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, January 29, 2012

Week One

“Don’t put your foot through a Rembrandt”

Quip from The Unknown Gaffer...

Makeup tables backstage

“It’s a piece of cake,” said the voice on the phone, a gaffer I’ve known for a very long time. “The DP is a great guy who knows what he wants and doesn't try to re-invent the wheel every week. Most of the episodes only have one swing set, and sometimes not even that – our last three shows didn’t have any swing sets at all.”

Given that lighting the swing sets is where the heavy lifting takes place on a multi-camera show, this job sounded like the easiest sit-com money I’d ever make. Not very much money, mind you, since working under a $650,000-per-episode cable contract means getting paid the increasingly common and much reviled cable-rate by a production company feeling relentless pressure from their corporate overlords to wring every last drop of blood from the budgetary turnip.* Unlike my old show, there would be no 48 hour weekly guarantee for the juicers -- I’d get the industry minimum eight hour daily guarantee plus any additional hours worked, and that’s all. Combined with the low hourly cable-rate, that meant a $300 cut in weekly pay, but with my old show more or less on the dust-bin of history and nothing on the horizon for the immediate future, I was ready to take pretty much anything short of an All 4/0, All The Time rigging call.** This job would draw first blood in the New Year and keep my head above water for the entire month of January without kicking my ass.

At this point in my career, that means something. Since making the best of a situation – going with the flow, more or less – comes with the turf in free lance Hollywood, I signed on for the duration.

As it turns out, this show is another product of Disney’s assembly-line comedy machine, churning out simple (and simple-minded) shows made for an audience of kids between six and twelve years old. Most of the cast is well under eighteen, but as the first week unfolded, I was surprised how good they were in front of the cameras. True, we’re not exactly making “Hamlet” here, but these kids fully inhabit their roles, and bring a lot of energy to the set. They've got talent, too, and it's clear that one way or another, they'll be making buckets of money for the Disney Corporation over the next few years.

Not those of us toiling below-the-line, though (not working for the Mousewitz cable-rate, anyway), but the awkward truth is that the low pay had everything to do with my getting this job in the first place. A slot on the crew was open only because the Best Boy hasn’t been able to keep a crew all season long. His juicers would have stayed if the show paid scale, but the minute one of them got wind of a better-paying job, he or she was gone.

The first week was pretty much as advertised, with just one small swing set resulting in three short and easy lighting days. The block-and-shoot day went twelve hours, but didn’t involve much actual work, and the shoot night was over and done in only ten hours. Our DP really is a sweetheart; calm, polite, and a very nice guy, he’s clear and decisive when it comes to lighting the sets. Equally important, he understands what matters and what doesn’t -- he knows when not to "put his foot through a Rembrandt." I’ve worked for him in the past, and always enjoyed the experience, which is one reason I took this gig. In many ways, he’s the polar opposite of the DP I just did 45 episodes with – a cameraman with a similarly great eye, but whose frantic, ceaseless tweaking of the lighting earned him the nickname of “The OCDP.” He’d shoot out of the “Bat Cave” like a Polaris missile twenty times a day to have us add a scrim to a lamp, take it out, pan the head a quarter inch to the right, then put the scrim back. He’d then stare at his light meter, shake his head, and dart back into the Bat Cave.***

There would be none of that on this show, which made it a lot easier to say “yes” to the job.

The gaffer is a very old friend I’ve known since well before either of us got in the business, but if there’s one thing you can count on in Hollywood, it’s the peril of believing the siren song of a smiling man with a silver tongue. Even if he’s telling the gospel truth as he believes it, when he says “bring a book – you’ll need it,” you can bet that sweet promise of a rocking-chair gig will curdle and turn sour before long. That the previous three episodes didn’t include a single swing set between them – three easy-as-pie bottle shows in a row – meant nothing, because the past is seldom prologue in a crazy business where the only guarantee is that there are no guarantees.

That first week was indeed a piece of cake, but it was also the calm before the storm. As I drove home Friday night after our first audience shoot, I had no clue that the easy part of this job was over, or how very different the next two weeks were going to be.

