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, March 18, 2012

A Week of Mondays

"Five o'clock in the morning, already up and gone..."

From Working in a Coal Mine, by Lee Dorsey

Yeah, a very convenient throat level...

It's a Monday, all right. Up well before dawn, stumbling into my rigging clothes – fly zipped? Check, boots tied? Check, sweatshirt right-side-out? Check -- then out the door, into the car, and on through the primordial dark towards the gleaming glass towers of downtown LA. The streets are quiet at this ungodly hour, empty but for a scattering of RTD buses, garbage trucks, and hapless fellow O-dark-thirty commuters as we glide from one red light to the next. Reporting for work at a new (to me) studio is always a dicey affair. Unable to fall back on my old routine of winding up and over Laurel Canyon -– a drive I could probably do with my eyes closed by now -– I actually have to pay attention where I’m going on this Monday morning, trusting that the Best Boy’s sketchy directions and a night-before consultation with my ancient, dog-eared Thomas Brothers Map book will indeed get me to the right place on time. *

It all works out, despite one extra trip around the block. As it happens, my destination is on the east side of the street, not the west -- which isn’t nearly so obvious as you’d think given that this studio is actually a huge office building complex originally built to house the headquarters of a major oil company. Although it looks nothing like any film studio I've ever seen, many of those office floors have already done duty as ready-made location sets for dozens of movies and television shows.** More important to me, the facility includes six honest-to-god sound stages tucked out of sight around the corner, one of which will be my home for the next two weeks.

The guard locates my name on the crew list, hands me a day pass, then allows me passage to the subterranean sanctum of the parking structure. I find another guard in the lobby above who directs me to a nearly new and very modern sound stage, complete with wooden perms and catwalks up high.*** That’s the good news. The bad news is that there are three big sets still under construction on this stage, which means we’ll be working amid sawdust, paint fumes, and the sonic assault of power tools -- chop saws, table saws, and sanders -- all week long.

In other words, the usual chaos and confusion.

This is starting to feel a lot like a pilot, but it’s not. For reasons best known to the giant brains above-the-line, a decision was made to cobble together the final three episodes of this sit-com's season into a movie for the show's tweenage audience. Getting this done in a compressed time schedule will require the core crew and our crew -- The B Team -- to work with, for, and around each other over the next two weeks. There’s no way the resulting digital Frankenstein’s monster will ever make it to the big screen, which means it's destined for The Toob as a TV movie on one of Disney's channels. Trouble is, they don’t seem to have much of a script at this point – and although in a perfect world this would remain their problem above-the-line, such difficulties have a way of becoming our problems below decks.

“Shit rolls downhill,” as the saying goes, and it doesn’t take long to see that an avalanche of shit is indeed rolling our way.

Still, there are lights to be hung and powered, and that's why we're here. So we get to it, climbing into the man-lifts and working amid an atmospheric witch’s brew of carcinogenic compounds generated by all the sanding, spraying, and painting that invariably accompanies the building and finishing of sets. It could be worse, of course. Our working conditions are nowhere nearly so bad as those endured by untold thousands of Third World peasants who earn a meager living smashing discarded (er, “recycled”) First World televisions and computer components into burnable size, then torching the detritus to extract a few grams of useful or precious metals -– all the while inhaling horrendously toxic dioxin and PCB fumes generated by the combustion process -– but it still sucks. There’s no way around it, either. Lighting is a call-and-response process that can’t be done while wearing a respirator-style mask of the type used by the painters and carpenters, so we do what we have to and will doubtless pay the price further on down the road.

Such is life in the down-and-dirty underbelly of most manufacturing industries, including Hollywood. There’s no doubt all the crap I’ve inhaled over my decades in this industry -– diesel fumes from countless trucks and generators on location, a wide variety of smoke-products pumped into sound stages to provide visual “atmosphere” for the camera, and the asbestos insulation that was still used in lamp heads and power feeder tails when I got my start -– will have some impact on my own life span. The only question is how much will I lose to the Gods of Hollywood: a month, a year, five years, ten?

