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 11, 2011

The Best Boy Hat

Back to juicing with "Mels Muff Ball" (don't ask...) on shoot night.

Note: This will likely be my final post until the New Year -- with the holiday crunch on, we've all got better things to do than read (or write) blogs as the clock winds down on 2011. I might put up something quick if inspiration strikes, but don't hold your breath. Meanwhile, thanks for tuning in and for all your comments over this past year. May the holidays be good to you, and the New Year bring a bright new day to us all.

Merry Christmas.

Returning to LA and work from a brief visit to the Home Planet was a little different this time. With my show’s Best Boy out of town on an extended holiday for a few more days, I drew the short straw to fill in until his return, assuming a role that once upon a time – twenty-odd years ago -- felt as comfortable as an old shoe.

Given a choice, I prefer the clean, simple dance with Newtonian physics of juicing to the logistical hassles and paperwork that define the job of a Best Boy, but you take what comes in this business. Last season I filled in for the Gaffer for a week while he was gone, so this season I strap on the Best Boy hat for a few days. Given that I’ve been around long enough to be somewhat more useful than the average hall-call, stepping up when necessary seems to be my role on this crew.*

I certainly appreciated the bump in hourly pay and ten-hour guarantee a Best Boy receives, which added another three hundred dollars and change to my weekly paycheck. In this era of myriad cable rates and the Balkanization of union scale, every extra dollar makes a difference. To quote the immortal Humphrey Bogart as he poured a glass of champagne in the film classic Casablanca: “This sure takes the sting out of being occupied.”

Another bonus -- paperwork and dealing with equipment is a hassle, but it’s considerably less physical than juicing, so I didn’t take the usual beating meted out by each episode: no cuts, bruises, metal splinters or low-impact (but painful) head-bashing that comes with the job of hanging and powering lamps up among those unforgiving steel pipes. Truth be told, I didn’t raise so much as a bead of sweat during those three days... but the downside was having to stay on the floor while the juicers did all the work. I’ve never been good at standing and watching other people work, and every now and then just couldn’t help myself: I’d hop up on a ladder to rig a light and keep things moving.

But not for long; a Best Boy can’t afford the luxury of getting distracted by the ongoing flow of work. He (or she) has to keep track of and support the working crew while taking care of all the other Best Boy duties on a television show -- and for me, it’s that constant racking of mental focus that takes the most effort.

Once upon a time I was happy being a Best Boy. Back in the good old/bad old days of low-budget location features, the Best Boy gig meant I didn’t have to spend all night in a condor or endure the endless tedium of doing “coverage” on set – all the little shots from every angle the director wants (and the editor needs) after the master is in the can. Once my presence was no longer required, I’d head back to the truck to prepare equipment and/or run any cable needed for the next scene, and perform routine maintenance on the genny.** If there was nothing pressing to be done, I’d sit down and write a postcard to whatever girl was waiting for me (or not) back in Hollywood at the time.

Those were primitive days, kids -- no internet or cell phones back then.

I enjoyed a degree of autonomy the juicers and gaffer lacked – while they were stuck on set grinding out the cinematic sausage, I could come and go. So long as I made sure the gaffer and crew had the proper equipment ready to go when and where they needed it, I was pretty much on my own. If that meant getting a PA to drive me sixty miles into town to burn an entire morning checking out the equipment from a local rental house (and seeing a lot of the countryside along the way), so much the better. This was one of the few perks available in that low budget world.

Things are very different now, especially in the strange little cloister of multi-camera sit-coms. The Best Boy on our show pretty much sits at his desk in the “Gold Room” all day – the cramped set lighting office our crew shares on stage – ordering and returning equipment, keeping the paperwork straight, and fighting with the UPM about what equipment the budget will or won't allow. Meanwhile, the television flickers all day long with sports and trash TV... That kind of job is definitely not for me. As long as I can still climb a twelve step ladder and perform the gymnastics that come with getting the job done in a man-lift, I’ll stick to juicing. If the day comes when I can no longer do that safely, then maybe I’ll have to transition back to being a Best Boy.

But not until then -- not if I can help it.

I needed all three days to once again feel truly comfortable in the Best Boy role, and by then it was over. It had been different and kind of fun, but I was happy to have our regular Best Boy return in time to fill out the weekly time cards -- a task I’ve always hated. Off came the Best Boy hat and on went the tool belt for the blocking and shoot days.

And that was just fine with me.

* A “hall call” is a warm body sent out by the union when a Best Boy is unable to fill a slot with someone he knows. Hall calls can be surprisingly good, so-so, or really bad. Because of that uncertainty – and you never know who or what you’ll get -- calling the hall is usually a last resort for most Best Boys.

** On some of those low-budget shows, I was the rigging crew -- and with no real transpo department, it was often up to me to install fresh fuel filters and do periodic oil/filter changes on our genny as time permitted.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Great Wheel

Although I’ve never been a fan of Monday mornings, this last one was looking pretty good for a while. Answering the alarm in the bleak pre-dawn darkness was grim, but I felt a lot better pulling into the studio parking structure an hour later. We took a 6 a.m. call to light the swing sets for the new episode, and everywhere I went that day – our stage, the commissary, lamp dock, and production office – were people I know and like. There was lots of smiling, joking, and laughter as the morning unfolded. After a week off for the Thanksgiving hiatus, it felt good to be back in harness making another episode and earning another paycheck. To sweeten the pot, the actors came in for rehearsals before noon, at which point we were wrapped, walking off the stage into a crisp, sunny Southern California day. I felt great on the bike ride back to the parking structure.

I had no way of knowing then that the Angel of Death was hovering over the studio, or that on this lovely Monday morning one of the studio’s rigging grips lay dying on the cold tile floor of a bathroom.

In essence, a major studio is a machine built for the purpose of manufacturing feature films and television shows, a machine that runs smoothly thanks to a hard working core group of people who form the living, breathing infrastructure of the lot. More than that, each studio is a village of sorts where everyone more or less knows everybody else. Among the many departments that keep the machinery of the studio lubed and synchronized are the grip and electric rigging crews, who prepare sound stages for every new or returning show. Among other tasks, the rigging grips hang green beds (for the lucky shows) or pipe grids (for the rest of us), while the electric rigging crew runs cable to power back-lot “location” shoots, and installs/removes the massive dimmer packs required by every show these days.

I've done time on the rigging crew, and although grip and electric remain distinctly separate worlds, we’re constantly rubbing shoulders working from stage to stage. I’ve seen the same handful of rigging grips for years, and by now we know each other well enough to indulge in the good-natured ribbing that helps take the edge off a tough, physically demanding job. The rigging crews are good people, and it hurts to lose one of them. The tight-knit grip department was particularly hard-hit, but everyone in the studio felt the blow. It didn’t matter that I only knew him by his first name -- he was somebody I’d said hello to and joked with several times a month over the past decade. His death rocked the studio like a sonic boom, reverberating down every office corridor and sound stage, leaving an aching, uncomprehending void in its wake.

The details of his passing raised disturbing, unanswerable questions, but what matters now is that our little village has lost one of its own, a man with a wife and two kids, a man who was always smiling and flashing a wonderfully quirky sense of humor -- a man who was old enough to have lived a lot, but much too young to die.

Ours is a physical business where tragedies can and do happen. I’ve seen things go terribly wrong on set, and hope never to witness that again. Looking beyond the earthly tragedy of this man’s premature death, I struggle with the uncomfortable fact that at the very moment I was enjoying an unusually good Monday, a guy I knew and liked was having the absolute worst day of his life.

I'm not sure how to make sense out of that.

Such is the conundrum of our dust-to-dust existence on this little blue marble spinning through the unfathomable emptiness of space. The messy business of living and dying has never been easy to understand, but in one of those poignant symmetries so often served up by modern life, one of my show’s young grips became a father that very same day. As George Welch Jr. left the trials and tribulations of this world behind, Blaise James Ruffner took his first squalling breath, a reminder that although the void remains -- and throughout the studio the wound is raw – life does go on. Ready or not, the Great Wheel keeps on turning.

Rest in peace, George.

George Welch Jr.
1968 – 2011

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Land 'o Links

Just Do It

They didn't follow the rules. Why should you?

