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, January 30, 2011

Three Hundred Seconds of Freedom

A grip making the most of Blocking Day...

“The waiting is the hardest part”

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

Multi-camera sit-coms are unlike other type of television show. Episodics, dramedies, and single-camera (non-laugh track) comedies are shot in the same time-tested manner as a feature film (albeit at a much faster pace), but with four cameras recording the action in front of a live audience, sit-coms are an entirely different beast. While single camera shows follow the standard rhythm of blocking, lighting, rehearsing, and filming each shot – then moving on to the next -- for a good twelve hours or more, a sit-com is carved out of the ether in distinct phases. During each of the first three days, the actors and director rehearse on set from morning into mid-afternoon, then do a full run-through of the show to see how well each scene works in the overall context of the show. At that point the actors, director, and stand-ins go home while the grips and juicers work on into the night lighting the swing sets and doing whatever tweaks are needed on the permanent sets.* Day Four is for blocking and pre-shoots, and Day Five is when the bulk of the show will be shot before the audience.

For me, blocking day the most trying day of the week. After three days of working at our own pace, the stage and sets to ourselves (and with no assistant directors running around hissing “quiet!” every thirty seconds), blocking day marks a rude return to reality. We take an early morning call to find the stage rapidly filling up with camera operators, assistants, a five man sound crew, script girl, a camera coordinator, four or five stand-ins, all the AD’s and their assistants, and the entire cast. If there are pre-shoots scheduled for shots requiring special effects, stunts, or large crowd scenes (all of which eat up time with set-up and re-takes), the hair and makeup departments will be setting up camp in front of a large bank of monitors, while wardrobe people scurry hither and yon.

Meanwhile, the extras swarm the craft service tables like an army of well-dressed, perfectly-coiffed locusts.

Don’t get me wrong – after working together for many months now, I know and like all these people, but their presence on blocking day means that instead of being able to get in there and do our work, the juicers and grips now have to stand and wait...and wait... and wait.... until we finally get a chance to add or tweak the lighting as needed. No matter how many run-throughs the DP and gaffer have seen, there will always be some changes -- and when the action in the scene changes, so does the lighting. We can’t bust in with man-lifts and twelve foot ladders when four cameras and the cast are on set, but must wait until the first AD says “That’s a five,” calling a five minute break. For everybody else, this represents three hundred seconds of freedom – time to graze at craft service, have another cup of coffee, hit the bathrooms, smoke a cigarette outside, make a quick call, or simply stare like zombies into the glowing screen of their smart phones. But for grip and electric, the race is on to complete as much work as possible while our DP nervously paces the floor, watching every move with a relentlessly critical eye. By now, the pipe grid above each set is festooned with lamps, power cables, meat-axes, flags, and teasers, hanging down like an impenetrable phalanx of stalactites At this point, it extremely difficult to reach the pipe grid at all, much less adjust a lamp or hang a new one.

But we have to do it, and fast -- thus the paranoia of our DP, who is constantly afraid that in the process of a setting or adjusting a lamp, a juicer (well, this juicer, in particular) will disturb his painstakingly orchestrated ecology of flags, cards, nets, and teasers, and thus ruining the lighting.**

When those three hundred seconds are up, and the rest of the crew returns, we hustle the ladders and man-lifts off the set, then go back on watchful-waiting/standby mode while they resume blocking.

Blocking Day is a long grinding crawl of hurry-up-and-wait, during which each scene is broken down to its component parts, then painstakingly reassembled with camera moves to match the action. From this piece-by-piece process emerges a delicate ballet between the actors and all four cameras designed to tell the story (and emphasize the humor) in a way that will appear effortless on screen. But as usual in Hollywood, making something seem effortless requires an enormous amount of concentrated work.

Sometimes – during a really good week – there isn’t all that much for us to adjust on blocking day, and then we too get to enjoy those periodic three hundred seconds of freedom. But even if that never happens (and it's very rare), there’s one saving grace that prevents this most draining part of the week from being a total pain in the ass: on our show, blocking day also happens to be payday. Shortly before the one hour lunch break, a smiling angel beams down from the office cloaked in a misty golden light, passing out those little white envelopes that make it all worthwhile. There’s nothing quite like the slobbering Pavlovian satisfaction of getting paid to take the sting – however briefly - from this ugliest day of the week.

And the best part? By the time the Payday Angel makes her rounds, blocking day is halfway over...

