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)

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Land 'o Links

Just Do It

They didn't follow the rules. Why should you?

I'm not a big fan of blog posts laden with links. A link or three that further illustrate a point is fine, but when every sentence is riddled with glowing patches of hypertext, the smooth flow of prose is disturbed and I start losing interest. That said, I'm often guilty of link abuse, and rarely so much as today. Black pot, meet the black kettle. But sometimes you've just gotta break the rules...

After a holiday week of overindulging in rich food and drink, are you fed up with reading/hearing/watching anything having to do with the terminally over-hyped Douchebagian family? Me too. I remain thoroughly baffled by the Douchebagians, having no idea who the hell they really are, how they became so famous, or why anyone beyond their obsessively narcissistic selves and the cloud of opportunistic flies hovering around them (agents, managers, and other assorted parasites) could care one way or another about their “reality” shows, clothing lines, fragrance products, or benighted celeb-u-tainment nuptial extravaganzas.

Seriously – who gives a shit about these look-at-me fools?

There are much better ways to spend your time, starting right here. Pay attention, kids -- I’ve been makin’ this list and checkin’ it twice...

KCRW’s The Business has been on a roll of late, including this fascinating interview with Werner Herzog -- who at the outset of the show promised to speak for exactly thirty minutes and not one second more. Herzog is a unique individual in the independent film world, crafting films nobody else would even consider making, and he’s learned a lot in the process. Accordingly, he has much to say on the subject -- which he does by running his own quick-and-dirty film school on a highly irregular basis, teaching a limited number of carefully selected students lessons on how to pick locks and forge film permits, among other things. The latter skill, Herzog claims, proved crucial in enabling him to finish his surreal epic Fitzcarraldo.

His advice to young would-be filmmakers is to avoid the system altogether and go to work doing any job that will earn ten thousand dollars over the course of six months to a year, then go out and make the film using cheap modern digital technology.

Whatever your involvement with Hollywood or the film/television industry at large, you’ll get a kick out of Werner Herzog. Having walked the walk over the past forty years, he’s earned the right to talk the talk – and there’s really nobody else quite like him.

The Business ran another interesting interview with Mark and Michael Polish, who more or less followed Herzog's template in making their new film For Lovers Only, shot in France on the very thinnest of shoestrings. They pulled it off in a manner that would make Werner proud, and their efforts should give any young wannabe hope that although the Hollywood system is indeed rigged against outsiders, you don’t necessarily have to play by the house rules.

Yet another recent half hour of The Business features an interview with Roland Emmerich discussing the long and winding road he traveled to put his new movie Anonymous -- at one point considered unmakeable -- up on the screen. Whatever your feelings about Emmerich, his movies, or the endlessly vituperative debate as to who William Shakespeare really was (not having studied this contentious issue, I have no dog in that fight), hearing how he overcame the many obstacles between script and screen is an interesting and instructional story. You don’t always have to like – or agree with – somebody to learn from them.

There's a common theme to all these interviews: if you really want to do something -- like make movies -- don't sit around waiting for some higher power to discover your true inner genius so you can then dazzle the world. Get off your creative ass and make it happen.

Otherwise, "it" might never happen for you at all.

It's the self-starters who make a difference in this world, regardless of the field -- those who refuse to play by the establishment rules, wait their turn in line, or take "no" for an answer. Those people carve out their own destiny, and sometimes achieve spectacular artistic and/or commercial success in this town and beyond. Rule-breakers can bomb in an equally spectacular manner, of course, but failure stalks all creative endeavors, including those that toe the line. Doing anything in this town is a roll of the dice, so if you really want to make your own films, what have you got to lose?

Steve Jobs and Bill Gates didn't follow the rules. Neither did Orson Welles, Steven Soderbergh, or Quentin Tarrantino -- instead they broke the mold and got it done their way. Welles paid a horrendous price for daring to buck the system, but in the process reinvented modern cinema, and for that earned his place as a Hollywood legend. Roland Emmerich might only be a legend in his own mind, but he makes a good point in his interview: "A moving train is more interesting than a train that's standing still" -- meaning that momentum is important. It's easier to attract backing for a project already rolling toward the starting gates than get people interested in a brilliant idea that has yet to venture off the page.

The lesson: get your project moving and make it happen.

And finally this four minute meditation from Rob Long, who once again explains how and why Hollywood works the way it does. His is another voice of experience, so listen up. You just might learn something.