I'm not a big fan of blog posts laden with links. A link or three that further illustrate a point is fine, but when every sentence is riddled with glowing patches of hypertext, the smooth flow of prose is disturbed and I start losing interest. That said, I'm often guilty of link abuse, and rarely so much as today. Black pot, meet the black kettle. But sometimes you've just gotta break the rules...

After a holiday week of overindulging in rich food and drink, are you fed up with reading/hearing/watching anything having to do with the terminally over-hyped Douchebagian family? Me too. I remain thoroughly baffled by the Douchebagians, having no idea who the hell they really are, how they became so famous, or why anyone beyond their obsessively narcissistic selves and the cloud of opportunistic flies hovering around them (agents, managers, and other assorted parasites) could care one way or another about their “reality” shows, clothing lines, fragrance products, or benighted celeb-u-tainment nuptial extravaganzas.

Seriously – who gives a shit about these look-at-me fools?

There are much better ways to spend your time, starting right here. Pay attention, kids -- I’ve been makin’ this list and checkin’ it twice...

KCRW’s The Business has been on a roll of late, including this fascinating interview with Werner Herzog -- who at the outset of the show promised to speak for exactly thirty minutes and not one second more. Herzog is a unique individual in the independent film world, crafting films nobody else would even consider making, and he’s learned a lot in the process. Accordingly, he has much to say on the subject -- which he does by running his own quick-and-dirty film school on a highly irregular basis, teaching a limited number of carefully selected students lessons on how to pick locks and forge film permits, among other things. The latter skill, Herzog claims, proved crucial in enabling him to finish his surreal epic Fitzcarraldo.

His advice to young would-be filmmakers is to avoid the system altogether and go to work doing any job that will earn ten thousand dollars over the course of six months to a year, then go out and make the film using cheap modern digital technology.

Whatever your involvement with Hollywood or the film/television industry at large, you’ll get a kick out of Werner Herzog. Having walked the walk over the past forty years, he’s earned the right to talk the talk – and there’s really nobody else quite like him.

The Business ran another interesting interview with Mark and Michael Polish, who more or less followed Herzog's template in making their new film For Lovers Only, shot in France on the very thinnest of shoestrings. They pulled it off in a manner that would make Werner proud, and their efforts should give any young wannabe hope that although the Hollywood system is indeed rigged against outsiders, you don’t necessarily have to play by the house rules.

Yet another recent half hour of The Business features an interview with Roland Emmerich discussing the long and winding road he traveled to put his new movie Anonymous -- at one point considered unmakeable -- up on the screen. Whatever your feelings about Emmerich, his movies, or the endlessly vituperative debate as to who William Shakespeare really was (not having studied this contentious issue, I have no dog in that fight), hearing how he overcame the many obstacles between script and screen is an interesting and instructional story. You don’t always have to like – or agree with – somebody to learn from them.

There's a common theme to all these interviews: if you really want to do something -- like make movies -- don't sit around waiting for some higher power to discover your true inner genius so you can then dazzle the world. Get off your creative ass and make it happen.

Otherwise, "it" might never happen for you at all.

It's the self-starters who make a difference in this world, regardless of the field -- those who refuse to play by the establishment rules, wait their turn in line, or take "no" for an answer. Those people carve out their own destiny, and sometimes achieve spectacular artistic and/or commercial success in this town and beyond. Rule-breakers can bomb in an equally spectacular manner, of course, but failure stalks all creative endeavors, including those that toe the line. Doing anything in this town is a roll of the dice, so if you really want to make your own films, what have you got to lose?

Steve Jobs and Bill Gates didn't follow the rules. Neither did Orson Welles, Steven Soderbergh, or Quentin Tarrantino -- instead they broke the mold and got it done their way. Welles paid a horrendous price for daring to buck the system, but in the process reinvented modern cinema, and for that earned his place as a Hollywood legend. Roland Emmerich might only be a legend in his own mind, but he makes a good point in his interview: "A moving train is more interesting than a train that's standing still" -- meaning that momentum is important. It's easier to attract backing for a project already rolling toward the starting gates than get people interested in a brilliant idea that has yet to venture off the page.

The lesson: get your project moving and make it happen.

And finally this four minute meditation from Rob Long, who once again explains how and why Hollywood works the way it does. His is another voice of experience, so listen up. You just might learn something.

That’s all for this week. Remember, only 24 shopping days left...

Sunday, November 27, 2011

A Time to Worry

The Network giveth and the Network taketh away...

Thanksgiving means many things to many people -- returning to the hearth for the traditional family feast, gathering with an impromptu family of fellow "orphans" marooned far from home, or simply hunkering down to dine alone, brood on the past, and pretend it doesn't matter.* But for those of us who toil in trenches of television, the last Thursday in November raises one crucial question: will my show get picked up?

“Yes” means maintaining a decent income for another three or four months, while a thumbs-down will send the entire crew back on the dole of unemployment just as the holidays drown us all under a tsunami of consumer spending. When your show doesn't get picked up, you’ll be scrimping on everything while day-playing for dollars until pilot season finally revs up next Spring.

I’ve been there more times than I care to recall, and it’s not fun.

There are lots of smiling faces around the studio lately, as show after brand-new show gets picked up for “the back nine,” giving those lucky crews a full slate of 22 episodes to keep them working well into March of 2012. Without clearing this hurdle, every new or returning show is doomed to the ashes-to-ashes fate that has sent so many to the funeral pyres of Hollywood over the past fifty years.

The bad news came to some good friends of mine just a few weeks ago – their show got the axe while in the midst of a Friday shoot day. The producers were waiting with grim faces as the crew filtered back from lunch, and after the meeting, they all had to go about the business of grinding out the seventh (and last) of what had been twelve scheduled episodes. I’m told the show-runner didn’t take it well – that he broke down and cried right there on set in front of everybody.

Ouch, babe.

That cancellation is a fact of life in the television biz doesn't make it any easier to take. When you sign on for twelve episodes, part of your brain starts putting every one of those future paychecks in the bank -- even though you know better, you start thinking of that money as yours -- so it’s a serious gut-punch when the rug is suddenly jerked from under your feet. It's also a severe test of the free-lance credo that having one door slammed in your face really does mean another one will open soon.

Sometimes that magic works, and sometimes it doesn’t.

The thing is, once you’ve planted your flag in Hollywood, life on the bubble is part of the deal. If you need job security, go work for the tax man or an undertaker -- those people will never go hungry.

The news usually arrives by Thanksgiving. Thus far the back-nine pick-ups have far outnumbered cancellations at my home lot, but the show I'm working on remains stuck in the netherworld purgatory of who-the-fuck-knows? As the clock runs out on our scheduled fifteen episodes – eleven down, four to go – we’ve had no word one way or the other. Meanwhile, the smiles on set grow thinner and a little more brittle every week.

It’s better to live with the uncertainty and retain hope than have the axe fall, of course, but the not-knowing inevitably create a vacuum... and nature does abhor a vacuum. With Thanksgiving approaching, that vacuum was filled by rumors. The most hopeful of these has us closing down for six weeks at Xmas, then coming back in mid-February for a pick-up of nine or ten additional episodes – or as happened last year, another fifteen . That’s the rumor I like, but there’s a darker narrative floating around that says the network will wrap production as scheduled at Christmas and won’t bring the show back – if it comes back at all – for six months.

Six fucking months??? A lot can happen in half a year, none of it good. In a town fueled by the power of foreword momentum, six months is an eternity. If we shut down for that long before any of the new episodes have even aired, I have a hard time believing we'll ever come back. It’s possible, of course – hell, anything’s possible – but each passing month pushes the odds ever further from the pale winter sun of “slim” towards the dark yawning abyss of “none.”

Even if the show does return for another short season in June or July, the entire crew will need to find paying work in the meantime, and such post-holiday jobs will be scarce until pilot season rolls around in late February and March. All of this makes for a rather poignant “holiday” season approaching, complete with lumps of network coal in our fireplace stockings -- the grim prospect entering a New Year rendered in the bleak gray hues of unemployment.

“So it goes,” to steal the signature line of an infinitely better writer than I’ll ever be. If you make your bed in Hollywood, you really do have to sleep in it. But the wild-card kicker is that we never know what’s coming around the bend, nor is there any way to suss out which of these rumors will morph into tangible fact. Sometimes that slamming door actually does lead to something better.

