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)

Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Killing

Who did kill Rosie Larson?


I fell for AMC’s new (and recently concluded) drama series “The Killing” right from the first damp episode. Everything about the show intrigued me: the endless Bladerunner-like rain, the slow-but-steady reveal of the various character’s hidden lives and secrets, and the stark contrast between Seattle as seen from above in serenely gorgeous aerial shots – a gleaming, beautiful city -- with the dark, messy little lives of the citizens down below, grappling with the moral ambiguities endemic to modern life in the post-Industrial Age. The production values were stunning, the acting sublime, the setting perfect.

Surface vs. reality has long been a staple of urban crime dramas, often using the sun-splashed cities of Los Angeles and Miami to underline the vast gulf between a glitzy public image and the sordid truth behind the palm trees. Setting the show in a dank and dreary Pacific Northwest allowed “The Killing” to till fresh, fertile ground. A city that became a major cultural force thanks to Microsoft, Starbucks, and an outpouring of great grunge bands during the 90s turns out not to be the Mecca of Everything Hip and Cool after all, but just another troubled urban dystopia riddled with corruption and populated by legions of wounded people enduring their quiet, desperate little lives -- which means that on screen, Seattle is a lot like every other big city in America. If Raymond Chandler was starting his writing career now, he might well have chosen Seattle rather than LA as the backdrop for his beautifully written, hauntingly atmospheric novels.

This show worked for me (and a lot of other viewers) during the first twelve episodes, but a surprising conclusion in the last minute of the season finale – which turned out to be no conclusion at all -- spun heads all the way around from coast to coast. Mine too. Those final scenes juked me out of my shoes and into the weeds, unsure just what was going on, and judging by the subsequent Internet shit-storm, my own confusion was mild. Many viewers went ballistic, and there was no shortage of critical commentary from the professional media. Tim Goodman (chief TV critic of the Hollywood Reporter) turned thumbs-down in his own post-mortem, concluding that “The Killing wasn’t able to save itself in the end.”

I’m usually in sync with Tim’s media criticism, but not this time. Although his analysis of what caused the love/hate audience schism on “The Killing” is (as usual) spot-on, to suggest that the entire 13 episode season was a failure simply because the ending hit a sour note – in the final minute of the final show -- strikes me as absurd. Having been fully engrossed every Sunday night for the previous three months, how could I dismiss the whole season over a last-minute fumble? To borrow a phrase from Jimmy Carter, this was no failure, but rather an “incomplete success.”*

My own views are more in line with those of Mary McNamara (LA Times), who ended her measured, sober analysis of “The Killing” like this:

”No show is going to live or die by its season finale. When you try something new, you're going to make mistakes; if you don't, you're not trying hard enough. For those who need closure, there are all manner of admirable crime procedurals on the networks.”

Nicely put.

It’s not that I don’t sympathize with those who feel burned by the trick non-ending of “The Killing” – I’ve had similar reactions to a movie or two over the years. The worst offender that comes to mind was No Way Out, a Kevin Costner spy/thriller from 1987 that ended with a whiplash-inducing twist which turned the previous 113 minutes completely inside out, and not in a good way.** Oh did that piss me off. Had the Internet been around back then, I’d probably have flamed that piece of cinematic junk until nothing was left but a smoldering cinder. “No Way Out” was an excellent description of the box canyon the script writers rode (and wrote) themselves into, then were unable to escape. It worked out fine for them – they still got paid – but in the meantime they screwed me and countless other ticket-buyers out of our five bucks.

Although I feel the pain (to quote another ex-president) of those now excoriating “The Killing” for a similar transgression, I don’t share their outrage. This isn’t a matter of logic – it’s just personal taste, which cannot be objectively quantified or explained. Yeah, the ending was a head-snapper, but not enough to ruin the series for me, and truth be told, I never really cared who killed Rosie Larsen. Like every other loyal viewer of the show, I expected the answer to come in that final episode, but it didn’t, and so what? Patience, people, patience. As one commenter responded to Goodman’s criticism:

“The Killing is a subtle, character driven-show with a SERIES question that explores how unspeakable crimes change individuals, the community as a whole, politics, legal and ethical boundaries, etc. This show is also about the fact that absolute truth - if it indeed exists - isn't easily knowable and is rarely clear cut. It was clear from episode one that we weren't going to get an easy, clean solution by the end of the season. I cannot fathom why so many viewers seemed to expect one. And for those who thought there were too many "red herrings" in the show - those are called leads. Even real life detectives know you follow them all - hundreds of them in fact - no matter how unlikely they seem.”

Yeah, what she said...

