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, April 29, 2012

Goodbye to Scale

Welcome to the Balkans

This business is going into the toilet...

Back in the early 90's, the country and Hollywood were suffering hard economic times. Still learning the ropes of gaffing television commercials, the only work I could find was toiling for low-rent commercial production companies that depended upon a DP/director to wear both hats, thus saving the producers one big paycheck. At lunch during an all-day scout in and around LA, the shooter/director took a sip of iced tea, then looked around the table -- at me, the Key Grip, and the agency people -- and in his clipped Austrian accent, said "The way things are, we all must work harder and faster for less money."

It wasn't what I wanted to hear then (particularly from a guy who sounded disturbingly like Colonel Klink), but in time Hollywood pulled out of the slump, taking me along for the ride. As the 90's unfolded, twelve hour rates became ten hour rates, and the jobs got better. Like all great rides, it finally came to an end as the 20th Century gave way to the new millennium, and now, with the entire nation (and much of Europe) suffering through an even rockier economic downturn, the echoes of those bad times are everywhere.*

Harder and faster, for less money.

None of us are strangers to hard work here in Hollywood, and thus far this year, work has been plentiful. I've been fortunate to catch my share, clocking sixty-eight days since Jan. 1.  This isn't something I take for granted -- just two years ago, I started out the first three months of the new year working all of three days, a drought that had me wondering if my time in Hollywood might finally be over.  So I'm grateful for all the jobs that have come my way in 2012... but there's a flip side to that coin: during four months of solid work, only two of those days paid full union scale -- eighteen days were at pilot rate (last year's scale), while the other forty-eight days paid the odious cable rate, roughly 20% under scale.

It's not just me. Everybody I talk to -- carpenters, painters, craft service, you name it -- has been taking it on the chin, rate-wise, the past few years. Not so long ago full union scale was the minimum a crew member got paid. Department heads were often able to negotiate a higher daily rate for their crews on big features.  Nowadays, full scale is the highest rate most of us can hope for.  Features and broadcast episodics still pay full scale and benefits, but not much else does.** There are so many side-bar deals and sub-scale rate structures nowadays that I can't keep track of them all -- and some of those deals pay a lot less. At the bottom of the barrel is the New Media Rate, which (as I understand it) is basically minimum wage, or whatever each individual can negotiate.  Having adopted a divide-and-conquer strategy to thoroughly Balkanize union scale, the big media corporations and their henchmen at the AMPTP are now going after what's left -- our health coverage and benefits. Sometimes I think the producers won't be happy until they've driven us all the way back to the Gilded Age, when factory workers toiled endlessly in miserable conditions while the lucky few -- the robber barons and their families -- enjoyed the good life.

The business I've known for the past three decades is undergoing seismic change these days, and not for the better. The corporations run things now, and their ruthlessly bottom-line, grid-pattern mode operation is making life harder on everyone, above and below-the-line. Bit by bit, crew people -- working people -- are being ground into the dirt beneath the corporate heel of big media.

Both the shows I worked on early this year happened to be low-budget Disney productions. Anyone familiar with the Industry knows what that means... but while Disney squeezes every last production penny by paying its crews as little as possible,  guess who's making out like a bandit? That would be the Disney Corporation, which posted record profits last year.

Why am I not surprised? While those of us who do the real work on set keep falling behind -- working harder for less money, with a benefits package under relentless assault -- the suits up in the executive suites are swilling chilled Cristal and smoking Cuban cigars.

How nice for them. No wonder they call Disneyland "the happiest place on earth."

Negotiations on the new IA contract were recently concluded, and the results are not encouraging. I  don't know all the details, but in addition to slashing the up-'til-now standard 3% annual raise by a full third, there will be no relief from the long-hour/low-pay cable-rate sidebar deals, and for the first time ever, those who log enough hours to qualify for the health plan will face a monthly co-pay for dependents.

