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, 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...


Joe Cottonwood said...

Cheap labor is the classic entry. Those who skip that step make lousy bosses...

Jesse M. said...

Working for free is always a crapshoot. When I see an ad and send off my resume or whatever, I never know if it's gonna be a total backyard production or have some semblance of professionalism. Obviously, I try to research the folks involved (imdb!) and determine, is this a good career move? But 2 terrible back-to-back freebie experiences back in 08 totally turned me off doing volunteer PA work. As a result I passed on the next unpaid project that came my way, and only afterwards discovered they were somewhat "legit" and it would have been a great networking experience. C'est la vie.

Nathan said...

I've mentioned that I got my start working at a Lighting & Grip rental house. They used to have to kick me out when they wanted to lock up for the night.

It didn't hurt that everyone who worked there considered "beer-by-6:00pm" to be part of the job description. Hey, it was the 80's.

Michael Taylor said...

Joe --

Working one's way up is usually slow, painful, and not particularly lucrative, but the lessons learned on that rocky path are not soon forgotten. Once past a certain point, the knowledge base you have to draw upon in your daily work is truly invaluable. The 90-day wonders rarely have a clue.

Jesse --

Yeah, freebies are a gamble. Although most of us start there -- given that we have nothing to offer but a good attitude and hustle -- you don't want to stay in Freebieville too long. Once I'd established myself as a juicer in the biz, I had two criteria for taking freebies: either I'd get to step up professionally -- the opportunity to work as a best boy or gaffer long before anybody would actually hire me for such work -- or the chance to work with a higher class of production company/DP/gaffer/best boy than usual. Both scenarios represented a sweat-equity investment in the future, and it often worked out.

Not always, though. Like you said, it's a crapshoot -- win some, lose some. Such is life...

Nathan --

Your early experience in the rental house must give you some serious street-cred with the grips and juicers. It's great when a locations guy knows what we mean and need when we ask to put a 12 K on somebody's balcony -- we don't have to drag one off the truck just to show him/her what we're talking about.

And yes, I remember well those 80's days of wrap beer on every job...

Crystal said...

As an aspiring screenwriter myself, I have to say, that guy is crazy. One of the many reasons why I love writing is that I like sitting in a temperature controlled room, staring at a computer screen.

Of course, I currently work as a writer for the content farms so I guess I got the "writing job" I wished for.

But, if you're looking for a more office-based hollywood job, internships at relevant offices are usually the way to go. Supposedly. They didn't really lead me to a paying job but I've only been out here for a year. And I already have that other job.

Michael Taylor said...

Crystal --

Well, different strokes for different folks pretty much makes the world go 'round.

Still, I'm a little puzzled by first sentence in your comment: "As an aspiring screenwriter myself, I have to say, that guy is crazy."

Which guy -- me or 12 pt? And if one of us is crazy, why?

Any answer is fine -- this isn't a test, and there's no ego-involvement here. I'm just trying to understand your reply.

There are many paths to success in Hollywood, and although no two people succeed in quite the same way, most reach their goals by working very hard and keeping their eyes wide open for opportunity.

And being lucky...

You're already writing for a living, which is a lot farther than most wannabe writers ever get. I hope it works out for you, and that you'll be able to carve out a successful screenwriting career. Hey, it's a dirty job, but somebody's got to do it...

A.J. said...

It's kind of funny how the new guys are trying hard to get on a set while the veterans are constantly trying to get off one (and go home!). :)

Michael Taylor said...

AJ --

Ironic, isn't it -- and that contrast has been the subject of many a head-shaking conversation on set...

Anonymous said...

Lots of awfully funny stuff in this post, Mike. Once again, you've got me laughing out loud. - kooba