“Time will tell,” mom used to say, and as usual, mom was right. But time is running out. Thanksgiving has come and gone, and the news – good or bad - will arrive soon.

I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

* Having done all of these over the past three decades, I can attest that each has its up and downsides -- but the best description of modern Thanksgiving I've ever read is right here. It's only 800 words, and well worth your time...

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


Breaking the The Fourth Wall

I should know better by now. Having been burned more times than I care admit by the eccentricities and bugs in Blogger, I know damned well only a fool dares to compose and edit a post on-line using the domain host for this and a million other blogs. I’ve learned the hard way to do all the writing and editing off-line on my computer, then when everything is just right, log on and post.

Because if I don’t – if I walk out on that very thin ice and start dicking around with the words and syntax while trusting Blogger to save all those editing choices – that ice will eventually crack and leave me floundering in the dark, cold water. When it comes to saving edits on-line, Blogger is as trustworthy as Lindsay Lohan out on bail.

Which takes me to last Sunday. Having teleported back to the home planet for the holiday week – which just happened to coincide with my shows final hiatus – I tried to ram and jam the Sunday post onto the blog. But it wasn’t quite ready, and I knew it. So I started fixing things, cut a word here, paste a sentence over there, then reassemble the verbal infrastructure to accommodate all those changes. It took a lot longer than I’d anticipated, flipping back and forth between “preview” and “edit” modes, being careful to save each new and improved version as I went. Long about seven p.m. – many hours after I’d planned to post – it was finally ready for prime time. I hit the “publish” button and waited.

And waited...

Conditions are rather primitive here on the Home Planet -- no streetlights, wood heat, rabbit-ears television reception (meaning my 12 inch portable cathode ray gun can display one of three channels if and when conditions are right), and slow-as-a-tortoise dial-up internet.

I don’t know if it was Blogger or my lousy internet connection, but something fucked up. After a full minute staring at a blank screen, I clicked the “back” button and found the post in edit mode... only none of the edits were there – Blogger didn’t save any of them. All that work hammering the post into shape had vanished into the ether.

Back to square one, I threw in the towel. It was late, I was tired. Time for wine and food and staring into the fire. Fuck the goddamned internet...

And that’s why there was no fresh post last Sunday.

Now, three days later, I go back to look at that post and it just pisses me off. I see all the problems I’d fixed, but no longer recall the solutions. Essentially, I have to start all over again, and right now simply don’t have the energy. Thanksgiving looms, and then the long haul back to LA and four more weeks of work before we shoot episode 15 – the final scheduled show of this year – on December 22. Add in the frenzy of Christmas bearing down on us all like a big black steam train festooned with tinsel and colored lights, and it looks like energy will be in short supply as the clock runs out on 2011.

Maybe I’ll knock the post back into shape by next Sunday, and maybe not. Right now that seems unlikely -- just looking at that post depresses me. When that stops being the case, I’ll sit down and get the work done ... and I’ll damned well finish the editing off-line before entrusting my post to the not-so-tender mercies of Blogger.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving, all of you.

Sunday, November 13, 2011


(Photo by Ben Margot, AP)

"To err is human; to forgive, divine."

Alexander Pope

No matter how careful we are, no matter how many times we remind ourselves to check and double-check, we all screw up from time to time. Everybody does. Ours is a highly imperfect world heavily populated with equally imperfect human beings – and anytime humans are involved, mistakes will be made.

After a long and tiring blocking/pre-shoot day recently, I slogged home through the LA gridlock, poured a glass of wine, and began preparing a simple dinner. While chopping an onion, a cosmic snowball suddenly came howling in out of the ether and smacked me right upside the head. My knife froze in mid-air.

I’d fucked up.

I tried to reassure myself that my blunder was no big deal, but the more I thought about it – and after a few seconds of gear-spinning cogitation, this was suddenly all I could think about – the worse it got. A brain fart at the end of the day led me leave a dozen or so practical fixtures in one of our swing sets still burning after we’d clocked out and left the stage.* Although the total wattage involved was minimal (two or three hundred watts, max), even a small incandescent lamp can be a fire hazard if left burning in the wrong place at the wrong time.** Given that we weren’t due back on stage until the following morning, those wall sconces and small table lamps would be burning unattended on set for at least twelve hours before anyone on the set lighting crew could turn them off. If just one of those lamps had been left too close to filmy drapes hung on a set wall built of thin, highly flammable wood, a fire could eventually ignite and do considerable damage before the stage sprinkler system doused the flames. Although the sound stage itself could survive such a disaster, the combination of fire, smoke, and water would certainly ruin our sets and all the furnishings, and possibly much of the grip, lighting, and camera equipment.

This worst-case scenario (and I’ve always been a worst-case-scenario guy) was grim indeed. A dark vision unfolded in my head -- driving to work the following morning to find a mountain of sodden, smoldering wreckage inside our sound stage. Not only would I be out of a job, but so would the entire crew – and all because of me. Even if the show were to rise like a phoenix from the ashes with new sets on another sound stage, my services would certainly no longer be required or desired. I’d likely be banished from that studio, forced back to the unforgiving world of day-playing on whatever shows would have me. At my age, cobbling together enough work days to survive, let alone hang on to my union health coverage, would be a steep hill to climb.

In reality, such an apocalyptic scenario was unlikely, but having left the door open to the possibility, I was staring down the barrel of a long and troubled night. See, it’s all right for others to make mistakes occasionally – hey, they’re only human -- but for reasons that would require a psychiatrist to fully unearth, it’s not okay for me to fuck up. I expect myself to cover all the bases at work and make sure that nothing under my control slides off the rails. That’s just not supposed to happen.

But it did, and now I had to fix it.

There were a host of contributing factors to this particular fuck-up. Our show labors under an exceedingly tight lighting budget, and with five swing sets that week – including sets built within sets – we’d been pushed to the limit. Lacking enough dimmer circuits to run all our lamps and the swing set practicals, we’d resorted to using two home-built “Socco-Savers” – each with six household dimmers running off power from a single plug – to free up half a dozen Socapex circuits for lighting the sets.***

                                              Home-built "Socco-Saver"

The downside of this was that responsibility for adjusting the on-set practicals then shifted from the dimmer operator to the set juicers, who ordinarily don’t worry about adjusting -- or killing -- practical fixtures. Socco-Savers are generally powered via a Socapex circuit so that the practicals will still go off when the dimmer operator kills the power to that set, but in trying to save every possible dimmer circuit for our lamps, we’d powered both Socco-Savers from a studio wall plug not under dimmer control -- and that meant somebody had to remember to unplug those units at wrap. Since the Best Boy had to leave work a little early that day, that somebody was me.

And I forgot.

Leaving the onions half-chopped on the cutting board, I called the Best Boy and explained the situation. He agreed to call the studio’s electrical shop (where a real electrician is always on duty so long as any filming is taking place on the lot) to take care of things. With the problem solved -- and potential disaster averted -- I went back to my dinner preparations and bottle of wine with a clear conscience, secure in the knowledge that the stage and sets (and my job) were safe. I slept easy that night.

The next morning, I headed in a little early, grabbed a cup of coffee and a doughnut at crafty, then found the set dressing department’s Lead Man carting away the last of the swing set furnishings.

“The practicals were off this morning, right?” I asked.

“Nope,” he said. “I had to pull the plug and let ‘em cool down for a few minutes before I took the bulbs out.”

That was a sobering moment. It turns out I’d “slept easy” with my clear conscience on the thin ice of a Fool’s Paradise after all.

I don’t know what happened with the studio electrician, and didn’t ask. Maybe he had a busy night taking care of the several episodics shooting late that evening, and never got around to checking our stage. Since nothing bad resulted -– another bullet dodged -- it doesn’t really matter. Luck was with us both that night, so no harm, no foul.

That doesn't excuse me, of course, nor does the fact that nobody else on our crew remembered to check those practicals at the end of the day either. Since I was standing in for the Best Boy, the weight of that fuck-up rests squarely on my shoulders. If Alexander Pope was right, any forgiveness must come from a higher source.

