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 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...


A.J. said...

Fantastic post, Michael. Although, I'm very surprised to hear you got to witness such artistry. Translights are what I usually find on the sets I'm on.

Michael Taylor said...

Me too -- I'd never seen a painter create such a beautiful scenic backdrop right there on stage. It was amazing. Whatever else happened that week is already long gone, like water under the bridge, but I won't forget watching that painting come to life.