* Sets brought in for that particular episode only, then taken away once the episode has been filmed. While much of each episode takes place in the permanent sets (usually a living room and kitchen), one week’s script might call for a scenes in a gas station and bowling alley, while the following week's episode could require swing sets for a coffee shop and a pet store.

** His worries are justified. Although I do my best to avoid moving any grip equipment, my patience is limited when working up in the air. At a certain point, if it's in my way, it's coming down -- and once I'm done with my work, the grips will just have to go back in and repair the damage. But you can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs...

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Strongman Redux

Photo by Emile Wamsteker, for The Wall Street Journal

In late 2009, I did a post about a new documentary called “Strongman,” a terrific film that premiered in LA and opens today in New York for a week long run at the Independent Film Center.

With five screenings a day, there’s ample opportunity to catch Zach Levy’s film – and it’s well worth seeing. That’s not just this juicer’s opinion. Both the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times gave a thumbs-up to "Strongman."

Here's a fascinating interview with Levy in Vanity Fair, describing the ten-years of bad road he walked to finance and finish the film, followed by the equally arduous process of distributing it on his own. Having spent three years making my own (much shorter) documentary many years ago -- and learning first-hand how hard it is -- I have tremendous respect for what Zach Levy has accomplished.

If you live in the New York area, do yourself a favor and check it out.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The World According to Others

Yeah, I know -- this is possibly my wost... title... ever... for a blog post. But hey, it’s a Wednesday, and these mid-week posts are held to a blessedly lesser standard.

If my own recent assessments of the road ahead seemed rather bleak, I make no claim to have an inside track on The Truth. All I can do is call it like I see it from my own occasionally jaundiced (and admittedly limited) point of view -- and that's all it is: my POV. I'm just one juicer, staring up into the night sky and howling at the moon. There's a very wide spectrum of opinion out there on what's coming our way, much of it better-informed than mine.

The always-interesting and entertaining Tim Goodman (ex-SF Chronicle critic now headlining the newly revamped Hollywood Reporter) recently offered his initial take on Google TV, the latest digital media hula-hoop designed to pick our pockets while mesmerizing our brains. Goodman worries that all the multi-tasking bells and whistles promised by Google’s Internet-based approach to our modern culture’s collective hearth could have the effect of dumbing-down TV.

Not so long ago a line like that would have been the straight-line setup for fifteen minutes of comedy, but not anymore. Those who think TV remains nothing but a wasteland simply haven’t been paying attention for the last ten years, an era that has produced more smart, creative, compelling television than ever before.

Yes, we've also been subjected to everything from Maury Povich to "The Jersey Shore" along the way, but ours is a time of extremes in every way.

So having finally dragged itself out of the evolutionary swamp, is television now in danger of slipping back into the slime thanks to Google TV? Read Tim Goodman's Hollywood Reporter piece and see what you think.

I stumbled across another viewpoint – well, three viewpoints, really – buried in the back of the LA Times Calendar section last week in a short but interesting article from the big Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Here, Oliver Stone, Michael Mann, and Baz Luhrmann discuss the future of films, the impact of technology, and what we can expect on the road ahead.

One reader's reply to my own gloomy outlook countered with a more sanguine view on the subject of runaway production, at least. In his opinion, many of the states who have used generous tax subsides to lure production from the West Coast will be unable to afford these programs as the current economic difficulties continue. Maybe he was right. Today's LA Times reports on the troubles some states have been having with these programs.

If I'd inhaled two more cups of coffee this morning, perhaps I could come up with some snarky comment about the wages of sin and the karmic payback that comes from stealing other people's jobs -- but I didn't, so I won't. Besides, having suffered considerably from getting the short end of that particular stick, I can't bring myself to wish the same on people working in those troubled states.

The jury's still out on all this, and I really don't see any massive change coming soon to the tax subsidy drain that has inflicted so much damage on those of us who do the heavy lifting making film and television here on the West Coast. But where there's smoke, there's fire -- and the scent of smoke is in the air.

Most predictions about the future turn out to be off target, some wildly, others by a matter of degree. The effects of new technologies on our culture, society, and economy are seldom clear right from the outset, and often evolve in totally unexpected ways. There isn't much we can safely assume, other than that we're bound to be surprised -- sometimes for better and sometimes for worse.

