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, October 30, 2011

The Tuna Run

“You take more than you probably should, but do so because you'll never know when an opportunity like this will come by again.”

The Hills Are Burning

On a Monday afternoon a few weeks ago – our first heavy lighting day of the week – the Best Boy called in a couple of extra juicers to help us rough in the new swing sets. Both had worked with us before, but one of them looked unusually tired, as though he hadn't gotten much sleep.

“Rough night?” I asked.

“Nah,” he yawned, rubbing his hollow eyes. “This is my fourteenth day... or maybe the eleventh. I can’t really remember now.”

By that he meant he’d been working fourteen straight days (or eleven) without a break – going from job to job, day after day, right through the weekends.

It’s happened to all of us who toil in the salt mines of below-the-line Hollywood: a stretch of non-stop work where one job ends just as the next begins, hopping from one gig to the next in a giddy cascade of call sheets and time-cards that starts out feeling like a new Gold Rush but usually winds up more like the Bataan Death March. This is one of the hazards of life as a free-lancer, where we're all slaves to human nature. As the naked apes who long ago fell out of the trees into a feast-or-famine world of fear, danger, and scarcity, we never evolved a hard-wired ability to know when to say when -- we just keep taking while the taking is good, because sooner later the vast herds of buffalo will disappear, that rich vein of gold will play out, and those scaldingly hot dice suddenly will go cold. No matter how sunny and fat things might be at any given moment, the free-lance workbot knows damned well that the bleak gray dawn of another lean winter is always just around the corner.

A gaffer I met very early in my career – a man who took me under his professional wing and taught me everything I would need to succeed in set lighting – had a term for such an avalanche of good fortune: he called it the “Tuna Run.”

Bear in mind this was nearly thirty-five years ago, when “Tuna Run” referred to a crude but effective method of catching those big fish prior to the advent of modern industrial fishing. When a tuna boat found a huge school of fish boiling near the surface, a row of strong-backed men stood shoulder to shoulder on the rail yanking increasingly large tuna out of the sea using only a hook and line attached to a stout wooden pole. They worked at a furious pace, pulling fish after fish on deck until the holds were full or the ocean was empty*

For those who come from outside the system, getting started in the free-lance world of Hollywood is a tough slog. After struggling through those rough early years that form the crucible of every Industry career, the concept of “enough work” does not apply. There’s just no such thing. To a struggling young free-lancer, work is what sun, water, and fertile soil are to a growing plant: it's life itself. Without work, we slip towards the bottomless black abyss always waiting at the shadowy edge of our imagination, hungry to swallow us whole.

The notion of work as precious commodity is burned into your brain during those hard early years, molding your outlook into a reflexively fear-based survival mode. You relax a bit as the years pass, but even when you reach the point where work comes with minimal effort, you never really forget. The Fear is always there, just under the surface, so when the Gods of Hollywood send a big wave of dovetailing jobs your way, you hang on tight with a white-knuckle grip -- both hands -- until that wave finally hits the beach.

And it will. Hollywood has a gravity all its own -- what goes up will come back down -- and there's usually a price to pay for cashing in on a long Tuna Run. Most of the time that means getting sick with whatever bug is going around, but in a business that routinely requires driving to and from far-flung locations all over LA during the course of some very long days, the consequences can be deadly.

The danger isn’t limited to bleary-eyed driving after a long day, though. The gaffer I mentioned at the top of the page – a big robust guy who was also one of the smartest, most erudite and articulate people I’ve ever met – finally caught a Tuna Run even he couldn’t handle. In the midst of working a brutally long string of big budget music videos all over the country, he headed for the airport to catch a plane and scout another shoot in Las Vegas. Pausing to buy a hot dog on the concourse prior to boarding, his heart locked up. From the reports I heard, he dropped like a steer under the slaughterhouse hammer. A few hours later, in the fluorescent chill of a nearby ER, he was dead.

Just a few weeks from his 45 birthday -- with a wife and three kids to support -- he had literally worked himself to death. I was a gaffer too by then, so we hadn't seen each other or worked together for a while, but it turns out he had this one last lesson to teach me: even the strongest of us has limits. We push the envelope at our own risk. It's a lesson I haven't forgotten.

There will be Tuna Runs to catch as long as a free-lance film and television industry exists, and hungry below-the-liners will take full advantage. Such is the nature of the Hollywood beast. Just remember that if you push yourself too hard for too long, something has to give. Getting sick is one thing -- we can all handle that -- but no job is worth dying for.