* $650K might sound like a lot to the uninitiated, but my last show – which paid cable-rate in the first season, then bumped us up closer to full scale for Season Two – was made on a $900K per episode contract. Considering that that the average network multi-camera show comes in around $1.5 million per episode (which is still considered a bargain in the upside-down world of television), you can understand just how cheap Disney really is.

** A friend of mine – younger than me, but no Spring Chicken – took such a call last year and ended up wrangling seven hundred pieces of 4/0 through a mountainous canyon for the movie “Super Eight.” The poor bastard won’t make that mistake again...

*** The “Bat Cave” is a dark, closet-sized room where the DP and a Digital Imaging Technician sit all day and stare at a $27,000 flat screen monitor displaying the feeds from all four cameras.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The New Job

The ropes, brakes, and counterweights at the heart of an arbor system

A new year, a new job, another Monday. I stand in the pre-dawn chill with my work bag slung over a shoulder, waiting for the red light to turn green so I can cross Sunset Boulevard without being sent into the Great Beyond by some bleary-eyed commuter lead-footing it to a job he hates but is scared to death he might lose. The darkness is just beginning to fade in the east, the air still and cold. In the fluorescent glow of the corner gas station, a ragged form sleeps on the sidewalk next to a shopping cart filled with scavenged cans and bottles. A filthy, tattered blanket is pulled tight, leaving only an unruly mop of dirty hair to face the world. Once again I confront a living, breathing reminder of just how thin the line can be between a relatively comfortable life and the purgatory of wandering big city streets in a daily struggle to survive – and how fortunate I am to have a job in such troubled times.

Even a cheap-ass cable-rate gig that will run out in less than four weeks. It’s a job, and I’m glad to have it.

The light finally turns green, but I wait a beat and look both ways before crossing. Can’t be too careful in this, the second decade of a very lean and increasingly mean new millennium. A hundred yards down, I surrender my driver’s license to the security guard manning a dilapidated kiosk. He checks my ID against the show’s updated crew list, then returns the license with a red wrist band that will allow me to come and go throughout the day. This doesn’t apply, since I won’t be leaving the studio until our work day is done, but protocol is protocol.

Sometimes you just have to go with the flow.

I navigate around the antique “gate” – a ridiculous hand-operated boom that looks like a prop from an old Groucho Marx comedy – and make my way through the gathering dawn between the big sound stages. Once upon a time this was the old Warner Brothers studio (now saddled with the bland and breathtakingly unimaginative name of “The Sunset Bronson Studios”) before the brothers Warner finally hit it big with "The Jazz Singer" and were able to leave their competition -- the rest of the second-tier “Poverty Row” film studios at the time -- in the dust when they moved to their current studio in the San Fernando Valley.

Our stage is a funky relic of those earlier days, complete with an "arbor system" for hanging and powering the lamps. With an arbor rig (or Fly System), the pipes are suspended from cables and pulleys allowing them to be lowered to the floor, then raised back up once the lamps have been hung and powered. Such systems have long been standard for theatrical productions, but they won't work for sit-coms or episodics, which require maximum flexibility to meet the lighting needs from one episode to the next. This show doesn't use the arbor system as it was designed -- rarely raising or lowerer the arbor pipes -- but simply as the basic pipe grid. To provide the requisite flexibility, the grips hung an additional fixed-pipe rig amid the arbor pipes that can be modified as needed.

This awkward blending of two very different systems creates some problems. On a standard pipe grid, juicers can add or remove lamps without alerting the grips – but with an arbor system, counterweights must be adjusted accordingly whenever a change is made to keep that particular pipe in balance. If that critical balance is not maintained, an arbor pipe can become dangerously overloaded on one end or the other. When the rope lock is released on a seriously unbalanced pipe, the law of gravity can take over with potentially catastrophic results. A grip or juicer unlucky enough to have a finger, hand, or arm caught between one of the fixed-grid pipes and a suddenly rising or sinking arbor pipe could end up in a world of hurt.

The danger is minimal as we hang lamps to light a set, but the tricky part will come when we wrap the entire stage in a few weeks -- and that's when my department will have to work in very close communication with the grips to make sure nothing bad happens.

It's stupid to even have to worry about such things, but this is what happens when the people who make the deals (and the money...) above-the-line don't know a goddamned thing about the actual nuts and bolts of getting a show made. So now it's up to us to make this unholy marriage of two completely different systems work without anybody getting hurt in the process.