That’s all for this week. Remember, only 24 shopping days left...

Sunday, November 27, 2011

A Time to Worry

The Network giveth and the Network taketh away...

Thanksgiving means many things to many people -- returning to the hearth for the traditional family feast, gathering with an impromptu family of fellow "orphans" marooned far from home, or simply hunkering down to dine alone, brood on the past, and pretend it doesn't matter.* But for those of us who toil in trenches of television, the last Thursday in November raises one crucial question: will my show get picked up?

“Yes” means maintaining a decent income for another three or four months, while a thumbs-down will send the entire crew back on the dole of unemployment just as the holidays drown us all under a tsunami of consumer spending. When your show doesn't get picked up, you’ll be scrimping on everything while day-playing for dollars until pilot season finally revs up next Spring.

I’ve been there more times than I care to recall, and it’s not fun.

There are lots of smiling faces around the studio lately, as show after brand-new show gets picked up for “the back nine,” giving those lucky crews a full slate of 22 episodes to keep them working well into March of 2012. Without clearing this hurdle, every new or returning show is doomed to the ashes-to-ashes fate that has sent so many to the funeral pyres of Hollywood over the past fifty years.

The bad news came to some good friends of mine just a few weeks ago – their show got the axe while in the midst of a Friday shoot day. The producers were waiting with grim faces as the crew filtered back from lunch, and after the meeting, they all had to go about the business of grinding out the seventh (and last) of what had been twelve scheduled episodes. I’m told the show-runner didn’t take it well – that he broke down and cried right there on set in front of everybody.

Ouch, babe.

That cancellation is a fact of life in the television biz doesn't make it any easier to take. When you sign on for twelve episodes, part of your brain starts putting every one of those future paychecks in the bank -- even though you know better, you start thinking of that money as yours -- so it’s a serious gut-punch when the rug is suddenly jerked from under your feet. It's also a severe test of the free-lance credo that having one door slammed in your face really does mean another one will open soon.

Sometimes that magic works, and sometimes it doesn’t.

The thing is, once you’ve planted your flag in Hollywood, life on the bubble is part of the deal. If you need job security, go work for the tax man or an undertaker -- those people will never go hungry.

The news usually arrives by Thanksgiving. Thus far the back-nine pick-ups have far outnumbered cancellations at my home lot, but the show I'm working on remains stuck in the netherworld purgatory of who-the-fuck-knows? As the clock runs out on our scheduled fifteen episodes – eleven down, four to go – we’ve had no word one way or the other. Meanwhile, the smiles on set grow thinner and a little more brittle every week.

It’s better to live with the uncertainty and retain hope than have the axe fall, of course, but the not-knowing inevitably create a vacuum... and nature does abhor a vacuum. With Thanksgiving approaching, that vacuum was filled by rumors. The most hopeful of these has us closing down for six weeks at Xmas, then coming back in mid-February for a pick-up of nine or ten additional episodes – or as happened last year, another fifteen . That’s the rumor I like, but there’s a darker narrative floating around that says the network will wrap production as scheduled at Christmas and won’t bring the show back – if it comes back at all – for six months.

Six fucking months??? A lot can happen in half a year, none of it good. In a town fueled by the power of foreword momentum, six months is an eternity. If we shut down for that long before any of the new episodes have even aired, I have a hard time believing we'll ever come back. It’s possible, of course – hell, anything’s possible – but each passing month pushes the odds ever further from the pale winter sun of “slim” towards the dark yawning abyss of “none.”

Even if the show does return for another short season in June or July, the entire crew will need to find paying work in the meantime, and such post-holiday jobs will be scarce until pilot season rolls around in late February and March. All of this makes for a rather poignant “holiday” season approaching, complete with lumps of network coal in our fireplace stockings -- the grim prospect entering a New Year rendered in the bleak gray hues of unemployment.

“So it goes,” to steal the signature line of an infinitely better writer than I’ll ever be. If you make your bed in Hollywood, you really do have to sleep in it. But the wild-card kicker is that we never know what’s coming around the bend, nor is there any way to suss out which of these rumors will morph into tangible fact. Sometimes that slamming door actually does lead to something better.

“Time will tell,” mom used to say, and as usual, mom was right. But time is running out. Thanksgiving has come and gone, and the news – good or bad - will arrive soon.

I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

* Having done all of these over the past three decades, I can attest that each has its up and downsides -- but the best description of modern Thanksgiving I've ever read is right here. It's only 800 words, and well worth your time...