This deal makes it abundantly clear that our corporate overlords will never be satisfied with more money than any sane person could ever spend -- they won't rest until they see our blood on the floor -- and with the tide running against labor the past two decades, there's no end in sight.  We in Hollywood are on the same slippery slope that has steadily lowered the wages, benefits, and standard of living for all working people in this country.  And if you think this is an ugly contract, wait 'til you see the rollbacks the producers demand when the next negotiation rolls around in three years.

The question is, what are we going to do about it?

Given the trend over the past fifteen years, I'm not sure I'd want to be young and just starting out a career below-the-line in this business. In the current economic and political climate, it's hard to envision a realistic scenario that could actually improve conditions for those who do the heavy lifting on set, but if we don't find a way to reverse -- or at least stem -- this black tide, things will only keep getting worse.

We'll all find ourselves working harder still, for even less money.

* Except for Wall Street, of course.  Those over-paid bastards always find a way to make money no matter how bad things get for everybody else.

  ** Successful cable episodics typically upgrade the crew pay scale after two or three seasons, but with the cable season half the length of broadcast shows, those crews still need to land at least two shows -- or the equivalent in day-playing -- to make it through each year.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Quiet Man

 Reflections of Clouds on the Water Lily Pond
Claude Monet

(Photo by Trish Mayo, taken at the NY Museum of Modern Art)

Thanks to pilot season, it’s been crazy-busy in my little corner of Hollywood.  After two and a half weeks of non-stop work rigging, lighting, and shooting a pilot, the jam-packed schedule had us wrap the stage over Saturday and Sunday of Easter Weekend – a first for me – to clear the decks for another show coming in the following Monday.  After a few days helping out on yet another pilot, I found myself back on that same stage day-playing for the entire week on the new show, running power and hanging the very same lamps on the pipe grid again.    

There's a reason so many of us working below-the-line feel such a kinship with Sisyphus...

This job was even crazier than the pilot.  With a compressed schedule (the set construction crew -- delayed by the previous pilot -- was already a week behind on Day One), we ended up lighting sets almost before the walls were all the way up.

Still, we hit it hard and made rapid progress.  Once again I was amazed at how much three juicers and a good dimmer op (running and placing power for us) can get done in a relatively short period of time – and this while working amid even more confusion than normal, what with set dressing, carpenters, painters, juicers and grips all working right on top of one another.  With only eight days to get the whole show up, dressed, lit, and rehearsed before the first blocking-and-shoot day, the pressure was on.

What a clusterfuck.  Sometimes the absurd nature of this business just blows me away... but that’s Hollywood.

Still, there were moments of grace amid the billowing clouds of chaos. Halfway through the week, a new painter joined the construction crew; an older man with close-cropped hair, glasses, and an aura of quiet concentration.  It took me a while to realize that he wasn’t there to help the other painters do the set walls, door frames, and trim – he was a specialist brought in to paint a backdrop mural of a forest outside the double windows of a set that appeared to be an office or study.  His work seemed routine at first, rolling several coats of pale blue paint on a ten-by-thirty foot wall of plywood, but once that base coat was dry, he began using a surprisingly large and (to me) clumsy-looking brush to create the most ethereal and delicate mural I’ve seen in a long time.  Slowly, painstakingly, hour by hour, the image came into focus.  Every time I passed by it looked better, revealing layers of depth and detail that transformed this flat slab of plywood into a leafy three dimensional landscape -- a world unto itself.

Clearly this was no ordinary set painter – the man was an artist.

That term -- "artist" -- gets thrown around a lot in this town, but other than in reference to bullshit-and-scam artists (and Hollywood is chock full of them), it rarely applies.  A case can be made for the top tier of screenwriters (film and television) earning that label, along with a few truly talented directors over the years, but the vast majority of Industry workers are craftsmen/women, at best.*  This is not to denigrate their considerable skills, but if true art is built on a foundation of craftsmanship, the reverse doesn’t always hold.  