I didn’t much care for the way that final episode show ended either, but found the vehemence of outrage expressed by so many disappointed viewers a lot more disturbing. From the bitter tone of some comments, it sounds like a few of those people are ready to lynch showrunner Veena Sud for her apparently unforgivable sin. I’d never heard of Veena Sud before this show, but having thoroughly enjoyed the 12 excellent episodes of her show -- and 9/10 of that last one – I’m willing to cut the lady some slack.***

But slack is in short supply these days. There’s so much free-floating anger out there, like gasoline fumes just waiting for a spark – and as “The Killing” tempest in a teapot demonstrated, it doesn’t take much to ignite the firestorm. It's just a TV show, folks...

So who killed Rosie Larsen? Who cares? I'm happy to wait for Season Two of "The Killing" to find out.

* I borrow only the words. Carter was referring to a disastrous attempt to rescue the Iranian Embassy hostages, which ended in the fiery deaths of eight people. That was a very bad day.

** Yeah, I know – Kevin Costner... but I met him back when he was still a kid sweeping stages at Raleigh Hollywood, and will always give a break to anybody who manages to rise from such humble beginnings.

*** Kim Masters interviewed Veena Sud on The Business, provoking yet more outrage from disgruntled viewers. Being up in the hinterlands – and thus unable to access the podcast – I haven’t had a chance to listen to the interview, so can’t comment.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Red Light is On

I was amazed to see this sign outside the door to the stage where "Parks and Recreation" (a television comedy starring Amy Poehler, for those who don't know) is shot. Studio protocol has always required people outside a stage to wait until the red light goes off -- signalling that the cameras have stopped rolling and "cut" has been called -- before entering. It's common courtesy to everyone involved, ensuring that the sound for a take isn't ruined by some oblivious and/or self-important idiot blundering through the door while yakking on his/her cell phone.

This protocol was established many decades ago (long before cell phones), despite the fact that most sound stages were equipped with double "airlock" doors that allow a relatively silent entry. Newer stages are rarely equipped with double doors these days -- that would cost money. As I recall, the "Parks and Rec" stage has at least two single doors like the one in this photo -- doors that slam shut with a very loud bang if not slowly closed by someone who can read and actually gives a shit.

It's their show and their soundtrack, but I hate to see a discipline that was once standard throughout the Industry fade away like this. The red light means "stop" -- or it used to. Nowadays, many people just blow right on through the stage doors whether or not the red light is on -- either they don't know or simply don't care.

And that's just one more thing that pisses me off. Yet another straw on this aging camel's back...

The red light still means "stop" here at BS&T -- and given that I'm back in the forested boonies of the Home Planet, that's what I'm going to do for a little while. Stop, that is. Internet access is sketchy at best up here, which makes posting a time-consuming ordeal in the best of circumstances. Besides, it's the heart of baseball season, which means I'll be doing a lot more listening to the radio than staring into this screen.

Hey, it's summertime, and we all have our priorities.

It's just as well -- you probably need a break from my increasingly cranky and didactic blather as much as I do. I'll probably put up a post or two over the next month (or more in the unlikely event that inspiration strikes with overwhelming force), but am putting the regular Sunday Post on the shelf for the next few weeks. With any luck -- inshallah -- BS&T will be back up and running by August.

Have a nice July...