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


Breaking the The Fourth Wall

I should know better by now. Having been burned more times than I care admit by the eccentricities and bugs in Blogger, I know damned well only a fool dares to compose and edit a post on-line using the domain host for this and a million other blogs. I’ve learned the hard way to do all the writing and editing off-line on my computer, then when everything is just right, log on and post.

Because if I don’t – if I walk out on that very thin ice and start dicking around with the words and syntax while trusting Blogger to save all those editing choices – that ice will eventually crack and leave me floundering in the dark, cold water. When it comes to saving edits on-line, Blogger is as trustworthy as Lindsay Lohan out on bail.

Which takes me to last Sunday. Having teleported back to the home planet for the holiday week – which just happened to coincide with my shows final hiatus – I tried to ram and jam the Sunday post onto the blog. But it wasn’t quite ready, and I knew it. So I started fixing things, cut a word here, paste a sentence over there, then reassemble the verbal infrastructure to accommodate all those changes. It took a lot longer than I’d anticipated, flipping back and forth between “preview” and “edit” modes, being careful to save each new and improved version as I went. Long about seven p.m. – many hours after I’d planned to post – it was finally ready for prime time. I hit the “publish” button and waited.

And waited...

Conditions are rather primitive here on the Home Planet -- no streetlights, wood heat, rabbit-ears television reception (meaning my 12 inch portable cathode ray gun can display one of three channels if and when conditions are right), and slow-as-a-tortoise dial-up internet.

I don’t know if it was Blogger or my lousy internet connection, but something fucked up. After a full minute staring at a blank screen, I clicked the “back” button and found the post in edit mode... only none of the edits were there – Blogger didn’t save any of them. All that work hammering the post into shape had vanished into the ether.

Back to square one, I threw in the towel. It was late, I was tired. Time for wine and food and staring into the fire. Fuck the goddamned internet...

And that’s why there was no fresh post last Sunday.

Now, three days later, I go back to look at that post and it just pisses me off. I see all the problems I’d fixed, but no longer recall the solutions. Essentially, I have to start all over again, and right now simply don’t have the energy. Thanksgiving looms, and then the long haul back to LA and four more weeks of work before we shoot episode 15 – the final scheduled show of this year – on December 22. Add in the frenzy of Christmas bearing down on us all like a big black steam train festooned with tinsel and colored lights, and it looks like energy will be in short supply as the clock runs out on 2011.

Maybe I’ll knock the post back into shape by next Sunday, and maybe not. Right now that seems unlikely -- just looking at that post depresses me. When that stops being the case, I’ll sit down and get the work done ... and I’ll damned well finish the editing off-line before entrusting my post to the not-so-tender mercies of Blogger.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving, all of you.

Sunday, November 13, 2011


(Photo by Ben Margot, AP)

"To err is human; to forgive, divine."

Alexander Pope

No matter how careful we are, no matter how many times we remind ourselves to check and double-check, we all screw up from time to time. Everybody does. Ours is a highly imperfect world heavily populated with equally imperfect human beings – and anytime humans are involved, mistakes will be made.

After a long and tiring blocking/pre-shoot day recently, I slogged home through the LA gridlock, poured a glass of wine, and began preparing a simple dinner. While chopping an onion, a cosmic snowball suddenly came howling in out of the ether and smacked me right upside the head. My knife froze in mid-air.

I’d fucked up.

I tried to reassure myself that my blunder was no big deal, but the more I thought about it – and after a few seconds of gear-spinning cogitation, this was suddenly all I could think about – the worse it got. A brain fart at the end of the day led me leave a dozen or so practical fixtures in one of our swing sets still burning after we’d clocked out and left the stage.* Although the total wattage involved was minimal (two or three hundred watts, max), even a small incandescent lamp can be a fire hazard if left burning in the wrong place at the wrong time.** Given that we weren’t due back on stage until the following morning, those wall sconces and small table lamps would be burning unattended on set for at least twelve hours before anyone on the set lighting crew could turn them off. If just one of those lamps had been left too close to filmy drapes hung on a set wall built of thin, highly flammable wood, a fire could eventually ignite and do considerable damage before the stage sprinkler system doused the flames. Although the sound stage itself could survive such a disaster, the combination of fire, smoke, and water would certainly ruin our sets and all the furnishings, and possibly much of the grip, lighting, and camera equipment.

