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, May 29, 2011

Hollywood: Is It Worth It?

What do you think, Howard? 
 (photo courtesy of Aviation Explorer

While hanging lamps high amid the pipes late one afternoon during the last few weeks on the show, one of set dressers walked out into the middle of the set where I was working and gave me a Meaningful Look. I paused from my labors to meet her gaze. Being that she was -- and is -- a very attractive young woman, this wasn’t hard to do. 

 "Hey, Scooter -- what's up?" 
 “Are you okay?” she asked, her head cocked to one side. 
 “Sure. Why?” 
 “I read your last post. It was pretty dark.” 
 She nodded. 
 “I didn’t really see it as dark,” I shrugged. “That’s just how it is.” 

The look on her face made it clear this was not a satisfactory answer. As it turned out, she’d compared notes with another member of the crew who had a similar reaction to the post, and both were wondering if something was wrong. 

 Well of course something’s wrong: I’m getting old. The relentless process of aging -- everything I once took for granted now slipping through my fingers -- is the last great and enduring insult life has to offer. After a certain point, aging ceases being a joke and morphs into an endless series of stinging bitch-slaps, each stiffer than the last, from which there is no comeback, no recovery, and no lasting relief. The sole remaining refuge from this rising black tide is a good stiff drink or three, the temporary palliative effects of which allow me to embrace the ugly truth that the only thing worse than getting old ... is not getting old. Perspective is everything. The rictus grin of the Grim Reaper will materialize soon enough, and I’m in no hurry to grasp his cold, bony hand. 

 Okay, now that’s getting a little dark... 

 But driving home with the post-shoot blues? That’s just another swing on the existential pendulum of life. Same as it ever was. 

 A reader named Emilio left an interesting comment about that post. 

“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 others 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 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?” 

 Emilio doesn't fuck around – he asks the Big Questions. 

Every life is a long and winding road of decisions, compromises, triumphs and disappointments. Playing the cards you’ve been dealt, you'll win some and lose some, reacting as best you can to each new situation along the way and hoping you made the right choices. Work is just another zero-sum thread in that unfolding tapestry, where the act of choosing one career path precludes other possible choices, leaving those paths unexplored. None of us has the time to do it all in life. We have to pick and choose along the way, and some of those choices – including a select few that mark real turning points – are made on the fly, without much forethought. 

It's human nature to dream and scheme about our potential futures, but life and careers often pivot on chance and happenstance. One day you open the door to find a totally unexpected opportunity ready to shake your hand, and suddenly everything changes. No matter how you might plan and maneuver, success is often just a matter of being at the right place at the right time -- and being prepared. 

 I didn't head for Hollywood chasing dreams of becoming a juicer. I didn’t even know what a “juicer” was –- or a grip, or a set-dresser, or anything else about the reality of working in the biz -- but with a zeal born of desperation, I was determined to find a way to work on movies for a living. I hit town a young man on a mission, and if things didn’t work out, I’d just have to go with Plan B ... except there was no Plan B. In the great tradition of the Westward Expansion in the 1800’s, my own quest was pretty much Hollywood or bust. After several months during which my savings dwindled to nothing -- just before the tide finally turned, I had all of eight dollars left in the bank -- I caught a break in the form of a job working for nothing on a shoestring production making a very low budget feature. I called home to borrow a couple of hundred bucks, then put my head down and got to work. During the course of that job I met two people who would, each in a different way, help me get paying industry work down the road. The production secretary called a few months later with a tip that led to a PA job on another feature, this one with a much bigger budget. On that movie I met a lighting crew that needed an extra pair of hands to help them shoot three straight weeks of all-nighters. Seeing my willingness to hustle, they took me under their collective wing and taught me the basics. Over the next couple of years, both the Gaffer and Key Grip hired me to work occasional low-pay jobs, and eventually I learned enough to earn a spot on their regular crew as juicer. It took two lean and hungry years of hustling hard and jumping on every opportunity, but I was finally on my way. 

 I think it's a lot harder for new arrivals to make any headway in Hollywood these days. Being smart, clever, and ambitious isn’t enough anymore. With so many bright kids emerging from college hell-bent on carving out their own Hollywood careers, a newbie has to mount a serious full-court press just to catch a break and get started – and that’s only the first step on a long, hard road. The real work of building a career comes later. 

 This is the nature of free-lance life. If you're looking for steady employment and a regular paycheck, take a job at the Post Office. You're unlikely to find either in Hollywood. But I digress.... 

To get back to Emilio's question: has working in the belly of the Hollywood beast, riding the roller-coaster of highs and lows over the years and enduring the insecurity and uncertainty endemic to the biz really been worth it? I’m not sure there’s a simple answer. Had those timely breaks not materialized, and helping hands not reached out to give me a boost at so many crucial stages along the way, I'd probably have had to find another path in life. God knows what that would have been, but it’s possible everything would have worked out fine, leaving me fat, prosperous, and happy at the far end of the rainbow. Then again, I might have ended up in some dead-end office job living out a life of quiet desperation, or worse, made enough bad decisions to spin off the rails and tumble down among LA’s legions of urban unwashed living under freeways and huddling in cardboard condos beneath the Sixth Street bridge. It's not that hard to do -- people smarter than I'll ever be have stumbled and fallen through those cracks. For better or worse, living out any of those scenarios would have meant missing the chance to climb from grip-trician to juicer to Best Boy to Gaffer, then slide back down the slippery ladder of success to where I am today, a juicer again. I'll never know what might have happened -- all I know is what did happen, and for me, things worked out in Hollywood.* 