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Follow Your Instincts

Because... “A man’s got to know his limitations.” Clint Eastwood as Harry Callahan in “Magnum Force” Back on the Home Planet a few years ago, I attended a lecture by a marine biologist who had spent many years studying the feeding behavior and migration patterns of Great White Sharks. During a Q&A after the talk, he offered some advice to any surfers in the audience. “If you sense something strange out on the water -- if you get spooked for no apparent reason -- pay attention. It might be a good idea to paddle in. We don’t understand how these things work, but following your instincts out there could save your life.” I've yet to worry about Great White Sharks on set, but the essence of that advice came to mind recently while reading a post over at The Black and Blue concerning an on-set incident that resulted in a dropped camera lens. Fortunately for the camera assistant involved, no real damage was done. Like the bumper sticker says, shit happens, and it doesn't always end so well. While crewing on a student film in my post-college years, we were working on the rugged rocks of a coastal breakwater when an expensive zoom lens came loose and fell off the rented 16 mm camera at a very bad moment. The writer/director was scrambling over those rocks carrying the camera at the time, but it could just as easily have been me -- I'd been lugging it around most of that weekend. With the lens ruined, our day was done. Youth and inexperience were the main culprit -- we knew very little about the arduous process of film-making or the need to continually check our equipment -- but it also happened because the director was pushing a little too hard. With daylight fading and the weekend closing out, he was desperate to get every possible shot in the can before dark. The cold logic of numbers was on his side, but sometimes you have to know when enough is enough, and my gut feeling was that we'd hit the wall. It was late, everybody was tired, it was time to wrap. The director felt otherwise, and paid a steep price for his attempt to get that last shot. The repair bill from the rental house blew a huge hole in his borrowed-money budget for the film. Thus did the Joe Frasier School of Higher Education mete out another harsh lesson in reality. I can't claim to have seen it coming -- I didn't -- but watching that lens bounce down the rocks towards the ocean taught me something about the wisdom of listening to my own instincts. Accidents usually happen when someone is rushing things and/or not paying attention. Given the stress that crackles through every set, it's all too easy to move a little too fast. If you remain calm and work at a measured pace -- all the while paying attention to your gut instincts -- you can minimize the odds of causing or becoming the victim of an accident. The same concept applies to young people on their way up the career ladder: don't rush things. You can’t be afraid to step up and accept more responsibility -– succumb to fear and you’ll never get anywhere -- but it’s important to be ready when opportunity presents. If you miscalculate and perform a painfully public belly-flop, it will be remembered (and the story told...) by everyone who was there to witness. There are no hard and fast rules here. Each individual progresses according to his/her own learning curve and degree of ambition, but whether you're on the fast track to success or not, it helps to have good instincts in the first place and the sense to follow them. Late in my own transition from griptrician to juicer, I got a call from a Key Grip asking me to Best Boy for him on a small commercial. Typical of such jobs, it would just be the two of us on the grip crew. Work is work, but I took the gig with some reluctance. Having concentrated on juicer work, my grip skills -- never that strong to begin with -- were pretty rusty by then. The morning got off to a bad start at the location, a dusty ranch well north of LA. A little nervous and eager to get going, I grabbed a cup of coffee from craft service, then managed to spill the entire contents down my left pant leg -– a pair of white cotton painter’s pants I'd worn for protection from bugs, cuts, and the fierce Southern California sun. Feeling like a clumsy doofus, I tried to make up for this minor-but-embarrassing blunder, but was off my game. After juicing for the entire previous year, grip equipment suddenly felt awkward and alien to me. Nothing went easy all morning, so when it came time to move the camera -– a big Arri BL mounted on a tripod -– I hung back. I knew I should just grab it and go, but something didn’t quite feel right to me. Noticing my reluctance, the Key Grip came over to show me how it's done. Displaying textbook form, he squatted down, tucked his shoulder under the fluid head, then stood up and snapped the tripod legs closed in one smooth motion. Before he took a step, the camera slipped off the mounting plate and fell five feet, slamming into the hard dirt of the corral. A moment of stunned silence followed during which I muttered a silent “thanks” to whatever had held me back. Another camera was rushed in to keep us going through the rest of that long day, but the atmosphere on set remained a bit frosty until wrap. I had no idea that camera would fall -– my knowledge of cameras and mounting plates was very sketchy to begin with, which is probably why I held back -– but heeding the unfathomable mystery of my own gut instincts saved me from a major professional humiliation. To this day, thirty years later, I can still see that camera plummeting to earth in the highest of hi-def/3-D/mind's-eye resolution. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – some things you just don’t forget. It's a fine line to walk. You can't build a career by standing back to let others do all the challenging work -- and the time will come when you really do have to make that leap of faith, but it's important to have some idea what you're doing before you jump. Learning to listen to and trust your own instincts can keep you out of trouble as your career unfolds, and just might help you avoid becoming the subject of someone else's on-set war story.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Two Way Street

"There is dignity in all work"

Caine, from Kung Fu

(With summer knocking on the door, things are slow in town right now -- time to take a break from the down-and-dirty world on set and have a look at how other people make a living...)

This space has never been a one-way street. When a reader takes the time to submit a comment, question, or suggestion, I pay attention. Late last September, a reader named "Rhys" recommended two books he felt could provide some ideas how I might structure a book based on this blog.*

I took a look, then ordered both books. The first -- "smile when you're lying," by Chuck Thompson (that's right, no caps...) -- arrived in a couple of weeks. The other -- "Would You Like Fries With That?," by Prioleau Alexander (pronounced "pray-low" according to the text) -- took a full six months to find its way into my mail box. I'm not sure what caused the holdup, but it was worth the wait.

"smile when you're lying" is in many ways the coming of age story of a professional writer. The narrative bounces around in time, detailing how Thompson got into the field of travel writing in the first place, the many adventures his free-lance career lead to, and offering sage advice for anyone who likes to travel on a dime. Thompson's writing is "bright and tight" as they say in the newspaper biz -- crisp, vivid, and funny -- while his insights on the travel industry, travel writers, tourists, and life in general are worth the price of admission. Once I got started, this one was hard to put down.

