.

But with light at the end of the 2010 tunnel, they really couldn't hurt us this week no matter how hard they tried. The blocking/pre-shoot day was the usual tedious, draining, needles-in-my-eyes ordeal, and if the shoot night itself wasn't much better, the prospect of a Christmas party to be thrown by the production company after the show helped leaven our day.

Hey, there's nothing quite like the prospect of dropping the tool belt and heading for the chocolate fountain buffet and a glass of decent red wine to take the sting out of a long work day. Toss in the traditional bag of Xmas goodies -- modest gifts to each crew member from the producers and cast -- and the night ended on a high note.

So that's it for this year. The show is down for two weeks, then we return early in January to crank out yet more television on into April. I'm wrapping things up here at BST for 2010 as well. If some random inspiration hits -- and hits hard -- I might post something between now and 2011, but the odds of that lie somewhere on the far side of "slim" and the near side of "none."

Which is to say not impossible, but highly unlikely.

And that's just fine. Christmas is a good time to think about anything and everything but the business of Hollywood. There will be endless opportunity to delve into all that during the New Year to come.

So to all of you who stop by here on a regular basis, or just from time to time -- thanks for tuning in, paying attention, and for your occasional questions and comments. I wish you all the very best this season can offer.

Merry Christmas...

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Back to the Hammer

Because it feels so good to stop...

After six weeks off – during which I limped my way through a long week doing the cable transplant, caught a few more days of rigging work, then made a brief escape to the Home Planet – I'm back in harness on the show. It was good to be away and now it’s good to be back, for all the usual reasons. Still, if everyone seems happy to be gathering once again for the shared purpose of making the next fifteen episodes, all is not sweetness and light. A few faces on the crew are missing, some gone to other (non-cable rate) shows, but at least one who was given the boot, a victim of some mysterious intra-departmental strife. You never really know what’s going on within other departments, but an Industry built upon a foundation of enormous and extremely sensitive egos inevitably seems to require a periodic human sacrifice. The lack of active volcanoes or equally inactive virgins here in Hollywood rules out more traditional means of appeasing an angry deity, leaving only the brutal-but-effective ritual of throwing another hapless innocent -- the sacrificial lamb, so to speak -- under an onrushing bus. But in the zero-sum game that is Hollywood, one person’s loss is always someone else’s gain, which is why the new faces on set were all nervously smiling,

They know just how lucky they are.

Shit happens, as the bumper sticker says, and with some frequency here in Tinsel Town. I’ve worked on more than one movie that started out all smiles, then rapidly devolved into a virtual slaughterhouse -- wholesale firings of entire departments from one week to the next for no glaringly obvious reasons. Clearly somebody was unhappy about something (usually a director or producer, although at least once the culprit was a churlish, two-faced DP), but each of those shows ended up wrapping with a very different crew than started out. Most of the time I survived the pogroms, but not always. Our DP got fired one long, ugly week into a highly forgettable low-budget biker film, and since the DP hired the gaffer who then hired the crew, we were all thrown overboard while the survivors (and our replacements) sailed on to complete the show.*

Having been on both sides of that grim equation, I can tell you it sucks. I hate to see good people get “disappeared” unless there’s an extremely serious problem -- and that’s the thing: it’s rarely a serious problem, but more often a matter of perception. Some Very Self-Important Person takes offense at a perceived slight or sees something he/she doesn’t like, and bingo, the slaughter commences. One sit-com I did years ago started out great -– we re-shot the pilot and three new episodes, then went on our first one-week hiatus. We returned to find an entirely new camera crew: four new operators, focus pullers, and dolly grips. The starting twelve hadn’t done anything wrong -– the shows looked fine -- but the executive producers decided they'd feel "more comfortable" with their regular crew from a previous show. What made this such a cruel twist was that the new television season was by then well underway, with all the other new shows fully crewed up, leaving those unlucky twelve people high and dry while desperately seeking day-playing gigs to survive the duration.

The producers who pulled the trigger paid for their sins in the form of some well-deserved bad karma. When that show didn't get picked up for the back nine (to complete a full season of twenty-two episodes), it was dead by Christmas, after which it took them five long years to steer another pilot through the white water of pilot season all the way to the upfronts and a series pickup. Five years of repeated failure is an eternity in the world of television.