One way or another, it'll be interesting to see how all this plays out.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Playing Hurt

If our first week back on stage in this brand new year proves a harbinger of things to come, then 2011 might be a decent year after all. With a favorite director back at the helm – a man who keeps a light hand on the reigns but still maintains complete control -- the entire cast and crew relaxed and had fun. In all the ways that really matter, it didn’t feel much like “work” at all. It seemed like we just showed up on stage every day to have a few laughs, and in the process, cranked out another episode.

This is nice work if and when you can get it. Twelve episodes like that would be a working cruise just this side of heaven.

Week Two put a rapid end to any such fantasies. With a new director, three swing sets, and a script that called for 60 extras on the blocking/pre-shoot day (with 40 of them coming back on the shoot night), we got pushed hard all week long.*

While talking with someone from another department at the craft service table one morning (a guy more or less in my own demographic), he made a comment that stuck in my head like a bolt from William Tell’s bow on one of his rare bad days.

“You’ve gotta play hurt in this business,” he nodded. “Know what I mean?”

There was no need to elaborate – I knew exactly what he was talking about. For much of the year (with the brief exception of pilot season and the mid-summer startup of the new Fall season) there are many more workers than jobs in this town, which means there’s always somebody – several somebodys, actually -- out there in the cold waiting for a chance to take your place at the warm campfire of gainful employment. Although a certain degree of loyalty accrues the longer you work with a crew, nobody is truly indispensable, which means any individual gets a limited amount of slack. If you don’t keep your end of the bargain -- show up on time every day, work hard, pay attention, and don't make waves -- one of those people out there will wind up on your crew, doing your job, while you become reacquainted with the joys of getting by on a meager unemployment check every two weeks.

That’s why you have to bring your “A” game to the set every single day, rain or shine.

But none of us is a human Rock of Gibraltar impervious to illness or injury, which raises the question of what to do when you get sick or are hurting. There is no right answer to this question -- it all depends on the severity of your illness or injury, and just how well entrenched you are in with your crew. Working through a mild head cold is no big deal, but if under siege by a bad stomach flu (the fever/puking and/or diarrhea variety), going to work just isn’t worth the misery. You’ll lose a day or two of pay while recovering (we get no paid sick days below-the-line), but the rest of the crew will appreciate your sacrifice, and that you didn’t lean on them to pick up your slack while exposing everybody to the contagion.

So if you’re really sick, do yourself and everybody else a favor -- just stay home.

Dealing with an injury can be a trickier proposition, rendered in varying shades of gray. Unless you’ve ended up in a cast or on crutches --and assuming you can soldier on through the pain while doing your fair share of the work -- then nobody else has to know you’re hurting. Indeed, you can’t really afford to let them know. We show up on set under the assumption that we’re ready for anything and everything the day might throw at us, and are expected to deliver accordingly. If pain or injury imposes real limits on what you can physically do, then you’re better off not going to work at all. The only thing worse than missing the day is going in hobbling at half-speed, thus forcing the rest of the crew to do your share of the work. Unless you’re working for family or the job is ridiculously easy anyway, this will not be appreciated by your boss or the other crew members.

So maybe you’re starting to wonder how this squares with “You’ve gotta play hurt in this business?”

It’s all in those shades of gray. We work in an industry – and live in a world - where it’s easy to get hurt. Cut fingers, smashed thumbs, and pulled back muscles (among many other injuries) are an occupational hazard of the job, and during our time off, many of us engage in physical activities that can also cause minor or major injuries. Many below-the-liners are heavily into motorcycles, snowboarding, surfing, mountain and road biking, and more than a few put in serious time at the gym before and/or after work. One set dresser I know -- let's call her "Trixie" -- straps on her skates, helmet, and pads twice a week, then heads out onto the fast banked oval to bang heads, elbows, and hips jamming with the LA Derby Dolls, a thundering pack of She-Devils on wheels.

Unless you’re a shut-in, invalid, or one of those wide-eyed, slack-jawed couch-potato droolers hopelessly hooked on the daytime television dreck of Maury Povich and Jerry Springer, you’re likely to get dinged up in this life. Although age has dialed-down my own extra-curricular activities in recent years, I managed to tangle with a car on my bicycle a couple of months ago late one Saturday afternoon, then spent the next four hours getting patched up and X-rayed at the hospital. Nothing was broken, but just about everything got bent, so with a full week of very heavy work starting Monday morning, I faced a decision: go in to work sore all over on an ankle that felt like it was full of broken glass, or lose a week’s pay sitting home sucking down Vicodin?