I stopped to compliment his work, which led to introductions, shaking hands, and a series of brief conversations over the next few days.

“I’m a dinosaur,” he said, with a tight grin, then grudgingly admitted to having once been a young man who made a serious study of painting. Prodded by my questions, he spoke of a day many years ago spent studying Monet’s “Reflections of Clouds on the Water Lily Pond” at the New York Museum of Modern Art.   

“I sat there all day long, just looking, blocking everything else out of my field of vision, concentrating on that painting.  Eventually I could see everything on that canvas – the sky above, deep down into the water, everything.  It was wonderful.  Monet knew what he was doing, the bastard. He created a whole universe in that one painting.  Afterwards I felt like going home and breaking all my brushes.”

That last line was uttered with the same rueful grin as before, expressing the complex blend of admiration and frustration every would-be artist feels when confronted with a true master of the form. But if this man (who requested not to be identified here) didn't turn into another Monet, he's a damned fine artist -- one of the most impressive I've ever seen in this town.  Witnessing that mural come to life over the span of three days was the best thing about my entire work week.

The cruel irony -- ah, Hollywood -- is that next week the production designer will have his minions install a forest of fake trees ("greens") outside the windows of that set, thus blocking most of the mural.  Since the windows of the set are made of pebbled glass similar to the sort used in bathroom showers to protect a bather's modesty, that man's wonderful work -- his beautiful painting -- will go unnoticed and unappreciated by the viewing public when this show finally airs.  And even if those windows were flung wide open and the greens removed, only a small patch of his mural would be visible on a television screen at home, hardly enough to impress any viewers.

Besides, the show is a multi-camera comedy, not a documentary about the painting of a mural.  It is what it is.

And so once again I'm reminded that most of the real artists end up getting screwed here in Hollywood. It's been that way ever since the movies first came out west for the cheap land, abundant light, and good weather.  Yes, artists of all stripes can work and earn a modest living cranking out movies and television in this town, but their true talent is seldom allowed to flower, much less adequately appreciated.  After all, movies are made to sell barrels of soft drinks and giant tubs popcorn, while television has always been in the business of hawking soap, beer, and underarm deodorant -- not art. Only a fool would hope for, let alone expect, anything else. 

I understand all that -- the reality of our business -- but maybe I'm just a fool at heart...

*  Everybody will have their own list, but mine includes Coppola, Scorsese, Friedkin, and Tarantino among those who represent the real thing...

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Back for 2012...

...the Tips 'o the Week

There’s a good reason I put “The Treatment” on this blog’s list of Essential Listening links -- Elvis Mitchell is a very smart interviewer whose considerable knowledge of and enthusiasm for the medium of film has induced a wide spectrum of accomplished Industry pros to sit down for a half hour interview. My only complaint is how fast those thirty minutes pass -- were I the God of Hollywood, "The Treatment" would be a full hour.

Elvis has been on a roll the past couple of weeks, airing fascinating interviews with Graham Yost (the man behind AMC’s “Justified”), and Whit Stillman, who seems to have devoted his cinematic career to chronicling the coming-of-age struggles suffered by the upper-crust youth of America.*

Interesting. There seems to be a lot of that going around these days.

I’m a big fan of Justified, which (IMHO) provides consistently dramatic, thoughtful, interesting entertainment. Blessed with terrific acting, wonderfully drawn characters, excellent production values, and the guiding hand of Elmore Leonard, it’s a great show. At least a million viewers agree with me, and thus far that’s been enough to keep the show on the air. In this half-hour interview, Graham Yost discusses the genisis of the show, how it evolved, the key characters, Elmore Leonard, and several other pertinent subjects. If you like “Justified,” you’ll thoroughly enjoy the interview. Even if you don’t like (or aren’t familiar with) the show, you’ll learn a lot about how a show gets made and put on television these days. That alone is worth your thirty minutes.