Still, such near-miss experiences serve a useful purpose. The important lesson to absorb is that none of us -- newbie or veteran -- can afford the kind of complacent assumptions that might leave your crew in the position of depending on someone outside the department to cover their asses. Don't let that happen.

I certainly won't. Whether covering for the Best Boy or not, I won't leave that stage again at the end of the day without doing a quick walk-around to check every set.

Call it a form of penance if you will, but refusing to make that same mistake again is the only way I'll earn my own forgiveness.

* “Practicals” are the table lamps, floor lamps, chandeliers, and sconces set decorators can’t seem to get enough of...

** An incandescent bulb is really nothing but a tiny toaster -- complete with glowing white-hot filament -- encased in a very thin glass shell.

*** Socapex is multistrand cable that comes out of a dimmer pack and ends with a "breakout" consisting of six individual circuits, each capable of powering a 2000 watt lamp.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Yes or No?

It all depends...

(This is a follow-up to last week’s post concerning the value of knowing when to say "enough")

Over at The Hills are Burning, AJ recently posted a few rules of the Hollywood road for Industry below-the-liners under the general heading of “You’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do.” Her list is brimming with hard-earned wisdom that any wannabe or newbie griptricians would do well to absorb... but I’d offer a caveat to one of AJ’s nuggets:

"I may be tired and want a day off, but when a call comes in for work, I'll take it anyway because who knows what great things this job may lead to."

This is certainly the right approach most of the time -- suck it up to do a good job, meet and impress a new crew, and come away from the experience with a check in the mail and further opportunities for future employment. That’s how you expand your network of contacts and eventually move up in the business. The one exception I'd add to that rule is when you’re too tired to bring your “A” game to the job -– if for whatever reason you really do need that day off -- then you might think twice before taking the call.

When a Best Boy or a UPM you've never worked for calls out of the blue, it’s usually because he/she got your name from a trusted source, which means you’ve begun to build the foundation of a solid reputation. That's a very good thing, but a budding reputation is a lot like a fragile young plant breaking through the soil into the sunlight -- it must be carefully nurtured to take root and grow strong. Your mom was right when she warned “You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression,” so when you take a job with a new crew, you'd better be ready to deliver. If you show up tired, cranky, or otherwise unable to work up to your usual high standards, you may be blowing any further chance to work with that particular crew. Not only will the Best Boy (and his entire crew) conclude that you’re not nearly as good as advertised, but you’ll have burned the person who recommended you for the job in the first place, thus making him-or-her less likely to throw your name in the hat for another gig.

At best this represents a squandered opportunity, and at worst, you might have done yourself some real damage. Other than getting paid for your work -- always a plus -- that's a lose/lose outcome. Ours is a performance-based Industry where reputations live or die based on word-of-mouth. Given that word travels fast in this business, if the buzz is that you're an unreliable quantity (for whatever reason), your working reputation -- and income -- will suffer.

I torched a couple of bridges early in my career by getting greedy and taking calls when I was too fatigued from overwork or had indulged in way too much fun the night before. Hard drinking and chasing women (or whichever gender floats your boat) on a school night is something most young workbots are going to do -- hey, what’s the point of living if you can’t have some fun? – but timing is the issue here, and heavy partying the night before working with a new crew can be a huge mistake.

There's a potential bonus in having the discipline to decline a job you're not rested and ready for (assuming you turn it down the right way) -- the Best Boy who wanted to hire you will suddenly understand that your services are in demand. If he thinks that some other BB already nabbed you for a gig, then maybe you really are as good as your reputation.

This kind of defensive subterfuge might sound like a stretch -- and it's not something you want to make a habit of -- but I have reason to believe it worked for me early in my career. In any event, it's better to skip a job and preserve your good reputation than stumble through the day and make the Best Boy wish he'd called somebody else. Sometimes discretion really is the better part of valor.*

It's always a judgement call -- only you know what you're truly capable of, and the only real way to find out is by doing it. When first getting started or still finding your Industry legs, you'll take every paying job that comes along. That's what I did, and in the process, learned what my own limits were by pushing the envelope. When I pushed too hard, I tried to learn from those experiences and not make the same mistake again.

Instead, I found lots of brand new mistakes to make... but such is life, a bruising process from start to finish.

The instant nature of modern communication makes it hard for young griptricians (and other budding below-the-liners) to make a truly thoughtful yes/no decision. Pagers and telephone answering machines were the latest in must-have technology when I was getting started, allowing a relatively fat cushion of time to ponder the pros and cons before returning a work call. Nowadays, a Best Boy marches right down his cell phone contact list to hire the first person who answers, or else texts everyone on that list instantaneously and waits for a return text/call. In the modern heat of the moment, making a considered decision isn't easy, so most young juicers and grips just say "yes" and hope for the best.

Still, choosing wisely -- taking the pulse of all relevant factors at the moment -- can make a big difference to a newbie on the way up. So the next time work (or life) is coming at you hot and heavy, allow a moment to think when your phone rings with a job from a new source. Hard as it is to say "no" to any work, if you're not ready or able to give a full hundred percent to that new employer, you might be doing yourself a favor by letting it go.

* The proper quote (which I didn't know until looking it up) is "The better part of valor is discretion," from Henry the Fourth, by William Shakespeare.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Tuna Run

“You take more than you probably should, but do so because you'll never know when an opportunity like this will come by again.”

The Hills Are Burning

On a Monday afternoon a few weeks ago – our first heavy lighting day of the week – the Best Boy called in a couple of extra juicers to help us rough in the new swing sets. Both had worked with us before, but one of them looked unusually tired, as though he hadn't gotten much sleep.

“Rough night?” I asked.

“Nah,” he yawned, rubbing his hollow eyes. “This is my fourteenth day... or maybe the eleventh. I can’t really remember now.”

By that he meant he’d been working fourteen straight days (or eleven) without a break – going from job to job, day after day, right through the weekends.

It’s happened to all of us who toil in the salt mines of below-the-line Hollywood: a stretch of non-stop work where one job ends just as the next begins, hopping from one gig to the next in a giddy cascade of call sheets and time-cards that starts out feeling like a new Gold Rush but usually winds up more like the Bataan Death March. This is one of the hazards of life as a free-lancer, where we're all slaves to human nature. As the naked apes who long ago fell out of the trees into a feast-or-famine world of fear, danger, and scarcity, we never evolved a hard-wired ability to know when to say when -- we just keep taking while the taking is good, because sooner later the vast herds of buffalo will disappear, that rich vein of gold will play out, and those scaldingly hot dice suddenly will go cold. No matter how sunny and fat things might be at any given moment, the free-lance workbot knows damned well that the bleak gray dawn of another lean winter is always just around the corner.

A gaffer I met very early in my career – a man who took me under his professional wing and taught me everything I would need to succeed in set lighting – had a term for such an avalanche of good fortune: he called it the “Tuna Run.”

Bear in mind this was nearly thirty-five years ago, when “Tuna Run” referred to a crude but effective method of catching those big fish prior to the advent of modern industrial fishing. When a tuna boat found a huge school of fish boiling near the surface, a row of strong-backed men stood shoulder to shoulder on the rail yanking increasingly large tuna out of the sea using only a hook and line attached to a stout wooden pole. They worked at a furious pace, pulling fish after fish on deck until the holds were full or the ocean was empty*

For those who come from outside the system, getting started in the free-lance world of Hollywood is a tough slog. After struggling through those rough early years that form the crucible of every Industry career, the concept of “enough work” does not apply. There’s just no such thing. To a struggling young free-lancer, work is what sun, water, and fertile soil are to a growing plant: it's life itself. Without work, we slip towards the bottomless black abyss always waiting at the shadowy edge of our imagination, hungry to swallow us whole.

The notion of work as precious commodity is burned into your brain during those hard early years, molding your outlook into a reflexively fear-based survival mode. You relax a bit as the years pass, but even when you reach the point where work comes with minimal effort, you never really forget. The Fear is always there, just under the surface, so when the Gods of Hollywood send a big wave of dovetailing jobs your way, you hang on tight with a white-knuckle grip -- both hands -- until that wave finally hits the beach.

And it will. Hollywood has a gravity all its own -- what goes up will come back down -- and there's usually a price to pay for cashing in on a long Tuna Run. Most of the time that means getting sick with whatever bug is going around, but in a business that routinely requires driving to and from far-flung locations all over LA during the course of some very long days, the consequences can be deadly.