This was not an easy call. If it turned out I really couldn’t shoulder my usual work load, and had to lean on the rest of the crew to get through the week, they’d all be wondering the next time I claimed to be “good to go.” But if I let them know just how much I was hurting, they’d have insisted I do the easy stuff while they covered for me. Knowing these guys, they’d probably have been okay with that, but I wasn’t, nor did I want to push the issue. At my age, I can’t afford to have my crew – most of whom are considerably younger – start looking at me as someone who needs or deserves any kind of special treatment. If there's 4/0 to wrap, I need to be in there doing it, not off in a corner somewhere wrapping stingers. The day they start giving me the easy jobs while the younger guys do the real work will mark the beginning of my descent down the slippery slope to being perceived as an over-the-hill gummer who just can’t cut it anymore.

At that point -- ready or not (and I’m not) – my juicing days would be over.

When taking time off a job for any reason, you give a golden opportunity to the person who takes your place, and run the risk that your department head just might decide he likes the new guy better. Perception has a way of becoming reality in this town, where working below-the-line remains a performance-based endeavor for most of us.** As I learned the hard way a long time ago, once your boss gets it in his head that somebody else can do the job better than you, you’re in trouble. Working in a world full of younger, stronger guys eager to land a spot on a crew, I have to prove myself on the job every single day.

So in the end I decided to chance it, and limped in from the parking structure to our stage the following Monday morning – but I left the cane I’d been using in my car. I gritted my teeth and played hurt in order to keep both hands firmly clasped on my place in this crew, and although it was a grindingly painful ordeal, I managed to get through it without anybody rolling their eyes, shaking their heads, or muttering under their breath. And with Christmas coming, the paycheck a week later was very welcome.

It was a judgment call – a roll of the dice, really - that worked out in my favor this time. Such decisions are never easy, though. All you can do is weigh the factors involved, then do what feels right under the circumstances. In a perfect world, we wouldn't have to face such choices, but our world is a long way from perfection. So when push inevitably comes to shove (assuming you're not gushing blood or limping around like Quasimodo), sometimes you just have to keep your mouth shut, play hurt, and hope for the best.

* The swing sets were a big ball room with a bar and a separate lobby (the second set), and worst of all, a restaurant. With their cramped, crowded interiors, restaurants are always a bitch to light.

** Some people - those with the gold-plated connections of family in the Industry - get a lot more slack than the rest of us, but ultimately, even they can't get away with fucking off forever. Those who insist on pushing their luck generally pay the price.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Road Ahead

Where Are We Going?

One full week into the New Year, the smoldering wreckage of 2010 grows ever-smaller in our collective rear-view mirrors, and while a certain sour pleasure can be had in ruminating on the past, that’s over and done. Looking back was for last week -- with a new year and a new decade stretching out before us, it’s time to look ahead.

In general, I try not to spend too much time staring into the gray mists of the future. I have no special insight as to what will transpire, and besides, it’s just too damned depressing. Every time I take a good hard look at what’s really going on around the world these days - endless waves of ruthlessly bloody violence (mostly in the name of politics and religion, although the ongoing slaughter gets a big assist from that other opiate of the masses, the illegal drug trade), and our once-pristine and bountiful natural world crumbling under the withering industrial assault of several billion utterly oblivious human beings – I want to curl up into a furry ball and hibernate for a couple of thousand years or so. As I see it, we the people of earth are spiraling into some grim variety -- take your pick -- of post-modern apocalyptic horror-show.

To quote a popular movie from a few years back, “I see dead people...”

But we're all dead in the long run anyway, so what the hell. Besides, given that change is the only true constant in human affairs (other than the seven deadly sins, of course), it’s always possible things won’t turn out quite so bad. Alchemy may be thoroughly discredited as scientific endeavor, but we've seen lead morph into gold in the past, and it could happen again. Once upon a Cold War time, an accidental or intentional “nuclear exchange” between the Soviet Union and America seemed inevitable - the end of the world as we knew it really was just a matter of time - but although we came disturbingly close to nuclear Armageddon more than once, the new man-made Big Bang never did materialize.

Not yet, anyway, and having been so very wrong before, I'm fully prepared (and hopeful, actually) to be wrong again on this one.