I judge a book by how good it is at taking me far, far away from the All Homeless, All the Time Laundromat where my most challenging reading is done. If the writing is good enough to make me forget where I am and transport me to a much better and more interesting place -- thus rendering me blissfully unaware of all the preening, yammering, narcissistic, self-obsessed, cell-phone yakking, flea-scratching Angelenos all around me -- then that book earns top honors here at BS&T with a three star rating.

I am happy to award "smile when you're lying" all three stars.


"You Want Fries With That" is aptly described by its subtitle: "A white collar burnout experiences life at minimum wage." Sickened by a meaningless and duplicitous white collar career as an advertising man (working forty years after the smoky, sex-and-booze-fueled era of Don Draper), Prioleau Alexander finally quit to embark on a march through the world of minimum wage employment. He delivered pizzas, scooped ice cream, worked construction, made strenuous efforts to land a job in a Big Box store, endured a spectacularly horrifying week in a hospital Emergency Room, flipped burgers, and tried his soft, white collar hand at being... a cowboy.

As a concept, this struck me as a bit of a stretch -- more like the end result of a clever book proposal than one man's honest quest to find meaningful employment. The first chapter on his brief experience delivering pizzas didn't resonate with me, probably due to my own youthful stint in a pizza parlor long ago. Still, some books are slow starters, and you have to give them a fair chance. I began to warm up to this one in the next chapter detailing Alexander's experience in an ice cream shop, then fell head-over-heels in love with the section on working construction, aptly titled "Why the Roofer Wants to Kick Your Ass." This ruthless dissection of the construction trade is as entertaining as it is eye-opening. The narrative got even better when Alexander suited up in scrubs to work a hospital emergency room -- a chapter that will make you so grateful for your own job, no matter how bad it might seem on Monday morning.

The default prose setting is loose and informal, occasionally veering towards juvinelia. Like most swords, this has two sharp edges -- some of his humor comes across as flippant and silly -- but when he really gets going, Alexander is very good indeed. The three-and-a-half page intro to the ER section ("10ccs of Sanity, Stat...") features a brief history of medicine that just about killed me -- I was laughing so hard it hurt, all the while shaking my head in admiration at the pace, rhythm, and phrasing. Good stuff.

I really enjoyed this book, which taught me a lot I didn't know about each of those jobs and left me with a little more respect for those who do them for a living.

"You Want Fries With That?" is a bit uneven, but managed to carry me far away from that hot, oppressive laundromat. Three stars.


Both these books are are great summer reading -- thoroughly entertaining page-turners that offer occasional scalding (and spot-on) commentaries about modern life. Thanks, Rhys, for pointing me in their direction.

Those are my picks 'o the week. Check 'em out...

* I'm still toying with this idea, noodling around with an introduction and first chapters. We'll see how it goes...

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Getting Started

“Be careful what you wish for, it might come true.”

(This is something of a companion piece to a post I put up a couple of weeks ago)

A fellow blogger who goes by the e-name of “12 pt” (short for 12 pt. Courier) replied to a recent post in which I'd gone on a rant about the long hours endured by those who toil in the abusive world of episodic television.

“All I'm trying to do right now is actually GET on set. 15 hours seems awesome to someone green with an open schedule and bills to pay.”

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I was in 12pt’s shoes: on the outside looking in, desperately eager to get on set – any set – to begin learning enough so that one day I would truly belong. My chance came working for free as a PA on a no-budget feature with a tiny lighting crew – just a Gaffer and two grips.

You can imagine how low the budget was given that the Gaffer didn't even have Best Boy...

I did a little bit of everything on that movie – schlepped strange looking equipment with equally strange names (“C Stand?” “Nine Light?”), brought coffee to the director, cleaned up cigarette butts on location, drove the set dressing five-ton, was drafted to appear on camera, synced up the film dailies as an assistant editor, and got my first taste of hauling cable and powering/adjusting lights.

I worked through a few long nights, too – movies ‘til dawn, we called them – in the process of receiving my first lessons of what would be a long and arduous continuing education in the realities of Industry life. At one point, two of us ran all the cable and set every lamp for a night shoot inside the Bradbury Building in downtown LA, a location that would later become famous as a key location in the classic film "Bladerunner."

And at the end of that long night, the two of us then wrapped every single lamp and every foot of that cable in the bright light of dawn. It was a bruising experience.

The upside was that I had a blast on that movie, which is a good thing since I sure as hell didn’t make any money. All my on-set labor was done for “non-monetary compensation” – the opportunity to learn. Being greener than the new grass of spring, that was fine with me. Back then I could bore you to death talking about the visual style of Hitchcock, John Ford, and Howard Hawks, but had no clue how to set a flag, tie a clove hitch, run power from a genny to the set, or operate a carbon arc lamp -- which meant I was worth every penny of my non-existent wages. Still, I had bills to pay like everyone else, which is why I reluctantly left the set to take the assistant editor job when it was offered. Even then the pay was minimal: fifty bucks a week, or around $180 in 2011 dollars. It was even less after deductions -- $43.77.