That should be interesting.

Still, this grip crew is good, and seems to have the proper attitude. One of them introduced himself as I was inspecting the arbor system. I mentioned "The Jazz Singer," adding "I guess we're breathing the dust of history on this stage." With a quick grin, he put a hand to his mouth and coughed a reply. "We're sure as hell breathing something in here..."

I think we'll all get along fine.

The work day is short when we come in early on Monday. As the troupe of young actors precede the director on set, we hang up our tool belts and head for home. The sun is high as I walk back through that ancient studio gate back to the real world beyond. At the gas station across Sunset, the homeless man is long gone in search of more recyclable cans and bottles, and another patch of hard concrete for a bed come nightfall.

Such is life in modern Hollywood, where everything seems to get just a little bit tougher every year.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

A Matter of Time

As one door closes, another opens up...

(Paraphrased from a quote by Alexander Graham Bell)

Just three weeks ago this tree was the centerpiece of somebody's home, lovingly decorated in tinsel and twinkling Christmas lights, with a small mountain of brightly-wrapped presents spilling out around the trunk. As the focus of a season celebrating family, love, and togetherness, a Christmas tree represents everything good about the holidays.... and now here it sits, stripped bare in the cold winter light and left out on the street with the rest of the garbage.

There’s an ugly metaphor of some sort in there, but I’m not sure I care to look it in the eye.

The only constant is change, and one of these days each of us will be left out with the trash, figuratively speaking, shuffling off this mortal coil into the Great Beyond. If we’re lucky, a few words will be said, a glass or two raised in our honor, and that will be that. After a respectful moment, the world will turn away and move on as it always has and always will, until the day comes when humanity finally manages to erase itself from this earth. Nothing sustains, nor can the center hold as time marches on.

While back on the Home Planet during the holidays, I watched the television news as a crazy Chechen sporting a pony tail terrorized Hollywood and the surrounding area by setting three dozen fires in cars and apartment buildings over the course of several nights. Meanwhile, a serial killer stalked the homeless community in Orange County, murdering several pitiful souls who had already lost pretty much everything else in life.

Yes, nothing says “holiday spirit” here in Southern California quite like an epidemic of arson and murder...

I returned to the Doomed City of the Future after the holidaze to find a pile of mail on my doorstep, mostly junk –- advertising circulars for businesses and services I’ll never use -- along with the usual stack of bills chanting the same message: Happy New Year, now pay up. Sorting wheat from chaff, I came across a small white envelope with an American flag on the back and a return address for The Neptune Society. Across the front was a teaser apparently designed to titillate my interest enough to rip that envelope open.

“Free Pre-Paid Cremation!” it read, “Details Inside.”

People of Neptune, I’m not quite ready to be shoved into an incinerator and reduced to a small bowl of ashes -- not just yet. And really, are you sure the phrase “Free Pre-Paid Cremation!” makes any sense? If the corpse-burning is "free" then what’s the “pre-paid” bit all about, and if your body-barbeque service requires pre-payment, exactly how is that "free?" Inquiring minds want to know.

So thanks anyway, Neptunians, but don't call me -- I'll call you.

Still, perhaps this serves as a useful reminder that we always have something left to lose until suddenly we don't -- and once that threshold is crossed, nothing else will matter anyway. But until that grim day, hope remains... and right on cue, as I took down the 2011 wall calendar to put up a new one for 2012, the phone rang with a job offer. Yet another low-budget, cheap-ass Disney sit-com at cable rate (20% under union scale and no double-time until the fifteenth hour of work), of course, and with only three episodes left plus the stage wrap, will provide barely a month of work -- enough to make the February nut and put a small dent in the Christmas credit card bills as they roll in with the daily mail. Not a great job, but a job all the same, and if the New Year is to begin with baby steps, so be it. Out with the old and in with the new. As winter leads to spring, the low rumble of pilot season can be heard in the distance -- and that means one thing: soon the Buffalo will return to Hollywood, and the hunting will be good.