We all need as much work as it takes to keep our increasingly complicated and expensive lives afloat, but when you catch a solid Tuna Run, keep one ear tuned to that quiet little voice inside. It can be hard to hear in the fatigued state of survival mode, working day after day after day -- but if your inner voice finally whispers "enough," pay attention.

Your life could depend on it.

* If this sounds like more sepia-tinted nostalgic bullshit about the good old days when Men were Men, check out this rather astonishing Utube clip. Be patient, though – it starts out slowly, with the kind of sternly lurid cock-in-hand narration typically heard in NFL Films documentaries about the Green Bay Packers -- but once it gets going, the action is fast, furious, and eye-opening. You’ll get a glimpse of a world and way of life that doesn’t exist anymore, and just might find yourself wondering if you could do what those guys did. More to the point, you’ll understand exactly what a Tuna Run really is...

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Great Expectations

There's a terrific interview with Bryan Cranston over at Mark Maron’s WTF. It’s a long one – a solid hour of good stuff (Cranston) preceded by fifteen minutes of Maron hurling F bombs, discussing his cats, and taking an on-air phone call from a very strange comic pal (definitely not for children’s ears), but it’s worth wading through all that juvenilia to reach the interview.

Any fans of “Breaking Bad” or “Malcolm in the Middle” – both ground-breaking shows in their own unique ways – will enjoy Cranston's story of how he got into acting in the first place, the rough early years (including being sought by the police in Florida as a murder suspect), and how he finally hit his stride to become one of the more successful and interesting actors working today. The road from Hal on Malcolm in the Middle to Walter White in “Breaking Bad” was anything but smooth or direct. This is a fascinating interview, full of great stories well told. Don’t miss it.

One thing Cranston talks about is “not being attached to an outcome” at any point in his career, refusing to set goals aimed at becoming a feature film actor or big star. He just wanted to be a working actor able to make a decent living performing his craft -- TV, movies, theater, whatever. His only stated goal was to do good work and let the rest take care of itself.

What a refreshing attitude. In a world where the painfully-needy craving of blind, insatiable ambition – a mental state so unbalanced that it might require medical intervention in any business other than politics, Wall Street, or Hollywood - is so often viewed as a virtue, it’s nice to hear more modest (read: sane) goals espoused, particularly when the slow-and-steady approach resulted in such a spectacular success.

Ambition is a lot like testosterone -- without enough, most of the human race would probably still be grubbing in the dust for roots and berries, but too much can turn an otherwise normal person into a driven, high-achieving zombie. Although society as a whole tends to reap the benefits of those with big ambitions, the individual involved is often reduced to a hollow shell of a human being.

While listening to that interview, it dawned on me that I came to Hollywood with a similarly determined but unfocused approach. I certainly didn’t arrive burdened with any specific or particularly lofty ambitions. The possibility of becoming a cameraman appealed for a while, but once I'd worked with a few DPs and heard what they went through to get there, my interest in following that path faded. All I really wanted to do was work and learn enough to get good at something directly related to creating that movie magic -- and in the process, find a niche for myself.

That’s pretty much what happened. Although my own checkered career is just a molehill next to the mountain Bryan Cranston ascended (hey, that man brought some serious talent to the table), the drive and ambition to climb higher and do bigger things simply didn’t burn within. You can't push a string. All any of us can do is look deep, trust our instincts, and go with what feels right. If that means aiming high for the Big Prize (whatever that might be), then more power to you. Just be sure that's what you really want, and be prepared to pay the price.

I don’t mean to be critical of anyone with big ambitions – we all have to please the Beast Within, and each Beast is a unique fusion of our own upbringing and individual chemistry – but the career of Bryan Cranston offers graphic evidence that the door to a very good place can open wide for those unburdened by grand and/or obsessive ambitions.

Sometimes the tortoise really does beat the hare.

Still, life isn't a race, nor is a Hollywood career. There’s no prize at the end – there’s just The End – and when it’s over, looking back on a career spent doing good work with good people while making a decent living sounds pretty good to me. Better that than rattling around a big gated estate up on Mulholland Drive like some modern day Charles Foster Kane, looking back on forty years of ruthless decisions and burned bridges while dragging that ball-and-chain of great expectations.

But that's just me. Your path depends on what you want and need out of your Hollywood life -- and there, to each his own.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Dogg Does Hollywood


Yet more unmistakable signs that the Apocalypse does indeed draw near...

First came news that the late, great Ed McMahon had signed to do rap videos*, and now the polar opposite shoe drops -- and drops hard -- with the startling announcement that infamous gangsta-rapper and rap-porn pioneer Snoop "Doggy" Dogg (or as the New York Times once referred to him: “Mr. Dogg”) has been slated to do a sit-com.