The danger isn’t limited to bleary-eyed driving after a long day, though. The gaffer I mentioned at the top of the page – a big robust guy who was also one of the smartest, most erudite and articulate people I’ve ever met – finally caught a Tuna Run even he couldn’t handle. In the midst of working a brutally long string of big budget music videos all over the country, he headed for the airport to catch a plane and scout another shoot in Las Vegas. Pausing to buy a hot dog on the concourse prior to boarding, his heart locked up. From the reports I heard, he dropped like a steer under the slaughterhouse hammer. A few hours later, in the fluorescent chill of a nearby ER, he was dead.

Just a few weeks from his 45 birthday -- with a wife and three kids to support -- he had literally worked himself to death. I was a gaffer too by then, so we hadn't seen each other or worked together for a while, but it turns out he had this one last lesson to teach me: even the strongest of us has limits. We push the envelope at our own risk. It's a lesson I haven't forgotten.

There will be Tuna Runs to catch as long as a free-lance film and television industry exists, and hungry below-the-liners will take full advantage. Such is the nature of the Hollywood beast. Just remember that if you push yourself too hard for too long, something has to give. Getting sick is one thing -- we can all handle that -- but no job is worth dying for.

We all need as much work as it takes to keep our increasingly complicated and expensive lives afloat, but when you catch a solid Tuna Run, keep one ear tuned to that quiet little voice inside. It can be hard to hear in the fatigued state of survival mode, working day after day after day -- but if your inner voice finally whispers "enough," pay attention.

Your life could depend on it.

* If this sounds like more sepia-tinted nostalgic bullshit about the good old days when Men were Men, check out this rather astonishing Utube clip. Be patient, though – it starts out slowly, with the kind of sternly lurid cock-in-hand narration typically heard in NFL Films documentaries about the Green Bay Packers -- but once it gets going, the action is fast, furious, and eye-opening. You’ll get a glimpse of a world and way of life that doesn’t exist anymore, and just might find yourself wondering if you could do what those guys did. More to the point, you’ll understand exactly what a Tuna Run really is...

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Great Expectations

There's a terrific interview with Bryan Cranston over at Mark Maron’s WTF. It’s a long one – a solid hour of good stuff (Cranston) preceded by fifteen minutes of Maron hurling F bombs, discussing his cats, and taking an on-air phone call from a very strange comic pal (definitely not for children’s ears), but it’s worth wading through all that juvenilia to reach the interview.

Any fans of “Breaking Bad” or “Malcolm in the Middle” – both ground-breaking shows in their own unique ways – will enjoy Cranston's story of how he got into acting in the first place, the rough early years (including being sought by the police in Florida as a murder suspect), and how he finally hit his stride to become one of the more successful and interesting actors working today. The road from Hal on Malcolm in the Middle to Walter White in “Breaking Bad” was anything but smooth or direct. This is a fascinating interview, full of great stories well told. Don’t miss it.

One thing Cranston talks about is “not being attached to an outcome” at any point in his career, refusing to set goals aimed at becoming a feature film actor or big star. He just wanted to be a working actor able to make a decent living performing his craft -- TV, movies, theater, whatever. His only stated goal was to do good work and let the rest take care of itself.

What a refreshing attitude. In a world where the painfully-needy craving of blind, insatiable ambition – a mental state so unbalanced that it might require medical intervention in any business other than politics, Wall Street, or Hollywood - is so often viewed as a virtue, it’s nice to hear more modest (read: sane) goals espoused, particularly when the slow-and-steady approach resulted in such a spectacular success.

Ambition is a lot like testosterone -- without enough, most of the human race would probably still be grubbing in the dust for roots and berries, but too much can turn an otherwise normal person into a driven, high-achieving zombie. Although society as a whole tends to reap the benefits of those with big ambitions, the individual involved is often reduced to a hollow shell of a human being.

While listening to that interview, it dawned on me that I came to Hollywood with a similarly determined but unfocused approach. I certainly didn’t arrive burdened with any specific or particularly lofty ambitions. The possibility of becoming a cameraman appealed for a while, but once I'd worked with a few DPs and heard what they went through to get there, my interest in following that path faded. All I really wanted to do was work and learn enough to get good at something directly related to creating that movie magic -- and in the process, find a niche for myself.

That’s pretty much what happened. Although my own checkered career is just a molehill next to the mountain Bryan Cranston ascended (hey, that man brought some serious talent to the table), the drive and ambition to climb higher and do bigger things simply didn’t burn within. You can't push a string. All any of us can do is look deep, trust our instincts, and go with what feels right. If that means aiming high for the Big Prize (whatever that might be), then more power to you. Just be sure that's what you really want, and be prepared to pay the price.

I don’t mean to be critical of anyone with big ambitions – we all have to please the Beast Within, and each Beast is a unique fusion of our own upbringing and individual chemistry – but the career of Bryan Cranston offers graphic evidence that the door to a very good place can open wide for those unburdened by grand and/or obsessive ambitions.

Sometimes the tortoise really does beat the hare.

Still, life isn't a race, nor is a Hollywood career. There’s no prize at the end – there’s just The End – and when it’s over, looking back on a career spent doing good work with good people while making a decent living sounds pretty good to me. Better that than rattling around a big gated estate up on Mulholland Drive like some modern day Charles Foster Kane, looking back on forty years of ruthless decisions and burned bridges while dragging that ball-and-chain of great expectations.

But that's just me. Your path depends on what you want and need out of your Hollywood life -- and there, to each his own.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Dogg Does Hollywood


Yet more unmistakable signs that the Apocalypse does indeed draw near...

First came news that the late, great Ed McMahon had signed to do rap videos*, and now the polar opposite shoe drops -- and drops hard -- with the startling announcement that infamous gangsta-rapper and rap-porn pioneer Snoop "Doggy" Dogg (or as the New York Times once referred to him: “Mr. Dogg”) has been slated to do a sit-com.

Wow. Snoop Dogg starring in a family sit-com. I can honestly say I didn't see that one coming.

Wonder if the show will be called “Doggy Style?”

* Okay, so this particular news item happens to be three years old, shortly preceding the passing of Ed McMahon. Sometimes the Wheels of the Apocalypse grind exceedingly slowly.

And sometimes they don't...

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Menda City

Lies, lies, and more lies...

“You said it yourself, Big Daddy. Mendacity is a system we live in.”

From Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

I hate to lie. Always have, ever since I was a kid. Maybe that’s because my mom drummed the mantra “Honesty is the best policy” into my head as I grew up, or that the penalty for youthful lying – or getting caught, at least -- was a bare-assed spanking from the heavy hand of my Dad. Still, I fudged the truth enough over those early years to learn how complicated life can become when one lie leads to the next until the whole creaky structure collapses under its own compounded weight.

Mom was right, of course – normal life tends to run a lot smoother if you just tell the truth and man-up to the consequences. Then again, she never had to work in Hollywood, where lying pretty much is the norm.

Still, there are lies and there are lies. Last Sunday’s post pointed out how a timely and otherwise inconsequential lie can be exactly what the situation calls for -- but don’t push your luck. As The Anonymous Production Assistant recently advised, newbies and Industry wannabes should be very careful about inflating their resumes with bald-faced lies. Enshrining such mendacity in the black and white of print is seldom a good idea.

That doesn’t mean a newbie should stick to the Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing but the Truth all the time, though. The best piece of advice I brought with me to Hollywood was “Don’t be afraid to make a fool of yourself.” With that in mind, on my very first day as an unpaid PA thrilled to be working on an extremely low budget movie, the producer asked if I’d ever driven a five ton truck. “Sure,” I blurted (the first of many lies I would tell in my then-nascent career), and half an hour later found myself sitting in the cab of that massive truck at the rental yard pondering the intricacies of a five speed manual transmission equipped with a two-speed axle. I grew up driving stick-shift cars, but until then the biggest vehicle I’d ever piloted was a Volkswagen bus. The prospect of navigating this bulky leviathan through the crowded streets and freeways of Los Angeles was terrifying.