It’s just a matter of time.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Finale

Our last week on the show was tough. Saddled with the depressing news that there would be no “back nine” pickup, it was hard to feel any real cheer or holiday spirit as Christmas approached. Still, we played out the string in a professional manner, pushing hard right up through the final live audience show-night on December 22. Truth is, we didn't have much choice. Although it would have been nice to enjoy a leisurely conclusion to the season – a “bottle show” using only the permanent sets, and thus requiring no laborious, time-consuming lighting/wrapping of swing sets – that was not to be.

The original schedule called for the final episode to be shot the night of Dec. 23, but it finally dawned on somebody above-the-line that this would force half the show’s writers, producers, and the entire cast onto Christmas Eve flights to the Northwest, Southeast, and East coast, arguably the worst day of the year to battle airport crowds. Accordingly, the shoot night was moved up a day.

Having no desire to make the long drive back to the Home Planet on an Interstate crowded with similarly harried, fatigued last-minute holiday travelers, this schedule change worked for me – but there is no free lunch in Hollywood, and the price this time was doing a full weeks work in only four days, thus putting the entire crew into a full-court press to cram that last show in the can. And far from a sweet little “bottle show,” the season-ending episode turned out to include five swing sets, one of which would be built inside another swing set (something like Russian nesting dolls) after the first set had been shot out during the block-and-shoot day. In turn, that meant the grips, juicers, and set dressing crew would have to come in an hour early to get the new set camera-ready on the morning of the audience shoot.

There would be no rest for the wicked or anybody else this last week.

Following the immutable dictates of Murphy's Law, everything went wrong, starting with that fifth swing set. The plan, as explained to grip and electric, was to build the new set just inside the perimeter of the old one, allowing us to light it using lamps that were already hung and powered. Although we'd certainly have to readjust the aim of each lamp, that wouldn't require a major effort. But -- and there’s always a big “but” in these stories -- the construction dept. didn’t get the memo, and since they have no clue or apparent interest in what all the other departments have to do to make each show work, they built the new set a good four feet off center... which meant all those pipes and lamps were now in the wrong place and had to be moved, pronto.

Thanks for one last nasty surprise, production designer and construction crew – and fuck you very much.

What was supposed to be a quick-and-dirty hour’s worth of lighting turned into a full-on, sweat-soaked, balls-to-the-wall sprint as the grips moved the pipes and we re-hung the lamps to light the new set – and this with the clock ticking down towards shoot night, always the longest day of our work week. Meanwhile, camera, sound, and production enjoyed a leisurely breakfast at the craft service table.

Do I sound bitter? Moi??

It was a crazy day right from the start, with no time for sharing Christmas plans or saying goodbyes to the rest of the crew – that would have to wait for the party after the show. During the audience shoot, lamps that had been working just fine for the past five months suddenly began to act up, burning out globes or flickering intermittently. Season Two was not going down without a kicking and screaming struggle right to the bitter end.... but we put out each fire as it flared up, and waded through the rubble to get the finale done more or less on time.

A minor miracle, that.

The audience didn’t seem to notice. Maybe they thought all our flailing around on ladders between takes was just part of the act. Thank God for the warm-up guy, who managed to keep them laughing all night long no matter what was happening on set.

After the curtain call, the audience was ushered out and we had the Christmas/Wrap Party, complete with a two-drink limit, ceremonial showing of the gag reel, and all those lugubrious, bittersweet goodbyes. Numbed with accumulated fatigue, the whole thing passed in a blur before I knew it, the stage emptying as the crew filtered out into the night. And then it was my turn, stumbling back to the parking structure lugging my work bag, a few presents from fellow crew members, and another seasons worth of brightly-lit memories. Driving through the studio gates leaving yet another show in my rear-view mirror, it was time to face real life again and the holidays – and with no show to come back to, time to turn the page.

Other than what will certainly be an endlessly grueling, hideously depressing presidential campaign, a potential economic melt-down in Europe that could scuttle our own tenuous recovery here at home, and the ever-present threat of another war in the Middle East -– weighty issues far beyond the scope of this little patch of Internet real estate -- I have no clue what 2012 will bring. Enough work to pay the rent, keep my health plan coverage, and put food on the table, I hope. With any luck, a few bright moments will emerge to sparkle amid the inevitable tsunami of trouble. Good, bad, and/or ugly, it will be a voyage of discovery for all of us in Hollywood and beyond.