Yes, nearly three-and-a-half decades later, I still remember my first Hollywood paycheck. Some things you don't forget.

I also remember emerging from my celluloid cloister a couple of weeks later to find a contentious meeting between the director, producer, and the entire crew. After working a succession of 16 hour days for miniscule paychecks, they were pissed. Led by the Key Grip, they wanted something more for their pain and suffering. The discussion went back and forth, voices rising, until the Key finally rose from his chair shouting “I’m not an animal!”*

That got the producer’s and director’s attention. They had to do something... but with a threadbare budget, there was no slush fund of cash to quell a rebellion in the ranks. All they could do was offer the crew a symbolic victory of sorts – an acknowledgment that the situation was indeed untenable -- which they did by awarding everyone on the core crew a point and a half of any eventual profits. Although everyone knew such points were essentially worthless, the gesture calmed the storm.

The crisis was over.

Sometimes that's all it takes: a simple (if symbolic) acknowledgment of what the crew is going through and doing for you. As the saying goes, “if you’re gonna fuck me, at least give me a kiss” – and this time that little paper kiss was just enough. **

The shoot went on to suffer several more crises (including one in which our ex-stunt man producer engaged in a twenty minute screaming match with the male lead behind locked doors) until principal photography was completed. A month or two later we did a couple of weeks of pickups, during which I left the editing room to work with the gaffer on the night shoots. It was only then that I realized just how much I’d missed working on set, and how I hated being cooped up in that editing room all day long. There are people who love that kind of thing -– and God bless 'em, because it has to be done -- but it was suddenly very clear to me that my own Hollywood destiny lay elsewhere. Still, I couldn't bring myself to quit my first paying Hollywood job, and stuck it out in the editing room for another couple of months. Finally -- in one of those rare win/win scenarios that make everybody happy -- the production laid me off. They no longer had to pay me and I was suddenly freed from that dark, miserable prison. The icing on the cake was that having been laid off the job (rather than quitting), I was eligible to receive unemployment checks while hunting for my next job.

How sweet that was -- and another valuable lesson in the real-world dynamics of Hollywood life

The contacts I made on that job led directly to more work in the coming months. It took an enormous effort over the next few years to build a reputation and network of potential employers sufficient to keep my phone ringing. In essence, I had to work extremely hard to earn the privilege of working even harder.

This is how most newbies get started: making contacts on each job and gradually building a solid base of referrals and potential employers. They call it “networking” nowadays, but back then it was just what you did to keep moving forward. Few people come to Hollywood -- then or now -- with the talent to light up the sky like a meteor, and even those blessed souls can’t do it all by themselves. Everybody who succeeds at any of the myriad occupations that make up the film industry needed and received help of one sort or another along the way. They worked their asses off too, because unless you’re seriously connected in this town – in which case you’re certainly not reading this blog -- nothing will come easy.

12 pt. Courier is only beginning to learn how hard this business really is. From reading his blog, it seems his goal is to be a screenwriter, an ambition I never shared and -- no offense -- wouldn’t wish on anybody. If there's no escape from abuse below-the-line, life isn't exactly a picnic in The Writer’s Room either. Writers get paid a lot more than the rest of us when they manage to find work in Hollywood, but landing a spot on a writing staff -- or selling a spec script -- is a very high hurdle to overcome. The truth is, life for most writers in this town is considerably more uncertain and unstable than that endured by those of us who pull the oars below decks.

Still, miracles do happen, so 12 pt -- and you, should screenwriting be your dream -- may as well give it a serious shot and hope for the best. If not now, when? The only way to make sure the miracle doesn't happen is if you don't try. So by all means go for it -- and go hard -- whatever your goals in Hollywood might be.

Just remember, when those long 15 hour days start coming hot and heavy, that's exactly what you wished for...

* Thus beating The Elephant Man to the punch by a good three years...

** The movie never made a dime, of course. Like the gold dust at the end of “Treasure of the Sierra Madre, those points were gone with the wind...

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

What, Me Worry?

And the Wednesday picks 'o the week

It never rains in Southern California...

Just back in town, I woke up, hopped on the bicycle and headed down to the bank’s ATM to replenish my alarmingly thin wallet – and along the way came across this deluxe homeless rig. Anybody who thinks homeless people aren’t creative and resourceful should take a good look: a nice big mattress with pad, sheets, blankets, and pillows crammed in and atop two shopping carts along with all the necessities of life on the street.