Wow. Snoop Dogg starring in a family sit-com. I can honestly say I didn't see that one coming.

Wonder if the show will be called “Doggy Style?”

* Okay, so this particular news item happens to be three years old, shortly preceding the passing of Ed McMahon. Sometimes the Wheels of the Apocalypse grind exceedingly slowly.

And sometimes they don't...

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Menda City

Lies, lies, and more lies...

“You said it yourself, Big Daddy. Mendacity is a system we live in.”

From Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

I hate to lie. Always have, ever since I was a kid. Maybe that’s because my mom drummed the mantra “Honesty is the best policy” into my head as I grew up, or that the penalty for youthful lying – or getting caught, at least -- was a bare-assed spanking from the heavy hand of my Dad. Still, I fudged the truth enough over those early years to learn how complicated life can become when one lie leads to the next until the whole creaky structure collapses under its own compounded weight.

Mom was right, of course – normal life tends to run a lot smoother if you just tell the truth and man-up to the consequences. Then again, she never had to work in Hollywood, where lying pretty much is the norm.

Still, there are lies and there are lies. Last Sunday’s post pointed out how a timely and otherwise inconsequential lie can be exactly what the situation calls for -- but don’t push your luck. As The Anonymous Production Assistant recently advised, newbies and Industry wannabes should be very careful about inflating their resumes with bald-faced lies. Enshrining such mendacity in the black and white of print is seldom a good idea.

That doesn’t mean a newbie should stick to the Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing but the Truth all the time, though. The best piece of advice I brought with me to Hollywood was “Don’t be afraid to make a fool of yourself.” With that in mind, on my very first day as an unpaid PA thrilled to be working on an extremely low budget movie, the producer asked if I’d ever driven a five ton truck. “Sure,” I blurted (the first of many lies I would tell in my then-nascent career), and half an hour later found myself sitting in the cab of that massive truck at the rental yard pondering the intricacies of a five speed manual transmission equipped with a two-speed axle. I grew up driving stick-shift cars, but until then the biggest vehicle I’d ever piloted was a Volkswagen bus. The prospect of navigating this bulky leviathan through the crowded streets and freeways of Los Angeles was terrifying.

Fear can be a highly effective motivator. Facing my first Hollywood crisis, I confessed my ignorance to the rental clerk, who gave me a quick primer on how and when to use the red button to switch between low and high range – a simple mechanism that effectively doubled the five forward gears to create a ten speed transmission – and soon I was piloting the massive beast back to the production office in the San Fernando Valley.

During the next two weeks of pre-production, I drove that truck all over LA to pick up, load, and unload furniture with the set dressing crew. The experience was an education in and of itself. Among other things, I learned that large vehicles share a secret brotherhood of the road in the fearsome traffic of LA. Riding high above all those pesky little cars, the drivers of city buses, eighteen wheelers, garbage trucks, and big delivery vans act as blockers for each other, holding the cars at bay to allow another truck or bus to make progress through the gridlock. Soon I was doing it too, helping my elephantine brethren out as we battled traffic together. The cars had speed and maneuverability, but in that lumbering five ton, I had sheer bulk on my side – and sometimes size really does matter. Thirty-four years later, I still recall the sweet sound of screeching brakes and an angry horn blast from the Cadillac I deliberately moved over on after the driver refused to acknowledge my patiently blinking turn signal in the thick traffic of West LA – but the instant he saw that truck swerving towards his car, he got the hell out of my way.

I grinned all the way back to the office, feeling like the King of the Road.

That first Hollywood lie allowed me the opportunity to prove myself to the production team, who then knew that if I told them I could do something, I’d do it.* So when the producer asked if I could synch up dallies as an assistant editor, I didn't hesitate to tell another convenient lie. Having conquered the ten-speed five ton, I was one newly confident kid. Besides, I’d handled lots of 16 mm film in college, so how hard could it be?

Harder than I thought, as it turned out – especially when the camera assistant neglected to clap the slate for a printed take, leaving me to match sound and picture with a set of rewinds, a squawk box/synchronizer, and a moviescope. Putting in twelve hour days under fluorescent lights staring into that tiny screen was a new and humbling experience, but at least I was finally getting paid. Fifty dollars a week.

Although the editing room proved a career dead-end for me, that job allowed me to keep working and getting paid long after the shooting crew was cut loose to look for their next gig. Those several months as an assistant editor provided a bridge to the next stage of my LA adventure, and added further motivation. Sometimes you have to learn first-hand what jobs you really don’t want to do before you can find a better fit. For me, the physical inactivity and repetitive drudgery of those long days in the editing bay were a sign that I needed to go in a very different direction.