Good luck out there. I think we’re gonna need it.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The New Year

"You can’t always get what you want"

By Mick Jagger, with a little help from Keith Richards...

The word finally came down from on high. After three weeks of wondering and waiting -- and just nine shopping days before Christmas – it was official: there will be no “back nine” for my show. Although not officially cancelled, we’re being sent to the purgatory of indefinite hiatus. After an all-too-brief holiday break, we’ll wrap the 250 or so lamps and several thousand feet of cable used to light this show, and by the time we’re done all the sets will have been disassembled and locked away in storage. The studio will then clean the stage from top to bottom to be ready for the next show, whatever that may be.

After 45 episodes over the course of nearly two years, it’s over. So much for my fantasies of riding this sit-com wave all the way onto the sunny beach of retirement.

Our First AD put on a brave face as he dispensed the bad news. Flanked by our two main stars (who together represent one third of the executive producer corps), he insisted that we have a good chance of coming back sometime later in the year, maybe June or July... or September... but no matter how much lipstick the three of them tried to smear on this pig, it was still a squirming, stinking, shit-stained hog. If the network was truly committed to this show, they’d have ponied up the money to finish out the season, but at this point they haven’t even bothered to air any of the fifteen new episodes -- and this despite a ratings spike for the Season One finale that doubled the viewing audience. Logic would seem to dictate they keep a hot hand rolling and put the new episodes on the air before all those viewers find something else to watch.

But that’s normal, down-to-earth human logic, and thus does not apply. Network logic pulsates and hums at a rhythm and frequency inaudible to those without keys to the executive suites above-the-line.

Granted, we were never a big hit – maybe a million viewers per week – but these little multi-camera cable shows are cheap to make. With numbers good enough for the network to invest over forty million dollars in making those 45 episodes, why not keep the ball rolling and crank out another nine or ten to complete Season Two?

I really don’t know. Maybe there’s been a shift of some sort up in Mt. Olympus, where the Network Gods plot and hatch devious schemes against one another without any thought to how their Machiavellian machinations might roil the lives of those hapless mortals toiling below-the-line. It’s entirely possible that whoever backed my show up there was stabbed in the back during some high-stakes turf battle, allowing some other show to live on while we slide into oblivion. Whatever the cause, I put our odds of returning for Season Three on the far side of slim to none.

Still -- when I step back for a little perspective -- we did shoot 45 episodes over the course of two seasons, which works out to a roughly 22 episode per season schedule enjoyed by successful broadcast network sitcoms. It’s not the 100 episodes we all hoped for, but as the great English philosopher Mick Jagger once pointed out, “You can’t always get what you want.”

Ain’t that the truth – but this 45 episode run was considerably longer than any other show I’ve had the good fortune to work on.* I can’t really complain about that. Besides, the second half of Jagger’s famous lyric evokes the world-weary hope that is the voice of experience: “But if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need.”


I’m not particularly worried about finding another job. With pilot season just around the corner (and I’m hearing this one is going to be a monster), something will come along – it always does – but I do hate the idea of no longer working with this crew; the grips, set dressers, prop dept, sound, camera, hair and makeup, and production staff. They’re a wonderful collection of very interesting people, all of whom now scatter to the four winds in the eternal quest for fire – paying work – that is the cross every Hollywood free-lancer must bear.

I’ll see some of them again, no doubt, but even if this show does rise from the dead like Lazarus late next year, most will have found other shows by then. That's how it is in Hollywood. Whatever happens, the next crew will likely be very different.

And so the pale sun rises from the east over a Hollywood rendered in the bleak, gray hues of winter. For the moment – and with a lump of network coal dangling in the bottom of my Christmas stocking -- I face the New Year like so many Americans these days, unemployed.


May we all get what we really need in the months to come.

Happy New Year.

* As a member of the core crew, anyway. I was a regular day-player the last two seasons on “Will and Grace,” but not part of the core crew. At Christmas, that meant watching everybody else load Apple computers, gift baskets of wine and cheese, and five hundred dollar gift cards in their cars at the end of the night. Hey, at least the DP – a great guy – gave me a bag of his wife’s homemade peanut butter candy so I didn’t go home empty-handed.