Another sit-com I worked on signed a well-known and very experienced director to do the first thirteen episodes. That meant the producers were contractually obligated to pay him for every one of those shows, even when they fired him after the first three. I never learned why he was canned, but heard through the grapevine that he then made a conscious decision to refuse any other work that came his way during the next four months just to make sure those producers had to pay him every penny of the $300,000 or so he was due.**

Nothing so dramatic happened on my current show, where just one innocent ended up having his heart ripped from his chest on the bloody sacrificial altar. He'll certainly be missed, but other than that, it felt really good to get back to work that first day. I was a bit rusty at first -– it’s amazing how quickly the skills, rhythm, and discipline essential to doing this job properly can slip away -– but the old programming returned soon enough. Once again I was reminded how much I’d missed the sheer physicality of the job: the climbing, straining, and occasional heavy lifting required to hang and power so many lamps. There’s an undeniable satisfaction in such basic, real-world work that's hard to find anywhere else.

After three days of lighting, though, came the blocking and pre-shoot day -– and that’s when I remembered just how tedious making a sit-com can be. Working with a new director, the cast and crew were unusually subdued, and the resulting slow pace made the minutes pass like hours. The entire (seemingly endless) blocking day felt like having my teeth pulled out one by one sans anesthetic, but we finally got through it and a similarly deliberate audience shoot the following night to put a merciful end our first week back.

As I walked out the big stage doors into the late night chill -- and towards the weekend -- I remembered the call-and-response answer to the eternal (if apocryphal) question, “Why do you keep hitting yourself in the head with a hammer?”

“Because it feels so good when I stop.”

That’s it in a nutshell: Work is a fine and necessary endeavor, but the one thing you can count on through the ups and downs of every work week is that it always feels so good when it stops...

* Sometimes it's all for the best. That movie starred a fresh-from-rehab and thus extremely tense Gary Busey, which made for one uptight, uncomfortable set. Getting canned was a blow to the DP, but personally, I was happy to be off that god-damned show.

** As I understand it, had he been hired by another show during that time, our producers would have been off the hook for his salary.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

In the Shadows

Here comes the bride...

(photo courtesy of E Online)

I’ve long been a fan of Mary McNamara, a wonderful writer who first came to my attention in the LA Times with “Drive Time,” her series of smart, insightful columns examining the cultural mores surrounding cars, driving, and life here in Southern California. Back in those heady days, newspapers still made enough money to maintain a full staff of talented writers musing on all kinds of subjects -- but things have changed in that regard, and not for the better. Still, McNamara survived the plague of management shuffles and cost-cutting purges over the past few years to emerge as one of the Time's best television critics, wielding a merciless and delightfully snarky pen.

Only in the last year or so did I notice another excellent writer among the Time's slate of critics. Robert Lloyd is no less thoughtful than Mary McNamara, if a tad less savage. His perceptive, beautifully crafted reviews of television shows and performers are a pleasure to read. Two typical examples of his work graced the paper recently, a warm and deeply nuanced dissection of Jimmy Fallon’s late night show, and a gentle-but-thorough evisceration of E! channel’s latest unreality show featuring insecure brides enduring pre-marital plastic surgeries in their ceaseless quest to sculpt themselves into something closer to society’s officially sanctioned template of the Feminine Ideal -- tattoos and all.

And since no amount of manufactured "drama" is ever enough to fill the black hole at the heart of such a show, the geniuses at E! upped the ante by creating a competition among these desperate brides-to-be to win a "Dream Celebrity-Style Wedding."

No wonder the Taliban hates us...

I’ve never seen Jimmy Fallon, but Lloyd’s review makes a persuasive case that the overall tone and approach of his show offers at least some hope for humanity (albeit of a low-key variety), while E!’s latest reeks of the usual manipulative voyeuristic garbage festering at the rotten core of most “reality television.” Shows of this ilk make me wonder if we really are living in a latter-day Rome, a society and culture crumbling from within while stumbling towards collapse -- but then I remind myself that it's only TV, and thus nothing much to worry about.

All this reminded me of an e-mail I received from a young lady in E!'s development department a couple of years ago. She'd come across this blog, where one particular post caught her hungry eye, leading to the following proposition:


I work at E! in development, I came across your blog this week and I thought you or someone you know may be good for a show we are currently developing. We are working on a half hour special about outrageous jobs in the entertainment industry. Everyone loved your story about being a Juicer and having to work in downtown with the urine and feces soaked streets. Are you currently working on a show? What we are looking to do is send the host of the show to your job so he can learn about it and try his hand at the work himself. It's a fun light special that will take a behind the scenes type of look at some of the jobs that make the entertainment industry possible. Let me know what you are working on and if there’s a time that we can talk over the phone.


I'd just started a sit-com pilot out at Sony, but bringing an E! camera crew on stage to follow me around with their shucking-and-jiving host would have turned the proceedings into a circus, and in the process, almost certainly have gotten me fired. Besides, although there's no shortage of BS to wade through on a typical Hollywood sound stage, there's not much in the way of “urine and feces soaked streets” for the cameras of E! to lovingly linger upon. For that, they'll have to venture onto the mean and filthy streets of downtown LA.