This worst-case scenario (and I’ve always been a worst-case-scenario guy) was grim indeed. A dark vision unfolded in my head -- driving to work the following morning to find a mountain of sodden, smoldering wreckage inside our sound stage. Not only would I be out of a job, but so would the entire crew – and all because of me. Even if the show were to rise like a phoenix from the ashes with new sets on another sound stage, my services would certainly no longer be required or desired. I’d likely be banished from that studio, forced back to the unforgiving world of day-playing on whatever shows would have me. At my age, cobbling together enough work days to survive, let alone hang on to my union health coverage, would be a steep hill to climb.

In reality, such an apocalyptic scenario was unlikely, but having left the door open to the possibility, I was staring down the barrel of a long and troubled night. See, it’s all right for others to make mistakes occasionally – hey, they’re only human -- but for reasons that would require a psychiatrist to fully unearth, it’s not okay for me to fuck up. I expect myself to cover all the bases at work and make sure that nothing under my control slides off the rails. That’s just not supposed to happen.

But it did, and now I had to fix it.

There were a host of contributing factors to this particular fuck-up. Our show labors under an exceedingly tight lighting budget, and with five swing sets that week – including sets built within sets – we’d been pushed to the limit. Lacking enough dimmer circuits to run all our lamps and the swing set practicals, we’d resorted to using two home-built “Socco-Savers” – each with six household dimmers running off power from a single plug – to free up half a dozen Socapex circuits for lighting the sets.***

                                              Home-built "Socco-Saver"

The downside of this was that responsibility for adjusting the on-set practicals then shifted from the dimmer operator to the set juicers, who ordinarily don’t worry about adjusting -- or killing -- practical fixtures. Socco-Savers are generally powered via a Socapex circuit so that the practicals will still go off when the dimmer operator kills the power to that set, but in trying to save every possible dimmer circuit for our lamps, we’d powered both Socco-Savers from a studio wall plug not under dimmer control -- and that meant somebody had to remember to unplug those units at wrap. Since the Best Boy had to leave work a little early that day, that somebody was me.

And I forgot.

Leaving the onions half-chopped on the cutting board, I called the Best Boy and explained the situation. He agreed to call the studio’s electrical shop (where a real electrician is always on duty so long as any filming is taking place on the lot) to take care of things. With the problem solved -- and potential disaster averted -- I went back to my dinner preparations and bottle of wine with a clear conscience, secure in the knowledge that the stage and sets (and my job) were safe. I slept easy that night.

The next morning, I headed in a little early, grabbed a cup of coffee and a doughnut at crafty, then found the set dressing department’s Lead Man carting away the last of the swing set furnishings.

“The practicals were off this morning, right?” I asked.

“Nope,” he said. “I had to pull the plug and let ‘em cool down for a few minutes before I took the bulbs out.”

That was a sobering moment. It turns out I’d “slept easy” with my clear conscience on the thin ice of a Fool’s Paradise after all.

I don’t know what happened with the studio electrician, and didn’t ask. Maybe he had a busy night taking care of the several episodics shooting late that evening, and never got around to checking our stage. Since nothing bad resulted -– another bullet dodged -- it doesn’t really matter. Luck was with us both that night, so no harm, no foul.

That doesn't excuse me, of course, nor does the fact that nobody else on our crew remembered to check those practicals at the end of the day either. Since I was standing in for the Best Boy, the weight of that fuck-up rests squarely on my shoulders. If Alexander Pope was right, any forgiveness must come from a higher source.

Still, such near-miss experiences serve a useful purpose. The important lesson to absorb is that none of us -- newbie or veteran -- can afford the kind of complacent assumptions that might leave your crew in the position of depending on someone outside the department to cover their asses. Don't let that happen.

I certainly won't. Whether covering for the Best Boy or not, I won't leave that stage again at the end of the day without doing a quick walk-around to check every set.

Call it a form of penance if you will, but refusing to make that same mistake again is the only way I'll earn my own forgiveness.

* “Practicals” are the table lamps, floor lamps, chandeliers, and sconces set decorators can’t seem to get enough of...

** An incandescent bulb is really nothing but a tiny toaster -- complete with glowing white-hot filament -- encased in a very thin glass shell.

*** Socapex is multistrand cable that comes out of a dimmer pack and ends with a "breakout" consisting of six individual circuits, each capable of powering a 2000 watt lamp.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Yes or No?

