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)

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Anti-Queeg

This model of an ancient Roman warship serves as a useful metaphor of the power/class structure in Hollywood, with the deck of the ship representing "the line." Above that line -- where the sunshine, fresh air, and big money are abundant -- sit the producers, directors, writers, and actors. Below the line -- doing the dirty grunt work essential to propel the ship -- are the grips, juicers, set decorators, prop people, wardrobe, hair and makeup, sound, and camera departments, along with the stand-ins, production, locations, and transpo, all of them them pulling hard on those heavy, splinter-riddled oars.

Hollywood is just a microcosm of society, where somebody has to call the shots while someone else takes out the trash, and for all its faults, the system works pretty well until you get a Captain Queeg at the helm, above or below decks. I've worked for several such insecure head-cases over the years -- directors, cameramen, and gaffers -- and learned first-hand just how long and miserable a day can be when the wrong person is in charge.

The only really good thing about such a negative experience is the renewed appreciation it brings for working with people who manage to do their jobs without turning into abusive ego-fueled monsters.


In a comment on last Wednesday’s post about “Reality Television,” a reader who goes by the e-moniker of “John the Scientist” recommended Ken Levine’s recent scalding review of one of the same new shows. JTS was right – Levine peeled the hide off “Pregnant in Heels” and nailed it to the outhouse wall, once again demonstrating the beauty of his long-running blog.* Unlike the vast majority of those who offer opinions on television programming (including professional TV critics), Levine had a long and very successful career on the creative side of the industry. While most critics stand outside throwing rocks at the network’s windows, Ken Levine's tenure as an insider taught him exactly what it takes to nurture an idea all the way through the writing process into the white-water rapids of pilot season and beyond -- occasionally, far beyond.

That’s not an easy thing to do.

Levine’s career includes working on some of the biggest hits in television history -- "Mash," "Cheers," "Frasier," and "Everybody Loves Raymond," among many others, and he co-created “Almost Perfect,” starring the luminously beautiful Nancy Travis.**

If this space was a name-dropping douchebag blog rather than (ahem...) The Truth As I See It, I would now write something breezily smarmy like: “When Ken and I worked together with Nathan Lane and Joan Plowright on the sit-com “Encore! Encore!” for NBC back in the late 90’s, blah blah self-serving-aren’t-I-swell blah...”

Although technically true, a peek under the covers reveals the actual facts: yes, we “worked together” in the sense of having our names on the same crew list, but there is no creative collaboration between the director and a juicer. He had his job and I had mine -- and as one of many toiling in the service of his directorial vision, my position was so far down the food chain that Ken Levine wasn’t even aware of my existence. In the terms of this post's Hollywood metaphor, he walked the deck of the Roman warship wearing his captain’s hat while while I remained below decks chained to my station, pulling on that oar.

Still, he was a good director on set, unfailingly pleasant to one and all while running a tight ship. I wish I could say that about every sit-com director I've worked for, but I can't. He knows the business and where many of the bodies are buried, and loves to peel back back the curtain for all to see in his blog.

I used to read that blog every day, but fell out of the habit over the last couple of years. That was my mistake, for which I have no valid excuse. So thanks to John the Scientist for reminding me what I’d been missing.

Check it out...

* After you’ve read that post, read this one too -- not so much for Ken's random observations, but for the short commercial from French television he posted at the end. It's brilliant, and well worth your 80-or-so seconds...

** You’ll have to trust me on this one, since mere pictures do no justice to Nancy Travis. I did stints on two seasons of “The Bill Engvall” show, where she co-starred, and had the chance to talk with her many times. Not only is Nancy Travis one of the nicest people I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet, she’s stunningly beautiful in person -- an angel come to earth...

1 comment:

Penny said...

I'll be with NT on 17, 19th - 27th!

And yes Mike, you can use me as your patsy and reason to casually drop by to see her... :)