Time will tell. As a rule, retirees in my union ascend to the Great Beyond a few years after hanging up their gloves, but the bulk of those stats come from the generation before mine, many of whom were heavy smokers and hard drinkers who worked with that old asbestos-tainted equipment every day for decades... so I'm hoping to be an exception to the early-exit rule. Still, we all walk our own dark and winding path towards the grave, and there’s no predicting such things. Besides, whatever's coming is too late to avoid now.

I will say this: being paid 20% below union scale won’t make any difference at all when my time comes to shuffle off this mortal coil, but I find it particularly galling -– insulting, actually -- to have to swallow all this toxic crap while working for the cut-rate, cheap-ass, bottom-line obsessed cretins of Disney. At this point, I don't know anybody working below-the-line who doesn't hold a deep-seated, withering contempt for the Disney Corporation and all that company has come to stand for. And if the quality of shows I worked on over the years won’t be an issue in the long run, it might be nice to think that all the pain and suffering endured while making those shows -- past, present, and future – at least came in the service of something halfway decent. Many of the movies and television shows I’ve worked on over the years managed to clear that low bar, but I'm not so sure about the crap being cranked out by Disney these days. In terms of production value -- sets, props, lighting, camera, make-up, wardrobe, and sound – they're are fine, but the actual content is astonishingly lame.

So it’s a dirty job, and somebody’s got to do it. In the absence of anything else on my radar screens, I'll take it. One way or another, the landlord must be paid.

On such gigs, who you’re working with is by far the most important factor. With a good crew, you can endure almost anything, and I'm lucky to be working with a very good crew on this one. If only I could say that about the writers and way-above-the-line producers responsible for this mess. As the week unfolds, it becomes increasingly clear that they really don’t have their shit together – and as a result, each succeeding day feels like another Monday. Given the constant changes coming down from on high, there’s no sense of completion from one day to the next, only a feeling that this whole thing is sinking ever deeper into quicksand. Late Friday afternoon, just as we were hanging the last of twenty-some lamps on the fourth freshly-constructed swing set, the line producer/UPM slimed onto the stage, looked around at the new set, and started whining. The angry little man then summoned the art director and dressed him down in front of everybody. “It’s all wrong,” he shouted, going into great and meaningless detail explaining exactly why. The upshot of all this last-minute sturm und drang was the prospect of re-lighting the whole damned thing, and thus working a 12 hour Friday after a long week of 6:00 a.m. calls and very physical days.

What the hell was this clown doing here now, with 95% of the work complete and the long week nearly at an end? We all knew what was happening with that set two days ago, so where was this fool -- the line producer -- when the decisions were being made?

One of the grips, a veteran of working with this UPM, shook his head wearily. “He does this all the time,” he muttered, not bothering to hide the disgust in his voice.

None of us wanted to work late, and in the end -– irony of ironies -- it was the hard-wired cheapness of Disney that saved us from an even uglier Friday. Unwilling to pay the crew two additional hours of overtime, the angry little man cut us off at ten hours.

Thank fucking God.

So we kick the can down the road into next week, and who knows what will happen then? Right now I don't really care. I'm just grateful that this Week of Mondays has finally come to an end, and won't waste a single second worrying about next week until it arrives.

On Monday.

* Why don’t I just consult my Iphone, Android, or other GPS-equipped Smart Phone, you ask? Because I’m just an old analog dog barking at the howling digital wind...

** Including one of my favorites (and darling of the critic's) "Mad Men."

*** Unfortunately, "new" and "modern" does not equate to perfection, as the photo above (taken up high in the catwalks) demonstrates...


JB Bruno said...

Ah,. the glamorous life of the movie biz. Ain't it grand? As a LP and UPM whose dad was a construction foreman, and grand-dad a hatter shop steward, I like to think that jerks like the one you dealt with were the exception, but sadly, many never think when choosing a location that is a six-floor walk-up with narrow stairs if they can get it a little cheaper, or other realities of what you folks do. Thanks for another real, true and engaging picture of the other side of the Hollywood dream.

12pt said...

When one only has Monday's all they want is Sundays. When one has a week full of Sundays... well you start to go a little stir crazy.



Michael Taylor said...

JB --

I've worked with some really great line producers over the years, but every now and then we all run into an exception -- and then we learn how good the other ones really were.

12pt --

I hear you -- work can be painful at times, but it's better than not-work...