I sent back a very polite e-mail declining E!'s offer, thus blowing my big chance to step from the shadows into the bright lights. That's fine with me. I've made a living working behind the lights for thirty-some years now, and in those shadows is where I belong -- and where I'll stay.

For a biting take on the latest sorry example of the “Housewives....” unreality genre, check out this highly entertaining post from Ken Levine’s blog...

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Yes, it's another Hiatus Week...

On my current show's front porch set, doing what I do best...

After a busy week back on the show, I've got nothing for you today. There's lots of stuff in the works, but nothing remotely ready to post -- and to paraphrase the immortal words of the great Orson Welles during the last sad act of his storied career, "I shall publish no post before its time."

What I will do -- just so you don't go home empty-handed -- is re-post a link to this short video that was included at the very end of a recent post.* Being so far down the page, there's a chance you didn't notice it, or take the time to check it out -- and after putting it up, it occurred to me that I probably should have saved it for another post. So here it is again, a short clip from an IMAX film (only three minutes long) that you really have to see to believe -- even after watching it three times, I still can't quite wrap my brain around what those guys do for a living. That's some serious juicing, folks.

Watch it and wonder if you've got what it takes to do that job. I sure as hell don't -- I'll stick to my ladders and man-lifts, thankyouverymuch...

To steal a line from my state's outgoing governator, "I'll be back."

* And thanks to my good friend D.J. Bummerpants for alerting me to this clip...

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Here it Comes...

Yes, nothing says "Christmas spirit" here in LA quite like Larry Flynt's Hustler Casino...

With Thanksgiving and Black Friday shrinking in our collective cultural rear-view mirrors, the Christmas shopping season is now roaring full throttle towards the checkered flag of Dec. 25th. Much as I dislike the overtly commercial nature of this holiday, I'm no more immune from the pressures than anyone else -- and so I too joined the fray, using the last couple of weeks to cross a few names off my own gift list with some obscure CDs Amazon was unable to supply. Instead, I was directed to a company called CD Baby.

I realize that the current generation looks upon CDs much as my own peers viewed the quill pen and sun dial. Given that I grew up in the era of the 45 single and 33 rpm LP (which is what we called records before they acquired the hip/retro status of "vinyl"), I still view CDs as a relatively new technology, but kids today dismiss the shiny silver discs as dusty relics dating back to the Dead Sea Scrolls. Although CDs are indeed digital, they still have an actual physical presence -- you have to remove each disc from the jewel case and insert it into a player before the good times can roll. In an era of the invisible and utterly weightless MP3, this is apparently considered to be unspeakably crude.

It’s not like I'm a complete Luddite -- I’ve got an Ipod and a nice new radio with a dock to play all those ephemeral MP3 tunes – but that sound system also has a CD player. Having amassed several hundred CDs since they first hit the marketplace back in the early 80’s, I’m not about to toss them all in favor of their MP3 successors.

Let’s just say I have a hard time trusting anything I can’t hold in my hands, a stance that is decidedly behind the times – just like me.

Anyway... a few days after ordering those two CDs, I received the following e-mail:

“Your CDs have been gently taken from our CD Baby shelves with sterilized contamination-free gloves and placed onto a satin pillow. A team of 50 employees inspected your CDs and polished them to make sure they were in the best possible condition before mailing. Our packing specialist from Japan lit a candle and a hush fell over the crowd as he put your CDs into the finest gold-lined box that money can buy. We all had a wonderful celebration afterwards and the whole party marched down the street to the post office where the entire town of Portland waved "Bon Voyage!" to your package, on its way to you, in our private CD Baby jet on this day, November 18, 2010.

We hope you had a wonderful time shopping at CD Baby. In commemoration, we have placed your picture on our wall as "Customer of the Year." We're all exhausted but can't wait for you to come back to CDBABY.COM!!

Thank you, thank you, thank you!


We miss you already. We'll be right here at, patiently awaiting your return.”

I don’t know if it was a particularly slow day up there in Oregon -- or if maybe the employees decided to take the edge off a dreary gray afternoon by indulging in some of Portland's famous microbrews or smoking a little something special up on the roof -- but they certainly seemed to be having a good time. Their “order shipped” message was infinitely more creative and fun than anything I’ve ever received from Amazon – or anywhere else, for that matter. In an era when slickness in marketing and the bottom line seems to be everything, such a playful approach to the business of selling is refreshing.

Really, when's the last time an e-mail from any company made you smile?

Hey, I’m just glad somebody out there in the Retail Jungle is having a little fun in the grim crush of this Christmas season...