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...


Anonymous said...

When I watch old movies I often wonder what happened to the crew, where they ended up. I usually think this when I'm watching the classic black and whites, knowing that there weren't many safeguards then, but they did have a steady paycheck.

Now that there are no safeguards nor steady paychecks, what will happen to the crew of today?

The Grip Works said...

Great post Michael !

A.J. said...

Beautifully written post, Michael. Thanks for the reminder that despite the never ending battle for survival, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing.

Michael Taylor said...

Anonymous --

That's a great question. I guess we'll all find out...

Sanjay --

Glad you liked it. Hope you're doing well, and thanks for tuning in.

AJ --

Thanks for your kind words. Striving to achieve a workable balance between our work life and "real life" here in Hollywood -- and beyond -- seems a never-ending quest. We're always pushing that big rock up the steep hill, and trying not to get crushed in the process.

Scripty said...

Thanks for linking to the story on Brent. It's so important for everyone to remember that long days are not worth dying for!

CJ said...

Unfortunately, if you have been in the business long enough this story will not suprise you. Many of us have pushed ourselves to breaking simply for the opportunity to book the next job, knowing full well our bodies and lives can be negatively affected by it. I can remember starting out I took anything that came my way. And you should, but no when to say when. Or, your body will make that decision for you.

I feel for you Michael, both as a man you've never met and as a brother technician. Mentors are hard to come by and, espescially in this business of more non-union jobs, floating independent contractors and the like, they should be cherished. We who have been around the block more than once need to watch out for those less studied. Not to belittle them, but to protect them.

I'm sure Michael and others with some history in the business have expressed outrage at ridiculous turn-arounds or requests. I've had to tell some of my guys to sleep for a few hours before they even try going home. Just to come in the next day and find them sleeping in their cars or the Grandma's attic. And you know what, that's ok. These are young people with high hopes and it's my job not just to get them hired, not just to teach them, but to protect them from themselves sometimes. Beacuse one day the inevitable question of how much am I willing to sacrifice comes into play. And I think you should be well rested to find the answer.

I appologize for rambling, this subject in near and dear to me. A while back a young juicer, whose name I will ommit out of respect, was killed in a car crash coming home off a 15 hour day, 10 hour turn around, 3rd in a row. Dozed off for one second and that was it. Sometimes the dream makes you comprimise and sometimes the pursuit makes you jadded. Newbies, know when to ask for help and vet's, get your head out of your ass and know when to use your goodwill, experience and voice. Sometimes saving money is not worth the cost.

Michael Taylor said...

Scripty --

Thanks -- nice to hear from you.

CJ --

That's a truly ugly story about your juicer. Personally, I've never considered a ten hour turnaround to be enough -- and three long days with only ten hour turnarounds is borderline criminality on the part of production. Given the realities of drive time, unwinding enough to be able to sleep and getting up in time to make it back to location means a ten hour turnaround allows for maybe five or six hours of decent sleep -- and medical science has established that's simply not enough. In my book, that young man's blood is on their hands.

I'm really sorry to hear about that. It was tough enough to lose a good friend and mentor, but I can't imagine how it feels to lose one of your crew in such a pointlessly unnecessary manner.

Studio turnaround is even worse -- nine hours -- and if you're working for the slavemasters at Beachwood/Sony Studios, an eight hour turnaround is allowed. That is fucking ridiculous.

If I was King of Hollywood, turnaround would be twelve hours, and every production would have to shut down -- wrap included -- by the fourteenth hour.

But that's not gonna happen...

Anonymous said...

Brilliant stuff, Michael ... you're a natural born mentor - kooba