Fear can be a highly effective motivator. Facing my first Hollywood crisis, I confessed my ignorance to the rental clerk, who gave me a quick primer on how and when to use the red button to switch between low and high range – a simple mechanism that effectively doubled the five forward gears to create a ten speed transmission – and soon I was piloting the massive beast back to the production office in the San Fernando Valley.

During the next two weeks of pre-production, I drove that truck all over LA to pick up, load, and unload furniture with the set dressing crew. The experience was an education in and of itself. Among other things, I learned that large vehicles share a secret brotherhood of the road in the fearsome traffic of LA. Riding high above all those pesky little cars, the drivers of city buses, eighteen wheelers, garbage trucks, and big delivery vans act as blockers for each other, holding the cars at bay to allow another truck or bus to make progress through the gridlock. Soon I was doing it too, helping my elephantine brethren out as we battled traffic together. The cars had speed and maneuverability, but in that lumbering five ton, I had sheer bulk on my side – and sometimes size really does matter. Thirty-four years later, I still recall the sweet sound of screeching brakes and an angry horn blast from the Cadillac I deliberately moved over on after the driver refused to acknowledge my patiently blinking turn signal in the thick traffic of West LA – but the instant he saw that truck swerving towards his car, he got the hell out of my way.

I grinned all the way back to the office, feeling like the King of the Road.

That first Hollywood lie allowed me the opportunity to prove myself to the production team, who then knew that if I told them I could do something, I’d do it.* So when the producer asked if I could synch up dallies as an assistant editor, I didn't hesitate to tell another convenient lie. Having conquered the ten-speed five ton, I was one newly confident kid. Besides, I’d handled lots of 16 mm film in college, so how hard could it be?

Harder than I thought, as it turned out – especially when the camera assistant neglected to clap the slate for a printed take, leaving me to match sound and picture with a set of rewinds, a squawk box/synchronizer, and a moviescope. Putting in twelve hour days under fluorescent lights staring into that tiny screen was a new and humbling experience, but at least I was finally getting paid. Fifty dollars a week.

Although the editing room proved a career dead-end for me, that job allowed me to keep working and getting paid long after the shooting crew was cut loose to look for their next gig. Those several months as an assistant editor provided a bridge to the next stage of my LA adventure, and added further motivation. Sometimes you have to learn first-hand what jobs you really don’t want to do before you can find a better fit. For me, the physical inactivity and repetitive drudgery of those long days in the editing bay were a sign that I needed to go in a very different direction.

Honesty may indeed be the best policy in real life, but sticking to the absolute literal truth can hold you back during the crucial early phases of an Industry career. This business was created by people who weren't afraid to take risks, roll the dice, and deal with the consequences. Although a producer or UPM might admire your honest admission of incompetence (in my case, that would have been "Uh,no, I don't know how to drive a five ton truck," or "Synch up dallies? Nope, never done that..."), the job will then go to the next PA bold enough to say "yes," and make it stick.

"Nothing ventured, nothing gained" may be a tired old cliche, but it's true. Every career move in this business is a gamble, and you can't let a fear of failure hold you back. Just be straight with yourself, at least, and make sure that if everything does go sideways, the only real damage will be to your pride and that particular job opportunity. If boldly rolling the dice entails a serious risk of doing horrendous property damage or getting somebody hurt, step back from the precipice and think again. Don't just close your eyes and leap off the cliff assuming that you'll somehow learn to fly before smashing into the rocks below. Be bold but smart, following your own good instincts, and with any luck at all you'll pull it off to emerge stronger, more confident, and much more employable. If you don't fall on your face too often, taking such calculated risks can eventually lead to learning enough that you won't have to lie anymore -- and by then, you'll have built the foundation of a solid career.

There's no way of knowing what direction my own Hollywood path might have taken had I stuck to the truth during those early years. Maybe I'd be living in the luxury of a gated mansion in Beverly Hills with my third trophy wife by now rather than in the relative squalor of a rent-by-the-month Hollywood hovel. All I know is how things did work out, and I can live with that. I certainly don't advise spewing lies like a politician on the stump in your efforts to get ahead, but sometimes the situation calls for a roll of the dice, stretching the truth, and hoping for the best.

Such is the nature of life in the free-lance jungle that is Hollywood.

* Click here for another tale of lying, failure, and the sweaty-palmed experience of incomplete success

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Little White Lie

“Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.” Walter Scott

Just don't do a Milli Vanilli...

Note: As always, the following is based on my own experiences working in Hollywood over the years. Your mileage, as they say, may vary – and readers are always welcome to disagree.

The first (and biggest) hurdle confronting most newcomers to the film and television industry is getting enough work to survive. Failing this most basic test means going home with your tail between your legs, which is why finding the next job -- and the next, and the next -- becomes an all-consuming obsession for every Hollywood newbie. Not everyone figures it out. People who truly belong here learn how to get jobs and stay employed, while those who can’t stomach the economic uncertainty endemic to free-lance Industry life eventually move on in search of a steadier source of income. You don’t have to be special to make it here – you just have to want it bad enough, and not everybody does.

There’s no shame in this. Just as everyone isn’t meant for the suit-and-tie straitjacket of the corporate world or the constipated monotony of life in the fluorescent glow of a cube farm, not everybody is cut out for the down-and-dirty end of the film and television Industry. If you’re not, then find something else to do with your life. You -- and everyone else you might otherwise work for or with in this business -- will be better off in the long run.

Once you’ve managed to achieve a certain level of success below-the-line, though, a different problem can occasionally arise: a work call will come in that you really don’t want to take.* You’re available, but just don’t want to accept that particular job. Maybe the gig would require working for a Best Boy, Gaffer, or crew that you’ve had bad experiences with before, or the call is for a low-budget, flat-rate movies-‘til-dawn night shoot that would put you out of action (and thus unable to take a better job) for the next couple of days. Then again, your reason could be more primal -- maybe the hot babe you’ve been chasing for weeks has finally agreed to go out with you on the very day of that job...

Hey, neither man nor woman lives by bread alone, and what’s the point of working if you can’t carve out a little quality time to do some actual living?

I’ve turned down jobs for all those reasons and many more over the years, but the “why” doesn’t really matter. Whoever called you for the job doesn’t care about your needs, your desires, or your life – he/she just needs a body to show up at call time and do the work, and hopes you will solve their problem by saying “yes.”

But what if you want to say “no?”

It depends. Like so much of life, Hollywood operates in a gray zone with very few absolute truths to guide you. If you happen to know the caller well enough to feel secure that he or she won’t delete your name from their list, you might be able to tell the truth and beg off the job. Otherwise, you’ll just have to lie.

“Thanks so much for the call. I’d love to work with you guys, but I’m already booked.”

It’s unfortunate, but admitting you’re available and simply don’t want to work a given job is often a mistake. During the twenty-plus years I worked as a Best Boy, then Gaffer, the one thing I really didn’t want to hear when offering somebody a job was “No thanks. I'm not working, but one day's work will just ruin my unemployment.”**

In other words, the prospect of working on my crew for a day -- and thus further cementing our professional relationship for the future -- wasn't worth the effort. Maybe this says more about me than them, but that kind of refusal just pissed me off. If the person instead turned me down because he/she was already booked for the day, that was fine, even if I suspected the conflicting job might be fictional. At least they'd been smart enough to feed me a lie I could swallow.

It's almost perverse, but telling the lie -- that you're already booked -- makes the best of a bad situation, and can even enhance your reputation in the mind of the caller. Other Best Boys are calling you, so you must be really good, right? The perception of being in demand can help create the reality.

At its core, Hollywood is an elaborate mechanism built for the express purpose of creating big beautiful lies. Acting is a skilled form of lying, writing scripts is the clever, highly organized telling of lies, and for many producers (and virtually all agents/managers) lying is a way of life. Other than straight-out documentaries, the vast majority of productions we help put up on screen are designed to create a compelling fiction – a polite term for the word “lie” -- to enthrall and entertain the viewing audience. Television is the worst, with every program bought and paid for by companies who then pummel the hapless viewer with loud, slick commercials (a lie by any other name is still a lie) every eleven minutes until the show is mercifully over. Given that the entertainment industry as a whole has long been a swamp of 200 proof, triple-distilled mendacity on every level, we who do the heavy lifting can be forgiven the occasional harmless and expedient little white lie.