When I lower my sights from the Scary Big Picture to the more manageable arena of our own film and television industry, though, the picture is hardly less daunting, and in some ways even more confusing. The only obvious truth is that the old ways of doing business are being bound, gagged, and frog-marched onto the proverbial dust bin of history. When it comes to movies and television, they really don’t make ‘em like they used to, nor will they ever do so again. For better or worse, the wheel has turned, and we’re now embarked on a new course.

Which leaves the question hanging over that big white Hollywood sign like a thick shroud of smog: exactly where are we headed?

Kim Masters put together an interesting show on the subject this week for KCRW’s “The Business”, discussing the many challenges facing the world of film and television in the year(s) ahead. I won't attempt to paraphrase the show here, but those thirty minutes are definitely worth the time for anyone concerned about the direction of our Industry. Another interesting bit came at the end of a short segment (four minutes) on NPR last week during which Kim talked about this years crop of Oscar hopefuls. Personally, I don’t give a shit about the annual dog-and-pony show that is the Oscars (or any awards show, really), but while discussing the prospects of “The Fighter,” Kim let on that Paramount – now strutting around town thumping its chest over the Oscar potential of “their” movie -- in fact put no money at all (that’s right, zero dollars...) into the pre-production, production, post-production, or marketing of the film. If I heard right, the studio played no role whatsoever in producing “The Fighter.” Only after every last ounce of the creative heavy lifting had already been done would Paramount deign to release the film under their name. Kim reports the executive in charge of production at Paramount as saying that he wished he could work this way all the time, never having to roll the studio dice (or their money) by taking a chance on backing a project from the ground up.*

This raises two questions:

1) How can such a useless tool actually look in the mirror and call himself a producer? If his idea of a successful day at the office involves doing nothing more than waiting for another cinematic plum to drop into his lap so he can then apply the Paramount label and send the film out to theaters, then he’s nothing more than a glorified clerk with a corner office – an overpaid barnacle on the corporate hull – utterly unworthy of the title “producer.”

2) Is Paramount still a movie studio, or simply a gaudy false-front for a blind-and-dumb corporate Goliath that has no feeling for (or understanding of) what it takes to bring true creativity to the big screen?

All this is driven by an extreme aversion to any sort of risk-taking on the part of corporate-owned studios, and the continuing pressure to cut production costs down to the bone. In trying to hammer a round peg into the square hole, these corporations are destroying everything that once made Hollywood a cauldron of creativity. Can an industry willing only to green-light expensive sequels, remakes of older films, movies based on comic books (or worse, on old-and-moldy TV shows) -- projects sweetened by back-end ancillary deals with toy companies and fast food chains -- still be called the movie business?

Not to me. Mainstream corporate Hollywood today looks a more like an assembly line than anything resembling a creative enterprise.

With the corporate studios unwilling to make any interesting movies these days, that leaves the independents - but even indy films with established talent attached are having a hard time getting funded, and those that do are forced to make each dollar stretch as far as it possibly can.

I'm way out of the indy loop now, but back in the late 80's, did three low-budget non-union location features with minor stars of the day -- the "indy" films of the time. As the set lighting best boy, I was paid $200 per day working six-day weeks, the then-going rate for such projects. Just to provide some perspective, that works out to around $375/day, or $2250/week in current dollars.

I have no idea what the going rates are for juicers and grips on indy films nowadays, but seriously doubt it's that much.**

So if American movie studios are too afraid to make real movies anymore, and indy producers are having a terrible time raising money to make films, and those who work on the crews are being ground into the dirt of lower pay and reduced benifits, then what’s the current state of our movie industry?

I don't know, but it sure as hell doesn't sound good.


Another peek into the future-by-way-of-the-present came from David Bianculli's (TV critic for the show "Fresh Air") list of ten best/ten worst shows of 2010. That Bianculli – a man who gets paid to watch and talk about television – had to extend his ten best list to thirteen programs points to how much the medium has changed over the past decade. Give credit to HBO for breaking the creative ice in 1999 with “The Sopranos,” a landmark show that sparked a true creative renaissance on the small screen ever since – mostly (but not solely) on cable networks.