Alas, I’ve yet to see one of Whit Stillman’s films – “Barcelona” has been on my Netflix queue for a while now, along with a hundred other movies I’ll probably never manage to see until my phone stops ringing and I finally have the time – but he’s a thoughtful, articulate writer/director who has learned a lot over the years, and doesn’t mind sharing his hard-earned wisdom. Any wannabe directors out there would do well to hear what he has to say about the realities of making Indie films nowadays, the importance of avoiding cliche, and his new film “Damsels in Distress.”

And last but not least, here's the latest Martini Shot, wherein veteran writer/producer Rob Long finally gets a show past the pilot phase -- then ponders the ups-and-downs of employing an assistant.

Those are your tips ‘o the week. They're all good, so check ‘em out...

* Yeah, I know -- one could indulge in a full-bore snark-a-palooza on the trials and tribulations of growing up among the pampered rich, but the process of leaving one's youth and entering adulthood isn't easy on anybody, rich or poor, albeit for very different reasons. Life doesn't let any of us off the hook.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Pilot Season: the Seeds of Hope

Hands and Knees

Welcome to my office...

Every now and then a photo pops up on Facebook from a fellow Industry Work-Bot on a location job, showing a stunning view of a lovely beach or other pastoral scene. These photos usually come with the tag "My office today." One good friend who now lives and works on film/television productions in Hawaii regularly posts photos and short video clips from his jobs on that island paradise -- and those images invariably make me weak in the knees with a palpable desire to be there rather than here.

After slogging back home through the urban dystopia of LA -- forty-five minutes of red lights, idiot drivers, and brain-dead pedestrians who apparently believe that talking on a cell phone somehow renders them exempt from the laws of Newtonian Physics -- a photo of a sandy beach, warm turquoise water, and puffy white clouds drifting in a clear blue sky can make a guy question some of his past decisions in life.

There isn't much time for such musing right now, though, with pilot season at a full boil in Hollywood. The photo above shows my "office" for the first day on a pilot -- a dirty, dusty crawl-space well over a hundred feet long, but only four feet wide and maybe forty inches high -- where I spent the bulk of my work day dragging Socapex cable from the waterfall towards the pipe grid, then attaching extension cables to feed power out over the set.

Standing was not an option. The only time I could get to my feet was after squeezing through a fourteen inch slot (over the steel bar or under, whichever hurt less) to access one of five short green beds extending out over the audience seating towards the pipe grid. Out there I could sit or stand while attaching and tying off each Socapex extension, then hand it to another juicer in a man-lift, who would maneuver his lift to drag the cable over the pipes to the appropriate spot on the set. But with dozens of such cables to be run, my relief at being able to stand didn't last long -- and back in that crawl space, it was hands and knees all the way.

Normally, dropping in cable is the responsibility of the dimmer operator. On a real sound stage, the dimmer op would climb the stairs to the catwalks up high, run out the cables, then drop them down where needed. It's no big deal -- on a normal stage -- but this pilot was to be shot in what amounts to a large shoebox with no stairway, perms, or catwalks up high. Nothing but a ladder leading to that god-awful crawl space.

Having been here before, I knew what was coming, and was foolish enough to send an elbow-to-the-ribs e-mail to our dimmer op the day before, razzing him that while he would spend Day One suffering in that nasty crawl space, my workday would take place in a nice clean man-lift.

This did not go unnoticed by the Gods of Karma. What I didn't know then was that the studio hadn't bothered to have their rigging crew install our dimmer packs downstairs, something that's normally done for all shows on the lot, pilots included. That left the job to our dimmer op... which in turn dealt me the short straw of running those cables.

So the joke was on me.

Truth be told, there's nothing remotely "normal" about pilot season, the annual rugby-scrum frenzy during which the usual modes of doing business fly out the window as producers desperately scramble to get their baby in the can. It's possible this stage came at the right price, or maybe it was the only space available during the mandated time frame -- but for whatever reason, this is what we've got, so we'll just have to make it work. Besides, the producers neither know nor care about such things. No other department has a reason to work up in that crawl space or on the green beds -- only set lighting must suffer that long torture chamber, and for the poor bastard who has to go up there, the work qualifies as cruel and unusual punishment.