It all depends...

(This is a follow-up to last week’s post concerning the value of knowing when to say "enough")

Over at The Hills are Burning, AJ recently posted a few rules of the Hollywood road for Industry below-the-liners under the general heading of “You’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do.” Her list is brimming with hard-earned wisdom that any wannabe or newbie griptricians would do well to absorb... but I’d offer a caveat to one of AJ’s nuggets:

"I may be tired and want a day off, but when a call comes in for work, I'll take it anyway because who knows what great things this job may lead to."

This is certainly the right approach most of the time -- suck it up to do a good job, meet and impress a new crew, and come away from the experience with a check in the mail and further opportunities for future employment. That’s how you expand your network of contacts and eventually move up in the business. The one exception I'd add to that rule is when you’re too tired to bring your “A” game to the job -– if for whatever reason you really do need that day off -- then you might think twice before taking the call.

When a Best Boy or a UPM you've never worked for calls out of the blue, it’s usually because he/she got your name from a trusted source, which means you’ve begun to build the foundation of a solid reputation. That's a very good thing, but a budding reputation is a lot like a fragile young plant breaking through the soil into the sunlight -- it must be carefully nurtured to take root and grow strong. Your mom was right when she warned “You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression,” so when you take a job with a new crew, you'd better be ready to deliver. If you show up tired, cranky, or otherwise unable to work up to your usual high standards, you may be blowing any further chance to work with that particular crew. Not only will the Best Boy (and his entire crew) conclude that you’re not nearly as good as advertised, but you’ll have burned the person who recommended you for the job in the first place, thus making him-or-her less likely to throw your name in the hat for another gig.

At best this represents a squandered opportunity, and at worst, you might have done yourself some real damage. Other than getting paid for your work -- always a plus -- that's a lose/lose outcome. Ours is a performance-based Industry where reputations live or die based on word-of-mouth. Given that word travels fast in this business, if the buzz is that you're an unreliable quantity (for whatever reason), your working reputation -- and income -- will suffer.

I torched a couple of bridges early in my career by getting greedy and taking calls when I was too fatigued from overwork or had indulged in way too much fun the night before. Hard drinking and chasing women (or whichever gender floats your boat) on a school night is something most young workbots are going to do -- hey, what’s the point of living if you can’t have some fun? – but timing is the issue here, and heavy partying the night before working with a new crew can be a huge mistake.

There's a potential bonus in having the discipline to decline a job you're not rested and ready for (assuming you turn it down the right way) -- the Best Boy who wanted to hire you will suddenly understand that your services are in demand. If he thinks that some other BB already nabbed you for a gig, then maybe you really are as good as your reputation.

This kind of defensive subterfuge might sound like a stretch -- and it's not something you want to make a habit of -- but I have reason to believe it worked for me early in my career. In any event, it's better to skip a job and preserve your good reputation than stumble through the day and make the Best Boy wish he'd called somebody else. Sometimes discretion really is the better part of valor.*

It's always a judgement call -- only you know what you're truly capable of, and the only real way to find out is by doing it. When first getting started or still finding your Industry legs, you'll take every paying job that comes along. That's what I did, and in the process, learned what my own limits were by pushing the envelope. When I pushed too hard, I tried to learn from those experiences and not make the same mistake again.

Instead, I found lots of brand new mistakes to make... but such is life, a bruising process from start to finish.

The instant nature of modern communication makes it hard for young griptricians (and other budding below-the-liners) to make a truly thoughtful yes/no decision. Pagers and telephone answering machines were the latest in must-have technology when I was getting started, allowing a relatively fat cushion of time to ponder the pros and cons before returning a work call. Nowadays, a Best Boy marches right down his cell phone contact list to hire the first person who answers, or else texts everyone on that list instantaneously and waits for a return text/call. In the modern heat of the moment, making a considered decision isn't easy, so most young juicers and grips just say "yes" and hope for the best.

Still, choosing wisely -- taking the pulse of all relevant factors at the moment -- can make a big difference to a newbie on the way up. So the next time work (or life) is coming at you hot and heavy, allow a moment to think when your phone rings with a job from a new source. Hard as it is to say "no" to any work, if you're not ready or able to give a full hundred percent to that new employer, you might be doing yourself a favor by letting it go.

* The proper quote (which I didn't know until looking it up) is "The better part of valor is discretion," from Henry the Fourth, by William Shakespeare.