Honesty may indeed be the best policy in real life, but sticking to the absolute literal truth can hold you back during the crucial early phases of an Industry career. This business was created by people who weren't afraid to take risks, roll the dice, and deal with the consequences. Although a producer or UPM might admire your honest admission of incompetence (in my case, that would have been "Uh,no, I don't know how to drive a five ton truck," or "Synch up dallies? Nope, never done that..."), the job will then go to the next PA bold enough to say "yes," and make it stick.

"Nothing ventured, nothing gained" may be a tired old cliche, but it's true. Every career move in this business is a gamble, and you can't let a fear of failure hold you back. Just be straight with yourself, at least, and make sure that if everything does go sideways, the only real damage will be to your pride and that particular job opportunity. If boldly rolling the dice entails a serious risk of doing horrendous property damage or getting somebody hurt, step back from the precipice and think again. Don't just close your eyes and leap off the cliff assuming that you'll somehow learn to fly before smashing into the rocks below. Be bold but smart, following your own good instincts, and with any luck at all you'll pull it off to emerge stronger, more confident, and much more employable. If you don't fall on your face too often, taking such calculated risks can eventually lead to learning enough that you won't have to lie anymore -- and by then, you'll have built the foundation of a solid career.

There's no way of knowing what direction my own Hollywood path might have taken had I stuck to the truth during those early years. Maybe I'd be living in the luxury of a gated mansion in Beverly Hills with my third trophy wife by now rather than in the relative squalor of a rent-by-the-month Hollywood hovel. All I know is how things did work out, and I can live with that. I certainly don't advise spewing lies like a politician on the stump in your efforts to get ahead, but sometimes the situation calls for a roll of the dice, stretching the truth, and hoping for the best.

Such is the nature of life in the free-lance jungle that is Hollywood.

* Click here for another tale of lying, failure, and the sweaty-palmed experience of incomplete success

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Little White Lie

“Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.” Walter Scott

Just don't do a Milli Vanilli...

Note: As always, the following is based on my own experiences working in Hollywood over the years. Your mileage, as they say, may vary – and readers are always welcome to disagree.

The first (and biggest) hurdle confronting most newcomers to the film and television industry is getting enough work to survive. Failing this most basic test means going home with your tail between your legs, which is why finding the next job -- and the next, and the next -- becomes an all-consuming obsession for every Hollywood newbie. Not everyone figures it out. People who truly belong here learn how to get jobs and stay employed, while those who can’t stomach the economic uncertainty endemic to free-lance Industry life eventually move on in search of a steadier source of income. You don’t have to be special to make it here – you just have to want it bad enough, and not everybody does.

There’s no shame in this. Just as everyone isn’t meant for the suit-and-tie straitjacket of the corporate world or the constipated monotony of life in the fluorescent glow of a cube farm, not everybody is cut out for the down-and-dirty end of the film and television Industry. If you’re not, then find something else to do with your life. You -- and everyone else you might otherwise work for or with in this business -- will be better off in the long run.

Once you’ve managed to achieve a certain level of success below-the-line, though, a different problem can occasionally arise: a work call will come in that you really don’t want to take.* You’re available, but just don’t want to accept that particular job. Maybe the gig would require working for a Best Boy, Gaffer, or crew that you’ve had bad experiences with before, or the call is for a low-budget, flat-rate movies-‘til-dawn night shoot that would put you out of action (and thus unable to take a better job) for the next couple of days. Then again, your reason could be more primal -- maybe the hot babe you’ve been chasing for weeks has finally agreed to go out with you on the very day of that job...

Hey, neither man nor woman lives by bread alone, and what’s the point of working if you can’t carve out a little quality time to do some actual living?

I’ve turned down jobs for all those reasons and many more over the years, but the “why” doesn’t really matter. Whoever called you for the job doesn’t care about your needs, your desires, or your life – he/she just needs a body to show up at call time and do the work, and hopes you will solve their problem by saying “yes.”

But what if you want to say “no?”

It depends. Like so much of life, Hollywood operates in a gray zone with very few absolute truths to guide you. If you happen to know the caller well enough to feel secure that he or she won’t delete your name from their list, you might be able to tell the truth and beg off the job. Otherwise, you’ll just have to lie.

“Thanks so much for the call. I’d love to work with you guys, but I’m already booked.”

