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, April 3, 2011

The Post-Shoot Blues

And the long drive home...

The rain eased up by the time we opened the big elephant door and began wrapping three swing sets late Friday night. As far as I’m concerned, freedom from the elements is reason enough to work on a soundstage, where neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night (to bastardize the unofficial credo of the post office) can stop the cameras from rolling. After so many years of working location shoots in pouring rain, long nights, howling winds, freezing snow, and extreme heat of the dry and humid variety, I'm happy to leave such character-building toil to the younger generation.

The deluge didn't stay on pause for long. Well before we finished the wrap, those fat, heavy clouds hanging low overhead opened up again, making for a long, wet walk to the parking structure -- and by the time I pulled out onto the street and headed for home, that rain was coming down hard.

This shoot night marked the culmination of another three week work cycle, and the beginning of our one week hiatus. Multi-camera sit-coms follow this three-weeks-on/one-week-off schedule to give the actors and writers a break from the daily grind of production, and allow them to catch their creative breath -- but the rest of the crew is more than ready for some time off after three straight weeks of endless lighting, re-lighting, rehearsing, and filming.

Shoot nights are very different from the rest of the week. After a final round of rehearsals, blocking, and pre-shoots, the crew breaks for dinner while a live audience is seated for the evening show. The crowd comes in quiet, but after watching a twenty-two minute (and blissfully commercial-free) episode from a previous week, they're soon whipped into a hooting, screaming frenzy by the warm-up comedian and DJ -- and from that moment on, our quiet sound stage becomes one very noisy place, making communication of any kind difficult. Even with the Secret Service-style earphones we all wear, it's hard to monitor and respond to the walkie-talkie chatter from our ever-voluble DP over the cacophony of that crowd.

The actors love this, of course -- they feed off all that energy -- but after a long week of hard work getting the show ready, weathering this sustained aural assault wears the crew down. By the time the show is finally over three or four hours later, we're all drained from the stress of working amid all that noise. Once the actors take their curtain call, the set goes dark, the house lights come up, and the audience quickly files out. In a matter of minutes everyone’s gone but a few set dressers rolling out the furnishings from the swing sets, the craft service guy cleaning up, and a handful of production people doing paperwork as the grips and juicers wrap their equipment. Set Dressing finishes first, with Craft Service and the grips the next to go. Since Grip and Electric work in an alternating mode -- we hang, power, and adjust the lamps, then they cut and shape the light -- their equipment (meat axes, flags, and teasers) has to come down before we can even get to our lamps on the pipe grid. As a result, the grips are long gone while we work on into the night. As the clock ticks deeper into the night, it’s just us four juicers working on a deserted stage while the Second AD and a couple of PAs huddle in their cramped office filling out production reports.

In most ways, this is a good thing -- absent all those other people, we can work unfettered, driving the man-lifts wherever necessary without worrying about crushing some innocent/oblivious bystander in the process. But if the work goes much faster on the empty stage, it always feels a bit strange. After a week on a stage full of actors and crew working together, then a shoot night energized by a high-octane crowd of 250 laughing, clapping, screaming people, the sudden quiet feels eerily hollow, as if the party suddenly left to carry on somewhere else without us.

Wrapping the swing sets before a hiatus week is all of that and more, compounded by the knowledge that we won't be gathering again the following Monday to begin anew the week-long process of pushing the big rock up the steep hill towards another show night.  Finally we finish, then pack our work bags and say our goodbyes. There's no reason to stay and every reason to go, but in an odd way, I hate to leave.

The drive home is tense.  Between the pounding rain and glare of oncoming traffic, the painted divider lines on the road melt into the dark wet pavement, which is when I realize just how tired and bleary-eyed I really am. Dodging the late Friday night drunks in such weather is another challenge, followed by the inevitable hunt for a parking space on the streets around my apartment; fifteen minutes of slow cruising (and soft cursing) before a spot finally opens up five long blocks from home.