This rig is a veritable Sidewalk Winnebago -- and if not exactly rain-proof, no worries. Just listen to the song.

Still, seeing it made me glad I’ve got a job and am working during such hard times... oh, wait a minute -- actually I don’t have a job and am most definitely not working at the moment. With no word yet on whether the show is coming back, that puts me (like so many Industry free-lancers during the slo-mo Hollywood summer) just one or two degrees of separation from hitting the bricks with my own shopping cart street-mobile.

Sobering thoughts as the sun rises earlier and sets later every day.

Ah well, something will come up. It always has and always will, I suppose -- until it doesn’t. Then I’ll just have to drive off that bridge when I come to it.


I’ve always wanted to put a time-lapse camera up on stage to capture the crazy process of making a pilot, but lacking such a camera, my grand plan has forever drifted on the big puffy clouds of Fantasy Land. Someone with a lot more energy than I have (and a suitable camera) went to the trouble of bringing this vision to life on a pilot that was built, rigged, shot, and wrapped over a recent three week period. Penny – my favorite stand-in who tells her Hollywood stories over at “One Red Cent” -- worked on that pilot, and posted the two-and-a-half minute clip on her blog.

The Sunday LA Times ran an interesting piece on the recent migration of noted film directors from the world of features to television – cable television, to be precise. Given that the big-money feature world is now ruled exclusively by brain-dead corporations – who much like certain dogs I’ve known, make a habit of eating their own shit, then passing it on to the paying public – you can’t blame accomplished, talented directors for fleeing to television. The broadcast networks offer no refuge; with rare exceptions, all they seem capable of these days is producing one giant steaming formulaic pile after another to stink up your television screen at home.

But hey, what do you expect -- it’s free.

That leaves cable, where the creative environment could hardly be better for people who are more interested in doing edgy, groundbreaking work than making the big paychecks that come with ushering yet another comic book to the silver screen. Adding fuel to this fire, the cable world is currently engaged in a creative arms race of sorts, each small (and some not-so-small) cable outfit trying to outdo the others in attracting fresh eyeballs to their channel. Such competition is a good thing for discerning television viewers and picky directors alike.

The opposite side of this ever-spinning coin – a well-respected but not particularly bankable art film director signing on to do a monster comic-book movie – only serves to underline the dearth of creative energy in the corporate feature world. Patrick Goldstein’s recent LA Times column describes how the producer of "Thor" -- rather than take the safe, cover-your-ass corporate approach -- followed his gut instincts in offering the directing chores to Kenneth Branagh. Given Branagh’s lousy recent track record at the box office, this raised eyebrows throughout Hollywood. I haven’t seen the movie, but the strong debut of “Thor” would seem to erase any doubts as to the wisdom of that choice.

But will the soulless corporations ever learn? Never...

And finally I must once again draw your attention to the work of Robert Lloyd, who offers up this brief-but-thoughtful meditation on Gordon Ramsay, the volatile celebrity chef and Reality Television icon. Like all of Lloyd’s writing and observations, this one is well worth your time.

Those are my picks ‘o the week. Check 'em out...

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Elephant Door

Big enough for, well, you know...

One of the more distinctive aspects of a real sound stage* is the big elephant door -- so called, I presume, because such doors are more than large enough to allow the entry of an adult pachyderm. I'm not sure there's any particular dimensional standard for such doors, but although they are seldom called upon to admit real live elephants these days, they must be large enough to allow 14 foot high set walls to pass through.**

These doors are massive -- six to eight inches thick (for soundproofing) and extremely heavy. Nowadays, most of them use electric motors to slowly open and close, but at the studio where I first started, many of those doors were operated manually -- shoved open or shut by the strong backs of the crew. Gravity provided the locking mechanism, with a wheel or chains employed to engage a mechanism to raise or lower the door as required. The strangest elephant door I ever saw was at the back of Stage 32 at Paramount (the "haunted" stage where -- I was told -- the original Star Trek television show was filmed), which was opened and closed using water power. How this actually worked remains the deepest of mysteries to me, but halfway through the season something went wrong, and that door stayed shut from then on.

Electric and gravity doors have their own strengths and weaknesses. When an electric door has a problem (and it happens more often than you'd think), it usually ends up stuck open, bringing production to a screeching halt. This does not make the producers happy, which means the studio has to kick into high gear to get the damned thing fixed ASAP. Although gravity doors don't have that problem, they're not immune from the perils of Newtonian Physics. Early in my career, I slammed a gravity door shut with enough momentum to bounce it off the track -- and for a briefly horrifying moment, I thought the whole thing was about to topple inward, crushing me and several other hapless innocents whom fate had brought to the fatal crossroads of The Wrong Place and The Wrong Time. Fortunately, this stab of raw panic proved groundless -- that big door was solidly frozen in place and going nowhere.