All I can say with reasonable certainty is that I’d never have lasted slaving away in a cube farm – strapping on a suit and tie to toil in the corporate grid pattern was not for me -- so I probably ended up where I belong. Leaving all the pointless “what if” speculation aside... yeah, I think it was worth it. This business flew me all over the country working on features, commercials, music videos, and industrial films, at a time when air travel was still fun and easy. I watched a sunrise bathe the snow-capped Grand Teton Mountains in a golden glow, saw another stunning dawn emerge from the blackest of nights over the Pyramid of the Sun outside Mexico City, and once got to sit in Howard Hugh’s pilot seat aboard the Spruce Goose.** During my time in this crazy business, I’ve seen a lot, done a lot, and met so many truly amazing people over the years -– behind and in front of the cameras -- all while getting paid for it. If some of it felt like blood money, that doesn't matter anymore. The pain (and the money) are long gone, but the memories remain. 

Would I rather be doing something different? It would have been nice to play lead guitar for the Rolling Stones, or patrol center field and bat cleanup for the San Francisco Giants, but those cards were never in my deck. All in all, I'm okay with the way my years in Hollywood unfolded. 

The business is changing fast, the old ways crumbling under the sledgehammer of the digital revolution. Although the current challenges I face are in some ways very different than those confronting me thirty years ago -– I’m on the way down now, no longer heading up -- some things never change. I still have to prove myself every single day on set. The moment I start slacking off under the assumption that being a veteran means I no longer have to carry a full share of the work load, my days in this town will be numbered. With that in mind, I hope to keep answering the bell long enough to leave Hollywood on my own terms, and not get kicked out the back door. 

The free-lance Industry life isn't easy, but life is hard no matter what path you choose. If you follow the siren call of Hollywood, work hard, have fun, and be ready to grasp opportunity with both hands when it appears. Do that and some of your dreams will come true -- maybe not all of them, but enough so that when you finally look back, you'll feel good about it.  

 I can't promise it'll be worth it for you, but it's been worth it for me.     

* More or less. It’s not as if I came, saw, and conquered, but I’ve managed to make a living in this town for thirty-plus years and have some fun in the process. That may not be much, but it counts for something. 

 * Yep, the very same pilot seat in the photo above. Having grown up crazy about airplanes as a kid, this was a big deal to me at the time...


Penny said...

Chin up Mike! No one knows that better than a juicer such as yourself! :)

Wallowing in the darkness is fine for a time, but eventually you're going to have to step out and find your light again.

As to Emilio and his question, I'd like to contribute a "Hell yeah!" as to if it's worth it. Sure the industry is tough, but if you are willing to buckle down and do the work (sometimes beyond what's expected) I think the rewards of the experiences are well worth it.

We are the luckiest people on the planet to be paid to provide humor and entertainment.

But that's just my point of view with gratitude. :)

Niall said...

I agree with your ending statements Michael. Life is an endless road of choice. We all chose this path with no real idea of where we would end up. What we want or would like to do seems to be irrelevant to life. We end up where we end up based on the intersection of opportunity and preparedness; this could also be called luck.

At 27 I'm learning that it's not about where i end up but how fun the ride was on the way there. Granted I wish I had more money and was working bigger shows learning the big show tricks but I'm not. That's fine I have a few more decades to make it there, and it will just be that much sweeter when I do get there.

The sweet is not as sweet with out the sour.

Chin up, and sally forth. The ride through the dark may be long and fraught with fear, but the light of a new day will always come to the rider that waits out the night's cold grasp.

Evan Luzi said...

Great post, Mike.

Emilio might get some value out of your statement, but ultimately, "is it worth it?" is a personal evaluation.

For me, yes. I agree with what you said about meeting people, going places, and getting paid for it. There aren't many jobs where you get unbridled access to well-known people and well-known locations.

That's the glitz and glam of it.

But the real value in the industry is some of the friends I have made on set. People I would've never met in any other part of life if I hadn't been working on films.

My favorite part about the industry is that every day on set is a fresh start with new scenes or new setups.

Getting old may seem like a detriment, but Hollywood is always going to need guys like you who share the war stories and teach the younger guys coming up through the pipeline. Just like others reached down to help you, you do an excellent job of helping others with your writings on this blog.

Michael Taylor said...

Penny --

I wasn't really wallowing -- the tide just came in for a while, bringing those dark waters lapping at my feet. Hey, it's spring in LA -- the best time of the year -- so, as they say, "it's all good..."

Niall --

I didn't really get started in this biz until I was your age, so you're way ahead the game from my perspective. Plenty of time to build the career you want. You're right, though -- it really is the journey, not the destination. In the long run, we're all pushing up daisy's, so have all the fun you can, and do good work along the way.

Evan --

You're dead right: the "is it worth it" question is strictly personal and utterly subjective. You're right about the people, too. I did a post on that a while back called "It's the People" -- if you're interested, you can find it on the greatest hits list in the "Blogessence" post.

It's true, too -- something new every day on set, even when faced with the same old/same old.

I try to help the up-and-comers when and where I can, and if this blog proves useful to anybody out there, then all the effort is worthwhile. Thanks for tuning in, and for the kind words...

Anonymous said...

Such a fine mix here of ragged humor and poignant insights. Of your 2011 posts, this has gotta be one of my faves. - kooba