That's how it goes in Hollywood, where you take the bad with the good and hope the next gig will be better.

For me, that was one long, hard day. By the end, 90% of the cable needed to power the two hundred-odd lamps this show would require was in place, leaving me dog-tired and coated head-to-toes in fine powdery sawdust from all the set construction over the previous week. If my knees weren't already so banged up, I might have crawled back to my car in the parking structure... and the next morning -- when the alarm went off in the pitch dark at 4:45 -- oh mother of god, everything hurt. It felt like I'd spent the previous day trapped inside a working cement mixer.

Yeah, this is a glamorous business all right...

Day One was just the beginning of our uphill journey. A pilot is all work, all the time, pushing the big rock a little further up the steep hill every day, but with the cable run, at least I was done crawling on hands-and-knees. For the next fourteen days the bulk of my labor would be done standing on the stage floor, climbing atop ladders, or working in a man-lift. A mountain of ceaseless toil lay ahead, but along the way would come three week's worth of paychecks -- and with a little luck in the pilot lottery, maybe a new show to provide a more steady income once July rolls around.

That's what pilot season is all about; working very hard to make a living right now while planting seeds of hope for the future.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Out With a Bang

The Tub of Damocles before...

Broadcast network television shows traditionally wrap up their seasonal run in early Spring, just as pilot season kicks off, while the smaller and more nimble cable networks take advantage of the programming gaps left by those lumbering broadcast dinosaurs to shoot and air their much cheaper (and often better) shows. Given that the season finale of every show -- broadcast or cable -- will be the last memory fans hold on to until the following season's premier, the writer/producers strive hard to go out with a bang; something splashy that will stick in the minds of viewers through a long hot summer littered with trash TV.*

There are many ways of doing this: a dramatic cliff-hanger, the consummation of a long-simmering relationship, or some kind of physical or emotional pratfall that resonates with the ongoing theme of the show. The latter path was chosen by the writer/producers of a show I'm familiar with, who employed a leaking tub on the second floor that -- like Chekov's famous gun -- was established in the first act of that final episode. Two very experienced special effects men were brought in to rig the tub high over the living room set, complete with a big chunk of flooring, insulation, and leaking pipes. At the precise moment, explosive bolts would release the entire rig to drop through the supposedly water-logged second floor and land atop a brand new living room couch that had just been delivered.

Such special-effects shots are seldom done in front of a live audience -- too much can go wrong, and even if everything works out exactly as planned, rigging these shots is very time-consuming, which is why we did this one during the blocking/pre-shoot day, with all four cameras running and the entire crew (including the office staff) gathered around to watch.

It was absolutely perfect. With a crack like a rifle shot, the bolts blew, the tub dropped, and the couch was crushed. Once the applause died, the director conferred with the producers, then ordered the special effects crew to do it again. The second time was just as good, and that was that. Once the mess was cleaned up, we resumed the blocking and pre-shoots.

When the audience saw the playback at the end of the live show, they went wild. The producers were giddy with the response. It was a hell of a way to bring the curtain down on Season One.

That's what can happen when you find a good way to send a show -- and the season -- out with a bang.

And after...

* To my mind, this includes all so-called Reality Shows and most especially anything featuring the odious Douchebagian Family.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Enough is Enough

The straw that breaks the camel's back...

The desire to meddle on the part of the corporate lawyers, producers, and studio suits -- people who don't have the slightest understanding of the difficulties we who work below-the-line face doing our jobs on set every single day -- knows no bounds.

We've long had to deal with the dictates of OSHA, which seems to operate under the assumption that every person who works with their hands is some kind of brain-damaged Morlock incapable of making intelligent decisions regarding his/her personal safety on the job -- thus the six-inch long, fine-print list of directions for use on the side of ladders used on sets throughout the film and television industry.