My problems weren't over, though. Still trying to earn my spurs and build a reputation as a useful, reliable griptrician in town, I'd instead demonstrated poor judgment in a manner that was impeding the production -- so I was greatly relieved when the stage manager appeared with a forklift a few minutes later to lift the big door back on its track, thus taking me off the hook.

Another bullet dodged.

During winter, the elephant door keeps the cold and rain on the outside and the heat on the inside. In the fierce San Fernando Vally summers, massive air conditioning units maintain a comfortable working temperature on stage while the rest of LA broils in 100 degree heat. When walking or riding a bicycle down the alleys between stages in that suffocating summer heat, a deliciously cool wave of refrigerated air flows out from the occasional open elephant door -- one of those slow-motion sense memories I'll take with me to my grave.

Without those big stage doors, those of us who do the heavy lifting in Hollywood would be a lot more miserable.

In many ways, the elephant door defines a sound stage, sealing it off from the outside world and setting the tone for what goes on inside. When wide open, filming stops. Lots of other things can be going on -- rigging, wrapping, building/tearing down sets, or simply a break in the action -- but actors are rarely performing for the cameras when that big door is open.*** Everything is more relaxed then, as crew members grab a quick smoke, make a phone call, or simply stare up at the blue sky and the great outdoors. But when that door slowly glides shut, the outside world of sunshine and sky vanishes as we return -- like Morlocks -- to a world of darkness, artificial light, and make-believe.

Then it's time to get back to work, and the business of Hollywood.

* As opposed to one of the many insert stages found in industrial areas all over the LA Basin -- which typically consist of a thin, decidedly non-soundproof shell with a pipe grid hung from the rafters. Insert stages have their uses, but I'll take a real sound stage every-time...

** Just once, during my brief career as an LD (Lighting Director -- basically a glorified gaffer making a much fatter daily rate -- did I see an elephant walk through one of those big doors. Three elephants, actually, two adults and a baby, on Stage 5 at Raleigh Hollywood. That was impressive... and shades of D.W. Griffith's Hollywood.

*** There are always exceptions to every rule. The crew of Samantha Who? often built their sets right out the open elephant door and into the alley. That was one very expensive half hour comedy, which led to the show's premature demise. As I heard it, the network demanded a cut in production costs of $500,000 per week if the show was to return for a third season. When the producers balked, the axe came down.

Friday, June 3, 2011


Chester, Miss Kitty, Marshal Dillon, and Doc -- the original cast of "Gunsmoke" in happier times.

James Arness is dead. I don't expect that will mean much to most of you -- certainly not to any twenty-somethings out there, and probably not many people at all under age fifty. He began his signature role as Marshal Dillon with "Gunsmoke" during 1955 -- two full years before my family got our first TV -- and finished up twenty years later in a world that by then had turned itself inside-out.*

It's hard to overstate the impact "Gunsmoke" (and Westerns in general) had on my generation of young television viewers. In those days, NBC, ABC, and CBS had the airwaves to themselves, and "Gunsmoke" was a colossus.** Everybody I knew watched it, and we kept on watching down through the years as cast members were replaced and the seemingly safe, simple world of the 50's gave way to a decade of violet turmoil and immense social and cultural upheaval. Through it all, "Gunsmoke" stayed the course, Marshal Dillon dispatching the evil doers of the Old West every week while dispensing object lessons in humanity and morality along the way.

I didn't stay tuned until the bitter end. After ten years of "Gunsmoke," I reached an age where television dropped far down my list of urgent priorities. There were girls, there were motorcycles, there were -- ahem -- "controlled substances," among other things to explore, and I was hungry to learn about them all. I don't know if I saw any of the last few years of "Gunsmoke," but even through all the smoke and confusion of the late 60's and early 70's, the iconic image of James Arness as the man with a badge and a gun never quite left me. Arness fully inhabited the role of Marshal Dillon -- he was everything a Law Man was supposed to be, and then some. In all the ways that mattered, he was the John Wayne of the small screen, but without the cultural/political baggage that followed Wayne through the twilight of his movie career.

He played other roles, of course, most notably the merciless monster from space in "The Thing," but it was as Marshal Dillon that he made his mark, and for which he will be remembered.

Now he's gone, having carved out a solid career and a quiet life in a town that has chewed up so many lesser souls over the years. I never had the chance to meet him, unfortunately, although I often work on the studio lot where "Gunsmoke" was made. Some of the real old-timers around the lot were on the show, and in talking with them, I've never heard a bad word about James Arness.

In a town that loves to dish the dirt on anyone and everyone, that's something.