Bianculli’s list and the rationale behind his choices make for interesting listening, but what snagged my attention was his take on the uncertain future of television itself. He thinks the current generation of young viewers won't be watching much TV at home on the family LCD or plasma screen of the future, but rather on computers, Ipad-like devices, cell phones, and whatever new-technology delivery devices emerge down the road. Bianculli contends that the communal hearth our culture once enjoyed in the era of three networks and fixed programming schedules began to crack with the advent of the VCR, then was fractured beyond repair by the more advanced time-shifting technology capabilities of digital recorders like TIVO. With Internet streaming gaining popularity, change is coming at warp speed to the media universe with the anywhere/anytime viewing of mobile digital devices. More disturbing is his concern about what might happen to television when a generation accustomed to cherry-picking only the choicest parts of the media – music, movies, or television – finally comes of age and becomes the mainstream market. As Bianculli sees it, the networks have no choice but to join the rush and embrace the Internet simply to survive. Otherwise, they could lose an entire generation of viewers forever.

That sounds extreme, but he might be on to something -- and if so, can the economic infrastructure that until now has been producing all these shows continue to do so, or will television evolve into something very different? Is it possible that having finally reached a point where there are so many good shows available, television as we've known it is on the verge of collapsing into a yammering barrage of 24/7 talk shows, wall-to wall sports programming, and the reality-show producer’s wet-dream of “Dance with the Jersey Shore Stars?”

Will “The Situation” end up running for vice president on Sarah Palin’s Presidential ticket?

David Bianculli doesn’t have the answers and neither do I – but his year-end ten best list (thirteen best, actually) is a provocative and entertaining forty-five minutes of radio.

I don't think the many and various television networks will implode any time soon, leaving the airwaves to some mutant reality show/Utube blend of do-it-yer-self programming. People still want to see quality drama and comedy, and there's way too much money to be made filling that need, even if the means of doing so in the Internet age have yet to be fully exploited. They'll figure it out eventually, but in the meantime, my fear is that economic pressures of this ongoing revolution will further depress the wages and benefits for those of us who do the heavy lifting required to put these shows up on the screen. In the foreseeable future, actually making television is likely to get a whole lot less fun.

The upside -- and these Swords of Change usually do cut both ways -- might be new modes of story-telling, a "democratizing" of television that could allow creativity to blossom like never before. This might be a good thing for television in the long run, but over the next ten years, the coming changes are likely to hurt many of us who have worked for so long under the current system -- a system under assault. Looking ahead, I don't see life below decks getting better for a long time, if ever.

But like it or not, the big changes are coming. And so -- to paraphrase the signature quote from a really great old movie -- buckle your seat belts, folks, it's gonna be a bumpy flight...

* Hard to believe? I agree, but listen for yourself.

** Granted, I was working 100 hour+ weeks back then. Still, maybe some of you who work indy films these days can enlighten me on this...

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Yep, It's Over

Back to a chilly, sodden LA where it's abundantly clear that...





Hope yours was a good one.

And so we march on into the New Year, and the bleak gray light of Winter...

Sunday, January 2, 2011

A Year in the Life

“Woke up, got out of bed, dragged a comb across my head...”

The Beatles

It's New Year’s Eve as I sit here at the keyboard - yeah, I'm a real party animal, all right - at the end of another year, this one closing the books on our first decade of this brand new millennium. All in all, it has not been an auspicious start to the next thousand years: our country mired in two wars, grinding through an ugly and seemingly endless recession while split by an apparently unbridgeable political divide that has both sides screaming at each other across the widening chasm. I don't know about you, but I can't see much light at the end of any of those tunnels.

These may not be the worst of times, but they sure as hell aren’t the best.

I have no profound insights on the Big Questions out there - that, as they say, is well above my pay grade.* All I can offer is my own brief chronicle of the year as I take down the 2010 work calendar and put up a new one for 2011: a year in the free-lance life. This has become something of a ritual for me every January, leafing back through the months to see just how, when, and where I worked during the past year. Free-lancing (and in the TV/film biz, the vast majority of us are free-lancers) is nothing like having a normal job in the real world. For us, January marks the beginning of another twelve month quest to answer the one overridingly important question in our professional lives: will we manage to work enough during the next twelve months to pay all the bills by December 31?

In other words, will I still have a viable career by the year's end, or will the approach of the Christmas holidays be accompanied by an ominous tolling of the bell? That's the kind of thing you just don't know 'til you know - and by then it's too late.

Last January was very slow, but not a total loss, with three decent days of work near the end of the month on a crew wrapping a newly-canceled show. February, however, came up blank – four weeks of nothing. Three days work in the first two months of the year is dismal unless you're pulling in $2500/day - which, needless to say, is around ten times what I make. The only real question in my mind at the time was whether 2010 would nose dive into a complete flaming disaster, or if some semblance of a decent year might yet be salvaged from the wreckage of those first sixty days.