As if anybody has the time, inclination, or need to read such directions before climbing up a goddamned ladder...

Still, those OSHA warnings are a mere annoyance. Vastly more intrusive and onerous are the Industry Safety Regulations laid down in a series of mandatory classes designed first and foremost as a firewall to protect the deep pockets of the corporate-owned studios and their subsidiaries from any liability due to lawsuits by workers injured on the job. Having supposedly informed us all how to be safe on set via these classes -- which we had to attend or be denied the opportunity to work -- it is now officially each individual's fault if he-or-she falls off a ladder, out of a man-lift, or finds some way to stick his/her tongue inside a hot spider box.

Actually, the latter really would be the fault of the individual involved. We can't blame the producers for everything.

But the latest mandate is just too much: a "safety helmet" all juicers will be required to wear while working with live electricity on set. Studio reps supplied the prototype (the so-called "Set Lighting Safety Helmet," or SLSH, pictured in the photo above) for my crew to try out as we rig, light, and shoot a television pilot. This thing is supposed to protect us from EMF emissions, arc flash due to hooking up hot, and the pulse of gamma radiation generated when igniting high voltage HMI lamps, among other things. One of the studio suits even claimed it would prevent us from suffering concussions in the event of a fall. When I asked how the hell we were supposed to climb a ladder -- much less do any actual work up there -- while wearing this ludicrously huge helmet, he just smiled. The final production model will be much smaller and lighter, he said: "About twice the size of an NFL football helmet, and it won't weigh more than ten pounds, max."

In other words, considerably larger than a basketball and as heavy as a big sack of flour. Swell -- I already wear a belt laden with the tools of my trade all day long, and now I'm supposed to wear a giant electronic safety helmet? I tried the damned thing on, and it's like being strapped into one of those old-fashioned deep sea diving rigs from World War II. You can't actually see out of it, of course -- that's one of the safety features, designed to protect a juicer's eyes from retinal damage due to sparks and electric arcing -- but tiny digital cameras on all four sides feed into a high definition 3-D screen inside the helmet to provide a full 360 degree view.

"This will enable you to see around and behind you at all times while wearing the helmet," the studio rep said, "and with the built-in radio, you'll never have to carry a walkie-talkie again."

Granted, I hate wearing a walkie-talkie, but trading ten ounces from my belt for ten pounds on my head doesn't sound like progress to me.

The studio rep brushed me off when I commented that anybody who takes a fall while wearing this stupid thing is likely to get his/her neck broken. "Our testing thus far indicates that shouldn't be a problem."

Hmmm... a sentence laden with qualifiers like "thus far" and "shouldn't" -- why am I not reassured?

This is unbelievable.

They want us to field-test two of these helmets on set for the next three weeks, then report back on how they might be improved for general -- and mandatory -- use at some point in the not-too-distant future. We're not the only ones, either. According to the studio rep, crews all over town are being offered the opportunity to provide feedback during pilot season.

No need to wait -- I've got some feedback for these clowns right now: throw this ridiculous piece of Rube Goldbergian junk into the LA river and run away fast, before some Good Citizen calls the cops.

Our dimmer operator, a savvy young techno-geek, tried it on and posed for the photo. He thinks it's pretty cool, but only because he won't have to wear the damned thing while sitting behind his dimmer console. Gaffers won't suffer this burden either, but Best Boys and juicers -- the grunts of set lighting who already take the brunt of the heavy lifting all day long -- will soon have to shoulder this new and utterly absurd burden just to keep our jobs.

Count me out. Enough is enough, and this is too goddamned much. If these fools think I'll wear something like this on set, they're out of their frikkin' minds. It's been a good thirty-five years, but no more. I'm done.

So long, Hollywood. I'll see you in my dreams...

To view a schematic and complete technical specs of the new Set Lighting Safety Helmet, click here.