Thanks for the memories, Marshal. Rest in peace...

Addendum: LA Time’s TV critic Robert Lloyd wrote a brief but deep appreciation of James Arness for Saturday’s paper. It’s really good, and very much worth reading.

* I was a fan before we got that TV, having listened to the radio show of the same name for as long as I could remember. Saturday mornings were good, as "Gunsmoke" ran back-to-back with the radio version of "Have Gun, Will Travel," which later made for another good televised Western starring the inimitable Richard Boone.

** Hard though it may be to believe, there was no "Oprah," "Jerry Springer," "Maury Povitch," or professional bass fishing on TV back then -- and in that, we might have been better off. Then again, there was no "Breaking Bad," "Mad Men," or "The Wire" either, so I guess the last 55 years haven't been a total waste of television viewing time.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Everything's Fine...

The Picks 'o the Week

...down on Melrose.

While catching up on the various Hollywood-oriented offerings over at KCRW, I tuned in to a recent podcast of "The Business." The first segment is a great discussion on the importance and process of casting for television with two network casting directors. Casting is crucial to the success of any new show. No matter how tight and well-crafted the script, how tense the drama or funny the jokes, none of it matters if the casting clanks off the rim – that show is doomed. An excellent cast can keep a show afloat despite less-than-stellar writing -- for a limited time, anyway -- but even the very best writing can't overcome poor casting.

It's the kiss of death.

Well there is one remedy – re-cast the roles that aren’t working – but by the time a new show hits the air, several episodes are already in the can. Re-casting a key role at that point is a bit like trying to fix an airplane’s damaged engine while the plane is still in flight. It can be done, but is a very tricky endeavor requiring patience from the audience and a nervous network alike.

Fine-tuning the casting is one of the many functions of the pilot process. On the show I just finished, one of the four principal roles was re-cast after we'd shot the pilot -- the Powers That Be replaced a young actress before we began shooting the scheduled ten episodes. This worked out for the show, which ended up filming a total of twenty-nine additional episodes in that first season, but it was a tough blow for actress who lost the part. Imagine how she felt getting dumped, then seeing the show go on to film for the better part of a year with that other actress playing her role.

Our show made another change mid-way through the first ten-episode order, replacing a non-core actress in a recurring/secondary role. That was hard on her and the crew – we really liked her a lot, and hated to see her go – but it wasn't long before we all understood what a good fit the new actress really was. Whether the impetus for that change came from the show’s producers or their Network Overlords remains unclear, but it was the right call.

This is just one more reason actors really do have the toughest job in Hollywood. Writers come in a distant second in that dismal race, facing rejection and failure based upon the perceived quality and marketability of the words they put on paper. That has to hurt, no doubt about it, but compared to what most actors go through -- standing up to repeated blunt rejection of the most intensely personal kind -- writers have it easy. Actors are constantly being told they're not good enough, that the producers want somebody else -- somebody better -- for the part.

It’s no wonder so many actors go crazy in this town.

The second segment of the show ignited a prairie fire of commentary, largely due to CNN picking up – and in classic cable news fashion, utterly misrepresenting – a sound clip from the interview with Hillary Swank. An interesting discussion between the show host, Hillary, and her producing partner was lost in the subsequent smoke and flames as a mob of outraged (and seemingly demented) fans stormed the barricades in protest.

Like so many goings-on in Hollywood, this one brought to mind the classic novel about life in Hollywood: Day of the Locust -- and reminded me that the word “fan” is often short for “fanatic.”

Still, whether you decide to plow through the post-show commentary of unwarranted vitriol or not – and I don’t recommend it -- the show is worth a listen.

There's more good stuff over at the "Martini Shot" pod-cave, where Rob Long gets itchy while discussing the relative virtues and attractions of candy vs. homework in making television viewing choices, then works up a serious sweat pondering the ultimate harsh reality of Hollywood as recently discovered by Charlie Sheen – that none of us who toil in the shadows of the big white sign are so special that we can’t be replaced.

It’s a lesson worth remembering, and three minutes that are definitely worth your attention.

And now for something completely different. Kurt Sutter (“Sons of Anarchy”) is the only showrunner I know of who also runs his own personal show-related blog, and it’s an interesting read. When he’s not ripping someone – or occasionally himself – a new one, Sutter likes to pull back the curtain and explain his process of writing and managing the show. He recently posted a few short video clips, the best of which are segments called What the Fuck?, where he answers questions from readers/fans. The lead clip is video from a photo shoot promo that will appeal to civilian fans of the show, but I found the second clip a lot more illuminating. And here, Sutter composes a wonderfully smooth-and-snarky ode to agents and managers.

Those are my picks of the week. Check 'em out...