At least the rain has stopped for the moment. I lock the car, then pause to take a good look around so I'll be able to find it tomorrow morning. I’ve awakened on more than one groggy Saturday with a head full of fumes and no earthly clue where I’d left the car the night before. Inhaling a deep breath of sweet rain-washed air, I walk the dark, deserted sidewalks listening to hundreds of tiny waterfalls trickling down gutters and drip from rooftops. Streetlights shine in the puddles at my feet. Two blocks up, I cut down an alley and pass beneath a window jutting from a damp stucco wall. An amber glow from inside filters through the thin curtain. Three blocks from my own cold, dark apartment, a sense of urban alienation seeps into my bones.

It feels like the end of the world.

Armageddon will not come on this night -- the angst I'm feeling is just the post-shoot blues, a malady brought on by the accumulated weight of fatigue from a hard stretch of work. Those blues hit me at the end of every week, and all the harder when heading into a hiatus. The relief at having some time off is palpable, but even that small pleasure is undercut by a disquieting sense of being suddenly cut loose from the “family” we’ve created on stage for this show. After spending so much time together – and there’s nothing like shared suffering to unify an otherwise disparate group of people – we’ve formed bonds that are very real but at the same time exceedingly tenuous. Those bonds exist while we're at work on set, but that’s all – beyond the boundaries of the soundstage and this show, most of us remain strangers.

Unlocking the door to my apartment, I pick up a pile of junk mail and bills left by the mailman, then trudge upstairs. Off come the boots and on goes the heater, and soon I'm standing with my backside to the heat while sipping a healthy slug of 100 proof Kentucky Bourbon blended with a little water. The liquid warmth thaws out my inside while the flames of the heater roast the outside. Slowly warming in the quiet of my apartment, I stare through the rain-streaked window at the cold, wet night outside. Soon will come sleep, with no alarm clock to ruin the following morning. After three weeks of marching to the show's schedule, I'm on my own time now. Already -- and with every sip -- the post-shoot blues start to fade away. Come the dawn, after a decent night's sleep, they'll be gone.

And the world will be a better place.


The Grip Works said...

Michael, you have got to be one of the most gifted writers it has ever been my pleasure to read.
What the f*** you lug cables and lamps around for will stay a mystery to me.

Anonymous said...

Agreed. BS&T is fantastic and I never miss a post.

Michael Taylor said...

Sanjay, Anonymous --

Thanks so much for the kind words. It's always gratifying to hear from readers who find some resonance in these posts.

As for why I keep juicing, that's easy; writing -- or the kind of writing I do, anyway -- can't come remotely close to paying the bills. Juicing does, although it's a break-even proposition in the best of times. But that's not so bad. Working the relatively easy schedule of sit-coms allows me some (if not enough) time to write while and providing lots of material along with those minimal paychecks.

Like all trade-offs, this is a balancing act. Although I'll always wish for more time to write (and am never really satisfied with any of these posts), I'm thankful for what I've got. Were I working episodics or features, I'd be earning a lot more money at the price of having no time to write.

Among the things I'm thankful for are having such thoughtful readers following this blog.

Thanks for tuning in...

Emilio Mejia said...

Thanks for the awesome blog. I'm just finishing up school and plan on moving to L.A. to start a career in the industry, and blogs like this one really keep me going. Where other might see negativity in a post like this one, I am very much looking forward to it. Working on student films the last couple of years, I have felt these post-wrap blues myself plenty of times. It's definitely bitter-sweet to get that rest but to have the realization that you're not going back to that same environment. The question I would ask of a professional such as yourself is: is it worth it? Would you rather be doing something else? I know I am looking forward to the exact same experiences that you write about in this blog. I even intend to start my own written account of the grind. Thanks again.

Michael Taylor said...

Emilio --

The quick answer -- yes, it's worth it -- but things are rarely that clean and simple... which means I'll probably try to address this issue in a future post.

It's always good to hear from the next generation just coming out of schools. The road ahead won't be easy for you, but it will be an adventure. Good luck, and thanks for tuning in.