Nobody will know (or care) so long as you tell a sincere and convincing lie, with the best and only universally acceptable excuses for not accepting a job being that you’re sick, out of town, or already booked on another job. Be sure to thank the caller for thinking of you, and – unless you really don’t want to work for that person again -- tell him/her that you’d love to work with them in the future. Never burn a bridge if you don’t have to. In such a fickle business, a job you don’t want today might be one you’d love to have a year or two from now.

You do have to be careful, though – the expedient lie should be employed only as a last resort. Keep it quick and simple, and don’t elaborate. This is a lot easier when leaving a voice mail message, of course. Telling such a lie during the course of a phone conversation can get sticky in a hurry once the caller starts quizzing you about the details of a job that doesn’t actually exist. Hollywood is a big little town, and getting specific as to who you’re supposedly working for and the nature of the fictional production will exponentially increase the risk of your convenient lie coming to light -- and in this business, reputation is important. You want to be known as hard working and reliable, not a serial liar. Getting caught in a single expedient lie won't necessarily ruin your reputation, but it can't help -- and if you make a habit of telling careless lies, your phone just might stop ringing.

In these hard times, turning down a crappy job is a luxury few of us can afford. Work is work, and one lousy day isn't going to kill you. Besides, you never know what will happen -- I've met some great people on really lousy jobs who would later help me get more and better work down the line. Still, to lie or not to lie is a judgment call depending on you and your individual circumstances. As Walter Scott pointed out (and Milli Vanilli learned the hard way), life is a lot simpler when you stick to the truth -- until for whatever reason, you can't.

And then it might be time for the little white lie.

* With no personal experience above-the-line, I can’t speak to the customs and formalities up there in big-money heights of Mt. Olympus.

** When collecting unemployment, you are required to report any paying work – and the pay for a one-day commercial or going into overtime on a TV gig can roughly equal that weekly unemployment check. So why spend a day working when you can make the same money for staying home? That’s a subject for another post...

Next week: Lies, lies, and more lies...

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Off the Hook

This pay phone on Vine near Hollywood Boulevard is almost enough to make me reconsider my Luddite stance towards cell phones...

I’ve got nuthin’ this week -- nada, zilch, bupkis, zero. With the show in the midst of a shooting five straight episodes (as opposed to the normal multi-camera schedule of three weeks on/one week off) and a Thursday block-and-shoot that requires me to be up at 5 a.m. followed by the Friday night shoot that never allows my head to hit the pillow before midnight, I’m pretty much fried by the weekend.* Saturday is a wasteland of essential chores: washing the mountain of accumulated dirty dishes in the sink, then doing all the laundry, grocery shopping, bill paying and banking required to get me through the following work week. Sundays are better – at least I feel human on Sunday – but enough chores remain to leach away the hours. So where’s the time to write a blog post?

Weekday mornings. But last week was a busy one on the show, each day starting earlier than normal, leaving me very little time to write.

And that’s why there’s no new post for today. Could be more of the same next week as well, but any readers who haven’t taken a walk through this post yet – the “Greatest Hits” more or less – might find something worth reading.

Or not. At any rate, I’ll be back with something new as time allows.

* Granted, this is nothing like the long hour abuse endured by crews of features and episodic television, but most of those people are a lot younger than moi...

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Linked Out

It’s not you, it’s me...

The (supposedly) professional Industry network Linkedin began barraging me with e-mails a couple of years ago, and in a moment of weakness, I signed up. It was something new, and I was curious as to what it was all about – and what I subsequently learned is that for me, it’s of no use whatsoever. I’ve long since forgotten my site password at this point, but the ghost of Linkedin continues to haunt me. Every few weeks I get a request from somebody I've never met (on line or off) to “connect on Linkedin,” an invitation I silently decline. It would be simple to accept, but truth be told, I’m a bit weary of all this social networking. Facebook is bad enough -- changing all the settings around every month or so for no discernible reason other than that young Mr. Zuckerberg apparently seems to enjoy watching us all dance like virtual puppets at the end of his long digital strings -- but Linkedin?

I don’t think so.

What’s worse, Linkedin seems to reach out on its own, without the individual members even knowing about it. When I got an invitation to connect with one of the set dressers on my show last season, I waited until the next day at work to ask her how she used Linkedin.

“I don’t,” she said. “I never sent that invitation. Ever since I was stupid enough to join I’ve been trying to get the hell out of Linkedin.”

That was my “aha” moment. Since then I rarely bother to reply to these invitations. With no way of knowing whether an actual human or Linkedin’s clever algorithm made the request, I see no point. Besides, including me in a list of professional industry contacts isn’t going to do any newbies out there any good. I never was a DP, and no longer work as a Gaffer or a Best Boy – I’m just a juicer now, a lowly Morlock toiling far below the line in the dark shadows of the Industry food chain. For someone I’ve never met and do not know to think that adding my name to their list of Linkedin contacts could somehow help advance their careers is absurd.

This doesn’t mean I don’t care.* I hope all my readers go on to enjoy wildly successful careers in the business, and if you’ve got any questions I can answer, use the comments section or the Gmail link on this blog and I’ll do my best to help out. Just don’t waste your time asking me to connect on Linkedin -- and if you (or more likely, the insidious algorithm) insist, don’t take it personally when your invitation results in the sound of silence. No offense is meant by my non-response, and none should be taken.

Hey, I’m just an old dog who doesn’t have much use for all these bright and shiny new digital tricks.


* Nor will I ever underestimate the power in a few timely words of encouragement...

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Gears of Karma

C’est la vie say the old folks, it goes to show you never can tell

(Chuck Berry)

The gears of Karmic Justice generally grind with maddening deliberation in this troubled world, offering little satisfaction for those of us who would rather see wrongs righted with a little more alacrity. Villains usually do get their comeuppance bitch-slaps in the long run, but such justice can take a while to unfold. Meanwhile, bad things keep happening to good people for no coherent reason at all.

Every now and then, though, those cosmic gears manage to produce a very satisfying -- if unexpected -- justice in a more timely manner.

A recent post here discussed the sad side of my show getting picked up for a second season: those crew members who did not rejoin us on stage. Some left by choice, others due to an unfortunate cascade of circumstances, but two of the stand-ins were let go – fired – for stated reasons none of the crew could understand or accept. They were both professional stand-ins who knew their job and did it well, but the Powers That Be way up the production food chain ordered them gone, so they disappeared.*

Hollywood has never been known for loyalty, but this was ridiculous. Those two stand-ins just got hosed, which pissed off everyone on the crew – including, as it turned out, our lead actor, who didn’t learn that his stand-in had been fired until our first day back on set. To this actor’s everlasting credit, he hit the roof, then called the execs responsible on the carpet and demanded that his stand-in be re-hired. The following Monday, that stand-in was back with us on the show.

Stand-ins occupy a unique and awkward position on a production. Neither fish nor fowl, they’re not really part of the technical crew nor are they actual cast members, but they are an essential cog in the machine of a television show. If “their” actors aren’t willing to go to bat for them, they’re shit out of luck – which is why we were all very glad to see justice delivered and this stand-in return to the fold.

But that left the other stand-in – who subbed for our lead actress – out in the cold. Still, those Karmic Gears don’t always grind in a linear fashion. Being very good at her job, she quickly found a new home on a much bigger broadcast network sit-com, where her real talents were soon noticed. Last week she got a major break in the form of a speaking role as an actor on her new show. Finally, this hard working stand-in got a chance to spread her acting wings and fly on screen. For her, this is huge – a major increase in pay for the week and a big boost to a late-blooming acting career that must have seemed like it would never come.

And if she hadn't been fired from our show (however unjustly), none of this would have happened.

Which just goes to demonstrate that in Hollywood, opportunity can come in many disguises. Anything can happen at anytime, and what feels like a soul-crushing disaster can in fact be the sound of a golden door being unlocked and opening wide. If you keep pushing, doing a great job, and showing people what you’re capable of, good things can happen. This is a useful lesson for everyone in this industry -- young or old -- to recall.

Sometimes those Hollywood dreams really can come true.

* If you think that job is easy, you don’t understand what they really do...

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Wednesday Inbox

An e-mail dropped into my inbox the other day with the following short Utube video titled Film School or No Film School?

Ah yes, the eternal question for which there is no answer.