A reprieve came in March, when the phone rang with what turned into ten days wrapping a big feature out at Sony** – all at full union scale, something I'm no longer accustomed to in these days of the ubiquitous cheap-ass cable-rate. As usual, there was a lesson to be learned from that job: it really is important to be nice to the people you meet on the way up. Way back in the last century, when I worked as a best boy, then a gaffer, I threw some work (a feature and a year or so worth of commercials) to a young juicer from Texas. I wasn't doing him any huge favors -– the kid was smart, strong, had a wicked sense of humor, and worked like a mule. People like that always make the boss look good, which meant he was exactly the kind of guy every BB or department head wants on his crew. It was clear from the start he was destined for greater things, and when opportunity knocked, he joined a crew that went on the road for several years doing a series of major motion pictures – a few Oscar winners among them. Many years later, that kid from Texas is now a big-time rigging gaffer who does movies the entire world flocks see. When he called to say hey-hello-long-time-no-see, and heard my tale of unemployed woe, he immediately offered me a slot on his wrap crew.

It's nice to know that even during these increasingly lean and mean times, there are still a few people around who remember how they came up through the ranks, and are happy to extend a hand long after the tables have turned. This guy came through for me at a time when things were really starting to look ugly.

Still, 2010 teetered on the razor’s edge. I caught a few odd days here and there, then did a pilot in April that had all the earmarks of a series show. It was good, family-friendly, and funny – and the entire crew (including production) had a very positive feeling about our prospects. As we wrapped, strong rumors from reliable sources echoed through the set about which stage we’d be moving to when the show got picked up. Even better, it would be a broadcast network show, paying full union scale.

Perhaps those rumors were the kiss of death, because the pick-up we all expected never came. I later heard that the show was solidly in the running all the way down to the bitter end, only to lose out when a flip-of-the-coin decision went to another pilot.

So it goes in Hollywood, where you give it your best, win or lose, then lick your wounds and prepare to fight another day.

May came as a huge disappointment – no work at all. Dead calm seas, no wind in the sails, drifting toward nowhere. By the second week of June, my total for the year came to thirty-one days of work, or an average of five days per month. At that rate, I was looking at a sixty day year, by far my worst since I first came to Hollywood in the late 70's.

I could hear that apocryphal bell tolling in the distance...

But when my phone finally did ring again, the news was good: a pilot we'd done the previous Fall (a pilot that did not impress me at the time) got picked up for ten episodes. It was a cable show paying cable-rate, but after staring into the abyss, this felt like manna from heaven. There’s nothing like a long stretch of unemployment to re-boot one’s sense of perspective – and when push comes to shove, it turns out most of us really will work for food.

You know the rest (and if you don't, just scroll down a page or two) – those ten episodes turned into fourteen, then morphed into a total of thirty. A really bad year pulled out of its death spiral and climbed back towards the light. Even though working for cable-rate is a break-even process, offering no chance to “get ahead” (what a quaint notion that has become these days), breaking even beats the hell out of going under.

So that’s my year in a nutshell – a dismal start that ended up pretty well, all things considered. I’ve had much better years in the past, but I’ve also had a few that were a whole lot worse. At this point it seems I still have a career, and am not quite ready for the They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? oblivion that will eventually knock on my door some bright, hopelessly sunny day here in LA.

Someday, but not just yet.

I could say this was a typical year, but only in the sense that there really are no "typical" years - each is different in its own way, offering a unique set of challenges and opportunities. That last year turned out okay has little bearing on what will happen this year, of course, but unless some unforeseen catastrophe intervenes, 2011 will get off to a much better start than 2010. If nothing else, the show should keep me working until mid-April, but hanging in the air like a fart amid the church pews is the question of what comes after that. Still, there’s no use fretting about it now - what happens, happens, and I’ll just have to drive off that bridge when I get there. For the moment I feel fortunate to have been blessed with the kindnesses of friends and strangers alike that - along with a kiss or two from Lady Luck - allowed me to survive yet another year on the front lines of free-lance Hollywood.

At this point, that's something I no longer take for granted.

I hope you had a good year, and that we can all look forward to better times in the year to come.

Happy New Year.

* Actually, since bloggers pretty much work for free, just about everything is above my pay grade...

** At $160 million, this was a big one staring names you've all heard of, in theaters right now.