It’s unfortunate, but admitting you’re available and simply don’t want to work a given job is often a mistake. During the twenty-plus years I worked as a Best Boy, then Gaffer, the one thing I really didn’t want to hear when offering somebody a job was “No thanks. I'm not working, but one day's work will just ruin my unemployment.”**

In other words, the prospect of working on my crew for a day -- and thus further cementing our professional relationship for the future -- wasn't worth the effort. Maybe this says more about me than them, but that kind of refusal just pissed me off. If the person instead turned me down because he/she was already booked for the day, that was fine, even if I suspected the conflicting job might be fictional. At least they'd been smart enough to feed me a lie I could swallow.

It's almost perverse, but telling the lie -- that you're already booked -- makes the best of a bad situation, and can even enhance your reputation in the mind of the caller. Other Best Boys are calling you, so you must be really good, right? The perception of being in demand can help create the reality.

At its core, Hollywood is an elaborate mechanism built for the express purpose of creating big beautiful lies. Acting is a skilled form of lying, writing scripts is the clever, highly organized telling of lies, and for many producers (and virtually all agents/managers) lying is a way of life. Other than straight-out documentaries, the vast majority of productions we help put up on screen are designed to create a compelling fiction – a polite term for the word “lie” -- to enthrall and entertain the viewing audience. Television is the worst, with every program bought and paid for by companies who then pummel the hapless viewer with loud, slick commercials (a lie by any other name is still a lie) every eleven minutes until the show is mercifully over. Given that the entertainment industry as a whole has long been a swamp of 200 proof, triple-distilled mendacity on every level, we who do the heavy lifting can be forgiven the occasional harmless and expedient little white lie.

Nobody will know (or care) so long as you tell a sincere and convincing lie, with the best and only universally acceptable excuses for not accepting a job being that you’re sick, out of town, or already booked on another job. Be sure to thank the caller for thinking of you, and – unless you really don’t want to work for that person again -- tell him/her that you’d love to work with them in the future. Never burn a bridge if you don’t have to. In such a fickle business, a job you don’t want today might be one you’d love to have a year or two from now.

You do have to be careful, though – the expedient lie should be employed only as a last resort. Keep it quick and simple, and don’t elaborate. This is a lot easier when leaving a voice mail message, of course. Telling such a lie during the course of a phone conversation can get sticky in a hurry once the caller starts quizzing you about the details of a job that doesn’t actually exist. Hollywood is a big little town, and getting specific as to who you’re supposedly working for and the nature of the fictional production will exponentially increase the risk of your convenient lie coming to light -- and in this business, reputation is important. You want to be known as hard working and reliable, not a serial liar. Getting caught in a single expedient lie won't necessarily ruin your reputation, but it can't help -- and if you make a habit of telling careless lies, your phone just might stop ringing.

In these hard times, turning down a crappy job is a luxury few of us can afford. Work is work, and one lousy day isn't going to kill you. Besides, you never know what will happen -- I've met some great people on really lousy jobs who would later help me get more and better work down the line. Still, to lie or not to lie is a judgment call depending on you and your individual circumstances. As Walter Scott pointed out (and Milli Vanilli learned the hard way), life is a lot simpler when you stick to the truth -- until for whatever reason, you can't.

And then it might be time for the little white lie.

* With no personal experience above-the-line, I can’t speak to the customs and formalities up there in big-money heights of Mt. Olympus.

** When collecting unemployment, you are required to report any paying work – and the pay for a one-day commercial or going into overtime on a TV gig can roughly equal that weekly unemployment check. So why spend a day working when you can make the same money for staying home? That’s a subject for another post...

Next week: Lies, lies, and more lies...

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Off the Hook

This pay phone on Vine near Hollywood Boulevard is almost enough to make me reconsider my Luddite stance towards cell phones...

I’ve got nuthin’ this week -- nada, zilch, bupkis, zero. With the show in the midst of a shooting five straight episodes (as opposed to the normal multi-camera schedule of three weeks on/one week off) and a Thursday block-and-shoot that requires me to be up at 5 a.m. followed by the Friday night shoot that never allows my head to hit the pillow before midnight, I’m pretty much fried by the weekend.* Saturday is a wasteland of essential chores: washing the mountain of accumulated dirty dishes in the sink, then doing all the laundry, grocery shopping, bill paying and banking required to get me through the following work week. Sundays are better – at least I feel human on Sunday – but enough chores remain to leach away the hours. So where’s the time to write a blog post?

Weekday mornings. But last week was a busy one on the show, each day starting earlier than normal, leaving me very little time to write.

And that’s why there’s no new post for today. Could be more of the same next week as well, but any readers who haven’t taken a walk through this post yet – the “Greatest Hits” more or less – might find something worth reading.

Or not. At any rate, I’ll be back with something new as time allows.

* Granted, this is nothing like the long hour abuse endured by crews of features and episodic television, but most of those people are a lot younger than moi...