I didn't go to a real film school, but attended an institution of higher learning that offered just enough film classes to spark my interest, lure me away from the more rigorous (read: useful) fields of academic study, and eventually take me down the glittering road to perdition through all nine circles of the modern day Dante’s Inferno we call "Hollywood." Although a sketchy education in film isn't much help in the art of juicing (indeed, it can be a hindrance if you don't know when to keep your mouth shut), it's nice -- as happened at work last week -- to be able to carry on a conversation with one of the show's writers at the craft service table about the films of John Ford.

Not that this short conversation added any numbers or moved the decimal point on my paycheck mind you, but man does not live by bread alone.

The e-mail was from a recent NYU graduate who has -- with a fellow (if opposite coast) film school grad -- formed what they're calling National Film Society. That's an awfully big name for what seems to be a rather small organization, but hey, mighty oaks from tiny acorns grow. A description of NFS in their own words:

"The National Film Society is a new media studio co-founded by filmmakers Patrick Epino and Stephen Dypiangco, who've decided to take their talents to YouTube. They produce original content, showcase amazing works, interview talented creators and make fun of each other as much as possible."

I have no idea if attending one of the elite film schools is really worth the horrendous expense. It's hard to justify borrowing $120 grand to get a degree in the filmic arts unless you really do have what it takes to become a very well paid writer, producer, directer, or cinematographer-- and I know people who have become all of the above without benefit of a degree from a film school. But if you've got the money and the desire, why not? Especially if after you've spent all that money and still can't get a job, you're able to retain your sense of humor.

As you'll see in Steven and Patrick's short video, they have a lively sense of fun, and don't take themselves too seriously. That, I like. Good luck, guys.


More good listening: Monday night's "Fresh Air" on NPR featured two interviews that will interest fans of "Breaking Bad," one with series co-star Aaron Paul, and the second with the show's creator Vince Gilligan, a man who -- as far as I'm concerned -- has been walking on water out there in the New Mexico desert for the past four seasons. Altogether these two interviews are less than an hour, and worth every minute of your time.


Yet another e-mail this week alerted me to a blog called Hollywood Oracle. In their own words, "The Hollywood Oracle is committed to delivering informed, insightful advice about how to make a successful move to Los Angeles and work in the entertainment industry."

Advice from those who have walked this path can be useful for any young Hollywood dreamer. Take a look -- you just might like what you find. And if you forget to bookmark it, there's a permanent link under my Industry Blogroll over on the right side of the page.

And those are your tips 'o the week. Check em' out...

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Thrill is Gone

Once upon a time – a few years out of school with a head full of Hollywood dreams – I loved nothing more than to bust my ass all day or night on set, then hang around the truck after wrap sipping a beer while listening to “war stories” from veteran crew members. Work was fun, with every day on set a new adventure. Later, while working as a Best Boy, then Gaffer, I was one of those telling the stories, but now -- after so many years toiling under the shadow of that big white Hollywood sign -- when my work day is over, I just want to go home. At this point, working on location or in a studio sound stage is just a job.

The thrill is gone.

If this is supposed to bother me, it doesn’t. I’m at least fifteen years past harboring any serious ambitions for this business, and although I didn't get around to everything I'd wanted to at the start, I did a few things I'd never even dreamed of, met a lot of great people, and had some big fun in the process. At this point my only remaining goals are to do a professional job every day, have as good a time as possible with the crew, and make it across the finish line on my own terms under my own power. The latter is not a given. This kind of work is physically punishing, exacting a heavy toll on one’s body over time. I know several fellow juicers who were forced to retire early due to an accumulation of job-induced physical maladies that finally made it impossible for them to answer the bell -- and I’m not interested in joining them in the Permanent Disability Club.

That's why I'm making my last stand in world of multi-camera sit-coms, which is the closest thing I’ll ever find to a safe harbor. But if working these shows is an order of magnitude easier than being tied to the whipping post of episodics or features, that doesn’t mean it’s easy. A lot of lamps need to be hung and powered on that pipe grid every week for a sit-com, and there’s usually only two of us (with some help from the ground crew) to make it happen. This is real work, and it gets harder every year.

Still, there’s something to be said for sucking it up, ignoring the pain, and finding a way to get the job done, whether that means walking the set walls, working atop a twelve-step ladder, or performing the occasional (and highly illegal) EVA when necessary. There’s a very real satisfaction in meeting such challenges – quietly, with nobody else noticing – on a daily basis. It means I can still do the job, pull my weight, and really earn my weekly paycheck.

That much is essential. Should the day ever come when I look around and realize I’m just dead weight on the crew – no longer able to fully contribute – I’ll drop my tool belt for the last time and walk away.

All this doesn’t mean I’m not still interested in what’s going on with the present and ever-evolving future of our industry. I haven’t withered into one of those bitter, don’t-give-a-shit dinosaurs whose sole remaining joy in life is playing Dr. Buzzkill on every job – the sour curmudgeon who’s forever telling everyone in earshot how fucked everything is now and how much better it all used to be back in the good old days -- but there’s no denying that the magic which drew me to Hollywood in the first place has pretty much evaporated into the LA smog. Mostly this is a matter of time and experience -- the cumulative weight of all those years on my shoulders. When you’re young, Hollywood is a bright and shiny place full of endless possibilities, but time has a way of narrowing the horizon and the path ahead. Ride the roller coaster long enough, and you come to know every twist, turn, and stomach-churning drop on those rails -- and along the way, where all the bumps and bruises are.

But you also learn to adapt to the unique rhythms of each job, how to pace yourself over the course of brutally long days, and -- most importantly -- you learn what matters and what doesn't on set. When to walk and when to run. You also learn to deal with change – and I’ve seen a lot of changes in this business over the years. If things weren’t necessarily better back in the day, they were a lot simpler when most stage and location productions ran on Direct Current electricity, and carbon arcs were the state-of-the-art BFL. Film ruled the movie and episodic television world, while video was left with the sloppy seconds of sit-coms, soap operas, game shows, news, and sports programming. Alternating Current now dominates the film and television industry*, HMI’s and high-output fluorescent lamps are standard equipment for location filming, and the digital video revolution has shouldered film into an ever-shrinking corner of the biz. By the time I take off my gloves for good, 35 mm film may have joined the daguerreotype on the ash heap of history, and LED based lamps could well be reshaping the foundation of set lighting technology.

The changes have been dizzying, but the more things change, the more they stay the same.** I see this time and again in some of the new Industry blogs that have popped up in the last year or two. Although everything about the Industry continues to evolve at a rapid pace, young people still come to the business with the same enthusiasm and commitment that brought me to Hollywood so many years ago.

I thought about this while reading a post by a recent college grad-turned blogger describing his experiences working with some local pros on an indy film in the San Francisco Bay Area. Having worked in varying capacities on several projects (including extra work), Jessie M. seems to be honing in on Grip/Electric while keeping an eye on a possible future in the camera department. In this latest job, he finally had the opportunity to learn what it means to be a core member of the crew on a real film -– a heady feeling I remember well -- and it seems the young man is now well and truly hooked, for better or worse.

The irony in writing a post titled “The Thrill is Gone” that references another blog post called “The Novelty Never Wears Off” does not escape me, but it's just a matter of viewing the business from opposite ends of the Industry roller coaster. Jessie M. is just starting his wild and wooly ride, while the finish line of my own Hollywood journey looms closer every day. In thirty years, he may understand and share my current state of mind – the thrill fading away – but maybe not. We’re all different, with our own approaches to life and the biz. Still, entering the film and television world is a bit like the experience of young love; a hot, all-consuming fire that feels like it will burn forever. The passage of time cools every fire, but if you manage to avoid the jaded bitterness that afflicts some Industry vets, all that heady excitement can evolve into something deeper and more resonant -- something you can’t even separate from your own self.

The thrill may be gone, but I still walk onto the set with a smile every day. After all these years the Industry really is in my blood -- and if going to work is no longer much of an adventure, it's still a pretty good job. Besides, I couldn’t wash Hollywood out of my system if I tried. This town and the Industry that made it are a part of me now.

That much, at least, is forever.

* Somewhere, Nicola Tesla is dancing on Thomas Edison’s grave.

** Let’s face it, all the clich├ęs are true...